Spec’ing All-Terrain Utility Vehicles for Maximum Safety

Spec’ing All-Terrain Utility Vehicles for Maximum Safety

All-terrain utility vehicles (UVs) are machines used by utility fleets to transport people, materials and equipment across potentially hazardous off-road environments to inspect or repair power lines or perform other tasks in remote areas. These vehicles go where four-wheel-drive pickups cannot, navigating steep slopes, trudging through heavy brush, hovering over swamplands or even floating and powering across creeks and rivers, depending on the make and model of the UV.

If the UV is not designed for the ground conditions of a particular job, you risk having crews stranded in a hard-to-reach area or, worse, injured from a rollover, debris falling onto the cab or unsecured cargo flying into the cab.

So, how should you spec your next UV to ensure the maximum safety of your crews in off-road environments? Keep these five points in mind.

1. Terrain
What type of terrains will this UV need to handle? What degree of slopes? Will it encounter marshes or swamps? What about deep water? These questions are fundamental to selecting the right machine for the job and ensuring the safety of your crews.

Take, for example, UVs that use track systems instead of wheels. The type of terrain directly impacts the track size you should select.

Craig Simonton, director of sales operations for Hydratrek Inc. (www.hydratrek.com), a manufacturer of amphibious UVs, said the standard track on the company’s smaller machines, such as the XT66 model, is 16 inches. But if the UV is expected to operate primarily in swamp and wetland conditions, he recommended that fleet managers spec the larger 20-inch track to further reduce ground pressure, so that the machine can essentially hover on top of the muddy surface and avoid getting bogged down.

When it comes to ground pressure, the principle at work is this: The wider the UV’s track, the lighter the machine’s overall footprint because its weight is spread across a larger surface area.

“Track size can be the difference of successfully getting out to the job site or not,” Simonton said. “If you don’t have a light footprint on marsh, swamps and wetlands, there’s a good chance that you’re going to get stuck. Then you have to deploy more people and equipment to try to recover the vehicle.”

Slope angles are also important to factor into your specification, including sidehill, uphill/downhill, approach and departure angles to prevent rollover risk. For example, the Prinoth Panther series tracked vehicle allows for a maximum sidehill slope of 40 percent (22 degrees) and incline/decline of 60 percent (31 degrees).

But how can you ensure that your crews operate the machine within the manufacturer’s allowable parameters? Bill York, sales manager for Prinoth LLC (www.prinoth.com), recommended adding an inclinometer to the machine’s specifications. “With the inclinometer, if the machine exceeds the maximum percent or degree of slope, then an alarm goes off and the operator can adjust course to take a safer route.”

2. Speed
This is primarily a consideration for spec’ing UVs with wheels, which are inherently faster than tracked vehicles that are designed to operate at relatively low speeds between 6 mph and 14 mph.

If you need to ensure that drivers operate the UV within a certain speed, Jim Blaze, national accounts manager for Polaris Industries (www.polaris.com), advised that fleet managers should consider a speed-limiting option that caps speed at 25 mph.

Blaze also recommended three-point safety harnesses in higher-speed UVs, instead of lap belts. “[Polaris] puts shock absorbers on safety harnesses because, in remote areas, where the ride can get real bouncy at higher speeds, the shock absorbers can help protect you from dislocating your shoulders.”

3. Visibility
“It’s important to get as close to 360-degree visibility as possible,” York said. “Sometimes that can be done by using mirrors. But often, when you have equipment [such as a digger derrick] mounted on the machine, the mirrors aren’t enough because the equipment gets in the way.”

One solution is to add cameras, York said. “I’ve seen vehicles built with as many as four cameras on them for all directions. And the cameras feed into a single screen in the cab, giving the operator maximum visibility to navigate the vehicle around hazardous conditions.”

Lighting is also an important consideration. “There are quite a few work area light and warning beacon options you should consider,” York said. “But at a minimum, you want good forward and backward lighting because if you can’t clearly see your surroundings at night, that can create a problem.”

With smaller, higher-speed wheeled UVs, Blaze suggested adding a windshield, either made out of polycarbonate – the less expensive option – or safety glass.

“If you’re going 25 mph across 30 miles of terrain, and the wind is blowing on your face the entire time, it would make sense to put a windshield up front,” he said.

When would you choose safety glass over the polycarbonate windshield?

“One example is if you’re running the machine around nuclear plants or power distribution centers for security purposes,” Blaze said. “In that application, you would want maximum visibility, especially in inclement weather. And that requires windshield wipers, which work well with the glass windshield but would scratch the polycarbonate. So, in that instance, you would choose the glass.”

4. Cab Protection
You expect crews to avoid rollover situations. But if the UV happens to tip over, is the cab strong enough to protect your people? That’s where rollover protective structure (ROPS) certification comes into play.

“Make sure the cab is ROPS certified to the highest standard in the world – ISO 3471,” York advised.

For higher-speed UV applications, Blaze recommended adding a “headache rack,” which is essentially a mesh system installed at the rear of the cab to keep cargo from sliding forward and injuring the crew.

5. Onboard Safety Equipment
These are the options you hope you don’t have to use, but they’re available just in case.

“You want to make sure that when operators go onto various terrains, that they have a way out,” York said. “If they go into a swamp, how are they going to get out? What is the backup plan if they can’t? Think this through. Do they have survival gear with them?”

Some of the gear to consider includes an onboard fire extinguisher, life vests for amphibious UVs and a recovery winch.

“Because of the nature of the vehicle, having a winch is very important,” Simonton said. “Sometimes the farther you can go, the tougher the environment gets, and you can get stuck. It’s always best to ensure your utility vehicle is equipped with a winch so you have the ability to get out of tough situations when you need it.”

The Bottom Line
When crews are sent to do a job in an all-terrain UV, they know that they’ll likely encounter hazardous conditions. So, equip them with a machine that gives them confidence and peace of mind that they can do their job with maximum safety and productivity.

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