Mini-earthmovers break new ground

Compact skid steers … compact utility loaders … miniloaders … mini-earthmovers. Call them what you will. You get the idea: They're small. But when it comes to landscaping, they're a big deal. Emerging during the last decade as a significant class of equipment, small earthmoving machinery is coming into its own as manufacturers refine designs, round out the array of implements and better exploit the innate strengths of these miniature dynamos.

The history of miniloaders goes back 20 years or so to the original Dingo. A Toro brand since 1997, Dingo is, as you would likely guess, of Australian ancestry. (Another manufacturer, Kanga, also has a distinctly Australian sound, and that's because some of the same folks were involved with the development of both.) Other manufacturers have brought their own innovations to bear on the miniloader market, including ASV, Gravely, Finn, Ramrod, Power Trac and Gehl.

Getting in on the action

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The trend toward miniaturization isn't confined to loaders. Several makers known for larger construction equipment have reduced the size of some of their machines to better fit a confined work site.

One of the most striking displays is the mini-excavator. One example is Kubota's K008 Ultra-Compact Excavator (see photo, bottom right, page 14). Kubota brags that the K008 will fit through a 36-inch door frame, which means it can get through most yard gates, too. And it weighs in under 2,000 pounds, making it an easy pull for just about any towing vehicle. Several other construction manufacturers — Bobcat, Caterpillar, IHI and Mertz, for example — include small-scale excavators and other tracked equipment in their lines.

The conventional skid-steer loader, with which virtually everyone in the green industry is familiar, has also joined the smaller-is-good crowd. Several manufacturers have developed models that are 40 inches or less wide, which is comparable to the larger miniloaders. Some go further. Bobcat, for example, lists its 463 Skid Steer at 36 inches in width.

The available attachments for skid steers also rival those of miniloaders. And their weight — often in the 2,000- to 3,000-pound range for smaller models — is easily manageable on trailers and towing vehicles. (See Equipment Options, page 22, for a listing of skid steer manufacturers.)

Smaller is better

Still, miniloaders have staked out their own turf. Two things make these miniature workhorses so valuable: the first is their exceptionally small size. Trenching, augering, loading, excavating … machines have been doing these things for a long time. It's how and where miniloaders can perform these tasks that sets them apart.

Within this class of equipment, you have size choices. With less weight and smaller size you get fewer hp and less lifting capability; but you also get greater accessibility and transportability, which is key (along with the appropriate attachments) to doing what these machines do best: replace hand labor.

However, because all miniloaders are, by definition, quite small, you probably shouldn't get too obsessed with an inch here or there. Other features should garner more of your attention.

Tracked loaders are getting smaller, too. Some of these are similar to larger, conventional loaders, in that the operator is seated on the machine as opposed to standing on a platform. These tend to have a bit more muscle than the smaller miniloaders, but make up for the added heft with tracks to spread out the weight. For example, ASV's RC-30 loader puts just 2.5 psi on the ground (which, according to ASV, creates less pressure than a child standing on the ground), but sports 31.5 hp — more than miniloaders, which tend to fall in the 15- to 25-hp range. Polaris employs a similar design for their newly released ASL tracked loader.

Hydraulics

The heart of these minimachines is the engine, of course. And you'll find a range of engine manufacturers represented in these units, which include both gas and diesel models. Certainly, that is one factor you'll want to consider when comparing. But it's the hydraulics — the muscles, if you will — that actually put the power to use. Walter Butman, Finn's executive vice president, describes the Finn Eagle compact skid steer as “a small, yet powerful, rolling hydraulic tool,” and this may be a useful way to think of these machines.

Like water in an irrigation system, both flow and pressure determine the performance of a hydraulic system. Define your needs, and determine which implements you'll be using the most. Some tasks and the implements that perform them inherently are more power-hungry than others.

Regardless, hydraulics is not merely a numbers comparison of flow, pressure and capacity. You'll find different approaches from different manufacturers. Brad Paine, associate marketing manager for Toro's Sitework Systems (Dingo) explains, “The four pumps direct hydraulic power to the track system, loader functions and auxiliary system for attachments, simultaneously. This means the operator can easily drive, move the loader arms and power an attachment, such as a trencher, without any power interruptions.”

And according to Butman, “Finn's unit is engineered with a parallel system; full power is delivered to all functions simultaneously. This affords the machine full flow to the tool and the wheel motors for optimum output.”

From just these two examples, you can see that hydraulics is one area where manufacturers can get creative. Discuss the hydraulics with your supplier, being sure to gain an understanding of how they'll work with implements you already have, or plan to obtain.

Getting around

An obvious distinction between miniloaders is whether they are tracked or wheeled. A primary benefit of tracks is that they leave a light “footprint,” lighter than a person's footprint in terms of pounds per square inch. Not only does this reduce the impression that the machine leaves on the ground, it also provides excellent traction and flotation, particularly on muddy or otherwise soft ground. Another benefit of tracks is that they handle highly uneven terrain with ease, and provide a stable “platform” from which to hoist heavy loads.

As mentioned before, ASV specializes in tracked loaders, but it's not the only manufacturer to go that route. Polaris just released its ASL loader. Toro has exploited the track concept for its Dingo TX 420 and TX 425 units. According to Paine, “The Kevlar reinforced tracks provide very low ground pressure to minimize turf disruption while providing incredible traction and stability.” Ramrod, too, offers tracked units, and several wheeled skid steers can be equipped with tracks that wrap around the tires, adding to their ability to “float” on soft surfaces.

Wheeled vehicles, by contrast, place all their weight on four tires, providing good traction, but may track up soft ground more deeply than tracked vehicles. You'll find several units available with 4-wheel drive.

A third option is articulation. Articulated loaders are hinged in the middle of the vehicle, and turn with almost no skidding of tracks or wheels on the ground. Because articulated units must be rolling in order to turn, they can't spin “on a dime” the way a skid steer can. But the rear wheels follow in approximately the same tracks as the front of the machine, allowing for smooth turning and minimal ground or turf disturbance.

Power Trac manufactures articulated loaders and adds an additional twist…literally. According to Power Trac, “Oscillation, or horizontal twisting, allows the Power Trac to keep all four wheels grounded on uneven terrain. If one tire is higher than the others, all four remain grounded. This gives the operator better control of a front attachment.”

One other spec to look at is “bucket corner to opposite wheel.” This measurement provides an indication of how maneuverable the machine can be around obstacles. It's different than turning radius, and perhaps a better indication of the ease with which your machine can access tight spots. After all, most loaders have a zero-turning radius. The question is, if the machine spins on one spot, how large a circle will it need?

Careful operation can minimize the impact of most small loaders on turf or the soil surface. But each design has relative advantages, and like hydraulics, this is an area where manufacturers can be creative. You should operate each type before deciding which you prefer. At least one manufacturer — Gehl — offers both a skid steer and an articulated model.

Find your comfort zone

Most miniloaders covered in this article are stand-on units. This offers several advantages, such as a smaller overall machine size and excellent visibility of the work site. Carol Dilger, corporate marketing services manager for Ariens, which markets the Gravely Skidster 200, also notes that an “advantage … is the ability to get on and off of the piece of equipment easily … vs. a larger unit where the operator is seated.”

Still, there's no denying that sitting is more comfortable than standing, especially when the unit is operated for long periods, and this is one factor you must consider. Power Trac, Gehl and ASV units seat the operator.

You also should examine the controls carefully, looking not only at how comfortable they are to operate for long periods, but also how easy they are to learn. You may have to frequently train new crewmembers to use the machine, so you don't want it to be too difficult to learn.

Get attached to your machine

I mentioned earlier that two primary things make miniloaders so valuable. Small size is the first. Versatility is the other. Literally dozens of attachments are available for miniloaders that allow one machine to perform many functions. This versatility, along with their small size, makes miniloaders the great all-around landscaping tools that they are. Common implements include buckets, sweepers, tillers, augers, forks, backhoes, trenchers and stump grinders, though many others are available. To give you one example, Power Trac boasts more than 60 attachments for its units.

As Toro's Paine states, “The true value of a Toro Dingo or any compact utility loader lies in the versatility to create a system to enhance and replace labor. By using a variety of attachments on a single job, a crew can virtually eliminate all difficult physical labor. No other type of machine can perform all of these functions and still fit into a back yard with a gate.”

With so many tools available, and the likelihood of using several of them on a particular job, ease of attaching and detaching them is at a high premium. This is definitely something you should check out thoroughly before selecting a unit.

A related issue is the compatibility of the mounting system. Several manufacturers use a similar mounting system. This can be a great advantage, because it doesn't lock you into using just one brand of loader and implements. You can buy a new loader, perhaps even a different brand, and still use your old implements, and vice versa. It also has opened the door for aftermarket manufacturers to create and sell implements that can be used on a variety of brands. However, this system is not universal, so check carefully to ensure that both the loader itself and the available implements will satisfy your needs.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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