Compact Loaders: Sorting the Choices
The selection of multipurpose loaders for conquering confined spaces on the job site
continues to grow. Here are some ideas for zeroing in on the right machine for you.
At one time, if you were a grading and excavating contractor looking for a loader with the ability to work quickly, efficiently, and productively on job sites where both time and maneuver room were in short supply, you were limited to a skid-steer machine. Now, of course, your choices of compact loaders also include those with rubber-track undercarriages, wheel machines with articulating frames, and rubber-tired tractors equipped with lift arms and a bucket on one end and a backhoe on the other.
All are designed to help you make the most of money-making opportunities when working in confined areas. However, each is designed to handle certain of types of jobs and site conditions better than any of the others.
For example, with its ability to turn completely around within its own length, a skid-steer loader offers the ultimate in space and time-saving maneuverability. Also, it offers the widest assortment of attachments than any other type of compact loaders. That makes it the most versatile choice in terms of the types of work it can perform. Like a skid-steer loader, a compact track loader can also turn 360 degrees in place, if necessary. But, this machine’s real strength lies in its tracks. They give this type of loader much more flotation and far better traction to keep working in soil and terrain conditions that would stop a skid-steer or other type of wheel loader. One advantage of a compact articulated wheel loader, on the other hand, is the ability to maneuver easily on pavement and other hard surfaces with much less wear on tires than skid-steer loaders would suffer. Meanwhile, a compact tractor-loader-backhoe combines the ability to lift, carry and load materials with the ability to handle trenching and other digging jobs in a single unit.
Because of their speed, agility and versatility in tight quarters, compact loaders have proven especially popular for residential applications where building lots have continued to shrink in size. Consequently, the recession of the last two years or so, has been especially hard on grading and excavation contractors who serve this market, not to mention sales of these machines.
Bob Beesley is a product manager for Komatsu, whose line of construction equipment includes both skid-steer and compact track loaders. A 30-year veteran of the compact construction equipment industry, Beesley offers this assessment of the current market for these types of products.
“Manufacturers of compact construction equipment live and die by housing starts, which have fallen dramatically,” he says. “I’ve never seen residential construction activity this bad. At least things seem to have stabilized. There’s been a gradual increase in new home construction over the past few months. We haven’t seen enough consistent growth to say the recession is over. But, we’re beginning to see some signs of recovery.”
Assuming that business does, indeed, begin picking up for grading and excavation contractors in the not-too-distant future, now would be an ideal time to start planning for your equipment needs and buying decisions. Here’s a look at some of your compact loader options and how they could pay off for you.
The Right Match
They key to getting your money’s worth from any type of compact loader is choosing the one that offers the performance capabilities that best match your particular applications—how you’ll be putting the machine to work.
As an example, Beesley sizes up factors to consider when choosing between two types of machines—skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders.
For a given size, the costs to buy and operate a skid-steer loader are typically much less than for a compact track loader, he notes. “A compact track loader will do just about anything a skid-steer loader can, but the track machine will cost you more,” Beesley says.
Consider the money you’d spend replacing a set of tracks compared with replacing a set of tires. Four new tires for a skid-steer loader cost around $500, while the price of new set of rubber tracks for a compact track loader may run as high as $5,000 to $6,000. Operating a compact track loader on pavement, hard-packed ground, or gravel can add even more to your costs by shortening the rubber track life significantly. For example, even when operated correctly in proper applications, a set of tracks usually don’t last much longer than two sets of the tires, Beesley notes. “The reason is that so much more of a track stays in contact with the ground than a tire,” he says. “It’s amazing how little true contact there is between a tire and the ground.”
The undercarriage itself adds to the purchase price and operating expenses of a compact track loader.
“Manufacturers sell more skid-steer loaders than compact track loaders,” Beesley says. “In fact, when compact track loaders first came onto the market, people were predicting the end of the reign of skid-steer loaders. Many contractors bought compact loaders, even though they didn’t need them. Before long, they realized the track loaders were not cost efficient in their operation. So, they began trading them back in for skid-steer loaders. Today, the market for the two types of loaders has steadied itself.”
A skid-steer loader, Beesley adds, can handle about 75% of the jobs out there. A compact track loader, on the other hand, does everything a skid-steer loader will do. Plus, it can tackle the remaining 25% of the jobs due to the greatly increased flotation and traction, which can justify the extra cost of a compact track loader.
“By distributing the machine’s weight over a much greater surface compared to tires, the track-equipped loader exerts much less ground pressure, allowing the machine to travel across turf without causing ruts or tearing it up as a skid-steer loader would,” Beesley says. “Also, the much greater tractive effort of a track loader lets you keep pushing into a pile of dirt when working on a slippery surface where a skid steer loader would be spinning its wheels.”
For prospective buyers of skid-steer or compact track loaders, he suggests clearly understanding the strengths of each. “Have a good picture of the machine’s intended work environment before deciding which machine will be best suited to your purposes,” Beesley says. That advice holds when comparing other comparing loaders, too.
Skid-steer versus compact track loaders—In general, a skid-steer loader can do lift-and-carry work on firm, flat ground faster and more efficiently than a compact track loader, which, because of its increased traction and flotation, is a better choice for grading and excavating applications. Because it weighs more than a skid-steer loader of the same size, a compact track loader has a little higher tipping load.
Incidentally, manufacturers measure a skid-steer loader’s rated operating capacity at 50% of the machine’s tipping load. Usually, the rated operating capacity of a compact track loader is figured at either 35% or 50% of the tipping load.
Depending on make and model, both types of loaders offer either of two types of lift paths. A radial lift path raises and lowers the bucket in an arc, as viewed from the side. This provides the most reach at the midpoint of the lift height, making it a good choice for loading and unloading flatbed trucks. Also, it is a more durable design for grading, digging, trenching, and backfilling work. A vertical lift path, which raises and lowers the bucket straight up and down, has the greatest reach at maximum lift height for easier loading into dump trucks. In addition, this design allows the loader to lift more than a similar size machine with a radius lift path.
Compact Articulated Wheel Loaders—With top travel speeds of 20 mph or more, depending on make and model, a compact articulated wheel loader can easily outrun a skid-steer loader to save more time on jobs with long carry distances. In addition to a high dump clearance, it can lift and carry heavier loads than most skid-steer machines. While it requires more room for turning, a compact wheel loader doesn’t damage turf or finished surfaces as a skid-steer machine does when maneuvering. Unlike a skid-steer loader, which requires you to step over a bucket to reach the operator’s seat, a compact wheel loader features side entry and exit. Because it uses a steering wheel, it is easier to operate than a skid-steer loader, which uses hand controls for maneuvering. Also, you sit much higher in a compact wheel loader for a better view of the job site. That, of course, means less overhead clearance than a skid-steer loader offers. Other compact articulated loader features typically include two-speed hydrostatic drive, skid-steer loader-style couplers for use with a wide range of attachments, multifunction joysticks for controlling the lift arms and bucket, an inching pedal for more precise control at lower ground speeds, and oscillating frame for stability and operator comfort
Compact Tractor-Loader-Backhoe—Featuring digging depths from about 7 feet to 12 feet or so, lift capacities of a ton or more, along with the ability to load into dump trucks, depending on make and model, compact tractor-loader-backhoes are designed for serious work on smaller job sites. Whether hauling gravel, sand or other construction materials or digging through clay soils to excavate utility trenches, they can tackle the same types of jobs as their bigger brothers. That’s not all. Equipped with a PTO and three-point hitch on the rear, compact tractor loader backhoes can also take on a wide range of other jobs by using various types of implements and attachments, such as augers, box scrapers, mowers, rotor tillers, rear blades, and snow blowers. These machines also offer contractors just starting out a cost-effective, multipurpose alternative to other types of compact equipment.
The following case studies describe how owners of these various types of compact loaders are using them to whip challenging projects down to size. While their specific job sites and applications may differ from yours, their experiences can spark an idea or two on how you can profit from these versatile machines.
Author's Bio: Guest author Greg Northcutt writes frequently on construction and business issues.