A snowcat is the most unique, impressive, and highest performing vehicle found at a ski resort—and it is also the most maintenance-intensive. That’s not surprising, since snowcats are run in extreme conditions under extreme loads for upward of 16 hours a day. They have many different systems that allow them to perform many dynamic and impressive functions. New snowcats aren’t cheap, so a lot of ski areas run older machines for as long as possible. That underscores the importance of proper maintenance.
To that end, thankfully, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) provide resorts fantastic preventative maintenance (PM) schedules and servicing options. Both Kässbohrer and PRINOTH recognize the role older machines play in the industry, and have made recent improvements to their respective service offerings and online parts stores to better serve their customers.
The Value of Preventative Maintenance
So, how important is preventative maintenance (PM) for older cats? Very. Every resort needs reliable machinery to produce a quality snow surface. Even with limited finances, good maintenance leads to more predictable spending—and product—compared to reactive repair spending. Smaller areas in particular, with only one or a few cats, cannot afford to have a cat go out of service for any extended period of time. Or really, at all.
A solid PM plan increases consistency, improves reliability, and makes operating costs more predictable. Deferred and emergency maintenance can quickly become an overwhelming issue for the shop staff and for the budget.
What items might we treat differently on an older machine vs. something new? Let’s define “older” machines as those with more than 8,000 hours and generations back to the mid ’90s: the BR400 and the PB 240/260/280 series, for example.
The ABCs of PM
Tracks. Once we get past about 4,000 hours, belt replacement becomes an annual summer service item, a rotation as they wear. Other hardware, however, will last much longer—and then require attention during a snow cat’s later life. Ice caulks are worn flat and the cat struggles to climb and descend without sliding. Tire guides fail, hardware that hasn’t been replaced becomes rusted/seized. Grousers reach their “fatigue limit.”
I once worked at a resort that had several cats from the mid 2000s with more than 10,000 hours. The grousers had reached their “fatigue point,” and we were doing reactive maintenance. My routine became, “replace every grouser, two or six at a time, while lying in a puddle of slush on the shop floor.” It would be better to be proactive and explore replacement track options or other alternatives before reaching such a point.
When assessing an older cat’s tracks, look at:
• work order history, similar cats’ history
• all hardware
Frame. After 5+ years and, say, thousands of hours of moving terrain features, building park transitions, pushing, towing, blade baskets, driving on the sprocket—a snowcat’s frame suffers from fatigue, just like the grousers do. The metal starts to accumulate cracks. Welding the cracks typically results in a new crack, near the original one. Effective fixing requires adding material to the frame (patch or gusset) to stabilize the area around the crack. Push frame, rear lift frame, and tiller frames are victims of the same sort of fatigue, too.
When assessing an older cat frame, look at:
• rear frame areas
• areas around push frame and rear lift frame
• corners and gussets
Engine. Well-cared-for engines can run past 10,000 hours with minimal fuss. Caterpillar engines will likely have HEUI pump issues, injector harness issues, and some injector issues. Mercedes engines are somewhat likely to encounter injectors that need replacing and cylinder heads that need close attention to “sinking valves.” But I’ve seen properly maintained snowcat engines with well past 10k hours that still had crosshatch with no ring “ridge” in the cylinders, indicating that they’re still serviceable (with continued proper PM) for a long time to come.
When assessing an older cat engine, look at:
• oil pressure (bearings)
• minimal blow by out the breather tube (cylinder/ring condition)
• smoke (injectors)
• good boost pressure
• oil samples
Drive system. A snowcat’s hydrostatic drive-system life is hugely dependent on the cleanliness of the oil in the cat’s system during its early life. The cleaner that oil, the longer the drive system’s life. Regardless, once a cat exceeds 10,000 hours, be prepared for a drive system re-manufacture or have a replacement plan.
When assessing an older cat drive system, look at:
• pressure test history
• oil samples (with cleanliness) history/trends
• drivability—does the cat “drive weird”? Something is wrong. It should start out smooth, turn easily and consistently, and go straight when cruising uphill or down.
Tiller. A wise man I know once said, “Anything that spends its whole life getting dragged around on the ground is going to get beat up.” Tillers take a beating. By the time a cat is starting its second life, the tiller is going to need some big parts: cutter bars, mat, combs, frame fatigue are some common things that need attention on high-hour tillers.
When assessing an older cat tiller, look at: everything!
Replacing the teeth on an old cutter bar can save big money. Fortunately, the vendors sell just the teeth now. In the past, we’ve cut off old teeth and welded on new ones, then we’d balance the bar by trial and error: clamp a piece of mass (metal) to the bar. Spin it, move the metal, spin it, move it again. Maybe change the mass a little. Once we got the bars spinning super smooth, we’d weld that mass to the bar in that location.
The Cab. After years of sun, sunflower seeds, chew, spilled sodas, and other things, it’s hard to keep the cab of a snowcat looking and feeling new. But put in the effort; it pays dividends. Replace worn seats, armrests, etc., inside the cat, and paint the cab if it’s bleached/faded by the sun. This encourages operators to treat the machine as well as one that looks and feels new.
When assessing the cab, look at:
• floor covering
• door hardware/hinges/latches
• electrical (under console)
• switch gear
• cab mounts
There are a few options that we can utilize to address “old cat issues” and get them ready for more years of service. Let’s look at what the OEM’s are offering for service and price options to help with these machines, including sales/lease of previously owned vehicles.
Used machines. PistenBully offers a program for used, refurbished machines:
Select program. The Select program reconditions older machines. The machines are certified by a third party and are offered with a warranty. This program is for the PB600 only, and for a new purchase—a ski area can’t get this program on a machine it already owns. The Select service is extremely thorough, and the result is a “like new” snowcat.
For other machines, PistenBully can provide servicing options, with warranty, negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and custom tailored to each customer.
• tech support at each branch or dealer location and national tech support in Reno with a 24/7 service hotline, plus external customer support—from the North Pole to the Antarctic
more than 25,000 original spare parts in stock, for machines up to 25 years after series discontinued with a maximum delivery time of just three days annual service trainings at various locations
• digital and up-to-date spare parts catalogue and ordering
• omprehensive advice and training with comprehensive checklists to assist in regular maintenance
• technical training for fast maintenance right at the ski resort
Used machines. PRINOTH offers used vehicles for sale or lease at two quality levels:
Gold+: Each Gold+ vehicle has less than 5,000 hours of operation and has been inspected and refurbished according to seasonal maintenance as shown in the service guide for each model. Comes with a warranty period of one year or 1,500 hours, whichever comes first, like a new vehicle (parts and labor coverage only).
Gold: Each Gold vehicle is carefully inspected and refurbished according to seasonal maintenance as shown in the service guide for each model. Comes with a warranty period of three months or 500 hours, whichever comes first (parts and labor coverage only).
• Six regional distribution centers across North America, each with a few used units available, a large inventory of spare parts, and the full spectrum of groomer servicing (in-house and at customer location).
• Technical training at your resort
• Access to an engineer (one in Granby, one in Grand Junction, Colo.)
• North American HQ and manufacturing plant with an engineering and sales support team to follow-up on any used vehicle special requests.
• More than $40 million of spare parts available across North America for models up to 25 years old (including Bombardier, Camoplast).
• Sales team of 14 representatives, working with more than 25 authorized dealers in North America.
One reason to participate in the above programs is for peace of mind; assurance that our freshly serviced, older snowcat is going to provide confidence and up-time through the winter and for years to come. One option: negotiating the purchase of a top end package (the PRINOTH Gold+ or PistenBully Select) with some kind of back-up protection, in the event of an unforeseen failure. Dealers often have used inventory with which to cover you if you run into down time. Maybe your vendor agrees to cover shipping cost? Or split it? It’s worth asking about and pushing for. The high-end programs are for assurance, and evidence of that is that they come with a warranty. Ask for something that will ensure uninterrupted grooming.
Areas can always embark on the same service programs that the vendors provide, and can likely do it more economically. Of course, this won’t come with a warranty, but if done right, it’s covering all the same points that the pros cover.
And a final note: ski area mechanics can only do what they’re supported to do and that’s it. Whether your resort is a world-class destination or a small, local hill, management must buy into the value of maintenance and the value of its machines, or the shop will be inefficient and waste resources. I’ve seen poorly managed big operations and well-run small shops; when it comes to effective management, size doesn’t matter—commitment from the top does.
The limiting factor is simply the ideology of the management. Shop staff need the support of management, an understanding of the value of preventative maintenance vs. reactive maintenance. Without that, all the above advice is next to useless.