Compact Focus: Skid-steer loaders up to <1,600 pounds

Lately more contractors are beginning to see solid, bottom-line benefits to owning or renting smaller pieces of equipment. For that reason, the smallest of skid steers – those classes up to <1,600 pounds weight capacity – remain popular choices for small construction companies or firms engaged in urban or landscaping applications.

Even the largest of skid steers in these classes – models in the 1,500- to 1,600-pound class -are small enough to be towed on a trailer behind a 3/4-ton pickup truck. Permits aren't required. And one person can transport the machine, unload it and be at work prepping a site or digging a foundation in a few minutes. Attachment use – particularly on the larger units covered here – further increase a small skid steer's usefulness for a one- or two-man construction company, allowing the machine to engage in a variety of work, including material loading, cleanup, demolition or trenching.

According to Kelly Moore, product manager, Gehl, machine size – not performance – is the No. 1 criteria considered by contractors when spec'ing a small skid-steer loader. "When you look at the upper end of the models in these classes you've got a good-sized machine with upwards of 60 horsepower – that's a significant level of performance," Moore notes. "And you've got around 1,500 pounds of lift capacity – maybe a bit more if you opt for an optional counterweight package. If you drop down a size class you're naturally looking at lesser horsepower, lighter weight, smaller machines that are somewhere between 48 and 60 inches wide. So you've got a narrower unit, ideal for these small applications and able to get through doorways, gates and other tight places. And these machines are very efficient – they get around a jobsite quickly because they're highly maneuverable."

Improperly choosing a skid steer for your fleet can negatively affect production, notes Bob Beesley, product manager, Komatsu. "Select a machine that's too large, and your acquisition and operating costs will increase without any corresponding increase in productivity," he says. "Jobsite maneuverability may suffer as well. If you select too small a skid steer, then you run the risk the machine will be worked outside its specified capability."

Beesley says one rule of thumb to remember when considering a skid steer for your business is speed. "Controlled speed equals productivity with skid-steer loaders," he says. "That holds true for load-and-carry applications and attachment use."

Improved visibility is another key to speed, adds Dan Rafferty, compact products manager, JCB. "Since these skid steers are being used in tighter, more confined areas, better visibility while working the skid steer is extremely important," he notes. "High visibility in a machine will allow the operator to move quicker and more confidently around the jobsite."

The bottom line, says Lance Mathern, marketing manager, Bobcat, is to remember that although they're small, skid steers in these classes are engineered to be powerful and effective construction machines in their specific performance niches. "Performance is secondary if the skid steer is too large for the application," he explains. "But if a small machine is what you need, you're not giving up performance based on size."

Mathern says he recommends first considering the width of the loader to meet the jobsite requirements. Then review the rated operating capacity or lifting ability of the loader. "In some instances, these machines may not be capable of lifting heavy building materials, such as a 2,000-pound pallet," he notes. "If you're still not sure a small skid steer is right for you, rent before purchasing the machine. This will give you a realistic feel for the machine's abilities and let you decide if it's the right fit for your business."

There are warning signs to tell you if you've got the wrong size skid steer for your job, Mathern says. "A common operational mistake is jamming the levers or sticks all the way forward and killing the engine, usually when digging into a pile of material," he says. "A good skid-steer loader operator should listen to the machine, back off on the forward drive before the machine engine dies, and let the hydraulics catch up. Letting up on the levers will give the loader more power and torque, and keep it pushing into a pile. If you feel like you have to keep pushing the machine hard to get your work done, odds are it's too small for your job."

Easy ways to boost your
small skid steer’s production

“There’s a certain amount of give-and-take involved in selecting a small skid steer,” adds Eric Mangum, marketing project engineer, skid-steer loaders and multi-terrain loaders, Caterpillar. If attachment use is vital to your operations, Mangum says you’ll need to select as powerful a machine as possible given your size requirements. “Maximizing the power output for skid steers in these size classes can be accomplished by spec’ing turbocharged engines and a high-flow hydraulic system,” Mangum explains. “Certain attachments such as hammers and augers have greater hydraulic requirements than others.”

But high-flow hydraulics also mean hotter-running machines, Mangum cautions. “Make sure the skid steer can adequately cool its hydraulic system to maintain peak operating efficiency,” he says. “Look for a high-capacity hydraulic fan, a large hydraulic tank and side-by-side coolers that enable the loader to keep cool in the toughest applications.”

Refinements to hydraulic systems have allowed other productivity-enhancing features to trickle down to small skid steers. “An anti-stall system lets the operator work aggressively without stalling the machine,” Magnum explains. “The hydraulic system automatically adjusts flow to the hydrostatic transmission to maintain peak performance no matter how aggressive digging conditions become. It’s a definite productivity booster.”

Remember that spec’ing a quick-attach system is a good way to exponentially increase a small skid steer’s production value. For example, Bobcat’s Power Bob-Tach attachment mounting system lets you change non-hydraulic attachments without leaving the loader’s cab, Mathern says. “You can switch between a bucket and pallet forks or a landplane and never leave your seat. This may not seem like much time, but over the course of a week or month, it can quickly add up to a few hours of additional production a year.”