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Equipment Hub: Adding ballast to your tires

Andy Overbay for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 July 2018

I really enjoy studying cars. Most cars that really appeal to me are way beyond my price range. Adding to this addiction is the fact we live in a time where I can actually buy any car I see … I just can’t afford to pay for it. Sometimes the best answer to hear is “no.”

In the world of super-cars, there is a universal goal: the 1-to-1 weight-to-horsepower ratio. On the farm, the weight-to-horsepower ratio takes on different meanings and goals.

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Certainly, we do not want a slothfully heavy and underpowered tractor, but we also do not want a tractor that is lightly built or unstable under loads.

One way to add weight to a tractor is to use liquids to displace air in the tires (usually rear tires). This is especially handy in tractors that operate in slick conditions on hard surfaces (like a tractor in a dairy operation) or a loader tractor where the balance of the tractor is moved forward with the loader.

There are several options to adding liquid ballast to your tires. Water is an option but is rarely used because of the possibility it will freeze in the tire.

More likely choices include methyl alcohol, calcium and beet juice, among others. The best option for you will depend on your climate, budget and the access you have to certain liquids in bulk quantities.

Safety and corrosiveness also need to be considered. Some liquids for ballast are highly toxic or flammable, while others can destroy your tractor’s rims inside-out.

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Generally, those that are corrosive are used with tubes, but if the tube leaks, deterioration of the metal rim will commence.

Water has been used as ballast inside the rear tires of tractors operated in warmer climates for years. In geographical locations where freezing occurs, an additive is necessary to prevent the water from becoming an ice block inside the tire. Ballast that does freeze inside the tractor will make those tires unstable and general operation of the tractor unsafe.

Water is the least expensive form of liquid ballasting. Water is safe and easy to use but, again, is not suitable for use in cooler climates.

Calcium chloride in powdered form can be mixed with water to produce a liquid that will resist freezing up to -45ºC, depending on strength of the concentration. Calcium chloride weighs about 40 percent more than water when mixed, so more ballast weight is achieved in the same volume, allowing a heavier ballast.

This type of liquid ballast is a highly corrosive mixture, so use care when handling this product. As I mentioned earlier, calcium chloride must be installed into tubes regardless of whether or not the tire on the tractor is tubeless.

Corrosion can occur on the tractor itself if you are unlucky enough to cut a tire with this mixture. Look no further than “yours truly” for an example.

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I was backing a tractor out of a feed shed on a bright sunny afternoon when I ran over a steel T-post propped by a gate. The shank of the post split the tire from its center to the bead, dropping the tire instantly and showering the tractor, mix wagon and me all at the same time. That was not a fun day.

While we have that mental picture going, let me also warn you about something I luckily have no experience with (nor do I want to have any). If you have ballast in your tires, and you have an incident as I did where a tire and the liquid ballast are lost, make sure you replace the ballast and balance the tractor. Please.

Our Farm Bureau Safety Program tells of a farmer who did not replace the ballast after a similar flat tire. His tractor had the added danger of having a loader and a narrow front end.

When he attempted to move a heavy load with the bucket after replacing his tire and filling it with just air, the tractor was too light in the rear end to lift the load without raising the rear tires off the ground.

When the tractor’s rear tires were lifted, one side was naturally heavier than the other. The tractor violently rotated, bringing the lighter tire over the tractor in a twisting motion just as if you were untwisting a tight rope. The operator was killed when the tractor rotated over and landed on top of him.

Ethylene glycol or antifreeze offers the same ballast weight per gallon as water without the fear of freezing down to -40ºC. The issue with antifreeze is: It is highly toxic and care must be taken when handling or replacing/disposing of it. Since it weighs the same as water, when you do change it, there will be a large volume of it to deal with.

Propylene glycol is an antifreeze that is much more people- and animal-friendly from a toxicity standpoint. As with any good thing, the downside to this liquid is: It is more expensive.

You can also use windshield washer fluid right out of the jug if you are looking for alternatives with lower freezing points. This method again can cause toxicity issues, so be aware of that property.

Methanol can be used as ballast but is generally not recommended because it is so highly flammable. If you do use it, it must be mixed with water. Along with being explosive, it is hazardous to the environment.

Probably one of the more interesting liquids used for ballast is beet juice. Beet juice is a liquid byproduct made from de-sugared sugar beets. This liquid weighs about 30 percent more than straight water and resists freezing to about -37ºC.

Best of all, it will not solidify until the temperature drops to -45ºC. Natural and non-corrosive beet juice is safe to the environment and humans. If beet juice is available, it may be your best bet as it is safe to use and provides extra ballast weight.

Finally, you can use polyurethane foam or flat fill as ballast. This ballast method is essentially a run-flat method injected into the tire through the valve stem.

Two liquid components are pumped into the tire, and they react with one another so that, 24 to 36 hours later, you are left with a solid rubber core – the air inside the tire is completely displaced.

It is sometimes called foam because air bubbles are injected into the mix to control the density of the end product. Without the bubbles, the reaction will result in a solid block.

You can add substantial weight using foam or run-flat additives. Additives differ in their safety and toxicity, so research your choices carefully if you go this route. It is expensive and can result in overload situations and a terribly rough ride, not to mention a good cussing from an unaware tire changer.

Regardless of the ballast you choose, please take time to balance your tractor and come home safe and sound at the end of the workday.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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