Compact track loaders aren’t new on the compact construction scene. But they are becoming more popular among contractors engaged in site prep, landscaping and general construction. In large part, this popularity has been spurred by the acceptance and indispensability of skid-steer loaders on North American jobsites, which proved once and for all that compact equipment could handle the rigors of punishing work.
Many contractors have found that compact track loaders are mandatory on their jobsites, and wonder how they ever got along without them. Accordingly, some compact track loader manufacturers claim these machines will soon usurp skid steers as the preeminent compact construction machine. Other OEMs, who sell large volumes of skid steers and track loaders alike, aren’t so sure.
“The compact track loader has really come into its own in the past several years,” says Brad Lemke, president, ASV Loaders. “They are ideal not only for muddy, sloppy working conditions, but in areas where turf or surface damage is an issue for contractors.”
That’s because these machines have higher flotation than skid-steer loaders, which means they exert less ground pressure as they move across the ground – as low as 3.1 psi of pressure for some models. Skid-steer loaders not only have less flotation than compact track loaders, the nature of skidding to turn the machine is inherently harmful to sensitive surfaces.
“Compact track loaders are also gaining popularity because contractors are finding that they can help to extend their working season,” notes Christopher Wolf, product manager, Caterpillar. “These machines are perfectly suited for working in wet, muddy conditions, as well as snow, due to their superior traction and flotation.”
Mike Fitzgerald, product manager, Bobcat, agrees. He says they are the only machines he’s taken out to beta test contractors and then been told, “You can’t have it back,” when the test is over. “Contractors immediately recognize the benefits these machines offer,” he says.
So do some contractors’ workers, although a few of them have a decidedly different point of view about compact track loaders. “We were visiting one contractor,” Fitzgerald recalls, “when his laborer walked up to me and said, ‘I hate that machine. Last summer, when it rained, we got a day off. But now, I haven’t had a day off in ages.'”
That particular contractor, Fitzgerald notes, had clearly gained several working days over the previous summer. “And that really showcases the potential of compact track loaders,” he says. “This contractor not only gained additional working days, the compact track loader allowed him to extend his entire working season. And more days on the job translates into more money in his pocket.”
Although they cost more than skid steers to purchase and run, compact track loaders can give you big returns in terms of productivity.
Expect to pay a premium for extra production
It’s important to note that contractors can expect to pay a premium for compact track loaders. “Generally speaking, if you look at track machines versus skid-steer loaders in the Bobcat product line, you’re going to pay approximately a 40 percent premium to purchase a compact track loader,” Fitzgerald says. And that premium is likely to remain constant for the foreseeable future, since compact track loaders cost more to build. “Tracks are more expensive than tires due to the steel framework, the rollers and sprockets,” he says. “And they have more complex drive systems. As sales volumes go up, economies of scale will come into play, and we might see some lower prices for these units. But I don’t see significant price decreases.”
It also costs more to maintain a compact track loader, Fitzgerald says, compared to a skid-steer loader. Generally speaking, you can expect the tires on a skid steer (engaged in general construction applications) to last between 600 to 800 hours. “I’ve seen some guys who can get 1,400 or 1,500 hours out of their tires,” he notes. “But others may burn their tires up at 400 hours. It costs about $600 to $800 for a set of four tires. So you can figure that it costs a dollar an hour to run a skid-steer loader for the tires only.” Tracks, on the other hand, are going to run you anywhere from $2,400 to $2,500 for a small track loader, while some larger models can set you back as much as $4,000.
If your operator is good – and depending on how you use the machine – Fitzgerald says you can expect a set of tracks to last from 1,000 to 1,200 hours. Again, that figure is generic. Fitzgerald says he’s seen some contractors put 2,000 hours on a set of tracks, while others get 600 hours. But using those base figures, you’re looking at $3 to $4 an hour to run the machine, just to replace the track.
If those figures seem sobering, ASV’s Lemke isn’t worried. “The bottom line is that compact track loaders are more productive in many applications than a skid-steer loader is,” he says. “And that is because of the specialized undercarriage and the rubber tracks. Will you have to adjust your pricing if you bring a compact track loader onto a client’s jobsite? Absolutely. But you will get more quality work done in a shorter period of time. It’s a specialized machine. And that justifies what is a minimal additional cost for your client.”
ASV does not manufacture a skid-steer loader and, naturally, Lemke feels compact track loaders are the wave of the future in small machine applications. “Our patented technology is different from many of the other manufacturers of compact tracked loaders,” he says. “As a result, we feel ASV’s undercarriages excel on hard surfaces like pavement, where other manufactures discourage use on pavement.”
Lemke also takes issue with compact track loader maintenance costs. “Those costs are relative to terrain,” he says. “Since tracked machines can work in harsher terrains than wheeled machines, a little more maintenance is expected; much like a motor-cross motorcycle will have more maintenance than a street motorcycle. And since there is no possibility for flat tires, actual down time is often less for a compact tracked loader. I have customers who owned skid steers, but rarely used them who are now getting 1,000 hours a year on their compact track loaders. Since we don’t build skid steers we don’t have to make excuses why in some applications you should still buy a skid steer. I flat-out believe because of advances in compact tracked loader design and lower prices, that there is no good reason to own a skid steer today.”
Track loaders in this size class are big enough to be used in some truck loading applications.
Hours, application and environment key indicators for adding compact track loaders to your fleet
Considering the numbers, and taking into account that skid steers remain extremely cost-effective machines for construction applications, how can you decide if moving to a compact track loader is a good business decision for you? Start with machine usage practices, Fitzgerald says. “Our studies show that the average skid-steer loader works between four and six hours a day,” he observes. “The average compact track loader works between eight and 10 hours on an average day.”
Over the course of a year, Fitzgerald says, this averages out to 600 to 800 hours a year for skid steers, and more than 1,000 hours a year for compact track loaders. “If you’re using your skid steer 800 hours a year, you can probably step up and justify a tracked machine for your jobs,” he explains. “You’re already using the skid steer to its maximum potential, and you could really benefit from the extra productivity a tracked machine can give you.”
But if you’re only putting 500 hours a year on your skid steers, Fitzgerald says a compact track loader isn’t a wise choice. “Odds are a skid steer with low hours like that is not a primary production machine for you,” he notes. It sits more than it’s used, so it’s more cost-effective as a support machine. You’d definitely get a production boost from a tracked machine, but its extra costs won’t help you make any more money.”
Another important consideration if you’re looking at adding compact track loaders to your fleet are your applications. “Are you using a lot of different attachments?” Fitzgerald asks. “Or are you strictly moving dirt or have strictly defined duties for the machine? If your applications are more defined – say the machine’s main purpose in life is to move dirt – then a track machine fits you very well. Compact track loaders can run attachments very well. But if you want a machine primarily as a tool carrier, then a skid steer will probably suit you just fine.”
Finally, says Mike Ross, product manager, Takeuchi, you need to examine your typical work environment. “If you’re working on harsh surfaces – demolition work, for example – then a track loader probably isn’t going to be right for you,” he says. “But what if you’re working in extremely muddy or wet clay conditions, or a state like Florida that has extremely sandy soil? Well, tired machines don’t work well in those applications, and you should probably consider trying a compact track machine out.”
Another crucial point to remember, according to Kelly Moore, product manager, Gehl, is that compact track loaders and skid-steer loaders complement each other quite well on many jobsites. “Many contractors are supplementing their fleets of skid steers with compact track loaders,” he says. “In many cases, the track loader acts as a dedicated digging machine, while the skid steers can be used to haul spoil away, or clean the jobsite up or prep the next area the track loader will move into. In each case, the smart contractor puts each machine type to work where they can utilize their abilities to the fullest.”
Good track care crucial for optimum performance
Regardless of how you ultimately decide to use a compact track loader, you need to be aware that the rubber tracks are a high-cost wear item, and run the machine accordingly. “Certain abrasive applications will accelerate the wear of undercarriage components,” Cat’s Wolf warns. “As with all rubber tracked machines, sharp material such as broken concrete, shale or rebar has the potential to cut the track, so extra precautions are needed when operating in environments where such items are found.”
Wolf also recommends periodic inspection and adjustment of the rubber track, and frequent inspection of the undercarriage system. “Proper operation is important in maximizing the value of the machine,” he says. “And remember that improper operating practices – unnecessary spinning of tracks, or excessive counter-rotation – will minimize the life of the track and undercarriage components.”
And when the day comes when you have to replace the rubber tracks on your compact loader, Ross stresses the importance of spec’ing OEM-approved replacement tracks for the machine. “Tracks are expensive,” he admits. “And many contractors are seduced by the lower prices of will-fit replacement tracks. But will-fit tracks are not as precisely engineered as OEM-spec versions are. You might save money up front, but that replacement track’s poor fit means that the undercarriage itself will begin to inflict wear as you run the machine. In most cases, Takeuchi predicts you’ll get around half the service life from will-fit tracks than you would from OEM-approved versions. And any money you saved initially will be lost. “In fact,” Ross says, “you’ll spend more buying another set of tracks sooner than you should have.”