Compact wheel loaders are a specialized machine designed for contractors in light construction, landscaping and utility applications where repetitive loading is crucial. Among the specific tasks these machines excel in are general site prep and clean-up work, waste transfer and recycling center applications, feeding small asphalt and concrete batch plants and truck loading.
Until the advent of this machine configuration, these applications were filled capably by large skid-steer loaders, which remain the machine of choice for many contractors engaged in these types of work.
The decision of which machine best serves your business is largely dictated by the conditions you work in. Narrowed down to an even tighter focus, the deciding factor may be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. “If you work on hard or abrasive surfaces loading materials in a repetitive fashion, having the ability to turn the machine’s wheels is a good thing,” says Lance Mathern, product manager, Bobcat. “Articulating tires don’t wear as quickly as skidding tires do, and they’re not as likely to damage sensitive surfaces like turf.”
On the other hand, if you work in extremely tight surroundings then maneuverability becomes your primary machine concern. If that’s the case, a skid steer’s ability to counter-rotate its tires and turn inside its own length can become the primary selection criteria when choosing between these two machine platforms.
“Tool carriers are very popular in this size machine,” notes Lowell Stout, compact equipment product manager, Terex. “These size loaders are adaptable to many applications thanks to their hydrostatic drive systems. This type powertrain provides infinite variability in speed to assist in the adaptability of many applications. Bucket quick-attach hitches are also popular because they allow for quick change of attachments.”
Most of the machines represented in the 80 to <90 horsepower compact loader class feature a conventional wheel loader design commonly found on larger machines. This design features an articulating center point, oscillating axles and rear-mounted engine. It's worth noting, however, that Bobcat's category entry, the A300, is the exception to this rule. Instead of building a conventional compact loader, Bobcat opted to develop a hybrid design.
"There's a lot of cross-over in this class, which is why we developed a machine that combines the features of both machines," Mathern explains. "The A300's tires can be operated in either articulation (turning) mode, or as a skid steer with the flip of a switch. This allows you to use it in construction tasks like you would a skid-steer loader – grading, leveling or hauling materials. But you can also initiate its steer wheel axles to act more like a wheel loader for those repetitive load-and-carry or sensitive turf applications where having the wheels turn works out better for you."
Tip load, forward reach, machine speed and turning radius are features to study closely when sizing up a new compact wheel loader.
Finding the right machine specs
If you’ve opted for a compact wheel loader, your next factor is to decide on the correct size machine you’ll need to accomplish all the work you expect it to do. To do this, says Andrew Smith, product marketing manager, Caterpillar, you’ll need to closely examine several key points: “Ask yourself what is the maximum load you expect the machine to carry in the bucket or on the forks,” he suggests. “If the loader is going to be in continuous operation, you need to pinpoint how much material per hour you need to move to remain profitable. If you’re engaged in intermittent operations, define how long the loading cycle will be and check on the height of any truck beds or hoppers it will need to dump over.”
Other key specification issues Smith points to are the choice of work tool and the tires you spec for the loader. A general-purpose bucket is sufficient for simple loading operations, but using a multipurpose bucket, adding forks and fitting a hydraulically operated broom can increase versatility and provide a higher payback on the investment in the wheel loader. Tire choices should center on site conditions with particular attention paid to tread patterns. Be sure and match the tread type to the ground conditions you’ll be working in the majority of the time. Tread patterns are designed for optimum grip on specific surfaces. The wear patterns for each tread type are very different and tire deterioration can accelerate rapidly if the wrong tire is used on hard surfaces or in excessive roading. At the same time, a tire designed for use on hard surfaces will not offer adequate flotation in sloppy ground conditions.
“Most loaders in this class are going to have bucket capacities of 1.75 to 2 cubic yards when handling material that weighs 3,000 pounds per yard,” notes Stout. “Contractors will need to judge if this capacity will handle the majority of their jobs by comparing material density, truck loading time and other factors.”
Other important specifications to examine include the machine’s tip load capabilities, forward reach, speed and turning radius, says David O’Keffe, product manager, John Deere Construction Equipment. “It’s always wise to match these characteristics to your application so you don’t have to modify your equipment operations to work around an unseen issue,” he says. “A good combination of speed and maneuverability help your productivity by allowing the machine to work quickly and efficiently and in tight areas.”
Two features O’Keffe touts as important are stereo steering and an oscillating suspension. “Stereo steering combines conventional wheel loader articulation with a steerable rear axle steer,” O’Keffe explains. “This provides excellent stability and lifting capability with a tight turning radius. Our oscillating suspension system features a standard oscillating axle and elastic articulation at the machine’s pivot point. This configuration absorbs pitching motions created when the loader is moving, reducing cab tilt considerably. The overall effect is increased travel stability and operator comfort.”
Most compact wheel loaders in the 80- to <90-horsepower class will operate with bucket capacities of 1.75 to 2 cubic yards when handling material that weighs 3,000 pounds per cubic yard.
Operators, maintenance play productivity roles
Once you’ve transported a compact wheel loader to your jobsite and put it to work, fine-tuning its operation can quickly enhance its overall productivity and profitability. Areas that can be targeted for improvement are wide-ranging – from how the operator handles the machine to shifting maintenance efforts to meet particularly harsh operating conditions.
Take recycling applications, for example. Smith notes that rubbish finding its way into the machine’s cooling system is a fairly common problem. “But many contractors aren’t aware that fine fibrous materials such as compost or concrete dust can clog up radiator screens or be sucked onto the face of the radiator itself,” he adds. “At the very least, have your operators keep an eye on the coolant warning light in these conditions. A better strategy is to blow out the radiator daily or at the end of each shift in exceptionally tough conditions.”
Smith also cautions operators to remember to disconnect hydraulic lines when changing attachments. “It’s an obvious point, but it’s surprising how often it happens,” he says. “If the machine’s quick coupler operates from inside the cab, a general-purpose bucket to a fork carriage can be done without leaving the machine. But changing from a multipurpose bucket to forks requires disconnecting the lines from outside the cab. Failure to do so will result in blown hydraulic lines and instant downtime.”
Also remember to make a special effort to keep the machine’s hydraulic quick-disconnect couplers clean and out of the dirt, Smith says. “Contamination is bad for hydraulic systems in general,” he observes. “Beyond that, dirty coupler connections are the leading cause of coupler problems and failures today. So taking a little more care to keep them clean when changing attachments can pay big dividends in compact loader uptime.”
And then there are the spinning tires so common when a loader is pushing into a pile. “Many operators don’t think a wheel loader is productive unless it spins the wheels when loading a bucket,” Stout says. Wrong. “If a loader’s drive system is properly matched to the machine and its tires, there should be no need to spin the tires,” he says. “Spinning tires have lost traction and are providing little effort to move the bucket into the material. In addition, spinning increases tire wear and adds increased strain to the engine and powertrain – which increases maintenance costs.”
Coach your operators to use the machine’s forward energy, the hydraulic energy and loader arm geometry effectively and they should easily be able to dig efficiently without placing undue strain on the engine or excessive wear on the tires. At the same time, you’ll see increased production, decreased cycle times and longer machine life.