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October 2011 Pit Stop Editorial

Posted in Features on October 1, 2011
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In the months since we published the “Massive Multi-Winch Shootout” (July ’11), my inbox has had a steady stream of reader response. Most praised our efforts, citing that such cut-and-dry shootouts are what they want to see more of in the future, but we did receive feedback criticizing the method in which we scored the units. Perhaps some background would be useful to illustrate the time and preparation that goes into executing a comparison test like this one.

During the limited time we had to put this shootout together, I had to work fast to get in touch with marketing representatives and garner product support from each manufacturer. Once contact was established, an email had to be crafted and sent out explaining the parameters of the shootout. I wanted it to appear as much like a science experiment as possible, and tried to eliminate variables that would prevent the tests from being apples-to-apples. As happens with many product requests, representatives were sometimes slow to respond; concerns about test procedures trickled in and required several follow-up conversations to ensure each brand’s participation.

Then product started to arrive. I knew it was time to shift my attention to things such as the load cell to accurately measure pulling force; the digital thermometer to measure temperatures; and the stainless-steel tank to submerge each winch in. All these essential tools had to be figured out and sourced. I also needed to figure out how to safely conduct the stall test in the shop space I had available. This involved building a steel fixture that could handle the forces involved without deflecting or collapsing. I figured that it would be best to get synthetic winch rope installed on each winch for safety’s sake; steel cable could have snapped, potentially causing injuries and skewing the results. However, I needed to conduct a dry run on the stall test apparatus to make sure it was going to work. To do so, I borrowed a 50-foot refrigeration trailer from a friend and had it delivered to my home location. An industrial-strength propane heater enabled me bring the interior temperature of the trailer up to 136 degrees Fahrenheit to mimic the highest recorded temperature on earth. I wanted to test my stall-tester device while also gathering data for another story I plan to write about the use of synthetic winch line in high-heat conditions. Contrary to its published rating, the high heat did exactly what I suspected and caused the synthetic rope on a test winch to break prematurely at 12,000 pounds. So, I opted to spend some money and purchase a section of high-strength, ½-inch steel cable instead.

Next, I had to find a commercial scale that could used to weight of each winch without variation—a bathroom scale might have worked, but again I was trying to approach this as a science experiment. I learned that commercial scales are not cheap, and that Craigslist is a great source for finding such equipment used.

As the days of prep rolled out, Optima came aboard as the official battery supplier of the shootout. This threw us a curveball because it necessitated a special battery charger and yet another clear area to carry out the agreed-upon charging procedures. You see, Optimas are not ready for high amp draws right out of the box. They must first be cycled several times to ensure their rated cranking power output. Optima’s engineering team explained this to me during a 45-minute conference call. They told me that until I could effectively discharge and restore each battery several times, the test wouldn’t be apples-to-apples.

Testing each winch for sound level during operation was easy, though to be fair I had to conduct all ten tests during the same hour, during which time each winch would be subjected to the same ambient temperature and background noise. Additionally, I thought it was appropriate to use two separate decibel meters just in case any anomalies happened.

The deeper I got into the shootout, the more I felt like a mad scientist. When the final week before deadline arrived, I had no choice but to crack the whip and work around the clock to record all the information needed for the story. I had help from a few friends, and despite non-stop rain, we got it all finished up just ahead of our production deadline.

After the shootout, I spent my time in bed recovering from low back pain and have since visited the chiropractor four times. Needless to say, I won’t be doing any heavy lifting next time, but I feel confident with the procedures and equipment we used and plan to conduct another similar shootout again soon—but next time we will test winches that cost $500 or less. Be on the lookout for it in the next few months.

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