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Selecting The Right Caster

Selecting the right caster for an application is quite similar to buying the right car.

In material handling, the selections seem endless: make, model, color, style, price range, reliability, who has the best service, who has the nicest salespeople… to many choices for the typical person to make. Selecting a caster can seem like that.

The selections seem endless: make, model, color, style, price range, reliability, who has the best service, who has the nicest salespeople… to many choices for the typical person to make. Selecting a caster can seem like that.

Except with casters, the choices sound more like: What is the load capacity? What are the floor and environmental conditions? What type of wheel should be used? At what speed will they be used?

It can seem very confusing, but is made simple if the correct questions are asked. The answers to these questions yield information that will help you provide your customers with the best product for their needs.

First, is this a replacement or a new application? If it is for replacement, ask “Why did the old casters fail?” They may have just worn out, or they may have broken because they weren’t properly selected initially. To be completely sure the replacements fit, the mounting bolt-hole pattern and overall height are two critical items. Oftentimes, the person doing the specifying is less than enthusiastic about gathering complete application details because they think “It’s only a caster, and they’re all the same.”

Making this type of assumption is a serious mistake. Although casters can by no stretch of the imagination be considered high technology, their design has progressed in the past several decades. Literally thousands of designs are now available for most applications.

To select the best caster for any application, complete information about the job requirement is necessary. There are Marketing/Sales and Engineering/Manufacturing type factors to be considered. If you put on your Marketing/Sales hat, you should ask questions like the following:

  • What caster is currently being used?
  • What is the target price for the caster?
  • What is the required delivery?
  • How many casters are required?
  • Has this been quoted in the past?

Engineering considerations include:

  • Load to be carried
  • Floor conditions
  • Speed of travel
  • Operating environment
  • Load handling.

Options should also be considered:

  • Will a brake be necessary?
  • Will a swivel lock be used?
  • Should the casters be spring loaded?

All these factors plus others must be considered.

Determining the operating load is not as simple as it may seem because of the necessity of determining load distribution. In most cases, no matter how many casters are involved, there is no guarantee that the load will be distributed over more than three casters. Thus, each caster should be able to handle at least one-third of the load.

Of course, the load can be distributed evenly among more than three casters. The most common method is to use an articulating axle or spring-loaded casters that maintain contact with the ground in spite of uneven floors. Either of these features increases the cost of the caster.

If the load is too heavy to be handled by standard casters, custom casters can be designed. For example, special casters have been designed that support a 140,000 lb. steel aircraft maintenance hangar that is wheeled into position over the tails of large aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10.

Surface Conditions
The rougher the floor, the more likely it is that the load will be supported on less than the full number of casters. Protecting the floor from damage may also be an important consideration. In most cases, it is less expensive to replace a set of casters than to refinish a floor.

Tradeoffs are often required. Steel, which provides the best mix of high capacity and low cost, also tends to be the most damaging to floors. On the other hand, the lower capacity polymer materials provide the best load distribution properties and are the least likely to damage a floor. Also, larger diameter wheels work better on rough floors, albeit more expensive.

Floor marking can also be a problem, especially when conventional rubber wheels are used. For example, a pharmaceutical plant with white vinyl floors would allow no marks on the floor. In this instance, a harder polyurethane wheel would provide sufficient floor protection. But for applications where the harder polyurethane wheel does not work, a non-marking polymer compound nearly as soft as rubber could be used. In the most demanding surface conditions, unimproved outdoor terrain for example, pneumatic wheels may be necessary.

Relative Ability of Various Wheel Types To Solve Caster Problems (Table #1)
Wheel Type Rolling Ease Capacity Quietness Floor Protection Cushioning
Full Pneumatic Low Low High Medium Very High
Semi- Pneumatic Low Low High Medium Very High
Molded Rubber on Iron Low Low High Medium High
Molded Rubber on Aluminum Low Low High Medium High
Rubber on Polypropylene Medium Low High Medium High
Press-on Rubber Medium Medium High Medium High
Soft Rubber Low Low High Medium High
Polyurethane on Aluminum High High High High Medium
Polyurethane on Steel High High High High Medium
Press-on Polyurethane High High High High Medium
Polyurethane/ Poly Core Medium Medium High High Medium
Polyurethane/ Polypropylene Low Low High High Medium
Solid Polyurethane Medium High High High Medium
Phenolic High High Low Medium Low
Straight-Sided Heavy-Duty Phenolic High Very High Low Medium Low
Laminated Phenolic High High Low Medium Low
Heat Resistant Phenolic High High Low Medium Low
Polyolefin High Medium Low Medium Low
Cast Iron High High Low Low Low
Drop Forged High Very High Low Low Low
V Grooved High High Low Low Low
Single Flange High High Low Low Low
Double Flange High High Low Low Low
Relative Ability of Various Wheel Types To Solve Caster Problems
(Table #2)
Wheel Type Impact Resistance Corrosion Resistance Abrasion Resistance Cost High Temp. °F Low Temp °F
Full Pneumatic Very High High Low Medium 200 -40
Semi- Pneumatic Very High High Low Medium 200 -40
Molded Rubber on Iron High Medium Low Low 200 -40
Molded Rubber on Aluminum High Medium Low Medium 200 -40
Rubber on Polypropylene High High Low Medium 200 -40
Press-on Rubber High High Low High 200 -40
Soft Rubber Medium High Low Low 200 -40
Polyurethane on Aluminum Medium Medium Low Medium 200 -40
Polyurethane on Steel Medium Medium High High 200 -40
Press-on Polyurethane High Medium High High 200 -40
Polyurethane/ Poly Core Medium High High Medium 200 -40
Polyurethane/ Polypropylene Medium High High Low 200 -40
Solid Polyurethane Medium Very High High Medium 200 -40
Phenolic Medium High Medium Low 250 -65
Straight-Sided Heavy-Duty Phenolic Medium High Medium Low 250 -65
Laminated Phenolic Very High High Medium Low 250 -65
Heat Resistant Phenolic High High Medium Low 475 -65
Polyolefin Medium High Medium Low 230 -40
Cast Iron Medium High High Low 800 -65
Drop Forged Very High High High High 800 -65
V Grooved Medium High High Low 800 -65
Single Flange Medium High High High 800 -65
Double Flange Medium High High High 800 -65

Travel Speed
Most casters are rated at manual speeds, which means no faster than walking speed. Yet, in some cases where low-speed operation had been specified, the caster could actually travel at 10 mph. For a caster, 10 mph is extremely fast.

Nearly all casters can travel at power-driven speeds, but their load-carrying capacities are significantly reduced. In fact, the capacity of a caster is somewhat inversely proportional to the speed at which it is used. Higher speed reduces caster capacity because it reduces the capacity of the wheel bearing. Furthermore, higher speed greatly increases the forces experienced in traversing an uneven surface, or hitting an obstacle.

For example, a steel wheel dropped one inch can sustain a momentary load of 10 times the actual load the wheel is carrying. The caster supplier must be informed when operating speed is to exceed a few miles per hour.

Operating Environment
The caster supplier must also be informed of unusual environmental conditions. For example, the casters may have to travel into an oven. At about 500°F, the temperature begins to reduce the load-carrying capacity of metallic caster components, forcing the use of a heavier model. Other temperature-related effects that must be considered are the tendency of lubricants to run off or burn up at higher temperatures, and thermal expansion, which can cause bearings to freeze.

Temperature also affects the type of wheel material used. Polyurethane wheels begin to melt at temperatures above 200°F. Low temperatures also present problems that are addressed by special lubricants and wheel materials.

Acids may erode many metals, and common polymer materials can be attacked by a variety of chemicals such as aircraft hydraulic fluids. In the most corrosive environments, stainless steel is a possible alternative, although it costs much more than conventional materials.

The presence of dust or other abrasive materials must be considered. Double-sealed bearings exclude particles from casters used in applications such as sand-blast units.

Several design alternatives address casters that will be submerged in water. One option is to use stainless steel and leave the bearings open so that water serves as the lubricant. Another option is packing the bearing with a lubricant that will not wash out.

Load Handling
Special cargo handling requirements sometimes come into play. If steel shavings are being moved, delicate handling is not a major concern. However, if the cargo is a sensitive instrument, a soft wheel material such as natural rubber, or even a spring-loaded caster may be required. Spring-loaded casters provide the ultimate in shock absorption when combined with pneumatic tires.

In the most extreme cases, additional provisions may be necessary. For example, explosives are frequently hauled using a special container that suspends them in liquid. If a caster with a shock absorber is ruled out for cost reasons, the specifier should look for a wheel with some shock absorbing properties. Examples include natural rubber wheels, semi-rubber, semi-pneumatic (zero pressure wheels) or mold-on rubber wheels.

In material handling, the best overall rule for the person selecting casters is to be sure to inform the supplier of every aspect of the application. Always try to consider both sides of the application issue: the Sales/Marketing side and the Engineering/Manufacturing side. In most cases, the supplier will help you select the best standard product or design a special one exactly for your needs.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Ken Otmanowski Al Rounds Meet the Author
Ken Otmanowski (left) is engineering manager and Al Rounds is sales engineering manager at Albion Industries in Albion, Michigan.

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