Electric winches are part of a fast-growing product market that is quickly becoming flooded with a bevy of choices. Along with top name manufacturers like Warn and Mile Marker offering up electric winch contributions, smaller niche-market companies are beginning to join the fray. And though the general premise of an electric winch remains the same -- pulling power for off road recovery or general utility situations -- technology has a way of throwing curveballs at consumers, making choosing electric winches more difficult than one might suspect.
Granted, we may not answer all of your questions about electric winches, but at the very least, we hope to provide you with valuable information to help bring you a few steps closer to purchasing your very own electric winch.
The fact that this guide focuses solely on electric winches is not a sleight in any way to trusty hydraulic counterparts. In fact, many off road enthusiasts would tell you that hydraulic winches are the only way to fly. In either case, both hydraulic and electric winches have advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a quick comparison of the two for anyone who needs to be brought up to speed:
An electric winch is exactly as its name would suggest: it is electrically powered by a vehicle’s battery, and as a result its duty cycle is limited by the amount of juice in your battery. Oftentimes, it is wise to run your engine while operating an electric winch to prevent your battery from fully draining.
A hydraulic winch is powered by a vehicle’s power steering pump. What this means is that they are capable of an extended, seemingly endless duty cycle for longer pulls and a persistent flow of pulling power.
Again, Why Electric Winches?
On the outset, it may seem like hydraulic winches are clearly superior to electric winches. This is true from a conceptual standpoint, but in practice, each has its benefits and detriments. Essentially, there’s no wrong decision either way. But what this guide boils down to is the fact that electric winches are far more universal. There are many more models of electric winches available, and they can be installed on just about any vehicle with universal mounting kits. Additionally, they are much easier to install or remove, and often include more choices in slick features than their hydraulic counterparts.
Electric winches are complicated pieces of machinery, and who could expect any differently. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at some of the more intricate components specific to an electric winch. Keep in mind that items like winch rope, fairleads, or other such universal winch parts are not the focus here, but rather parts that are factors in the makeup of an electric winch.
Though not a built-in part of an electric winch per se, batteries are directly connected to electric winches and have enough of an impact upon winch performance to merit some consideration. The problem is that stock batteries are designed primarily to start your vehicle, but may not be suited to handle the discharges required by winching. As a result, it’s best to keep your engine running during pulls to prevent a complete battery drain, but even then you should be wary of heat buildup due to prolonged winch operation. Thankfully, there are solutions to this dilemma. Premium battery units like marine or spiral cell batteries are specifically designed to serve as dual purpose starting and deep cycle batteries. The Optima Yellow Top battery and Pro Comp HDX are good choices here. Otherwise, getting the biggest and highest rated battery can only help you for powering a winch in recovery situations. Oftentimes, some gearheads will add a second battery to their vehicle devoted solely to winching, or perhaps add items like a battery isolator or solenoid to better manage the available power for winching.
Alternators are an often overlooked component when it comes to winching, as the output of your alternator can both help and hurt winching performance. Typically with any stock alternator, winching for extended periods of time at maximum output can cause the alternator to overheat and fail. As usual, upgrading to a premium alternator with a higher output can resolve this issue. But also make sure to also upgrade the electrical cable in order to handle the load of a heavier electrical current.
To further complicate the electric winch selection process, electric winches come in different drivetrain configurations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Of course, while there is no do-everything universal drivetrain system that can handle anything and everything that comes its way, the good news is that all electric winches are ultimately designed with the same basic purpose in mind. As a result, you can’t really make a wrong choice when purchasing an electric winch, although it is possible that you can make a slightly better choice. At any rate, here are the 3 main drivetrain types most often found in electric winches:
The fundamental design of a Spur Gear drivetrain dates back to the 1960s. It excels at offering reliable winching with a fast line speed. The drawback, however, is its lack of stability to hold loads, and typically requires a strong and functional brake.
Worm Gear drivetrains are not usually found on electric winches for off road vehicles, but are ideally suited for industrial or workman applications. Their specialties are load holding and lowering, which makes them a popular choice for tow trucks. On the downside, they pull far slower than other electric winch types.
Think of Planetary Gear drivetrains as a hybrid of Spur and Worm Gear ones. They’re typically more compact, which allows for less weight and less cost, and they perform somewhere in between what Spur and Worm Gear drivetrains offer. Their biggest downside is heat accumulation on the brake unit. Planetary Gear drivetrains are what most electric winches use.
As if selecting a drivetrain that suits your need weren’t complicated enough, an electric winch motor also becomes a consideration. Fortunately, there are only two main types of electric winch motors to choose from, and the distinction is pretty clear cut.
Permanent Magnetic (PM):
For casual winchers that don’t find themselves in extreme terrain or recovery situations very often, electric winches with PM motors are perfect. They offer decent pulling power and performance, their lower amp draw makes them energy efficient, and PM motor electric winches typically cost less. On the other hand, you won’t get the heavy duty performance you need to overcome the most difficult recovery situations, and while a PM motor is more energy efficient, they are also less tolerant to heat, and sometimes lose power in colder weather.
Series Wound (SW):
On the other hand, you won’t get the heavy duty performance you need to overcome the most difficult recovery situations, and while a PM motor is more energy efficient, they are also less tolerant to heat, and sometimes lose power in colder weather. Alternatively, SW motor electric winches usually cost more, and sometimes require upgrades to your battery, alternator, or other electrical components in order to assure lasting and reliable performance.
For as much that can be said of the particular features and specifications of electric winches, just as much attention should be paid to proper utilization and winching technique. While seemingly a simple premise in itself, there’s actually a lot more to winching than attaching the cable to a fixed point and letting it rip. In fact, knowing how to effectively utilize your winch can make a significant impact on its performance. Factor in the fact that electric winches are allotted a limited amount of time to complete a pull before it saps your battery or begins overheating, and proper winching technique suddenly becomes that much more important. Here are technical factors to keep in mind for electric winch selection and operation:
Winch Capacity, Part 1:
Hopefully by now, off road and 4x4 enthusiasts have all but eliminated the rookie misconception that the necessary winch capacity is directly proportional to a vehicle’s weight. But in case there is still any confusion regarding this matter, let’s put it bluntly. Plain and simple, your winch capacity should be 1.5 times your gross vehicle weight. In other words, take your vehicle’s weight, multiply it by 1.5, and that resulting number should be your minimum winch capacity. For instance, a vehicle that weighs 5,000 lbs would require a winch with a minimum capacity of 7,500 lbs.
Winch Capacity, Part 2:
When shopping for an electric winch, it’s easy to get confused by all the ratings, specs, and other technical information; in particular, winch capacity. Fact is, even if an electric winch is rated 10,000 lbs, it won’t always pull at 10,000 lbs. The way the ratings systems works is that each winch is given a designated capacity based upon its pulling strength with one layer of winch cable. In other words, an electric winch has the most pulling power when 1-2 complete layers of winch cable are wound around the winch drum due to a lower gear ratio. As a winch continues to wrap more layers of cable around the drum the pulling power decreases. This ties into our next point …
While you may want just one layer of winch cable around the drum when you begin a pull, the problem is that you may have to spool out a considerable amount of cable depending on how much you have on the drum, which can get snagged, damaged, or bunched up on the drum as you pull. For this reason, it’s important not to carry too much winch cable. 100 feet is usually a standard length and some spare extension cable can help with pulls over longer distances. In terms of the act of winching itself, make sure to feed the winch rope straight through the fairlead so that it will wrap smoothly and linearly around the drum. Feeding from an angle will cause the rope to layer unevenly, which could affect your winch’s performance.
No matter what your circumstances, safety is your first priority during any recovery or utility option. Common sense rules like never using a winch to hoist or pull people usually apply. Here are some basic safety tips that should always be followed when operating a winch:
Always use gloves when operating a winch, especially when using wire rope. Individual wire strands can sometimes break, which can lacerate unprotected flesh.
Keep your hands clear of the winch drum during operation.
If using a wire rope, spread a blanket or towel or some other object on the rope. If a wire rope snaps, the stored kinetic energy can create a whipping effect. Placing something on the cable will dampen this in the event of rope breakage.
Granted, there’s a lot to take in when it comes to electric winches, and yet everything discussed in this article is still just a small part of what makes an electric winch. But after having an idea of electric winches are all about, now comes the fun part in shopping for an electric winch and putting it to use. 4 Wheel Parts is your source for electric winches. We feature a wide selection of products from top electric winch manufacturers, including Warn, Mile Marker, Smittybilt, and many others. Whether for utility, convenience, or off road recovery, trust 4 Wheel Parts to supply you with the electric winch you need to come through in the toughest situations.
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