When planning your compact loader purchase for your construction business, balance common sense and ROI to come out ahead.

The compact loader is more than just an auxiliary piece of equipment. As the name implies, compact loaders are designed to work in confined areas and on congested jobsites. It's no surprise that these machines are so popular with construction business owners-they're versatile, offering the ability to move from one task to another simply by changing attachments, and they're also more powerful and productive than ever before. In addition, today's compact loaders have become more comfortable, quiet and sophisticated.

Choosing just the right compact loader for your business can be a challenge. Most major manufacturers now offer both skid steer or compact track loaders, with radius or vertical path lift arm styles and a full range of sizes from small to very large. With all of these choices, a good way to begin the acquisition process is to consider how the machine will be used in your operation.

Start by asking yourself some questions about lifting performance:

  • Will your compact loader be used to lift heavy, dense materials such as sand, soil or gravel?
  • Will you use the loader to load and unload pallets? If so, what is the weight of those palletized materials, whether brick, block or bags of cement? If the loader will only be used to move lighter, loose materials like piping, demolition waste, scrap metal and wood, lifting performance may be less of an issue.
  • Do you need extra dump height to load material into high-sided dump trucks? Or do you need maximum reach to backfill around foundations or to load and unload pallets on flatbed trucks?
  • Do you frequently work in areas with narrow doorways and/or gates? Or are your jobsites usually wide open? It's important to think about accessibility.
  • Will you need extra traction for pushing into piles on soft or muddy ground? Or will the majority of your work take place on improved surfaces? Consider these questions to help determine what kind of power you need.

Skid Steer vs. Compact Track Loaders

Go with a skid-steer loader if most of your work is on paved or improved surfaces or in an existing development, advises Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist with Bobcat Company in West Fargo, N.D. Skid-steer loaders have a lower initial cost for the same size machine and lower owning-and-operating costs than compact track loaders because the tires on a skid-steer loader cost far less than the rubber tracks used on compact track loaders.



For example, Fitzgerald says, a set of skid-steer tires costs between $600 and $1,000 and lasts 600 to 1,000 hours. Rubber tracks cost $3,000 to $4,500 per set and last 1,200 to 1,600 hours. With proper operation of the loader, rubber tracks should last about twice as long as tires. However, the tires still cost considerably less.

There are situations where skid-steer loaders have some disadvantages when compared to compact track loaders. In soft, wet conditions, skid-steer loader performance may not be as good as compact track loaders. In addition, compact track loaders provide greater pushing and digging power because the tracks have more area in contact with the surface.

On the other hand, when used on paved surfaces, the rubber tracks on compact track loaders tend to wear more quickly than tires unless great care is taken by the operator. However, Fitzgerald notes, in many parts of North America, a compact track loader will add months to the typical contractor's working year because of its ability to float on wet, muddy ground. He advised talking to local equipment dealers who sell compact loaders about their experience concerning the length of a typical working year.

Fitzgerald also notes that a compact track loader will dig and load more material in the same amount of time, or the same amount of material in less time, due to its superior traction capabilities.

When it comes to lift-arm design, most manufacturers offer a choice between loaders with a vertical-lift path and a radius-lift path. A vertical-lift path loader provides higher lift capacity and more reach at full-lift height than a radius-lift path machine. Because maximum reach is achieved at full-lift height, it's easier to clear high-sided trucks and hoppers.


A radius-lift path loader, on the other hand, raises the load in an arc that provides maximum reach at truck-bed height. A radius-lift path machine excels at jobs with mid-range working heights like dumping material over a wall, backfilling or loading and unloading flatbed trucks.

Fitzgerald notes that not every contractor needs extra lifting height. If you don't do a lot of lifting and loading of high-sided trucks, it's less expensive to purchase a radius path machine, he says. However, while vertical path machines have a higher initial cost, they usually command higher prices at resale time.

The other factor in lifting performance is rated operating capacity. Excavating and landscaping contractors generally need compact loaders with higher rated operating capacities because they move a lot of dirt, aggregate and other heavy loads. General contractors, on the other hand, may prefer a smaller, more versatile machine that can work in tight areas.

Comfort Matters When Choosing a Compact Loader

Another consideration when choosing a compact loader is operator comfort and control. With most compact loaders, an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning is optional but is usually a wise investment, Fitzgerald says. Many jobsites are hot (or cold) and dusty. Good operators are often difficult to find and keep. Therefore, a machine with a quiet, comfortable enclosed cab similar to the ones found on larger pieces of equipment is often a "perk" that pays off in operator happiness and job satisfaction.

Maximize Loader Operation

Fitzgerald offered the following tips to help maximize compact loader operation:

  • Invest in a variety of attachments. Often, lower-cost attachments can take the place of dedicated machines that would cost thousands more. Popular attachments for compact loaders include trenchers, angle brooms, planers, graders, vibratory rollers and backhoes.
  • If you want a skid-steer loader but need to occasionally work in rough, rocky or muddy conditions, purchase a set of over-the-tire tracks. Tracks can typically be installed in 30 minutes and removed in about 10 minutes.
  • If you work in conditions where tire punctures are a problem, consider buying a set of poly-fill tires. This will eliminate the downtime associated with a flat tire while maintaining the ride characteristics of a pneumatic tire.
  • Consider ordering an optional high-flow hydraulics package. It will allow you to use some attachments that do not work with standard flow hydraulics and will optimize the performance of many of your other attachments.


Many other options are offered by individual manufacturers to customize your compact loader to fit your specific needs. These include control and instrumentation packages (including radio remote control systems), various lighting packages and attachment systems that allow the operator to change non-hydraulic attachments without leaving the cab.


Construction Business Owner, September 2010