The Ultimate Guide to Maximizing the Lifespan of Your Access Mats

By Duncan Sutherland
Duncan Sutherland
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How to maximize the lifespan of your access mats

Access mat users — both renters and owners alike — all face a common truth: It's more expensive to replace access mats than it is to treat them right in the first place.

When renting or leasing your access mats, there are often caveats that require the mats to be returned in good, usable condition, lest your company be liable for paying damages for ruined or lost access mats. And if you decide to purchase your access mats outright, you've got an especially vested interest in ensuring the long-term integrity of your mats.

So what can you do to maximize the lifespan of your access mats? Herein, we share five easy tips you can implement today to ensure your mats can be used for years to come.

  1. Choose the right type of access mat for your project.
  2. Use the correct equipment to place your access mats.
  3. Install your access mats so the strength axis follows the direction of travel.
  4. Restrict vehicle speeds and minimize the use of corked equipment.
  5. Ensure your access mats are stored as clean and as dry as possible.

How to properly handle and store your access mats

1. Choose the right type of access mat for your project.

Access mats can be built using a wide variety of materials, and different compositions serve different purposes. The first step to making sure your access mats will last as long as possible is to ensure you're choosing the right composition for your planned activity, including what type of equipment you'll be using on your access mats.

Extreme loads: Oak

If your mats will be providing long-term support a project, access mats made of oak are usually preferred. Oak is heavier, denser, and less absorbent than other woods, making it stronger and less moisture-absorbent.

These qualities make oak access mats a great choice for projects in which lifespan and durability are higher priority than being lightweight and easy to transport. The same qualities that make oak mats so durable also make them heavier and, therefore, more expensive to own, rent, and/or transport to and from various locations.

A well-cared-for oak access mat can last anywhere from five to eight years, on average.

General use with frequent transport: Hybrid

Both the equipment that handles your access mats and the equipment that's operating on them can be hard on your mats — no matter how good your operators are. So for instances where you expect to use your mats for a variety of projects, thus needing to handle and transport them frequently, hybrid access mats can be a good choice.

Hybrid access mats are often fir mats with oak along the outer edges. The fir composition makes the mats lightweight and less costly to transport compared to other options (such as 100% oak access mats) or steel-framed rig mats, while the oak frame provides additional strength and durability. Thus, hybrid mats are a great way to get added durability while still keeping your access mats lightweight and strong enough for general use.

Well-treated hybrid access mats usually see an average lifespan of three to six years.

Infrequent transport: Fir

Finally, for instances where you plan on keeping your access mats in place for moderate timeframes and only need to support standard loads and equipment, 100% fir access mats are often a good solution.

Fir access mats are among the lightest access mats out there, so if you aren't going to be handling them frequently, they can be quite strong while reducing trucking costs significantly.

Now, it's important to note that when it comes to fir access mats, not all of them are made equal. There are several different types of lightweight woods that fall under the "fir access mat" umbrella. Understanding exactly which type of wood your mats are made of puts you in a better position to maximize the return on investment (ROI) of your mats.
Below are some of the most common wood compositions that access mat suppliers may label as "fir", as well as each species' corresponding Janka hardness score at 12% moisture, without knots, measured in pounds-force (lbw) and Newtons (N):
  1. Douglas fir (most dense, highly recommended)
    • Janka score: 660 lbf (2,900 N)
  2. Hemlock fir (adequate, not the best)
    • Janka score: 500 lbf (2,200 N)
  3. Western White Pine (very soft, not recommended)
    • Janka score: 420 lbf (1,900 N)
  4. Balsam fir (very soft, not recommended)
    • Janka score: 400 lbf (1,800 N) (or less)
  5. Eastern White Pines (extremely soft, not recommended)
    • Janka score: 380 lbf (1,700 N)

Sturdy fir access mats that are well taken care of usually have an expected lifespan of two to three years, on average.

Using the right equipment to place your access mats can increase their lifespan.

2. Use the correct equipment to place your access mats.

Once you've selected the right type of access mat for your project, the next step is making sure you're properly handling and installing your mats. It can be easy to overlook the importance of assigning an operator with the right skillset and the right equipment to the job, but doing so is a simple way to extend your mats' expected lifespan by months, if not years.

Let's explore what exactly this looks like:

Handling

Proper handling means hiring experienced operators to handle your access mats and equipping those operators with the correct attachments for the job.

Not all equipment and experience is equal in the access solutions world. You might have a superstar operator while moving dirt in an excavator or wheel loader, but it would be unwise to expect that same operator to be instantly capable of handling access mats with the same level of expertise.

Matting attachments (grapples and long forks) require a unique skillset to handle competently compared to buckets and other grading attachments, owing in part to the fact that forks and more specifically grapples can change the angle of approach, centre of gravity, and handling characteristics of the machines.

These changes often seem counterintuitive at first, and it may take some time for your operator to hone the skills required to perform with the same smooth precision they're known for.

The opposite holds true, too: An operator who specializes in moving access mats should not necessarily be expected to be able to handle other heavy-equipment tasks with the same level of competency they may show when installing mats.

Hire skilled labourers to move your access mats to avoid damages and extra costs

Installation

How hard could it be? After all, it’s just putting wood on the ground… right?

As many site foreman and operators have come to find out, this may not quite be the case. There's a certain level of foresight required to expertly place access mats in such a way that both optimizes them for use and maximizes the longevity of your access mats.

The operator(s) tasked with laying your access mats must have a very clear plan in mind when they start laying the mats. Otherwise, it's like trying to put together a puzzle without knowing what the image is.

Whether or not your operators have the right skills for the job will directly impact the time it will take for your team to place your mats. A skilled team of operators can place anywhere from 600 to over 1000 mats in a day, whereas an inexperienced team may only lay 100 to 200 mats per day.

As a result, your team's proficiency in placing access mats will significantly affect the cost of your project, in addition to the lifespan of your mats. With a strategic approach, you're likely to save time and money. Without it, your operators may have to undo the work and redo it until correct, or you'll be left with a subpar access set-up.

Incorrectly installed matting will often result in lost time, potential damage to the equipment, and damage to the matting. These factors play right into “Murphy’s Law”, often in perfect succession, and these small oversights can be very costly.

Save time and money by implementing an inventory management system for your access mats

3. Place your access mats to run with the direction of travel.

Once you've assigned the right operator and equipment to the job, the next step is making sure your access mats are being laid with the correct orientation.

When placing access mats on a job site, it's important to ensure the mats are installed with their boards parallel to the direction your equipment will be driving. This is often referred to as "running with the direction of travel".

When you look at the anatomy of a wooden access mat, you'll see that there are three layers to it, and the direction that the wood beams are run alternate on each layer. This means there are two different ways to lay them: having two planes of wood going in the same direction of travel, or only one plane of wood running in the direction of travel.

When you place your mats with two planes of wood running in the direction of travel, wane and flex capabilities are optimized and your access mats will be able to support heavier loads. If you place your mats the other way (i.e. only one layer of wood running in the direction of travel), you'll significantly reduce the lifespan of your mats.

It's also recommended to stagger the joints of your mats so that the tires on your equipment and vehicles aren't intersecting the same joint at the same time (illustrated in orange in the image below). This helps prevent situations such as having a vehicle nosedive into mud if your mats are on soft ground.

How to properly stagger the joints of your access mats

4. Restrict vehicle speeds and minimize the use of corked equipment.

No, we're not talking about wine bottle stoppers. Corks — also commonly referred to as ice-lugs or cleats — are little pieces of metal that are welded on to the tracks of construction equipment to provide extra grip in slippery conditions.

In order to maximize the lifespan of your access mats, try to avoid using equipment with corks on your access mats whenever possible. When suitable for the project at hand, you might want to consider using an alternative style of chain or cleat that is less aggressive than traditional corking.

If using equipment with corks on your access mats is absolutely necessary, do what you can to reduce their need to turn on the mats whenever possible.

If turns cannot be avoided, proper turning procedures are key. Taking wider, gradual, multi-point turns can help expand the life of your access mats if you're using equipment with chains, cleats, or corks.

Furthermore, vehicle speed on matting is among the top causes of broken mats. Speed is a multiplier of force. You can imagine how hard a 30-tonne rock truck beats up the ground when moving at 10 km/h — now imagine that same force at three to four times the speed. Your access mats must be able to sustain all of that force. Thus, setting and abiding by speed limits on your access mats is another important key to maximizing their longevity.

How to choose the right type of access mat

5. Ensure your access mats are stored as clean and as dry as possible.

The final step to maximizing the lifespan of your access mats is to properly clean and store your mats after each job. Cleaning your mats helps ensure their integrity over a longer period of time by avoiding conditions such as rot, and proper storage — including inventory management — is key to making sure you're not losing mats along the way.

Cleaning

No matter what type of access mat you use, you must clean your access mats after each project as a part of project disassembly and clean-up. At the very least, this means scraping and shaking each mat to get debris out from between the boards to increase airflow between the boards. The increased airflow allows the boards to dry completely, which will prevent the premature rotting of your access mats.

However, to get the most out of your mats — and to ensure regulatory compliance regarding cross-contamination — you're going to want to wash them after each project. You can wash them yourself with a hydrovac or steamer and a catch pit, or you can use a mat-washing machine to get the job done.

There's a regulatory incentive for cleaning your mats, too. Many access projects require certified environmental inspections to be performed on equipment and matting before entering environmentally sensitive areas. These inspections are typically performed by a third party on behalf of your provincial-level government or landowners to ensure sanitary requirements are being met to prevent cross-contamination of soils and diseases such as club-root.

Storing

Storing your access mats properly is about more than just the physical location in which you keep them. Proper access mat storage involves cleaning, housing, and tracking your access mats with precision. If you rent your access mats, your supplier will likely manage this part of the process. If you lease or own your access mats, you're going to want to pay particular attention to this step.

Avoid using equipment with corks on your access matsWhen it comes to storing your mats for future use, essentially any lay-down area will do the trick. You can choose to store your matting on a permanent pad, or — for temporary storage — simply let the bottom layer of access mats serve as a foundation for the rest of your mats.

Finally, you're going to want to have a proper inventory management system in place to accurately track your access mats. One of the largest losses in the matting industry is caused in part by inadequate inventory control. If you rent your access mats, not knowing where your inventory is at all times can quickly lead to missing mat charges. If you own or lease your mats, lost assets have a steep cost, both in the loss of the material and in the required operational and administrative measures to replace the missing access mats.

Having an inventory control system in place and following the procedure as prescribed can be a full-time job, and it's well-worth investing the time and energy in implementing such a system. Access mats go missing far more often than most people are inclined to believe, but with the right systems in place, you can save yourself the headache — and the cost — of having to replace them.

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Moving forward

While many factors affect the lifespan you can expect to get from your access mats, a lot of them are within your control. Ensuring you use skilled operators to handle these products correctly, implementing an inventory management system, placing access mats in the right direction, and choosing the right access mats for the job are all things you can do to maximize the lifespan of your mats.

At the end of the day, taking these steps in the short-term will pay off in the long-term by giving you a better return on investment for your access mats and — ultimately — your project as a whole.

Are you considering access mats for your next project? Our matting team is here to help. Click the button below to get in touch with one of our matting experts today.

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Originally published January 31, 2020, updated February 7, 2020

Topics: Access Mats

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