Landscape Equipment Management: Compact track loaders vs. skid-steer loaders

Updated Jan 14, 2016

Skid-steer loaders were the first piece of compact equipment to gain widespread acceptance in the United States. They were an outright blessing for landscaping contractors as their small size and extreme maneuverability allowed them to work effectively in small spaces, while their narrow width let them ease through garden gates and other constricted openings.

Of course, it’s human nature to improve upon a winning design. And that’s exactly what happened a few years ago when the first compact track loaders appeared on dealer lots. Manufacturers took the skid steer’s basic design strengths and added a full-length rubber track undercarriage.

At first glance, this innovation appears to be a match made in heaven for landscapers. The additional ground contact provided by the rubber undercarriage allows more stable lifting of heavier loads and better flotation over muddy terrain. Compact track loaders tend to inflict less damage on delicate turf and lawns.

But it’s too soon to declare skid steers obsolete. The fact is both machines have notable advantages and disadvantages. And shrewd landscapers who know these respective strengths and weaknesses can easily select the right machine for their jobs.

In fact, the primary skid-steer and compact track loaders have similar strengths. Both machines can handle excavating, grading, site development, demolition, erosion control and concrete and asphalt paving. So selecting the right machine often boils down to niche details like distances generally covered, desired ground pressure and budgetary concerns.

And both machines’ base capabilities can be easily expanded with attachments. “Many landscapers find the combination bucket especially useful,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist for Bobcat. “This bucket’s versatility enables it to perform five different tasks. With the combination bucket, operators can doze, grapple, level, dig and dump. It has serrated grapple edges to hold objects firmly in place and a reinforced bucket bottom and clamshell that can withstand all types of ground conditions.”

Both skid-steers and compact track loaders are equipped with powerful auxiliary hydraulic systems, meaning they can run even more landscaping attachments such as rotary cutters, chippers, soil conditioners, sod layers, spreaders, stump grinders, tree spades, landscape rakes and mowers. “So regardless of which machine you select, you’ll instantly gain a lot of flexibility when you add one to your fleet,” Fitzgerald says.

Skid steers: Cheaper to buy and operate
Many landscapers choose skid-steer loaders because they provide several benefits, mainly being able to perform a wide range of jobs, handle a large range of attachments and travel quickly between jobsites. On larger loaders, landscapers can choose the two-speed option, which allows the skid-steer loader to travel as fast as 12 mph in high-speed mode.

Skid steers can also turn within their own length allowing landscapers to maneuver in confined areas, although this skidding motion can damage turf and other surfaces. When it comes to load-carrying capability, skid-steers can handle payloads ranging from 700 to 3,000 pounds and work on a variety of surfaces from dirt to asphalt and concrete.

“I think most landscapers find skid steers are well-suited for landscaping applications like transporting brick pavers, large boulders, decorative rock, trees and shrubs, as well as bulk loading material,” adds Kent Pellegrini, skid-steer and compact track loader product manager for Caterpillar. “They’re not limited to these applications, but for material handling a skid steer can make the operator’s job much easier.”

Pellegrini notes that many design and dig landscapers use skid steers to build flower boxes and retaining walls, as well as to grade and sculpt dirt for contours and water features. “For me, that’s their greatest asset,” he says. “Because skid steers excel in areas like these that really bring in the money because they improve the price value of residential and commercial properties.”

A machine made for landscapers?
For landscapers working mostly in dirt and on established lawns, Fitzgerald says a compact track loader might be the best option when choosing between the two machine types. “A compact track loader’s undercarriage distributes the machine’s weight across a larger area,” he notes, “so ground disturbance is minimized.”

At the same time the track’s larger ground-to-surface contact contributes to improved flotation and optimizes the machine’s power and performance on rough terrain and soft, sandy surfaces, and in wet, muddy conditions. “So It enables operators to easily push heavier loads in these conditions without getting stuck,” Fitzgerald says. “That makes them ideal machines for fine-grading applications and capable of working in wet and muddy conditions.”

Pellegrini says Caterpillar meets the specific demands of landscape customers by offering a “Low Ground Pressure” version of their compact track loader (which Cat refers to as “multiterrain loaders”). “These machines are designed to inflict absolute minimal turf damage,” he explains. “For that reason, we see them used a lot in tree installation jobs, on golf courses or any place where lawn damage is a concern.”

Rubber tracks are so effective in such a wide range of ground conditions that Fitzgerald says many landscapers in certain regions can extend their working season by adding a track loader to their fleet. “Oftentimes, after it rains, landscapers with compact track loaders are some of the first workers back on a jobsite,” he notes. “By getting back to work sooner, they’re able to complete jobs faster, thus maximizing their profitability.”

But a compact track loader’s undercarriage can be a curse instead of a blessing if it is used for an inappropriate application, many manufacturers say. In fact, according to Greg Zupanic, product manager for John Deere, landscapers with nursery operations or who engage in repetitive truck loading applications may prefer a skid-steer loader for their business. “Loading material on hard surfaces like gravel, asphalt or concrete is better suited for a skid-steer loader,” Zupanic says. “Track machines continuously working in these conditions may see abnormal wear to the track belts. If the work is ‘fast and furious,’ in bulk supply yards, a skid steer will probably be the better choice. But in all other landscaping applications, a compact track loader is probably the better choice.”

There are some other negatives to running a compact track loader, too, Zupanic says. “Compact track loaders have a higher acquisition price than skid steers,” he notes. “And daily maintenance tends to be more expensive and time-consuming because the tracked undercarriage is inherently more complex than a skid steer’s four rubber tires. There are rollers and idlers and the track itself which must be maintained properly for the machine to stay productive.”

Tracks are also more expensive than tires to replace, cautions Mike Ross, product manager, Takeuchi. “That’s another reason it’s vital to operate a track loader only in the proper applications and environments,” he says.

Crunching the numbers
Just how much bigger of an investment is a compact track loader? A fairly significant one, according to Bobcat: The cost of one of its skid-steer models ranges from approximately $16,500 to $35,000. Its compact track loaders start in the neighborhood of $34,000 and range up to $54,000, although prices in both cases vary based on features, options and other factors.

“There is no doubt compact track loaders are more expensive than skid steers,” Ross notes. “However, the increased performance and productivity they offer, plus the ability to work in all types of conditions, can allow you to put a lot more money in your pocket at the end of the job. In many cases, it’s not hard to justify the difference in price once you take all the numbers into consideration.”

So how to you figure out if a compact track loader is worth the additional purchase price? “Track it,” Ross says. “Look at how many jobs you would have had to wait an additional day or two for the ground to dry before you could get back to work. Ask yourself, ‘What types of conditions do I operate most of the time? Will adding a compact track loader allow me to work in all types of conditions and provide the opportunity to work on jobs that were previously beyond my capabilities?’ Once you’ve answered those questions, you’ll have a good idea if a track machine is worth the additional expense.”

If you’re still not sure, Zupanic says you can always contact your equipment dealer and arrange to test one on a project. “All of this stuff is theoretical until you get a machine on one of your jobs and can assess it for yourself. Any reputable dealer will be more than happy to loan you a demonstration model so you judge for yourself which machine is the right fit for your business.”

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Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
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