A New Class of Equipment

Since the late 1990s, landscape contractors and equipment manufacturers alike recognized the need for a versatile piece of equipment that could significantly reduce, if not eliminate, hand labor. While several types of laborsaving equipment have appeared on the market in recent years, one of the most popular and versatile is the compact utility loader.

The virtual equivalent of a Swiss army knife for the construction and landscape industry, compact utility loaders are multi-purpose machines that use a variety of attachments to tackle a wide range of applications. The first compact utility loaders entered the U.S. market in 1995 as manufacturers realized the potential for a piece of equipment that could replace hand labor and complement an existing equipment fleet. Today, the category encompasses both wheeled and tracked units in ride-on, stand-on and walk-behind designs. Though similar in function and versatility, wheeled units are ideally suited for turfgrass and other even surfaces. Tracked models entered the market to accommodate difficult terrain conditions such as mud or sand.

THE SKID-STEER MYTH

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Because of their versatility and ability to perform some of the same functions as skid steers in confined areas, compact utility loaders quickly developed the reputation as a “mini skid steer.” Though skid steers and compact utility loaders share some design similarities and perform some of the same functions, their core strengths and applications are actually quite different. Rather than replacing skid steers, a compact utility loader is a complement to such equipment. Compact utility loaders are designed to utilize hydraulic powered attachments in confined or sensitive areas. Compact utility loaders are used approximately 75 percent of the time with an attachment other than a bucket.

An average skid steer measures about 65 inches in width, nearly twice the size of a compact utility loader. With widths as narrow as 29.5 inches, compact utility loaders can maneuver through standard gates and door frames and travel and operate in areas where only hand labor could otherwise work. Additionally, ground pressures as low as 3.4 psi enable them to travel across sensitive turf.

In addition to the maneuverability and low ground pressure, the small size also makes for easy transport. Most compact utility loaders can be transported on a single-axle trailer with up to six attachments included.

A VARIETY OF APPLICATIONS TO REPLACE HAND LABOR

Designed as a dedicated power center for more than 50 attachments, compact utility loaders can be used for landscaping, general construction or virtually any application where efficiency can be improved through the replacement of hand labor to bolster profits. The most popular attachments are high-torque earth augers, trenchers, soil cultivators and hydraulic breakers. The breadth of attachments enables these compact units to perform big-machine applications like grading soil or carrying large root-ball trees. Even though the hauling capacity of compact utility loaders is less than a skid steer's, the bucket attachments allow them to serve, secondarily, as material-handling machines.

In addition to improving crew efficiency, compact utility loaders can enable smaller landscaping businesses to expand their service offerings from seasonal to year-round with the simple addition of such attachments as rotary brooms, hydraulic blades and snow throwers. In addition, by adding a compact utility loader to the fleet, they can expand into landscape creation with minimal added equipment or labor expenses. Larger businesses with multiple crews benefit from the machine's ease of operation and ability to perform big-machine projects in compact spaces.

CAREFUL CONSIDERATION REQUIRED

With increasing popularity in the landscape, construction, demolition and rental markets, a flood of new models have entered the market in recent years. Selecting the right compact utility loader for your fleet requires careful evaluation. Many factors should weigh into the selection process with the three most critical being ease of operation, versatility of attachments and after-sale support.

EASE OF OPERATION

Because it's typical for numerous operators with a variety of skill and experience levels to operate job site equipment, ease of operation should be a major factor in selecting a compact utility loader. Easy-to-understand controls equate to more productive workers. With a variety of control panel options on the market, the best advice is to choose a utility loader that's well-labeled and designed and easy to understand, and one that will offer a comfortable and familiar feel to the operator.

Most wheeled units feature a control system of toggle switches similar to that of a skid steer. Though not as simple as the T-bar system found on some tracked models, the toggle levers provide familiar operation to those accustomed to using a skid steer. The five toggle levers manipulate the wheels, provide zero-turn capabilities and control the lift and tilt of the bucket and base plate. An auxiliary handle controls hydraulic attachments. Some control systems take operator control to a new level by providing auxiliary attachment controls. These controls allow the user to regulate and direct the hydraulic flow and enhance operation of such attachments as augers and trenchers.

Though relatively simple and easy to understand, the toggle system of wheeled units is no doubt more difficult to operate than the T-bar steering offered on some models. By far the easiest control system, the T-bar design provides direction control via a floating bar that is easily manipulated with just one hand. A supplementary joystick control provides for operation of the attachment. This simple design is ideal for models in the rental market where a variety of users must develop comfort with the machine quickly to be productive.

But, whether you choose the toggle or T-bar control, you can't afford to sacrifice safety. An automatic deadman switch is imperative to any job-site equipment — compact utility loaders included. This feature will disengage the machine should the operator release the controls or accidentally lose control, protecting not only the operator but other individuals on the site as well.

GETTING ATTACHED

The versatility of a compact utility loader is dependent upon the attachments. With a possible selection set of more than 50 attachments, you can eliminate the need to purchase several dedicated pieces of equipment by purchasing a base unit offering the flexibility of adding multiple attachments. This flexibility reduces your overall fleet costs. Therefore, when purchasing a compact utility loader, consider the features of the base unit, but also the manufacturer's breadth of attachments and its potential, capability and willingness to grow with your business.

But there's more to the attachment than versatility. Durability and overall longevity of the attachment are key factors to increase efficiency and minimize expenses. For optimal performance, select a brand that offers heavy-duty gear motors and hydraulic bearings and double-shielded seals to protect the hydraulic mechanisms from debris and damage. Select units that have ground-engaging parts manufactured from abrasion-resistant materials to extend longevity.

Although, in theory, you could fit any manufacturer's attachment to any brand compact utility loader, doing so is not recommended if you wish to maximize the life of both base unit and the attachments. By purchasing attachments from the OEM of your base unit, you guarantee a match in hydraulic system requirements as well as appropriate flow and pressure ratings. Not only will this improve the overall performance, but it will also extend the service life of both the base unit and attachments.

MORE THAN A GOOD PRODUCT

Performance, flexibility and versatility are key, but your equipment is only as good as the support you receive after the sale. For that reason, the reputation of the manufacturer and the quality of the dealer network must be a consideration. Local dealers with well-trained representatives and well-stocked parts inventories ensure speedy resolution of any issue. In addition, a dealer should be an informational resource on the features and benefits of the unit and competitive models, and should supply proper safety and operation training. Some dealers go the distance to set themselves apart with the programs and services they offer, including lending substitute units while your machine is being serviced or offering a flexible rent-to-own program for additional machine purchases. Your dealer will be your key contact after the sale, so make sure you are comfortable with that relationship.

SERIOUS DECISION, SERIOUS OPPORTUNITY

Any equipment decision requires careful and serious consideration to evaluate both the cost and potential benefits. In the case of compact utility loaders, the versatility and opportunity to expand your business offers tremendous benefits. By carefully exploring your options and product needs and considering flexibility, opportunity to grow and long-term support, you can choose a new piece of equipment to complement any existing fleet and seriously boost your bottom line.

Brad Paine is associate marketing manager for The Toro Co. (Bloomington, Minn.).

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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