Heavy Equipment Forums (www.heavyequipmentforums.com) is an online site where owners and operators ask questions and trade ideas about construction equipment. Recently, a contributor to the site commented about compact wheel loaders, saying, that in his opinion, these machines are underutilized and under-rated. The reason, he says, is that many equipment users simply don't recognize the compact wheel loader as a logical step between larger skid steer loaders and, say, wheel loaders that have minimum bucket capacities of 2.50 cubic yards or so. This means, he says, that these users are missing the compact wheel loader's efficiencies by perhaps using machines that are too small, too large, or less versatile than the application requires.
The "efficiencies" noted by the contributor, as he compared the compact wheel loader with "large-frame skid steers," included faster truck loading, greater lift capacity ("with more stability," he said) and less ground disturbance. Other than being somewhat more difficult to transport than a skid steer loader, the compact wheel loader's only downside, he said, was the relatively low oil flow from its auxiliary hydraulic system, which precludes the use of certain high-flow attachments, such as planers. Compared to the small "full-size" wheel loader, he said, the compact wheel loader is a more maneuverable package, gets substantially better fuel economy, and offers the prospect of using a skid-steer-type coupler, which opens the door to a wide range of attachments.
These are insightful comments, and generally supported by two knowledgeable spokesmen in the industry: Jeff Aubrey, compact-wheel-loader manager, Komatsu Utility; and Joel Powell, product specialist group manager for Volvo Compact Equipment. When commenting on the North American market for compact wheel loaders, both noted a "good-news/bad-news" situation.
"The good news," says Aubrey, "is that the compact-wheel-loader market since 2001, the first year out of the last down turn, has more than doubled. The bad news is that the market is still only about 5 percent that of the skid-steer-loader market. There are a lot of manufacturers vying for a piece of a very small market. But this won't deter major suppliers, because they have large markets in Europe, where most of these machines are presently sold."
Small market numbers aside, says Powell, North American buyers are substituting compact wheel loaders for larger skid-steer loaders at an increasing pace — as long as space constraints and transportability are not issues.
"The compact wheel loader is becoming a more feasible choice for some buyers for a variety of reasons," says Powell. "The annual market still pales in comparison with that for the skid-steer loader, with 2,700 compact wheel loaders being sold last year, versus perhaps 53,000 skid-steers. But that said, more buyers are recognizing that there's a time and a place for both machines."
According to Aubrey, the compact wheel loader fits perfectly into applications where one or more of several factors exist. If, for example, the user needs more flotation and more ground clearance than can be had from a skid-steer, or requires greater lift capacity (and possibly greater lift height) than large skid-steers can provide, then the compact wheel loader is a viable candidate for the job. Or, if the user would benefit from a higher cab position — up out of the dust and debris of certain applications (and with a sealed and air-conditioned cab as part of the package) — then the compact wheel loader could, again, be the machine of choice.
Also on the list, says Aubrey, is the user's concern about machine longevity.
"We have customers tell us that the compact wheel loader will last longer in harsh applications," says Aubrey. "I know a customer who runs both skid steers and compact wheel loaders on a sod farm. He says that skid steers are excellent machines and needed in the operation, but can't fill the whole bill. When he buys a skid steer, he expects it to last two to four years. The wheel loaders he has intentions of keeping for 10 years."
Volvo's Powell is of the same opinion.
"Users are beginning to see that the long-term benefits of the compact wheel loader possibly can outweigh the return-on-investment for the skid steer," says Powell. "One item, of course, is tire wear, which can be a fairly large expense for skid steers, depending on the application and the operator. The compact wheel loader's articulation eliminates this problem. Also, the compact wheel loader's greater breakout forces, higher hinge-pin heights and larger bucket capacities translate into greater productivity in load-handling situations."
In addition, says Powell, the compact wheel loader's overall productivity also might be enhanced by its typically larger, more-comfortable cab with better visibility, its higher travel speeds — usually in the teens — and by greater service access due to an overall larger frame.
According to Aubrey, a general design trend for today's compact wheel loaders is a greater adaptation of the skid-steer-loader concept by providing a universal coupler as a standard feature — or possibly as an option. This feature eases the transition from a skid steer to a compact wheel loader, he says. Powell agrees, noting that skid-steer users are understandably concerned about wanting to capitalize on the investment they've made in skid-steer attachments.
On the issue of universal couplers, some compact-wheel-loader manufacturers offer them as standard equipment only on smaller models in their lines, say, in the popular 50-to-60-horsepower range, but use a proprietary coupler on larger models. Other manufacturers may opt to use the universal coupler also on considerably larger models. While it's probably safe to say that the majority of compact wheel loaders can be equipped with a universal coupler via an adapter from an aftermarket source, doing so might not always be a good idea. The concern, of course, is that the greater mechanical forces generated by the wheel loader's linkage could jeopardize the structural integrity of some skid-steer attachments, such as buckets.
On the other hand, attachments such as brooms, forks, grapples and power rakes can be used with no problem in many instances, as long as the requirements of hydraulically powered attachments are satisfied by the compact-wheel-loader's auxiliary hydraulic system. A complaint that a user of a large skid steer might have against the compact wheel loader, however, is the general lack of high-flow auxiliary hydraulic systems on the latter. But manufacturers seem to be recognizing that shortcoming, and optional high-flow systems are becoming available. Caterpillar's new 906H and 908H models, for example, can be equipped with an optional high-flow system, which provides 33 gpm, up substantially from the standard system's 22 gpm.
"Auxiliary hydraulics are typically standard," says Powell, "but now the trend is toward higher-flow systems. The high-flow system is an option, because not every application or attachment requires it — and it carries a higher acquisition cost due to a more complex hydraulic and cooling system."
In Powell's opinion, the debate between buying a skid steer loader or a compact wheel loader usually distills down to three major issues: space constraints, transportability, and capital cost. The cost of acquiring a compact wheel loader can be a tough nut to crack for some buyers, because, typically, the machine commands a hefty premium above the list price of a large skid-steer loader. It's at this point, says Powell, that buyers must weigh the merits of the wheel loader and determine its value for their specific applications.
Of course, if transportability is an issue (can the buyer's present truck and trailer accommodate the wheel loader?), or if space constraints in typical applications are an overriding factor, then the big skid-steer will likely get the nod.
But if the compact wheel loader seems a viable choice, says Aubrey, keep in mind that machines of essentially the same horsepower will provide varying degrees of capacity at very different price levels. He suggests that the most critical specification is full-turn tipping load, because that specification will determine if the machine will have adequate capacity in a given application. Then, he says, pay attention to weight, which can be an indicator of a machine's overall durability — provided that the unit is not simply "over-counterweighted."
(Keep in mind as you read the accompanying specification chart that the upper horsepower limit for compact wheel loaders is 109, which is the figure used by CE's Spec-Check. Low-end horsepower is more difficult to pinpoint, because the line between compact wheel loaders and mini loaders is somewhat blurred.)
|The Cost of Ownership|
|Size||List Price||Hourly Rate|
|Hourly rates start with monthly ownership cost divided by 176 (hours per month) and add hourly operating cost. Inputs used to derive the costs include diesel fuel at $3.95 per gallon, mechanic's labor at $44.79 per hour, and interest rate of 4.75 percent.|
|Source: "Contractors Equipment Cost Guide," published by Equipment Watch — (800) 669-3238|
|to 39 HP||$45,518||$19.41|
|Make/Model||Static Tip Load Full-Turn (lb.)*||Operating Weight (lb.)||HP|
|* Static Tip Load—Full turn will be moderately affected by bucket size and type|
|** Four wheel steer (not articulated)|
|*** Swing loader|
|na (information not available)|