When to Use a Compact Wheel Loader

Sept. 28, 2010

When backhoe specialist Frank Parker wants to quickly move material in cramped quarters, he hops on a compact wheel loader—if he can find one. Parker, who owns All Terrain Backhoe and Services in San Jose, Calif., says his local rental house doesn't carry them.

"I usually end up with a skid-steer when I want a compact wheel loader," says Parker. He owns and occasionally rents an additional compact wheel loader (CWL) as well as skid-steers and backhoe-loaders and says they all have their applications. But for certain projects, CWLs outperform the others. The trouble is finding one.

Compact wheel loaders comprise roughly 1.7 percent of the total loaders, in units, sold into the rental market in 2002, according to Andrew Bondy, product market manager for wheel loaders at John Deere. "It's a tiny market," he says.

In fact, calls to major rental houses in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Phoenix, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, yielded a goose egg for available compact-loader rental units. Not because they are in high demand, but precisely because they're not in high demand.

"We seldom get a request," says Jed Vowers, outside sales rep for United Rentals, Phoenix. The skid-steer remains the staple in the compact-equipment rental market. "The construction market is slow to introduce new pieces," says Vowers. "People want 'old reliable.'"

Where CWLs work best

Mavericks who rent a CWL may reap rich rewards. CWLs can lift larger and heavier loads and dump them higher using less horsepower. They offer greater reach and exert much lower ground pressure than comparably sized and powered skid-steers. CWLs are easier and more comfortable to operate, offer 360-degree visibility and consume less fuel. Their compact size and 40-degree articulation allow them access to confined areas. And they have better ground clearance.

"These machines work well in applications where you need high ground clearance," says David Carroll, fleet manager for Knox-Tenn Rental and Sales, Knoxville, Tenn. Carroll purchased a recently introduced Gehl telescopic wheel loader a few months ago and has already made one skid-steer convert. A customer who kept hanging up his skid-steer at a muddy worksite came to Carroll looking for options. The compact wheel loader did the trick, he says.

Carroll expects to rent the new machine to contractors needing to move dirt and gravel on the jobsite and for backfilling. But it will take time to educate the construction community. "You have to ease into the market and get people use to them," says Carroll.

Brian Smith, sales representative for Boston Equipment and Supply, Salem, N.H., hopes the recent purchase of a telescopic compact wheel loader will "open up a new customer base" for masonry contractors. "It's a nice, compact unit for getting around tight areas in urban settings, says Smith. "It's a niche piece."

Renters choosing a compact wheel loader can also expect "increased production and decreased operating costs" in loading applications compared to skid-steers or backhoes, says Brent Pemberton, outside sales representative for Holt Cat, an Austin, Texas, Caterpillar distributor. Pemberton says he's trying to make clients aware of the benefits compact wheel loaders offer. Though CWLs may cost up to three times more than comparable skid-steers, they last twice as long, says Pemberton. A skid-steer's trade-in time averages 3,000 to 5,000 hours, he says, but there are compact wheel loaders still operating in "true production" environments with more than 10,000 operating hours. "You get twice the life out of these loaders," he says.

And the same is true of tire life. Skid-steers are notorious for burning up tires. "By definition, they skid," says Pemberton. Tires on a compact wheel loader will last two to three times longer, he says. Renters can also expect to cut their fuel costs in half, depending on the application, when operating a CWL as opposed to a skid-steer because CWLs require less horsepower.

CWL rates

Rental rates for compact wheel loaders are about the same as comparable skid-steers. According to rental coordinator Wade Wheeler, Hot Cat of Pflugerville, Texas, a Caterpillar 902 compact wheel loader rents for $1,400 a month. A comparable Caterpillar 216 skid-steer rents for $1,365 a month. The larger Cat 906 compact wheel loader rents for $1,600, versus $1,770 for a Cat 236 skid-steer.

Rental houses may benefit from carrying machines that offer these advantages to customers, but the high price tag coupled with a lack of demand and declining rental rates may be keeping rental shops from purchasing them. CWLs can cost twice as much as a comparable skid-steer. "Rental rates keep going down and everything else keeps going up," says Vowers.

Some remain optimistic. "We're hoping to add more [compact equipment]," says Carroll. "The compact-equipment market is growing fast."

Keith Rohrbacker, product manager for Kubota Tractor, Torrance, Calif., agrees. "There is a growth trend. They're expanding, but not at nearly the rate that compact excavators are growing," says Rohrbacker. He also warns against comparing skid-steers and wheel loaders as apples to apples. "Every machine has a specialty where it excels," he says. Moving material is the compact-wheel-loader's arena. Still, Kubota advertises a "skid-steer-type attachment adapter" that boosts a mini-loader's versatility. Case Corp. also touts a laundry list of attachments that connect to its line of compact wheel loaders.

For those hell-bent on renting a skid-steer but pining for the low ground pressure that articulating tires provide, Bobcat may have an answer. Its multi-tool carriers offer operators the option to skid-turn or articulate through a turn. In front-wheel-drive mode, these newly evolved Bobcats travel at speeds up to 12.4 mph, rivaling compact wheel loaders.

"It drives like a car," says Art Hudson, sales manager, Bobcat of the Rockies, Golden, Colo. Although the Bobcat still uses joysticks to steer, Hudson says the two-mode all-wheel-steer loaders are more user-friendly than traditional skid-steers. "These will open doors to people who resist operating skid-steers," he says. "Plus, you're not skidding anymore, unless you want to."

The new Bobcat AWS models cost about 10 percent more than a regular Bobcat skid-steer, which mostly pays for the steerable undercarriage system. And they don't have the reach and dumping heights of other compact wheel loaders. But they are "slowly starting to get into the rental market," says Hudson.

Compact wheel loaders' slow creep into that market may speed up as word spreads of their ability to save time and money. For those who rent, the secret may not be requesting a specific piece of equipment, but requesting a machine that best fits the specific application.