Big power, small package

Features - Design/Build

Whether on wheels or tracks, compact loaders pack a lot of utility, power and comfort into a small piece of equipment.

October 11, 2012
Heather Taylor

As compact construction equipment offerings evolve, so do the landscape contractor’s expectations of the machines.

“As customers look at what equipment they currently have and what they want in the future, they’re always looking to do more, so performance is key,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist at Bobcat. “They look at rated operating capacity, horsepower, lift force and pushing capability and like to see improvements in those areas. That’s something we strive for when we introduce new models so they can get more work done in a quicker amount of time.”

This is top of mind for manufacturers when they plan updates to compact wheel loaders and compact track loaders. Whether the machine operator is digging a trench, planting a tree or moving boulders, there is an attachment that will get the task done easier. The variety of attachments and the ability for compact machines to use more of them continues to grow.

Compact loaders, whether on wheels or tracks, can handle a variety of attachments (buckets, dozer blades, mulchers, augers, trenchers, levelers, box rakes, snow blowers, etc.), which are often interchangeable among compact track, skid-steer and many larger loaders, according to Jamie Wright, product manager at Terex Construction.

Some manufacturers, including Kubota, have been ramping up the power behind the attachments by improving bucket breakout force and lifting capacity on their compact track loaders.

Developments across all manufacturers’ compact machine product lines are making it easier for contractors to quickly switch from one function to another. The Quick Hitch system has been adopted by most manufacturers, says George Chaney, skid-steer loader/compact track loader international sales manager at JCB.

Cab comfort.
Some JCB compact loaders have been redesigned so that the operator doesn’t have to crawl over a large cumbersome attachment to get in the cab, Chaney says. In addition, visibility from the cab has been beefed up so the operator can see 270 degrees around the machine. Likewise, Bobcat’s M Series machines are designed for optimal visibility by moving the cab forward on the loader platform, Fitzgerald says.

Cab sizes are being beefed up too. Operators of JCB loaders will find the cab size in the small platform machines to be the same as the larger platform machines, making them a little less cramped.

Comfort inside the cab has come a long way in the lifetime of the compact machines. Manufacturers offer a range of options in this department. Cab options include open, enclosed, climate-controlled, as well as sealed and pressurized for dusty job sites.

Several other improvements provide the operator with some creature comforts on the job: a suspension seat provides a smoother ride, control choices include manual, advanced and joystick, and many cabs can be outfitted with accessories such as a cup holder and a radio.

Operator comfort can be more important than it might sound, manufacturers say.

“If you’re comfortable, you’re more productive, so it’s a win-win for owners and operators,” Fitzgerald says.

More power with less fuel.
Developments in compact wheel loaders’ and compact track loaders’ fuel efficiency might be driven by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 4 emission standards, but the byproduct is that the changes can help landscape contractors save on their fuel budgets.

“In today’s world, fuel cost is a major part of the cost of ownership,” says Chaney, adding that developments in fuel-efficient engines on the loaders can add up to savings of $3,000 per year on large platform machines and $2,000 per year on smaller platform machines. “That’s money in your pocket,” he says.

The push for fuel efficiency doesn’t mean that machine operators have to sacrifice power to see the fuel savings, according to Keith Rohrbacker, product manager at Kubota.

“As lawn care professionals push their machines harder, looking for increased productivity, many look to larger horsepower machines (with greater torque levels) to handle the extra load; however, Kubota has seen this trend as an excellent opportunity to continue to meet the need for power with efficient, high-torque Kubota diesel engines,” Rohrbacker says.

The compact wheel loader industry has been introducing the hydrostatic transmission to replace the traditional mechanical transmissions, according to Wright, who adds the update can lead to fuel savings.

“Manufacturer tests have shown that fuel usage can be reduced up to 10 percent with the new hydrostatic drive systems compared to mechanical drive transmissions,” he says.

Navigating the market.
Most manufacturers offer a range of options when it comes to compact machines, including tires or tracks, vertical or radial lift (which affects how the boom moves), small or large platform, and enclosed or open cap. Where does a prospective buyer begin?

First, think about the job site conditions in which the machine will be used, Wright says.

“To get outfitted with the right loader, you will need to analyze the specifications of the project: What type of material will you be moving? What is the density of that material? How much material needs to be moved? Are there any space restrictions on the job site?” he says.

Each dealership will be able to show prospective buyers the realm of machine configurations and add-ons that are available, as well as attachments that exist to increase utilization of the machine, Fitzgerald says.

It can also be helpful for prospective buyers to consult peers who use the equipment before making such a big purchase.

Fitzgerald recommends talking to contractors that do similar work, fellow members of associations or those they meet at training events. “Look at what other contractors are using for specific jobs and how they utilize machines. That will help them make the right purchasing decision,” he says.

When debating between brands, contractors should consider the reliability of each brand’s machine and how well they know and understand its parts, Wright adds.

“Are you comfortable with the technology that’s under the hood? If you can handle the small maintenance issues yourself, you can help reduce overall cost and downtime,” he says. “Always buy quality – a compact loader needs to durable and reliable because downtime is expensive.”

Rohrbacker seconds the notion of thinking ahead when buying compact loaders. “Select the size of machine for your current applications and ensure that it has enough power and capacity to satisfy your future growth,” he says. “Also, choose a dealer that will support your product well.” Good support includes a dealer that is conveniently located near job sites and can deliver needed parts and services quickly, Wright says.

Manufacturers also suggest trying a piece of equipment out by renting it before committing to buying it.

Getting the equipment that’s the best fit for the job can make a significant difference, Wright says. “Discover the strength of each piece of equipment,” he says “and rely on each piece to handle the job it does best.”

Rise of compact track loaders doesn’t negate compact wheel loaders’ usefulness

The fundamental difference between a compact track loader and a compact wheel loader is as it sounds: compact track loaders sit on an undercarriage with tracks, which keeps the machine stable. Compact wheel loaders, on the other hand, get their mobility from wheels and can be better in tight spaces.

Wheeled and tracked loaders are similar in the regard that they are versatile and can use many of the same attachments, but there’s one aspect that sets one machine apart from the other, and it’s causing a surge in popularity.

“Twenty years ago we didn’t offer compact track loaders. Today we do and they’re a large part of the compact equipment market,” says Mike Fitzgerald, Bobcat loader product specialist, adding the equipment was developed as a result of industry feedback.

It’s estimated that as much as 40 percent of the compact equipment market consists of track machines, adds George Chaney, skid-steer loader/compact track loader international sales manager at JCB.

Fitzgerald explains that more and more landscapers are moving to compact track loaders because of the benefits the design provides. The track system provides low ground pressure, which creates minimal disturbance, provides good grading capabilities and produces a smoother ride for the operator. The loader’s low ground pressure lengthens many contractors’ seasons because they can use the machines on softer ground late into the year without worrying that they’ll tear up the turf.

“These machines can work virtually 365 days a year since they have such good floatation characteristics, especially in muddy applications where traditional equipment would normally get stuck,” says Gregg Zupancic, John Deere product marketing manager, skid steers and compact track loaders.

Track loaders are also designed to handle well on slopes, manufacturers say.

The downside is that compact track loaders can be more expensive to operate than wheel loaders, due in large part to the higher maintenance cost involved in track loaders because of the track and undercarriage components, Chaney says. This is not lost on manufacturers. New Holland developed its 200 Series compact track loaders to make it easier for operators to maintain the undercarriage, says Curtis Goettel, brand marketing manager.

“With the easy track adjustment, using a standard wrench and grease gun makes for quick and easy service,” he says, adding several other features come into play to minimize service needed on the tracks and their frames.

Compact wheel loaders, on the other hand, don’t have the expensive track component, making the equipment more ideal to contractors with tight budgets. In addition, the wheeled machines offer the advantage of allowing the operator to sit higher for better visibility when truck loading and material handling applications, according to Doug Laufenberg, John Deere product marketing manager, compact wheel loaders.

Some models of wheel loaders also offer other benefits, including the versatility of auxiliary hydraulics to operate multiple attachments, the lower fuel consumption, improved visibility and ease of operation, says Keith Rohrbacker, Kubota’s product manager. Goettel adds that compact wheel loaders can travel more quickly from one job site to another.

For contractors who can’t decide between wheeled or track loaders, some manufacturers have found a way to be accommodating. Terex offers over-the-tire track options for contractors who own a wheeled loader but need the traction, flotation and versatility of a tracked loader.


The author is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

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