Factors To Consider When Buying A Winch

Monroeville (Pa.) Fire Department’s Rescue 4 is equipped with  a portable 5,000-pound winch, which is shown stowed, at left,  and deployed, right.
Monroeville (Pa.) Fire Department’s Rescue 4 is equipped with 
a portable 5,000-pound winch, which is shown stowed, at left, 
and deployed, right. 

We have them on rescue trucks for vehicle stabilization and load lifting and on brush trucks and special units for off-road operations. I know some departments put them on engines, based on their response areas and special operational needs, such as pulling dumpsters out of trash rooms at malls and commercial buildings.

The most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a winch is how and where you’ll be using it – what weights you want to control and under what conditions.

You need to consider the weight, type and frame strength of the vehicle on which you want to mount the winch. Buying a heavy-duty winch doesn’t make a lot of sense if your vehicle isn’t strong enough to use all of the winch’s power. You will also need to decide between an electric or hydraulic winch and whether to use wire or synthetic cable.

Electric Versus Hydraulic

The difference between an electric and a hydraulic winch is the power source. Electric winches are linked to your vehicle’s electrical system and battery, while hydraulic winches tap into your power steering pump or vehicle hydraulic/PTO system. These two power sources offer certain advantages and disadvantages.

Electric winches are very easy to install, and there are a wide range of models to meet the needs of your department. The big disadvantage of an electric winch is the strain it puts on your vehicle’s electrical system, and most electrical systems are maxed out to begin with. Make sure you have enough power to take full advantage of the winch.

The electric winch generates a large amount of heat at the motor and potentially to the electrical system based on operation length and the loads involved, limiting the energy supply and capabilities.

Hydraulic winches have a limitless supply of energy from the hydraulic power pump. The installation of a hydraulic winch is pretty involved, and you need to make sure you purchase one with the appropriate amount of power for what you are trying to do. You should consider whether you want some extra power for special occasions.  

Be sure to check the rated line pull of the winch – the maximum load that can be exerted on the cable. 

Weight Considerations

Another thing to consider is the weight of the winch itself. Depending on where it is mounted, if a winch is too heavy, it could cause the front end, rear or side of the vehicle to be off balance, creating a host of problems. For a portable winch, the heavier it is, the more difficult it will be to deploy. If you have a portable winch, make sure you store it in a low position where it is easy to reach.

Consider what type of drive train you want. The winch’s gear train has the important job of transforming the energy from the motor into pulling power and controlling power. It is like a vehicle transmission, using gears to make the conversion.  

Cable Selection

A planetary gear transmission is the most common. It has multiple gears working together to deliver faster line speeds, but can create heat. A worm gear transmission has only two gears and the ability to generate massive power at a cooler operating temperature, but at the cost of a slower line speed.

Regarding cable selection, both steel and synthetic cables are incredibly strong. Synthetic cables are prone to damage and have a greater chance of snapping. Steel cables are more durable, but they add extra weight and can be incredibly dangerous if they break. Synthetic cables require more care and protection during a pull, but they cut down on weight and are much safer if they break. 

For our business, steel cable is probably the best choice.

To find the right winch for your department, take a look at off-roading and four-wheel drive magazines, fire and rescue publications and towing and construction magazines. Check out the catalogs and Web sites of manufacturers, such as Warn Industries, and look at what others have purchased.

For fire apparatus, you will find everything from portable mounted winches to large cranes.

The Lutherville (Md.) Volunteer Fire Company’s rescue vehicle is outfitted with an 8-ton crane with a 37-foot reach and a 10-ton winch.

The Monroeville (Pa.) Fire Department, located just east of Pittsburgh where the Pennsylvania Turnpike meets U.S. Route 22, set up its Rescue 4 with a 12,000-pound front-mounted winch and a portable 5,000-pound winch with receiver locations on all sides of the apparatus. Both winches have been used on various occasions for vehicle stabilization.

The portable winch allows flexibility in positioning the apparatus. Having to put the rescue perpendicular to the flow of traffic in order to use the front-mount winch would not only be hazardous in certain situations, but sometimes impossible.

Another slick thing Monroeville did was to put the receiver mounts by tie-off points for rope rescue if needed.

When specifying a vehicle-mounted winch or receivers for a portable winch, make sure everything is installed to the manufacturer’s requirements and properly secured to the vehicle’s frame. Also make sure all wiring is heavy enough.

Controls should be accessible, and should allow the operator to stand off to the side in case of cable failure. Operators should wear PPE, eye protection and gloves.

There are a host of accessories for winches, such as block and tackle and various riggings. Make sure you select accessories that meet the same rating as your winch.

Special thanks to Chief Doug Cole and the Monroeville #4 Fire Company for their assistance. As always, stay safe and return to quarters.

Editor’s Note: Allen Baldwin is the manager of operations and incident response for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and a volunteer assistant chief with the Gettysburg (Pa.) Fire Department. He has been a firefighter and EMT for over 25 years, served as chief of the Chambersburg (Pa.) Fire Department and is an instructor with the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and several community colleges.

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