Like many large machine designs that have been “shrunk” down into smaller versions, compact wheel loaders have proven to be successful machines for contractors engaged in general construction applications such as moving gravel, dirt and other loose material, loading and unloading trucks and grading. They also excel at attachment use. Specialized buckets are available for handling all kinds of materials, and other common attachments include pallet forks, tine forks, auger drills, rakes, sweepers, rotary cutters, stump grinders, trenchers and concrete pumps. Compact wheel loaders can also be used to power hydraulic tools such as breakers and tampers.
The very same attributes that make large wheel loaders indispensable on many large jobsites serve their compact counterparts as well. Like their big brothers, compact wheel loaders feature a potent combination of quickness, mid-machine articulation, attachment capability and relatively high payload capacities and dump heights. These useful traits have allowed compact wheel loaders to branch out of construction jobs considered niches for small machines. Indeed they can be seen doing site preparation and cleanup work and road repair work in addition to working in tight urban settings and landscape or utility construction jobs.
But why spec a compact wheel loader? It’s a fair question, since on the surface, at least, compact wheel loaders seem to fulfill the same tasks that skid-steer loaders have successfully handled for years. The answer, according to Scott Owyen, compact equipment product manager, Terex Compact Equipment, is that wheel loaders are high productivity machines and are excellent performers in close quarters. “But unlike skid-steer loaders, they don’t tear up the ground or leave scuff marks on asphalt,” he explains. “That’s because they use articulated-frame steering and limited-slip differentials, which vastly minimize the potential for surface damage.”
And thanks to compact wheel loaders’ center pivot or rear axle oscillation, optional ride control system, four-wheel drive and high ground clearance, they have outstanding stability and maneuverability over all types of terrain, says Bob Lessner, product manager, utility marketing division, Komatsu America. “Compact wheel loaders have a longer wheel base than skid-steer loaders do,” he observes. “This gives them an inherently smoother and more stable ride. A loader’s axle oscillation allows it to traverse uneven terrain in a safer manner because the tires maintain continuous contact with the ground. And wheel loaders have higher ground clearance, which further enhances their capability on rough surfaces or soft ground conditions.”
Landscaping contractors use compact wheel loaders because they inflict little or no damage when turning.
Other big loader concepts work equally well on compact models, says Jennifer Brigman, compact wheel loader product specialist, North America, Volvo Construction Equipment. “For example, our compact wheel loaders are equipped with a powerful Z-Bar linkage system,” she notes. “This linkage is distinguished by a high breakout and lifting performance and rapid loading cycles when working with buckets. A curved boom arm design gives optimum lifting height and reach when loading a truck. Even when using loading forks, the Z-Bar linkage offers excellent parallel lift through the entire lifting range. A high roll-back angle of the loading fork lift allows problem-free transport of loose items.”
Lessner says the combination of these features provides owners and operators with other benefits as well. “Although compact wheel loaders cost more to purchase than skid steers, they typically have lower operating costs in the field,” he notes. “For example, wheel loaders experience less tire wear than skid steers do, and that translates into lower operating costs. And the more stable ride means operators are less fatigued after a day’s work.”
Study material density, weight when calculating bucket sizes
A compact loader’s real strength, Owyen says, is speedy work in cycle-type operations like truck loading. Not only are these machines nimble and quick on their feet, he notes, but their large capacity buckets increase productivity in those applications. “They are quieter and have less cab vibration than a skid-steer loader,” Owyen adds. “And because the operator sits up high, they provide excellent visibility of load and dump areas.”
Most compact wheel loaders are hydrostatically driven, which means they are extremely efficient and easy to operate. With hydrostatic drive, changing directions during loading operations is quick and easy and drive speed is infinitely variable. Hydrostatic drive also provides dynamic braking in addition to the standard service brakes. All of this means increased control and productivity in load-and-carry operations.
Compact wheel loaders come in a variety of sizes and are capable of loading anything from a small pickup truck to a full-size hauler. Because units in the 50 to <60 net horsepower class are on the small end of the spectrum, manufacturers do not recommend using them to load large trucks. They can do the job in a pinch, Lessner notes, but productivity will obviously be better with a larger machine.
Although compact wheel loaders cost more to purchase than skid-steer loaders, manufacturers say they are cheaper to run and have fewer maintenance demands.
Regardless of loader size, Owyen says the key specifications to consider when looking at truck loading applications are bucket dump height, lift capacity and bucket capacity. “The larger the loader, the less it can maneuver easily on a congested work site,” he observes. “Use only the largest machine necessary to efficiently perform the task and match your lift and bucket capacity to the material being loaded and bucket dump height to the truck being used.”
Beyond that, the operator must know the weight of the material being moved and match that to the proper bucket size. The standard formula for calculating payload, according to Lessner, is 1.5 tons per cubic yard of material per the standard bucket size, based on the machine’s rated lift capacity. So a loader in this class with a capacity of 1 cubic yard can be expected to safely move 1 1/2 tons of material with a standard bucket. “If the material being loaded is lighter than that,” Lessner says, “a larger bucket may be used as long as the overall weight does not exceed the loader’s rated lift capacity.”
Because the machine’s articulation joint turns a compact wheel loader, its tires do not scuff as steering inputs are made like skid steers’ do. But Owyen warns that longer tire life is not a given with compact loaders. Just like with larger wheel loaders, pushing too aggressively into a pile when loading the front bucket can quickly erase any tire life gains. “Many operators feel the need to come into the load until the tires break free,” he says. “Obviously this leads to premature tire wear and replacement. But it’s also counterproductive in that the loader actually loses pushing power and productivity when the tires are slipping. It’s better to decrease power and change the bucket’s angle of attack if the machine begins to stall in a pile. You’ll fill the bucket in about the same amount of time, but you won’t inflict any unnecessary stress on the loader or its tires.”