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Small Skid Steer Loaders Offer Big Choices

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | May 17, 2019
Radial-lift skid steer loaders are usually a better option for digging and grading tasks.

Skid steer OEMs polled by Construction Equipment see the market for machines with rated operating capacities (ROC) 2,200 pounds and under as a bit of a mixed bag; some say it is flat, some say up slightly, and some say down but the erosion caused by the migration to CTLs may be slowing.

What remains true is that the small-to-medium-frame machines in the category offer managers a wide range of choices both in number and features.

“The market for small and smaller-medium-frame skid steers, under 2,200 pounds rated operating capacity, saw a slight upturn in 2018 from 2017, but the numbers were still smaller than the figures of 2016,” says Nathan Ryan, product manager for Wacker Neuson. 

“An area that has seen a few years of consistent growth is exports of this size loader, and growth in that area outpaced growth of the North American market,” Ryan says. “We’ve heard from some dealers that the market has been rushing so quickly towards compact track loaders; but some customers’ applications don’t require a compact track loader, so they are going back to skid loaders, either because it fits their needs or they’re mixing them into a fleet to lower maintenance costs.”

Lars Arnold, global product manager, skid steer loaders, for Volvo Construction Equipment, thinks the rocket-like ascension of compact track loaders, at least at the expense of skid steers, may be coming back to earth.

“While compact track loaders gained ground on skid steers in the last decade, I believe that’s started to level out,” Arnold says. “The price and versatility of a skid steer will always make it a popular option. You can put forks on it, a bucket, a broom, an auger, a backhoe-style attachment, a cold planer, a rock saw—with one machine, you can do pretty much anything.

“Of course, you wouldn’t have the digging depth of a compact excavator, but in some cases, a skid steer alone may be able to meet all the needs of a contractor, and it would certainly end up being more cost-effective to have one versatile machine with a variety of attachments than to buy two machines,” Arnold says.

There’s also the issue of costs, as a tracked machine will almost always carry a higher price tag at purchase and cost more to maintain over its life.

“The skid steer loader’s low initial purchase price and low operating costs drive demand for these machines, especially in applications like road construction, residential and commercial construction, landscaping, paving, rental, and dairy and livestock operations,” says Kevin Coleman, product expert for Caterpillar.

Many factors are important when evaluating a skid steer purchase, not just the basic specifications, attachment capabilities, and hydraulic flow.

Coleman focuses on productivity features. “Think about what productivity-enhancing features the skid steer can be equipped with that can help smaller machines, and less experienced operators, maximize their potential and productivity,” he says. “Consider items like the ability to adjust implement and drive response settings for task/tool/experience level, dual self-leveling for handling materials, and speed-sensitive ride control for maximum material retention in load-and-carry situations.

“Also consider items that help protect your investment, like a coded security system to deter theft and a rearview camera to provide maximum visibility in the tight-quarter tasks that smaller machines tend to find themselves performing,” Coleman says into a pile and try to take a full scoop while moving forward at full speed, there may be some hydraulic stall. If a skid steer rated at 2,700 pounds with 90 horsepower performs the same task, there’s going to be less lag and less stall.”

Townsley says a false perception is that you can lift more with the greater horsepower machine, but they will actually lift the same. “Horsepower also helps with any kind of multifunction that is going on with the machine, such as attachment use, driving and lifting at the same time, or prying with the bucket while the ground drive is engaged at full speed,” she says.

Aaron Haynes, global product manager for skid and track loaders with Manitou Group, which includes the Gehl and Mustang brands, says buyers need to be sure that small is indeed small enough.

“The purchase of small skid loaders is often driven by the need to access small or confined areas and/or the need for easy transportation,” Haynes says. “If either of these is true for you, you’ll want to make sure the unit is actually compact enough to access your workspace and can carry out the needs of the job.”

Ryan also points to transport and dimensions.

Attachment use is a key purchase consideration.
Attachment use is a key purchase consideration. Be sure to consider current and future attachment needs, and whether attachments will need a high-flow hydraulics package.

“Many smaller skid steers are purchased for contract work which will involve trailering the machines to various job sites,” Ryan says. “Make a point to note where the tie-down points are and how accessible they are. I would actually recommend loading it on one of your trailers and securing it so you get a feel of how easy or difficult the task is for that specific unit. 

“Also, machine width and length are usually the two most essential dimensions, because if it can’t fit on your trailer, through a gate, or under your door header, you can’t use the loader,” Ryan says. “Always ask your dealer if you have dimension concerns, as most manufacturers offer tire options to change machine width and height. Of course, wheel options also change your ground clearance, another dimension important on small machines, but when it comes to ground clearance on small machines, just like the large machines, the more the better. A final dimension to consider is wheelbase, as these machines are shorter in overall length. A long wheelbase will help improve stability, especially when working on uneven terrain.”

On the subject of dealers, Bobcat marketing manager Jason Boerger stresses that contractors should request a demo.

“Don’t just rely on machine specs to decide on the type and size of machine you need,” Boerger says. “Specs can be deceiving, but operating the machine you are considering will give you a much better idea of whether it will be able to perform the specific tasks you’ll demand from it. Ask for a job-site demonstration where you can operate the skid steer loader in your day-to-day environment.”

Arnold suggests buyers pay special attention to how the machine is equipped for short-term needs and long-term needs.

“Always select the correct tire type—pneumatic or solid—based on the ground conditions the machine will encounter, and consider what attachments are currently being used or may be used in the future,” Arnold says. “That helps determine whether 3-way or 7-way controls and standard or high-flow are required. Also, consider how often attachments may be changed: If it’s frequently, then an assisted attachment bracket may be helpful. High speed and carrying load boom suspension are good choices if the machine will regularly drive long distances. Lastly, decide whether a radial or vertical lift is best.”

Arnold says a radial lift is usually the better option for digging and grading, and a vertical-lift machine works better for material handling and loading trucks.

“Comfort level is another factor for customers to consider before purchasing a small skid steer,” says Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager for John Deere Construction & Forestry. “Skid steer models with 2,200 pounds ROC may have a lower horsepower for a higher fuel efficiency, but the trade-off is that it may not have air conditioning. If users are interested in a cab with an air conditioning option, then they should consider a machine with stronger horsepower. There are certain capabilities such as air conditioning in a cab, and/or joystick control, that can only be found in machines with greater horsepower.”

Debbie Townsley, product marketing manager, skid steer loaders and CTLs for Case Construction Equipment, shares some specific tips related to specs.

“Lifting is often the most taxing work that a skid steer or compact track loader will perform and its greatest measure of capacity,” she says. “We recommend selecting a machine with a rated operating capacity—50 percent of tipping load—that accounts for [your] heaviest common lifting task, and then some. If you know the heaviest pallet you ever lift is 2,000 pounds, consider something at 2,100, 2,200, or even 2,500 pounds.

“The interaction between horsepower and rated operating capacity is also a very important consideration,” Townsley continues. “Greater horsepower will typically allow for faster cycle times and make it possible for the machine to get to required pressures and flows faster,  and maintain them more easily. For example, an operator may have a skid steer rated at 2,700 pounds that is 74 horsepower. If they charge

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