Compact Track Loaders Gain Popularity, Refinement

April 4, 2011

Except perhaps for the mini-excavator, few machines in the recent past have gained such rapid and universal acceptance by North American equipment users as the compact track loader (CTL). The mighty skid-steer loader is still king of the small-machine mountain, and is sure to remain so, but the CTL’s abilities keep it nipping at the skid-steer’s heels (or is it wheels?). With its broad, rubber-tracked stance, the CTL can buy added workdays for its owner and potentially open up new applications to further its utilization.

Except perhaps for the mini-excavator, few machines in the recent past have gained such rapid and universal acceptance by North American equipment users as the compact track loader (CTL). The mighty skid-steer loader is still king of the small-machine mountain, and is sure to remain so, but the CTL’s abilities keep it nipping at the skid-steer’s heels (or is it wheels?). With its broad, rubber-tracked stance, the CTL can buy added workdays for its owner and potentially open up new applications to further its utilization.

Although the CTL began appearing under the colors of numerous manufacturers around 2001, the concept goes back at least a decade or so earlier. It’s risky to attempt tracing the origins of a product, because someone is sure to be slighted; but that said, we do know that, around 1990, entrepreneurs Edgar Hetteen and Gary Lempke, founders of ASV (now Terex), introduced a small, rubber-tracked machine, the Posi-Track, which could handle work tools and used an undercarriage with multiple, rubber-rimmed wheels that spread the tractor’s weight lightly over rubber tracks. By 1992, Takeuchi also had introduced its first CTL in North America.

By 2005, when the combined market for skid-steers and CTLs topped out at some 81,000 units, the CTL accounted for approximately 15,000 of the total. During that time, skid-steer sales were essentially flat, which means virtually all growth came from the CTL sector. Sales of the two machines leveled out at an approximate 25/75-percent split until the recent severe downturn. Today’s market is beginning to recover, and the CTL is coming back more aggressively than its wheeled counterpart; in 2010, for instance, the market for skid-steers was 25,000, and that for the CTL was 12,500. Some expect this 2-1 ratio to be the long-term steady state in the North American market.

Equipped for success

Although the CTL continues to gain favor in the marketplace, keep in mind that the versatile skid-steer holds a solid place in the scheme of equipment usage:

“The choice between a skid-steer loader and compact track loader is based on application,” says Todd Lynnes, Caterpillar’s product solutions manager for compact loaders. “The skid-steer is still hard to beat for low cost of operation if it’s in the right job. If you’re on solid surfaces and working in applications that don’t require the extra stability that compact track loaders provide, then stick with the skid-steer. It’s less expensive to buy and less expensive to operate.”

On the other hand, says Lynnes, if you run a skid-steer in your operation and you’re losing workdays because of weather, having problems working on slopes, frequently getting stuck, always fixing flats, and often wishing you had more stability for tasks routinely performed, then the CTL is likely the better choice.

On the stability issue, the general consensus is that when a CTL and a skid-steer are operating on firm surfaces, the tracked machine is notably more stable. This is a decided advantage, says Lynnes, when using large, heavy work tools.

In addition, says David Steger, national product and training manager for Takeuchi, since the CTL has no tires that flex, it can more consistently maintain attachments in a correct position, compared with a skid-steer. And when the CTL is excavating, says Steger, it typically maintains more traction than the skid-steer, which may only have its rear tires contacting the ground in tough digging. Greater contact area, he says, results in greater traction and less slippage.

Yet another benefit of the CTL’s flat-footed nature, says Lynnes, is its ability to effectively handle an angle blade or six-way blade to establish grades. The CTL’s stable platform, he says, makes it a far superior grading tractor than the skid-steer. 

Overall, says Jamie Wright, product manager at Terex Construction Americas, the CTL usually tends to be more cost-effective than a skid-steer loader, if properly operated and maintained.

“The operating costs of a CTL are marginally higher than that of a skid-steer,” says Wright, “but most CTLs will give you added productivity and versatility, which means more for your money. Costs can be minimized with proper CTL operation and machine maintenance. A typical compact track loader pays for itself in approximately 18 months, and if properly maintained, pays for its upkeep as well.”

35/50-percent ratings

CTL manufacturers classify various models by working capacity, which is expressed as a percent of the machine’s tipping load. This figure, the “rated operating capacity” (ROC) (or “rated operating load”) usually is calculated both at 35 percent and 50 percent. The 35-percent number is considered the official number, since this is the stability standard established by SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) for tracked machines. SAE rates wheeled machines, including the skid-steer, at 50 percent of straight tipping load.

The value of the CTL’s 50-percent number, at least according to the consensus among most manufacturers, is to allow buyers to roughly equate the CTL’s overall capacity with that of skid-steer models having similar operating weights. Using the CTL’s 50-percent number as a guide in day-to-day operations, however, requires caution.

“SAE rates the compact track loader at 35 percent for the simple reason that it’s designed to operate in soft underfoot condition,” says Wright, “which can result in compression of the ground under the track and changes the center of gravity.”

The assumption is, says Steger, that wheeled machines will typically be limited to level terrain and firm ground.

“It’s important to understand that the tip load is not a measure of the machine’s hydraulic capacity,” says Steger, “but rather a measure of its stability with the bucket-load center in its forward-most point. Because of this, the machine’s design has a lot to do with the tip-load value. Radial-boom designs often have slightly less ROC than vertical-lift designs.”

Radial and vertical lift

CTLs, like skid-steers, are available with both radial- and vertical-lift boom designs. If you traced the path of the bucket through the radial-boom lift cycle, you’d find that it follows an arc that is greatest at about the mid-point of the lift. With vertical-lift, as the name implies, the bucket path is essentially straight up and down.

“The vertical-lift machine is typically heavier than the radial-lift,” says Lynnes, “and it tends to have more operating capacity—so it can usually lift heavier loads with greater stability. The vertical also usually lifts higher and has more capacity at the top of the cycle, which makes it a good choice for material placement with forks, or for charging hoppers or loading trucks.”

According to Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager for skid-steers and compact track loaders, John Deere Construction & Forestry, the vertical-lift machine also generally has more reach at full height, compared to its radial-lift counterpart, and can place material in the center of dump trucks (which can allow filling high-sided trucks from one side.) In addition, says Zupancic, the vertical-lift design typically allows better visibility to attachments when the boom is raised past the 6-foot level.

But if applications typically use a bucket that is worked below cab height, says Lynnes, then the radial-lift is favored, because the characteristics of the vertical-lift are not being used to advantage. The benefits of the radial-lift machine, he says, are that it tends to be lighter, more compact, slightly better balanced for grading and usually lower in price. Also, says Lynness, the radial-lift machine has more forward reach at mid-lift, allowing it to stretch over walls and fences to place material.

According to Takeuchi’s Steger, additional benefits of the radial-lift design include fewer pivot points in the linkage, consistent lift speed, better visibility, and in some instances, comparable lift height and top-of-lift reach.

Hydraulics, undercarriages and cabs

Except for the smallest models in a manufacturer’s range, most CTLs are available with a high-flow auxiliary-hydraulic system—most optional, but some standard on larger models. High-flow systems allow handling large powered work tools, such as cold planers, vegetation-control attachments (mulchers and mowers, for instance), snow throwers, wheel saws and large augers.

The lift and tilt hydraulic circuits in CTL loaders, as well as auxiliary-hydraulic systems (both standard-flow and high-flow), typically use gear pumps. The exceptions are units that have high-flow systems generating exceptionally high volumes, in which a variable-displacement piston pump might be used to power both implement and auxiliary circuits.

Most machines also use mechanical systems for hydraulic control and travel/steering control (with mechanical linkage between control levers and pumps and valves). A few machines, however, are fitted with standard joystick controllers for these functions, and an increasing number of models are becoming available with optional joysticks that use either pilot hydraulics or electro-hydraulic systems for operation.

“We see electro-hydraulic joystick control systems as extremely popular options on CTLs today,” says Deere’s Zupancic. “Customers are passing on conventional, mechanical, foot-control systems and moving almost exclusively to low-effort joystick systems.”

CTL undercarriage design varies with the manufacturer, including sprocket-to-track engagement systems, bottom-roller design, and the availability of track-width and track-lug designs. Several manufacturers also offer suspension systems for undercarriages, either as standard equipment or as an available option.

Overall, the compact track loader’s operator environment is becoming more comfortable and convenient. Joystick controls, as noted, are becoming more popular, and more manufacturers are offering sealed and pressurized cabs. Although a fair number of CTLs are still sold with an open-ROPS, the number of machines with closed cabs and air conditioning, especially among larger models, is on the rise. The net result is a machine that is easier to operate and provides a cleaner, quieter, more comfortable place to work.