Compact Focus: Utility vehicles

Smart contractors know success on a job depends on consistent productivity from their machines and their employees. One key to productivity is efficiency: having your crews work smarter, not harder. For many contractors, the use of small utility vehicles is one way to do this.

To the uninitiated, utility vehicles can seem rather pointless. Pickup trucks carry larger payloads and more passengers in greater comfort – and most contractors have a pickup on hand. Why waste money on a small version of a pickup when you’ve already got the real thing standing by?

“Utility vehicles are versatile, agile and compact,” explains Lynette Hart, senior product manager, John Deere utility vehicles. “Many can go into spaces that a pickup truck or loader can’t fit. Also, their versatility allows you to do many jobs such as towing, plowing snow, pushing rock, spraying water or chemicals and conditioning turf. John Deere Gators can be fitted with more than 80 attachments and accessories, including blades, sprayers, utility carts, rotary brooms and cabs. So they can really help contractors gain productivity and reduce labor costs.”

Utility vehicles also transport employees and supplies on jobsites. Bobcat’s 2200 utility vehicle, for instance, has a top speed of 25 mph, but even the slowest pickup can easily surpass that.

On the other hand, a pickup truck isn’t nearly as maneuverable as a utility vehicle in confined areas and certainly can’t be used indoors the way many UVs can. If sound or emission levels are a concern, then electrically powered UVs are clearly superior to a pickup truck.

“Given current gas prices, electrical vehicles provide an operating cost advantage as well as being environmentally friendly,” notes Lance Mathern, marketing manager, Bobcat. “Electric vehicles are also desirable in indoor applications, although scrubber mufflers are available for many diesel engines.” On the downside, electric vehicles must be recharged frequently. A diesel engine also will give you more power to climb hills or drive through rough terrain than an electric-powered vehicle.

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“Cost-wise, you could probably buy a cheap F-150 for around $15,000,” notes Bill Hodge, category manager, Club Car, a division of Ingersoll-Rand. “And a utility vehicle easily can approach that price once you outfit it with accessories and options. But you certainly can’t get a four-wheel-drive F-150 at that price. For a similar cost, however, a UV will have four-wheel drive, a higher degree of jobsite versatility, and you’ll be able to economically move around the site and get into tight places a pickup never could.”

Bobcat’s Mathern notes that utility vehicles have other significant advantages over pickup trucks. Among them:

  • Much lower initial price than a pickup truck
  • No license required
  • Lower liability insurance
  • More fuel efficient
  • More maneuverable, tighter turning radius
  • Ability to dump the cargo box to unload materials
  • Less ground disturbance due to lighter weight

In addition, speed isn’t everything on many jobsites. For that reason, a utility vehicle is an excellent transportation choice on crowded, speed-controlled jobsites. And, Hart notes, compared to a pickup truck, entering and exiting a utility vehicle is much easier. “That’s a real comfort and performance boost for workers who have to continually climb in and out of the vehicle.

Match application and suspension type
Maybe it’s wrong to compare a pickup and a utility vehicle. Perhaps the lowly wheelbarrow is the UV’s spiritual ancestor. If that’s the case, then utility vehicles are clearly a superior choice since they can transport at least one passenger and cargo in the utility vehicle’s bed. A utility vehicle’s payload capacity is sufficient to handle many common jobsite tools including generators, welders, pumps, air compressors and other engine-driven work tools. Also, a trailer, air compressor or generator can be towed behind the utility vehicle.

Because contractors use utility vehicles to get around jobsites and carry tools, payload capacity is not necessarily the most important factor when selecting these machines.

“The key is to have payload capacity that matches the bed size,” Mathern explains. “Unfortunately, many employees will fill the cargo bed to its max volume without giving a thought to the vehicle’s rated capacity. They assume if there is room for another 100-pound bag of sand there must be unused payload capacity, only to find out otherwise when they try to climb a slope. If payload is a key factor, an assisted lift is a must.” The Bobcat 2200 four-by-four utility vehicle, for example, comes with electric assisted lift as standard equipment and has an 800-pound standard cargo bed capacity with a 1,100-pound, high-capacity option.

“Compare a UV’s towing capacity, payload capacity and cargo box capacity before purchasing a unit,” Hart suggests. There are many types of suspensions out there in the four- and two-wheel configurations. Selecting the correct one really depends on the application. If heavy-duty means off road on rough terrain, then a four-wheel suspension is important. If the majority of work is going to be heavy hauling, however, then the suspension type you choose is less important than hauling capacity, stability under load and suspension capability under load. Keep in mind suspension types can also change the cargo box load height, which is very important if you are regularly lifting heavy loads into the box.

You also have to decide how to power the utility vehicle. There are three choices: gasoline or diesel engines, or electricity. Each type has strengths and weaknesses – electric vehicles, for example, are not nearly as powerful as gas- or diesel-powered ones. And once their batteries are low, there’s no quick fix available: they have to be recharged for several hours to reach full operating ability. But they’re quieter and cheaper to run – an excellent choice indoors or in areas where emissions are a concern.

“Certainly, the diesel engines provide more torque in certain applications than gasoline-powered vehicles,” Hodge notes. “On the other hand, a diesel engine is more expensive to purchase and operate and doesn’t perform as well in cold climates. So it really comes down to what you’re willing to pay. Diesel power is going to add about $1,000 to the vehicle’s retail price. But if you need extra torque and have diesel fuel handy, it might make sense to make that investment.”

Regardless of which type of vehicle you select, Hart recommends testing the vehicle out in the applications you will be operating in before purchasing. “Make sure your maximum payloads do not substantially hamper the vehicle ride and stability,” she says. “Check the unit’s turn radius and make sure the tires match your application.”