Compact Focus: Skid-steer loaders (under 1,351 pounds)

Perhaps one day in the distant future some young, brilliant engineer will sit down at his computer and design the perfect construction machine. Until that day comes, however, the all-around design of the skid-steer loader is pretty hard to beat. They’re quick and so maneuverable they can counter-rotate within their own dimensions. Models with lift capacities under 1,351 pounds can still move impressive payloads and even handle limited truck-loading applications. Robust hydraulic systems, usually with flow rates of 12 to 16 gallons per minute, allow them to effectively run a host of powerful attachments, further increasing their usefulness.

Most skid steers under 1,351 pounds are employed in operations where machine size – not lifting capacity – is a contractor’s primary concern. As a result, you often see them working in tight areas like residential or urban jobsites. They can also be used effectively in road construction work where active lanes are a concern or in landscaping applications where turf damage must be minimized.

“On the smaller end of the scale, a skid steer in these classes can be as narrow as 4 feet wide,” says Kelly Moore, product specialist, Gehl. “Even larger machines in these classes are only 55 inches or so wide, which makes them ideal for working on sidewalks or getting into small spaces. And yet these machines can still have up to 46-horsepower diesel engines, which allow them to work hard once they’re in position.”

“If a contractor is looking for a machine to complete tasks in open areas or lift heavy materials up to 3,000 pounds, a small skid steer is not the best match for the job,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist, Bobcat. “Small machines are for small work areas. Otherwise, you should look at a medium-frame or large-frame skid-steer loader. In those cases, you’ll get higher operating capacities, more hydraulic flow and more horsepower that will serve you better.”

One of the nice things about a small skid-steer loader is how well it works with other types of compact machinery. The possibilities are endless for contractors who know and understand the strengths and limitations of different machine types. “A compact excavator and skid-steer loader make an excellent combination for trenching, backfilling and loading, for example,” says John Facchinei, skid steer product manager, Volvo Construction Equipment. “The benefit of two machines working in tandem is that both can stay occupied, thereby increasing production or decreasing the time it takes to get jobs completed. For instance, on a landscaping job, the excavator can be digging a French drain while the skid steer is carrying landscape materials to the site or taking spoil material to a small dump truck.”

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“One machine is often overlooked as a great partner with small skid steers,” Moore adds. “And that’s a large skid steer. Many contractors will use a small machine to work inside a confined area and move material to an exterior staging area where a larger skid steer takes over.”

Is bigger really better when it comes to skid steers?
Given the “bigger is better” mindset that dominates American culture today, it’s not surprising that many contractors are cautious about choosing a small skid steer for their construction businesses. But these skid steers are quite effective, provided they are used in conditions and working with loads they were designed for. “Remember that performance is secondary if the machine is too large for the application,” says Fitzgerald. “However, it is important for contractors to know that they’re not giving up performance with a smaller skid-steer loader. These machines pack a lot of punch in their small frame.”

If you’re not sure about a small skid steer’s potential role on your jobsites, Fitzgerald suggests talking with a local sales specialist first. “He should be able to match your lifting, digging and attachment needs prior to purchasing the machine,” he notes. “Another option is to consider a short-term rental. Once you feel comfortable with the machine’s abilities, then purchasing or leasing it becomes an easier proposition.”

First and foremost, review the rated operating capacity or lifting abilities of the skid steer you’re considering and compare that performance data with the loads you encounter on a typical work day. Then consider whether the width of the loader will meet jobsite requirements. Next, decide what attachments you may operate on the skid steer. If you follow those steps, Fitzgerald says, you’ll know with a high degree of accuracy whether or not a small skid steer can handle the types of jobs you do.

Likewise, a skid steer will give you solid clues if it is, in fact, too small for your applications. “A lot of these signs are basic,” says Doug Snorek, marketing manager for Mustang. “Does the machine perform the jobs it was intended to do? Does it easily lift the material or loads without losing power? If not, your machine will have slower cycle times and it’s going to take you longer to get the job done.”

One plus small skid steers have is that despite their small size, many of them, like Komatsu’s SK series machines, are equipped with modern hydrostatic drive systems. “Hydrostatic drive systems are infinitely controllable,” notes Bob Beesley, product manager, Komatsu. “In addition, they are easy to operate and eliminate the need for mechanical shifting. The system allows for ‘on the fly’ range shifting and smoother directional shifting, which can not only help you work faster, but smoother and easier too.”

You’ve also got to peer into your crystal ball a bit, Snorek says, and try to determine if your business will grow and take on new types of work during a small skid steer’s life cycle. “Handling current lifting load requirements is a pretty basic spec,” he notes. “But are there any future jobs that would require the machine to handle different materials or require increased lift capacities? If so, can the machine be outfitted with a counterweight to increase its lifting capacity? Likewise, does its hydraulic flow meet the requirements of your existing attachments? Are there attachments you plan to purchase that have increased flow requirements?”

Other considerations are more basic when it comes to spec’ing a small skid steer. If you’re a small business, then an easily accessible engine compartment is going to be a plus, particularly if you plan on doing your own routine maintenance work. In that case, be sure the air, oil and fuel filters are easily visible and accessible.

In the cab, Snorek says you need to closely evaluate its comfort level. “Again, we’re talking basic things here,” he says. “Are you comfortable in the operator’s seat? Are the controls within easy reach? How is the forward, side-to-side and rear visibility?” Also ask about the basic warranty and the cost of an extended plan. Answer those questions, Snorek says, and you’ll be close to having the perfect machine for your business.

Are track loaders taking over?
Despite their versatility, some nay-sayers predict the demise of the small skid steer is at hand. The reason for this doom-and-gloom forecast is the advent of the compact rubber-track loader. These machines combine many of the design traits and features that made the small skid steer one of the first successful compact equipment types in North America. The difference between the two is the newer machine’s rubber track and full suspension system, which gives it impressive traction in muddy ground conditions and inflicts almost no damage on lawns and turf surfaces.

“There’s no doubt that the compact rubber-track loader has put up some impressive sales numbers in the past few years,” notes Dan Rafferty, product manager, JCB. “But I tend to look at the rubber-track unit as a natural evolution of a really good idea that began with the rubber-tire skid-steer loader. But small skid steers still do many things that rubber tracked machines aren’t quite as adept at.”

For example, Rafferty notes operating a rubber-track machine on abrasive surfaces – demolition jobs or in areas with sharp, jagged debris like rebar or broken concrete – can quickly cut tracks. In worse cases, the damage can be so severe a track can be thrown. “Now, skid steers aren’t immune from tire damage, either,” Rafferty adds. “Counter-rotation should be carried out on paved or abrasive surfaces only when necessary. The best tire life can be attained with gradual turns, and common sense is always best: If you wouldn’t drive your personal car or truck across some debris or jagged terrain, you probably shouldn’t take a skid steer across it, either.”