Compact Focus: Compact track loaders

Compact track loaders and skid steers share many attributes. Both are used for landscaping, site prep, utility applications and residential construction. But the compact track loader can work in ground conditions that would hamper or stop a skid steer.

Compact track loaders under 2,701 pounds of operating load are considered mid-sized machines. They cost roughly 25 percent more than comparable size skid steers, a price manufacturers say is justified by the track loaders’ ability to boost productivity, protect sensitive ground surfaces and keep working when rain or mud bring most other machines to a halt.

“It’s like the difference between digging holes with a backhoe and digging holes with a shovel,” says Brad Lemke, director of new product development for ASV. “A backhoe is more expensive, but you get more production out of it. When you look at a track loader’s cost, you have to consider you never have flat tires, the tracks last four times as long as tires and the machine is much more productive.”

The key to the track loaders’ success is the great flotation offered by the tracks. Skid steer tires exert about 35 psi on the ground. Rubber tracks exert ground pressure in ranges of 2.5 to 4 psi, depending on the model.

Increased productivity
“This size is a good entry-level machine,” says Kelly Moore, skid steer and compact track loader product manager for Gehl. “It is a narrower unit – it can be up to 65 inches wide. And this machine is a little heavier than a comparable skid loader, but it can be moved easier.” A less-than-2,701-pound-operating-load track loader can be transported with a 3/4-ton truck and a 10,000-GVW trailer.

“You really need to evaluate the increased productivity and time saved on the different types of jobs worked,” says Mike Ross, national product and training manager for Takeuchi. “It’s easy to see the advantages and cost savings when it takes half the time to cut a driveway or grade a yard with a compact track loader when compared to a skid steer.”

“It really complements a skid loader and excels in certain applications,” says Doug Snorek, marketing manager for Mustang. “For the contractor who is in the landscape business they are popular because the low ground pressure makes them good at grading, but it won’t replace the skid steer except for specific applications.”

The compact track loader does have limitations. The tracks on this machine have a hard time running on gravel and they can be punctured or damaged by sharp roots, rocks and rebar. With a track loader of this size, some of the larger attachments such as brush cutters may be too big. The lift isn’t as high on these machines, so if you are loading a lot of trucks you will probably need to consider a larger machine.

“It really boils down to productivity,” says Moore, “and how much more work can be done with a track loader on a given day. Where there may be little productivity with a skid steer because of the terrain, the track loader will get more work done in a matter of days or weeks at a time. The trade off is that the compact track loader’s tracks are expensive to replace. They cost more than tires.”

Understanding your costs
It costs more to maintain a compact track loader than a skid steer. Tires for a skid steer cost between $700 and $900, but a set of tracks cost anywhere between $3,300 and $4,400.

“The biggest difference between the compact track loader and the skid steer is understanding what it takes to maintain tracks compared to tires, since both go into applications that vary,” says Kent Pellegrini, skid steer/multi-train loader industry manager for Caterpillar. “The tracks also require a visual check to properly maintain, as there is more rubber on the ground than tires. Taking the time to review the machine prior to use will help identify possible wear points or damaged areas.”

Track tension is important because you do not want tracks to be too loose or too tight. If the track is too tight, it causes premature wear on the undercarriage, but loose tracks have the potential of de-tracking while you are working on a cross slope.

“The most important thing to stress with this machine is to be certain you are putting it in the right applications to avoid track damage,” says Moore. “Your wear factor will be considerably longer with tracks than tires, so it isn’t as if you are going to have to replace tracks all the time. It is all dependent on the application and the operator of the machine.”

“It depends on where the compact loader is being used,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader specialist for Bobcat. “If you spend a lot of time on pavement, then a compact track loader might not be the best solution because of the wear and tear on the rubber tracks and the higher price to replace them. But if you want to improve productivity and return to jobsites after it rains, it might be time to try a compact track loader.”