Compact utility loaders

If you’re still thinking of a compact utility loader as a powered wheelbarrow, you’re behind the curve. Today’s compact utility loader is designed as a portable hydraulic tool carrier. These small, easily maneuverable units can provide up to 3,000 psi of hydraulic flow and pressure necessary to run a variety of attachments ranging from augers to trenchers and backhoes.

Compact utility loaders allow you to easily transport these attachments to, and work in, a constricted space. But even more important, says Brad Paine, associate marketing manager, Toro, they allow you to replace manual labor. “Traditionally, light construction work has been done by hand,” he notes. “But dependable, skilled laborers are getting harder to find. Compact utility loaders can significantly reduce your reliance on hand labor since they allow the operator to do the work of several men faster.”

Tracked versus wheeled models
Compact utility loaders are available in two basic configurations: Tracked models, which tend to be walk-behind machines, and rubber-tired versions that are typically ride-on models. “There are a few models available with a seat and an articulation joint,” says Brad Claus, product representative, Bobcat, “but most ride-on machines are configured with the operator in a standing position.”

The decision to spec a tracked or wheeled utility loader is usually a function of the application at hand. “Track machines give you better flotation and less ground disturbance,” says Roger Braswell, president, Powerhouse Equipment. “A tracked machine may also allow you to work on days you can’t use a wheeled machine since they can negotiate muddy or wet terrain easier. And they generally require less jobsite reclamation when you’re done with the job, since they don’t tear up ground or turf.”

Wheeled compact utility loaders are the prime choice for contractors with longer travel distances. “They’re quicker,” Claus notes. “And in bucket applications, they’re going to deliver faster cycle times.”

Most wheeled units feature a control system of toggle switches similar to those found on a skid-steer loader. “Five toggle levers manipulate the wheels, provide zero-turn capabilities and control the lift and tilt of the bucket and base plate,” Paine says. “An auxiliary handle controls hydraulic attachments. Some control systems take operator control to a new level by providing auxiliary attachment controls. These controls allow the user to regulate and direct the hydraulic flow, and enable optimum operation of such attachments as augers and trenchers.”

Tracked models are usually controlled by T-bar steering systems. This design provides direction control via a floating bar that is easily manipulated with one hand. “A supplementary joystick control operates the attachment,” Paine says. “This simple design is preferred on tracked models, which are most common in rental markets. It allows a variety of users to quickly become productive with the machine.”

Regardless of the control system, don’t sacrifice safety. “Whether you choose the toggle or T-bar control, make sure the loader is equipped with an automatic deadman switch,” Paine advises. “This feature will disengage the machine should the operator release the controls or accidentally lose control, protecting not only the operator but other individuals on the site as well.”

In place of, or with skid steers?
Because of their versatility and ability to perform some of the same functions as skid steers in confined areas, compact utility loaders are sometimes referred to as “mini skid steers.” “Though skid steers and compact utility loaders share design similarities and perform some of the same functions, their core strengths and applications are actually quite different,” Paine says. “So rather than replacing a skid steer on a jobsite, a compact utility loader is really the perfect complement to these machines.”

“Skid steers are primarily fitted with a bucket,” Claus says. “They can use attachments, but in construction applications, their primary function is to move dirt from Point A to Point B.”

In contrast, Claus says buckets fall way down on the list as attachments for compact utility loaders. “Attachments are what attract contractors to these machines,” he says. “Even though these machines are small, they can handle some aggressive and tough attachment applications like augers, trenchers, tillers and pallet forks. They can dig trenches 2 to 3 feet deep, and they can handle a 36-inch auger bit or a 48-inch-wide tiller. I don’t want to downplay the use of the bucket, because these loaders move material very well. But if you want to dig below grade, then I will always point you toward a skid steer loader because it’s going to be more productive.”

When the jobsite has tight quarters though, the compact loader shines. “The average skid steer measures about 65 inches in width,” Paine says. “That’s nearly twice the size of a compact utility loader. So they can easily maneuver through standard gates and doorframes to travel and operate in areas where only hand labor once could work.”

Match attachments carefully to ensure full productivity
The success of compact utility loaders is dependent upon their ability to effectively move and use attachments. “The key to being productive with attachments and a compact utility loader is to maximize efficiency, durability and overall longevity while minimizing costs,” Paine says.

According to Braswell, common bucket options available for compact utility loaders include 30- and 42-inch general-purpose buckets, as well as hydraulically actuated four-in-one buckets. “The most popular attachments are trenchers in the 4- to 12-inch depth categories,” he notes. “Other popular units include high-torque auger power heads, augers ranging from 6 to 36 inches, tillers, boring units, hydraulic breakers, backhoes and vibratory plows.”

For optimal attachment performance, Paine recommends selecting attachments with heavy-duty gear motors and hydraulic bearings. “It’s also a good idea to spec attachments with double-shielded seals to protect the hydraulic mechanisms from debris and damage,” he says. “Any ground-engaging components on an attachment should be manufactured from abrasion-resistant materials to extend their longevity in the field.”

Paine says whenever possible, Toro recommends using OEM-approved attachments with a compact utility loader. “In theory, any manufacturer’s attachment could be fit to any brand compact utility loader,” he says. “But doing so is not recommended if you wish to maximize the life of both base unit and the attachments. By purchasing attachments from the OEM of your base unit, you guarantee a match in hydraulic system requirements as well as appropriate flow and pressure ratings. Not only will this improve the overall performance, but it will also extend the service life of both the base unit and attachments.”

Also make sure the compact loader’s hydraulic flow rate matches the attachment’s recommended pressure, Claus says. “And verify that the weight of the attachment is in compliance with the machine’s capacity rating,” he warns. “These are powerful, capable machines, but they can be easily overloaded. Don’t put a skid steer-sized loader bucket or attachment on them or you run the risk of overstressing the machine.”

At the same time, Claus says not to baby your compact utility loader because it is small. “These machines are generally built tough,” he says. “In Bobcat’s case, we used common components from our skid steer and compact excavator lines like engines, boom arms and hydraulic systems. So we’re confident that these machines will last as long as a skid steer in the field – maybe longer. Remember that a compact loader doesn’t have to lift heavy loads, and its travel speed is lower. So they don’t get into as many potentially damaging situations as the larger machines do.”