Cover Story/Productivity Guide: Skid-steer loaders

Skid steers first eked out a role on construction jobsites as inexpensive workhorses used primarily in site prep and cleanup roles, applications they still excel in today. But skid steers have evolved to take on a multitude of different jobs, the result of advances in hydraulic systems and attachment technologies. Now contractors can fit a wide array of tools to a skid steer and use it in ways its original designers never conceived.

Contractors began demanding larger versions of these machines. The thinking – correct, as it turned out – was that larger skid steers would offer more power and versatility in a quick, maneuverable machine platform.

“Skid-steer loaders are a combination of workhorse and gopher at most jobsites,” says Jim Hughes, brand communication manager, Case Construction Equipment. “In fact, they’re often the most productive and versatile machines on a jobsite. Throw in the fact a skid-steer loader is less expensive than other construction equipment and you’ve got a winning combination for many contractors.”

Hughes says he most often sees skid steers in these size classes used in material handling, digging, grading, clean up, site prep, scrap removal, truck loading and unloading. “Include an attachment such as a broom, power box rake, pallet forks, hammer or specialty bucket,” he adds, “and the applications are pretty much limitless.”

In recent years, encroachments by other compact machine types have caused some to wonder if the skid steer still has a place on jobsites. But it’s obvious OEMs haven’t allowed their designs to stagnate, taking advantage of electronic control systems to enhance the skid steer’s already impressive performance and versatility.

And new players continue to enter the market. This year saw the debut of the Bulldog line of skid steers. Cullen Phillips, Bulldog vice president, says the company, based in Manchester, Maryland, believes skid steers should be rugged and as simple as possible to maintain.

Combine requirements with operation assessments when spec’ing
Skid steers in the 1,751 to 2,201 size class are among the most popular machines. Machine selection depends on many factors, some of them straightforward and others more esoteric. “You have to ask where you plan on taking your business and what requirements you need immediately,” says Kent Pellegrini, skid-steer loader industry manager, Caterpillar. At the same time, Pellegrini suggests considering your operators’ demands and their machine expectations. “Ask the right questions early so you can plan.”

One way to do this, according to Pellegrini, is to look at your current operating load ranges and see if they have changed in any way. “Has your need for manual labor increased?” he asks, “or have you modified a skid steer in some way to better manage your load range? These can be signs of changing work habits or a business outgrowing its current machines. Both circumstances may justify a new machine.”

The end goal, Pellegrini stresses, is productivity. “A new machine – if it is warranted – will always make a difference if it is used correctly,” he says.

New generation skid steers offer a host of options
According to Hughes and others, you should pay attention to several features when considering a skid steer. Horsepower is obvious, he notes, since more power from the engine translates into more hydraulic capability and bucket/lift forces. “I’d recommend picking a machine with large-displacement/high-torque engines for maximum productivity,” he says.

“You may want to ask about a two-speed transmission if you need to drive long distances when the machine is unloaded from a trailer,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product representative, Bobcat. “Using two-speed transmissions allow our skid-steer loaders to travel up to 12 mph in high speed, saving contractors valuable time.” In addition, Fitzgerald says, Bobcat has pioneered the development of four-wheel-steer skid steers, with independently articulating wheels. “They’re excellent machines for applications where turf damage is a concern because the skidding motion is eliminated during turns,” he explains.

Lift capacity, along with the width and height of the machine, should be examined as well. Remember that wider chassis machines offer increased stability in applications where lifting and loading is a priority. Machines with narrower chassis will allow the skid steer to fit into tight working areas and still perform adequately.

“Make sure the machine performance features fit the specific task needed to complete the worksite job in the most efficient fashion,” says Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager, skid steers and compact track loaders, John Deere. “Good stability directly affects performance and should be a major concern when evaluating a potential machine. Our skid steer features optimal 60/40 weight distribution, low center of gravity, long wheelbase and large 12×16.5 tires, all of which contribute to unsurpassed stability.”

Ensuring productive attachment use with a skid steer brings up other critical considerations. First off, the machine’s hydraulic flow rates and system capacities must meet the demands of the attachments you’re planning to use. Second, the weight of the skid steer should be enough to ensure safe operation: Putting too heavy or large an attachment on a skid steer can result in an excessively tippy machine.

More skid-steer manufacturers are now placing a greater emphasis on cab ergonomics and offering a slate of cab comfort options. If you feel increased comfort levels equate to greater productivity, you can take your pick from deluxe, fully enclosed cabs with heat and air conditioning, stereo systems, ride control, suspension seats and low-effort servo controls.

Also gauge how easy it is to perform daily service checks and routine maintenance on any machine you’re considering. “All daily maintenance can be done at one spot on our skid steers,” Hughes notes. “And we’ve adopted sight gauges for all critical fluid checks instead of dipsticks to expedite daily checks and reduce the chance of introducing dirt into the engine. Extended maintenance intervals and an easy forward tilting cab complete this serviceability package.”

Control system considerations
The combination of electronic control systems with hydraulic systems has given operators even more control options and flexibility on skid steers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the control systems.

Traditional hand-and-foot control systems now compete with pilot-operated joystick controls in skid-steer cabs. “I don’t think you’ll ever see one system supplant the other,” says Bill Sauber, skid steer product specialist, Volvo Construction Equipment. “But the important thing to remember is that both systems have advantages for operators.”

Sauber says hand-and-foot control systems are harder for many operators to learn. But once mastered, he says the level of machine control they deliver can be on par with the most sophisticated pilot control systems available today. “Hand-and-foot systems do give you total independence of the machine’s left and right transmissions,” he notes. “So if you’re stuck – where one side of the machine has poor footing due to mud or a slope – that independent control gives you an advantage in getting the machine out because you get instant response to your control inputs.”

Pilot controls, Sauber says, are easier for novice operators to learn. “Some older operators find them frustrating because they have a metered hydraulic response to control inputs,” he says. This manages the jerking and bouncing that would be present if you had a direct pilot link to the hydraulic system. “The controls are that responsive,” he adds. “Most operators learn to adjust to that operating style – but it does impact the immediate machine response older operators expect from hand-and-foot systems.”

Sauber says pilot controls allow an operator to focus more readily on attachments. “A lot more hand movement and input is required to run attachments with mechanical controls than pilot systems,” he says. “It’s a significant enough amount of right-hand movement when operating a grapple or four-in-one bucket, and can be tiresome by the end of the day. You don’t get that level of fatigue with low-effort pilot controls.”

Sauber cautions that owners must remember the differences between the two systems when they’re spec’ing skid steers. “It boils down to whom you’re buying the machine for,” he says. “An older, experienced operator may advise you to go with hand-and-foot controls. But will he be operating the machine all the time, or will you be putting younger or even new operators on the machine? If that’s the case, you may want to opt for pilot-controls to get the newer guys productive quicker.”

Other OEMs are adopting systems to address these operational issues as well. Fitzgerald says Bobcat skid-steer loaders can be equipped with the optional Advanced Control System, which allows you to press a button and switch between hand or foot control of lift and tilt functions.

You can also spec another Bobcat option, called selectable joystick controls, which features low-effort joysticks for controlling all machine functions. “These control options enable contractors with multiple operators to easily choose their preferred control pattern when operating the skid-steer loader,” Fitzgerald says. “But SJC offers a host of other benefits as well.”

Fitzgerald says SJC-equipped loaders provide the ability to choose between the ISO and H operating patterns. In addition, a speed management feature allows you to match the unit’s travel speed and hydraulic flow to job specific requirements. “In essence, it optimizes attachment performance and gives you more precise control of machine movements in tight areas,” he explains. “It works particularly well with planer, wheel saw and trencher attachments. In addition, SJC’s horsepower management system automatically adjusts the drive system to maximize pushing and digging power without stalling the machine. This is combined with a foot throttle and fingertip switches mounted on the joystick handles.”

Front end geometry can affect performance
Two different types of front loader geometry can be spec’d on skid steers in these size classes. Contractors should know the strengths and weaknesses of each system if they wish to get the most out of their skid-steer loaders.

Traditionally, most skid steers feature radial-lift geometry linkage. “Most skid steers are used for cut-and-fill work,” Sauber says. “In those applications you want maximum reach midway through the boom lift cycle, which radial-lift geometry provides – along with higher breakout forces for digging applications.”

Vertical-lift machines, says Pellegrini, provide additional reach at the top of the lift cycle, which is ideal for loading trucks and material placement jobs. “Vertical-lift machines can also give you an advantage lifting loads in close job quarters, as the linkage does not move as far forward during the lift as a radial-lift machine does,” he adds.

As with so many other features and options offered on skid steers today, boom selection boils down to your core use for the machine. While skid steers have successfully retained their all-around versatility, they can now be tailored for individuals in ways unheard of a decade ago. Today, a little planning and a consultation with your preferred equipment dealer can net you a skid steer with unprecedented productivity.

Bobcat S185 & S205
Features include:

  • Extended, smooth ride wheelbase
  • Selectable joystick controls
  • Optimized K-Series hydraulic system

Bulldog B5370 & B8250
Features include:

  • Perkins or Deutz diesel engine
  • Name-brand components throughout
  • Simple, rugged design

Case 430 & 440
Features include:

  • Ride control
  • Heavy-duty design
  • Easy-tilt ROPS cab for quick service

Caterpillar 242B, 246B, 248B
Features include:

  • High-performance powertrain
  • Dual engine throttle controls with anti-stall feature
  • Advanced hydraulic system

Doosan Infracore 450 Plus
Features include:

  • Comfortable ergonomic cab
  • Optional hydraulic flow to 32.3 gpm
  • Travel speed up to 7.4 mph

Gehl 5650
Features include:

  • High horsepower Deutz diesel engine
  • All-Tach, two-lever attachment system

JCB 190 Wheeled Robot
Features include:

  • Standard, industry approved quick hitch
  • Servo joysticks
  • Optional foot throttle for improved fuel economy and greater machine control
  • John Deere 320
    Features include:

    • 62-horsepower, turbocharged, John
    • Deere diesel engine
    • Low center of gravity and long wheelbase for smooth ride and stability
    • Vertical boom with 115-inch lift height

    Komatsu SK820-5 & 1020-5
    Features include:

    • Low-effort proportional pressure joystick controls
    • HydruMind hydraulic control and management system
    • Standard universal attachment quick coupler

    Mustang 2066 & 2076
    Features include:

    • 80-horsepower, Cummins turbocharged diesel engine
    • Self-leveling boom hydraulics
    • Two-speed drive and optional Hydraglide ride control

    New Holland LS170 & LS180.B
    Features include:

    • Super Boom vertical reach loader linkage
    • Long wheelbase and low center of gravity for added stability
    • Ergonomic cab with outstanding sightlines

    Volvo MC90
    Features include:

    • 16-valve, 82-horsepower Volvo turbo diesel engine
    • Quick and easy service access points
    • Optional pilot joystick control system