Productivity guide: Skid-steer loaders up to 1,250 pounds

Most small skid steers find their way into the agricultural or rental markets. Construction applications for these machines generally include indoor demolition work, landscaping applications or swimming pool excavation work. In all three cases, the small size of these skid steers (widths as narrow as 36 inches and heights as low as 69 inches in some cases) allows them to easily slip through doorways, into freight elevators, garden gates or other restricted work environments.

At the same time, manufacturers must build their small skid-steer loaders robust enough to handle the extreme demands contractors place on them. “Engineers have to strike a difficult balance when designing small skid steers,” notes Mark Hennessey, product manager, Mustang. “They have to be small enough to get inside buildings and through yard gates. They also have to be tough enough to withstand running hammers and other attachments, and they have to have enough hydraulic flow and cooling capability to handle those tools effectively.”

How small and how heavy?
Size is all-important when it comes to spec’ing small skid-steers, regardless of the intended application. If size isn’t vital, then you should probably be looking at larger machines with higher payload capacities. But whether you’re going to be using your skid steer in a backyard or for indoor demolition work, the machine’s physical dimensions should be your first specification point.

“Start by looking at the widths you have to work with,” Hennessey advises. “You need to know the average size opening that machine will be required to pass through. Bear in mind that anything tighter than 36 inches is going to necessitate turning to a different machine solution, since this is the absolute narrowest configuration to which these machines can be slimmed down.”

Weight is another vital concern. Small contractors are the typical users of this size of skid-steer. More often than not, the owner of the company is the guy sitting in the operator’s seat digging the pool or running the hammer. “If you’re a small contractor, then you need to look closely at your company’s hauling and towing capacities,” says Kelly Moore, product manager, Gehl. “These small loaders can easily be towed behind a 1/2-ton pickup. You might have to upgrade to a larger truck if you’re planning on adding more machinery, be it another skid steer or perhaps a compact excavator.”

If you’re knocking down buildings from the inside out, then machine weight remains a crucial consideration. “You’ve got to consider the pounds per square inch that machine can place on a floor,” Hennessey explains. “Performance-wise, there’s about 1,000 pounds difference between a 701-pound machine’s payload and a loader in the 1,250-pounds class. That extra 1,000 pounds could be the difference between working safely or having your loader crash through the floor.”

At the same time, Eric Kohout, product manager, New Holland, says demolition contractors can’t spec the machine too light. “You’ve got to have some weight on the front of the skid steer to help you drive through the material being demolished,” he says. “So you have to strike a fine balance weight-wise if you want to use the machine for in door demolition work.”

Spec the correct linkage for optimal machine performance
Application will play a role in determining the best linkage for your small skid steer. Most small skid steers will spend at least some of their time engaged in load-and-carry applications. If this type of work is a regular occurrence for your skid steer, you should consider spec’ing the machine with a vertical-lift style front linkage system. Vertical-lift linkages can lift heavier payloads higher than the more common radial-lift arm configuration also used on skid steers.

The difference is in the loader arm geometry. Radial linkage extends outward as it rises upward, reaching its maximum reach point midway through the lift cycle. In contrast, vertical-lift linkage does not extend outward as it rises, increasing the loader’s tipping capacity.
But while vertical-lift linkages are your best choice for extensive load-and-carry operations, bear in mind that this design has inherent drawbacks. The main compromise is reduced visibility to the boom sides due to the linkage structure and the increased number of pivot points it uses. As far as operating costs go, the additional complexity of a vertical-lift linkage may cost more to maintain throughout the working life of the skid steer.

If you intend to use your skid steer for aggressive digging or with attachments, a radial-lift machine is your best choice. Radial-lift linkages remain the most popular specification on North American skid steers, since they tend to provide operators with more durability and control than vertical-lift designs. An added benefit is that radial-lift designs have fewer wear points, which can translate to reduced operating costs.
bucket spec’ing a function of lift capacity, payload and material
At some point in its career, you’re going to use your small skid steer to dig or move earth. As with any type of construction equipment, different types of buckets have been designed to allow small skid steers to dig effectively in a wide array of applications. Buckets for the three skid steer size classes up to 1,250 pounds range from 36 inches wide to 48 inches, depending on the manufacturer and the size of the machine.

“Be sure and try not to put too large of a bucket on your smaller skid steer,” advises George McIntyre, skid steer product manager, Case. “It’s easy to do, but with the reduced lifting capacity these models have, it’s easy to compromise the performance of the entire machine. Also remember that a smaller bucket is going to give you more breakout force, but not much capacity. Larger buckets will give you better capacity but you will lose a little bit of breakout force.”

“I’d recommend a lighter bucket whenever possible for these machines,” Hennessey says. “Choose buckets made from a lighter gauge steel. They’ll let you pick up more payload per cycle. Landscape buckets are also available with longer lips on them and lower profiles to help you if you do a lot of backdragging.”

“If you’re working in lighter materials, go ahead and use a bigger bucket,” Kohout says. “Our 47-inch bucket is a good example of this. It’s designed for lighter materials, such as wood chips, mulch or snow. It has the same bucket profile as our 36- and the 42-inch buckets, with a wider configuration. It does take some lift capacity away from the machine, but when used to move lighter materials, it makes up for it with more volume. Generally speaking, you’re looking at about 5 cubic feet of payload in a 42-inch bucket, and another cubic foot of material in the 47-inch one. The 42-inch bucket is one of the most popular for these machines. It’s a good digging bucket and can handle a pretty good payload.”

If you’re spec’ing a narrow bucket for tight working conditions, Kohout says to remember it should always cover the width of your tires. “Tires are expensive, and the bucket is their first line of defense when the machine is rooting into a pile.”

Check hydraulic cooling capability for effective hammer use
In the past few years, compact utility (ride-on) loaders have begun to rival small skid steers in terms of lift capacity. And although some compact utility loaders have been configured to use small powered attachments, a skid steer’s efficient, powerful hydraulic system still sets it above when it comes to using attachments. Since skid steers in these three classes are on the low end of the hydraulic flow range, they can’t use the same attachments as larger skid steers. You also need to remember that their lower lift capacities mean there will be weight restrictions governing the size of any attachment you want to run on the machine.

Once you’ve settled on a specific skid steer size for your work, begin shopping around to find a model with the appropriate hydraulic flows for the attachments you plan to use on it. Gerald Zastrow, product representative, mini-skid steer product, Bobcat, says that popular powered attachments include augers and tillers for landscaping applications. “You also see many breakers and grapples, which are the most common demolition attachments.”

Hammers are by far the most demanding attachments for a small skid steer to run. “They can tax a small skid steer tremendously,” Moore says. “You must make sure your skid steer has a powerful enough hydraulic system to run a hammer. Just as important is the machine’s cooling system. It has to allow the hammer (or any attachment, for that matter) to operate within its designed temperature ranges.”

On top of that, Hennessey says, the skid steer has to be built robust enough to withstand the continuous pounding a hammer inflicts on its frame. Finally, he says, “You might want to consider spec’ing a Lexan front door for the machine. This will help protect the operator so rocks and debris don’t fly up and hit you when you’re running the hammer.”