Compact utility loaders are a relatively latecomer to the world of construction equipment. More often than not, you’ll hear them referred to as “mini skid steers” on jobsites throughout the country. That’s not surprising since these compact and capable loaders were first developed directly from existing skid-steer loader platforms.
At their core, compact utility loaders are highly maneuverable, mobile hydraulic power sources. And this, in the minds of landscapers and manufacturers alike, is where their true potential lays. As a mobile power unit, compact utility loaders can transport and run a wide array of hydraulically powered attachments specially designed to work in landscaping and light construction applications. Another plus is the fact that compact utility loaders are small enough to be towed behind 1/2- or 3/4-ton pickup trucks, so there is no need to purchase additional trucks or trailers to put one of these machines to work.
Today, compact utility loaders are particularly identified with landscapers, and Jon Kuyers, segment manager, utility products, Vermeer, says that’s not surprising. “They’re great machines for new companies or smaller companies because – from an investment standpoint – you don’t have as large of a capital outlay in comparison with a skid steer or compact wheel loader for your business,” Kuyers notes. “Second, they are such versatile machines – not only in the amount and way they allow landscapers to use attachments, but also due to their ability to get into and work in the backyards, small lots and other areas landscapers commonly find themselves in.”
“Both track and tire models feature reduced ground pressure,” adds Kevin Vinroe, northeast territory representative for Compact Power Equipment, which manufacturers the Boxer line of compact utility loaders. “In either case, these machines have a maximum width of approximately 431⁄5 inches, but still have up to 1,050 pounds of operating capacity (at 50 percent of tip load).”
An affordable option
The mathematics of adding a compact utility loader to a landscaping business is fairly straightforward – and appealing – too, Vinroe says. Most units start at around $25,000 and top out around $35,000. For many landscapers on tight budgets, those figures can seem daunting at first.
“If you find yourself needing to get more work done, the first instinct is to hire more labor,” Kuyers notes. “If you bring another worker on board, you’re going to pay that person somewhere around $400 or $500 a week before taxes. But if you opt instead to buy a compact utility loader, you’re going to see your jobsite productivity increase by a third or more, while actually saving money in the long run.”
Kuyers says Vermeer has determined a two-man crew can often double the work they perform in a single day by bringing a compact utility loader to their jobsites based on input received from customers. “And when you’re looking at paying an additional worker a minimum of $26,000 a year – you can see that you can get your return on investment for the machine in 12 months or less,” he notes. “On a more extended payment plan, you can make a $500-a-month payment on the machine and pocket the other $1,600 you would have paid out in that same period of time.”
By most estimates, an average compact utility loader accumulates anywhere from 250 to 500 hours of operation in a year. Landscapers working in milder climates have been known to put as much as 700 to 1,000 hours on a machine annually. “In either case, when we see up to 5,000 hours on a machine we consider it’s pretty much at the end of its usable life, depending on how it was maintained,” Kuyers notes.
For those reasons, used compact utility loaders are a rarity. And, as Aaron Kleingartner, loader product specialist for Bobcat notes, these machines tend to hold their value fairly well. “So by the time you weigh the age and the hours on the machine versus money saved on a used machine, you’re usually better off buying new,” he notes.
For most landscapers the first and most obvious, buying decision is choosing between tires or a rubber track machine. Rubber tracks offer superior handling on slopes and in muddy terrain. They also inflict less damage on lawns or sensitive turf thanks to the inherently ground pressure they exert on the ground. Their major drawback is longevity. Kuyers says even if tracks aren’t abused, most landscapers should budget for replacing them every year as part of a machine’s annual maintenance cycle.
Rubber tire machines aren’t as stable on slopes as rubber track machines are. They also exert greater pressure on the ground and the skidding action that initiates turns can rut sensitive turf surfaces. On the other hand, rubber tires offer superior speed and durability on asphalt, concrete and other abrasive surfaces. Tires can last for several seasons or more before needing replacement and the advent of optional, flat-proofed tires with polyurethane fillings have vastly reduced the chances of a puncture abruptly bringing work to a halt.
“I would stress investigating the attachment capabilities of any compact loader you may purchase, because attachments are what really give these machines their full potential on a jobsite,” Kleingartner stresses. “But a lot of landscapers don’t understand how to use them properly. So I recommend asking questions to determine what kinds of attachments are available, acquisition costs versus rental options, as well as the hydraulic flow and pressure rates on the prospective machine to ensure it can run the attachments you’re interested in.”