Productivity Guide: Skid Steers, 2,201 to <2,701 pounds

There are nine classes of skid-steer loaders available on the market today. Machines in the 2,201- to <2,701-pound-rated-operating-load class are the second-largest grouping of skid steers you can currently buy. Many OEMs feel this class is where true, dedicated construction skid steers begin.

Like all skid-steer loaders, machines of this size are adept at a wide range of construction applications and jobs. They can be used for site prep or cleanup work or to excavate foundations and do other types of bucket work. Because of their higher horsepower engines and optional high-flow hydraulics systems, they can run a host of specialized attachments, including cold planers, hammers and breakers or brush cutters. But the real benefit these machines have in the eyes of many contractors is their ability to be productive truck-loading machines, thanks to their combination of 6-foot-plus reach heights and available vertical-lift linkages.

This means skid steers in this class offer a high degree of flexibility. They are ideal primary machines on jobsites – a perfect match for small or one-man construction companies precisely because they can tackle so many different jobs. But they are still quick and maneuverable machines supporting larger equipment types, such as dozers, wheel loaders or backhoe loaders.

Tracks or tires?
Because of their combination of small size, maneuverability, power and versatility, skid steers have been the dominant compact equipment type in North America for more than a decade. Other compact machine types have come onto the market since then; compact wheel loaders, backhoes and excavators have all tried to muscle in on the skid steer’s turf, to little avail. While each type is hard to beat in specific application, none have been able to unseat a skid steer’s reputation as an all-around go-to machine.

Compact track loaders are the latest machine type to challenge the vaunted skid steer’s status as “the” compact machine on jobsites. It’s easy to understand why: In many ways, compact track loaders and skid steers are identical machines. They share the same basic configuration, with a rear-mounted engine, front linkage and high, center-mounted operator’s station. But compact track loaders, as their name implies, are propelled by rubber track undercarriages.

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Sales figures for compact track loaders have grown steadily in the past three years, driven in part by improved hydrostatic drivetrains and tracks. And although skid steers continue to be the most popular machine in terms of raw numbers, compact track loader sales are growing at a faster rate, according to Todd Lynnes, skid-steer loader commercial marketing manager, Caterpillar.

Is this because a compact track loader is an inherently better machine in terms of productivity? Not at all, Lynnes says. “Because of their similarities, these two machines both work effectively in many applications,” he notes. “Both machines have certain strengths contractors have to consider when spec’ing for their particular applications.”

“Track loaders are an excellent fit for contractors working in muddy ground conditions or on slopes,” says Kelly Moore, product manager, Gehl and Mustang. “They are also good machines for landscaping contractors who need low ground pressure on sensitive surfaces.”

Skid steers can also do many of these jobs, Moore notes, particularly models fitted with over-the-tire metal or rubber tracks. “But the skid steer’s strength is that it’s a universal machine. It can do a little bit of everything. For that reason, I see only a few instances where a contractor is going to want to go exclusively to a compact track loader.”

Comparing the two machines, Moore notes that skid steers typically have faster ground speeds than track loaders, and are better suited for use in abrasive ground conditions. “A compact track loader is subject to premature track wear anywhere there is rock, concrete or demolition debris,” he notes. “Skid steers, particularly models equipped with severe-duty tires, will not be affected as much.”

Skid steers are also cheaper in terms of initial acquisition and long-term operating costs, Moore notes. “Tracks wear out,” he says. “Tires do, too – sometimes more often than tracks. But tires are much cheaper to replace than rubber tracks. And an undercarriage is more expensive to maintain long-term.”

For many contractors, it’s not an either-or proposition when choosing between a skid steer and a compact track loader. “These two machine types definitely complement each other on jobsites,” Lynnes says. “Many attachments are interchangeable between the two and many parts and service items are the same. The two machines could easily work in tandem for excavation jobs; while the track loader is digging in mud or doing grading work on a slope, the skid steer can do any truck loading or backfilling work or handle material delivery.”

If you’re not sure which machine is right for you, Lynnes suggests looking at your current machine and determining if it is giving you the maximum hours and profit potential it can. “Evaluate its productivity by asking yourself if the machine is working during all available workdays,” he says. “Are you renting another machine to fill in on rainy days? Can it load a tandem-axle dump truck? Is the machine sitting idle for long periods of time? Once you know the answers to those questions, you can decide if tracks or tires are right for your business.”

Vertical-lift loader arms are a perfect match for truck-loading

Specialized features ensure productivity
Because skid steers in the 2,201- to 2,701-pound class are considered high-production machines, spec’ing one to meet your specific needs is an easy task. Rusty Schafer, product manager, Case, recommends starting with the engine. “A high-torque, high-displacement engine always enhances a skid steer’s performance,” he says. “It’s particularly important for larger skid steers with high-flow hydraulic systems. Attachment performance is crucial, and these type engines will lug down further and maintain optimal hydraulic performance.”

Having a stable machine is a definite plus, too. “Skid steers are fast, maneuverable machines,” notes Larry Foster, product manager, John Deere Construction Machinery. “They also lift heavy loads. So having a stable machine is important for a lot of different reasons. A stable skid steer means you can lift larger loads with less risk of tipping, and you can carry that load faster in a safer, more controlled manner. The more stable the machine is, the easier it is to work on slopes safely and you can drive forward on steeper slopes instead of backing the machine up them.”

Ride control is another feature that goes hand-in-hand with machine stability. Ride control works by allowing a small amount of hydraulic fluid to remain in the loader arm cylinders when transporting a load. “This fluid acts as a shock absorber,” Schafer explains. “The cylinders isolate any movement generated by the load and keep it from being transmitted to the rest of the machine. It’s a safer, more comfortable ride for the operator.”

Lance Mathern, product manager, Bobcat, suggests spec’ing a machine with two-speed travel if your jobsites are spread out. “Two-speed travel optimizes the skid steer’s drivetrain to match the type of work you’re doing,” he notes. “If you’re running the machine relatively long distances, you can be more efficient in the high-speed travel mode – up to 12 mph in some machines. Deselect it when you want optimum performance digging into a pile or doing other types of conventional work.”

An anti-stall feature can boost a skid steer’s production as well. “It’s frustrating to push a pile and have a machine die on you,” Lynnes says. “It wastes time and can upset the rhythm of load-and-carry operating.” Anti-stall systems electronically monitor the loader’s hydraulic system to maintain maximum torque to wheels while maintaining maximum pressure and flow to the attachment and bucket lift cylinders. If the machine starts to stall, the system will divert extra flow to the drive system to avert that, then return it to the attachment or bucket once the stall danger has passed.

There are two types of front loader linkages on skid steers today. You need to be familiar with both types in order to best match a machine to the type of work you’re doing. Most skid steers in this class are equipped with vertical-lift loader arms. Radial-lift arms are more common on smaller skid steers.

“Vertical-lift arms are all about loading,” explains Foster. They offer greater forward reach and height, so they can easily load a tri-axle dump truck. With vertical lift, the bucket reaches its most forward point at the arms’ full height. That gives you the ability to load trucks, since the bucket is about 3 feet in front of the skid steer’s front tires.”

Radial-lift arms move upward in a half-circle arc, usually achieving their greatest forward point halfway through the lift – about 5 to 6 feet off the ground. They have three main advantages: First they’re cheaper to produce and maintain because the loader arm linkage is not as complex as a vertical-lift design. They also tend to be more durable in harsh digging applications and generally have better side and forward visibility.

Counterweights are another option you should consider if you’re lifting heavy loads. Moore says such kits can increase your skid steer’s operating capacity by 300 pounds or more. “And that additional capacity doesn’t detract from the skid steer’s stability or safety,” he adds.

Severe-duty tires cost more upfront, but can significantly increase tire life in abrasive applications.

Treat your tires tenderly
Tires are another area you can look at to improve your skid steer’s performance. They are typically the single biggest wear item on a skid-steer loader, so it’s smart to extend tire life in any way you can. “When you start getting into machines that weigh 2,200 pounds or more, it’s really advantageous for contractors to consider spec’ing their machines with severe-duty tires,” Moore says. “Although it’s a larger initial investment, they’ll give you more longevity than conventional (lug type) tires and a significant increase in uptime.”

“There is a vast selection of specialized tires available today,” adds Peter Mabee, product marketing manager, Thomas Equipment. “So it’s easy to match the demands of any particular application. Solid or specialized heavy-duty tires can provide a long and productive service life in demolition, foundries, scrap and recycling as well as when working in high causality areas such as sharp rock, broken concrete and jobsite debris.”

If punctures are a concern, you may want to consider foam-filled tires, notes Bob Beesley, product manager, Komatsu. “And make sure you’re running the proper air pressure in the tires, regardless of what type they are. Tell your operators to counter-rotate the skid steer only when absolutely necessary – especially when operating on concrete or other rough surfaces. Have them make three-point turns when they can, instead of sharp, abrupt ones. All these simple things can dramatically increase tire life on a skid-steer loader.”

“Spinning wheels when you enter a pile should also be avoided,” Mabee adds. “Many operators don’t feel like they’re being aggressive enough if the tires aren’t slipping. But all they’re really doing is prematurely wearing the tires and burning excess fuel. If proper loading techniques are followed, an operator should be able to quickly fill a bucket with no tire slippage at all.”

Easy ways to extend machine life
Operators are your most valuable asset when it comes to protecting your skid steer and getting the most out of it. “That’s why we spend so much time on comfort and ergonomics in the cab,” Moore says. “Make sure the skid steer has a suspension seat, comfortable arm rests and eye-level instrumentation. Those things all help keep an operator productive throughout a work day.”

There’s no better way to protect your skid-steer loader than by drafting a comprehensive maintenance plan and sticking with it. And part of that formula for success is conducting daily maintenance checks and machine inspections.

Among the items he suggests checking are the loader arms. Grease them daily and note any flaking paint along weld lines. That can be a sign of stressed or cracked metal. Periodically inspect the bucket and the bucket teeth. Having the proper cutting edges or teeth on the bucket will improve its life, but also make the machine more productive when digging into a pile. Tire inspection should be done daily. Check the air pressure and look for any tread or sidewall damage.

If you’re really serious about monitoring operator use, Mathern suggests spec’ing a deluxe instrument panel with a host of electronic tracking features. “You can program up to nine different operator’s codes into this system,” he explains. “It’s a multi-lingual system that lets you keep track of what people are doing when they operate the machine and helps boost attachment performance. You can view the machine’s operating statistics and find out if it’s being overstressed or used in an inappropriate manner.”