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Comparison Shopping for Compact Loaders
By Mike Dahl, LC/DBM

With their cab-forward designs, their ability to turn 360 degrees or "skid," and the flexibility that hundreds of tool attachments controlled by powerful hydraulics brings, compact skid steers are sought-after machines in the landscape trade.

The operating capacity on the Caterpillar 236 is 1,950 lb. A compact loader's operating capacity is half as much as its tipping load, which is determined by adding weight on to the front of it until the machine tips forward.

The Avant 528, with a lifting capacity of 2,100 lbs., is 100 inches from front to back and weighs 2,900 lbs. It has three different cab options, a telescoping boom and boom self-leveling option. This bucket attachment is built with a sharp back edge for efficient backwards leveling of the ground.

Strong, agile and versatile, compact loaders are important tools to the landscape trade. Finding the one that fits your needs however can take some time as there are many makes, styles and/or sizes.

In an attempt to help our readers learn what to expect of a shopping experience, LC/DBM decided to hit the stores.

Compact loaders were, according to the Bobcat Company, invented by them in 1958. Over the years they have been prized for their toughness usefulness and portability. These exceptional machines can tackle most of the tasks performed by larger machines, but do so in tight spaces with numerous obstacles at significant savings.

They also make quick work of jobs that were traditionally handled by hand-held tools such as grinding stumps and installing sprinkler pipe. The wide variety of attachments allows you to, as one manufacturer pointed out, invent things for your loader to do.

The three major styles are tractors, track loaders and skid steers, the latter two being the ones that were somewhat arbitrarily selected (being able to turn on a dime and having cab forward designs were cited as reasons) for initial research. Before this, an "expected" work profile was developed - that being 6 to 10 jobs a year of .5 acre to 2.5 acres in size that demanded demoing, excavating, grading, tree planting, and irrigation installation.

Due Diligence
Skid steers are so named because they can pivot 360 degrees, or as a Bobcat salesman said, ''turn within themselves.'' This is referred to as skidding.

''Track loaders turn as tight as skid steers but you don't want to turn them too tight because you're going to wear out the track,'' according to the above-mentioned salesman who added that tracks are about $2000 per side whereas tires are less than $500 per side.

Track loaders biggest advantage over skid steers are, no surprise, the tracks. They give the machines enhanced flotation, which helps them perform better in mud, sand and any soft or wet environment. They also climb slopes better and are more stable operating on a grade.

Even though track loaders weigh more than skid steers of same size, that weight is spread out over a wider area, which gives them higher pushing forces and the ability to lift larger loads. It also leads to less ground damage so you spend less time and money on ground repair.

One not so obvious advantage of track loaders is that because of their improved traction they can extend the working season in cold and wet areas.

But they are more expensive than their wheeled counterparts. The Bobcat dealership quoted a track loader at 42 percent more than the same model of skid steer. The higher weight would also lead to more gas consumption. And as mentioned, tracks are four times as expensive to replace as tires.

Given the fact that hot, dry Southern California is our home base, LC/DBM decided to forego better flotation and choose the less pricey option of skid steers.

Kicking the Tires
An Internet search showed that John Deere, Case, Caterpillar and Bobcat all had dealerships within 35 miles of LC/DBM's office so the shopping expedition was narrowed to these four brands.

Introductory calls were made and then the dealerships were visited so that the various skid steers could be viewed, sat in, driven and evaluated. Before discussing the ins and outs of each brand, here are some general shopping tips that were discovered.

First, make an appointment with the salesperson. Shopping for a compact loader is not like shopping for a car - you can't just show up on the lot and expect a salesman to be waiting to take you on a test drive. Often it is just one person in charge of selling compact loaders and that person often is off-site for a variety of reasons. In addition, they might not have the model you are interested in but can usually arrange for one to be there (they can pull from their rental pool or another location) if they know in advance. For instance, the local Caterpillar dealer has 911 models in their product line but did not have one compact loader on the lot when LC/DBM showed up unannounced on a Friday. The salesman said that "they are all out or sold." Another rep added that this was rare, and indeed there were two skid steers available the following Tuesday.

Though not as powerful, mini track loaders provide the flexibility and productivity that compact loaders do but have better access to job sites and allow for work in tighter spaces. This Bobcat model can be used as a walk-behind but also comes with an attachable ride-on platform.

Compact tractors are also powerful and versatile tools for landscapers. The Ventrac 4500Y has a 25 horsepower diesel engine that produces 42 foot-pounds of peak torque. It is 'articulated', which gives it a turning radius of 39 inches.

Matched up to skid steers, track loaders have enhanced flotation, which helps them perform better in mud, sand and any soft or wet environment, climb slopes better, and operate with more stability on a grade. Even though they weigh more than skid steers of same size, that weight is spread out over a wider area, which leads to less turf damage. But they are more expensive than comparable skid steers.

Salespeople often have territories based on where your business is located. When the initial Case salesperson was contacted, he had to hand it off to the person, in the same office, whose territory we fell into. And even though there was a Caterpillar dealer in LC/DBM's home county, the dealer in the next county was more convenient to visit but they could not do business with us.

Dealers often rent, which is a good way to check out makes and models. The local Caterpillar dealer promotes a "try before you buy" program.

The Case location visited did not do rentals - they were handled at another yard less than 15 miles away. The company rep said that if needed, they could bring a new model in from their other two Southern California locations or as far away as Washington.

He added that one of the two local places "has dirt to try it out more," and that they allow machines to be test driven at a job site.

The John Deere salesperson at first tried to promote their "green line" which he said was for lawn and garden but they were tractors - the yellow line had the skid steer, which the company designates as construction. We found out later that the local dealer lost the contract to sell skid steers, which was a setback in the shopping expedition, as we did not have time at that point to find a dealer that did sell them.

A surprise was that the Caterpillar dealer did not have literature. The sales rep remarked, "everything is online at," which is an easy Website to remember and turned out to have straightforward navigation to the skid steer page where you can, print out spec sheets and even request a quote.

There was also a comparison tool, which allows you to weigh four other machines against the Cat model you are interested in. LC/DBM's recommendation though is to rely on each brand's own Website to get the specs for comparison purposes. One final tip, as a sales rep pointed out, "the second half of the year is often the best time to buy because of dealer incentives." For instance, both Caterpillar and Case were promoting 0% financing for 48 months at the time of this writing. Bobcat offered 0% financing for 60 months in their track loader quote.

The Contenders
Since this would be a first-time purchase, a smaller skid steer made the most sense. The smallest of the three brands is the Bobcat S70 with an operating capacity of 700 pounds. However Caterpillar's smallest model, according to the sales rep, was the 226B with an operating capacity of 1,500 pounds (we found out later that they did offer a slightly smaller one) and so for a fair comparison, the three models that made the final cut were in that general range.

Besides the Cat 226B, we shopped for the Bobcat S510 with an operating capacity of 1,650 pounds, and the Case SR160 with an operating capacity of 1,600 pounds.

The models were evaluated for features and differences in their bodies, cabs, engines, loaders, and additional elements.

The Ditch Witch SK750 features a 24.8 horsepower diesel engine, an 800 lb. rated operating capacity, and a maximum operating height of a standard bucket of 103 inches.

Caterpillar skid steer loaders have hydraulic self-leveling of the bucket to reduce spillage when lifting the arms and traveling. This 262 model has a maximum operating height of 157.8 inches and an operating capacity of 2,700 lb. or 2,950 lb. with the addition of a rear counterweight.

With an operating capacity of 2,190 lb., which can be increased to 2,350 lb. with an optional rear counterweight, the John Deere 320 skid steer is one of the company's mid-range compact loaders.

The View Outside
The cab-forward body design of skid steers is an advantage that is clear as soon as you sit in one and peer out. Your tool, be it a bucket, auger, trencher, etc., is right in front of you, unobstructed by an engine hood. And just beyond that tool is your work so you literally feel right on top of it. Since the engine is in the back, your rear view is not as clear. All three manufacturers slant the angle of the engine compartment to compensate for that.

The Case machine has a dozer-style undercarriage "engineered to hold fast on steep slopes and take command of muddy or sandy terrain." Its literature also states that it has the highest departure angle for good ground clearance but the specs showed that of the three models, it had the lowest ground clearance. Case also advertises a lengthened wheelbase for more stability to lift larger loads and reduce control jerking, back jolting, and bounce but again came in third in that category.

The Bobcat has a keel-shaped undercarriage designed to minimize the chance of getting stuck. According to their literature, "like a boat slicing through water, the undercarriage sheds debris and it provides higher ground clearance." But the Caterpillar led in this category at 7.6 inches.

A simple tip from the Bobcat rep on how to select the size of a machine to buy is to base it on the access width of your typical jobs, as you won't be able to use your machine if you can't get it through gates, and doorways (a recently submitted project's only access was through the back door of a garage) at your job site. That might be hard to gauge but it is a point worth keeping in mind.

An Inside Look
Again this discussion starts with the cab forward design and the excellent forward visibility that it provides. But side, rear and top visibilities (they have windows in the cab to facilitate lifting loads high and other work performed at extended lifts) are not as clear so spend some time in the cabs of different models and really try to get a feel for, and evaluate the sight lines to the edges of the tires, out back and up top. In particular, are you able to see the wheels without having to lift the arms and at what arm-height is the view of the tires obstructed? This is important because a job might have tight tolerances between the tires and curbs, walls, trees, etc.

Another visibility concern is at what height the arms and attachment obstruct the view forward and what does it take to compensate for that - peering around, above or below the obstruction.

Climb in and out of the cabs of the models you are considering because that is something you will do a lot. And sit in the cabs for a while, operating the controls, flipping the switches, looking at the instrument panels. This will be your workspace and you want to feel comfortable with its ergonomics. Speaking of comfort, driving the selected machines proved that they can be a bouncy ride so the seat, armrest, control placement, pedal placement, head, shoulder and leg room are areas of concern. Many of the models offered suspension or "air-ride" seat options.

The basic cab is called an "open ROPS" - ROPS stands for roll over protection structure. The cage that surrounds the operator is open to the elements but enclosed cabs are available. They not only allow for air conditioning and heat but as the Case rep pointed out, they provide noise and dirt reduction. Here in Southern California, "The average guy is going to get an open ROPS canopy," added the rep. "But enclosed are getting more popular especially for day-in, day-out workers."

The control systems come in various flavors. The Bobcat version tested had simple left and right hand controls for driving, much like riding mowers. Each steering level operates each drive side independently. Foot pedals then control the loader lift and tilt. It was very easy to get the hang of. Bobcat does offer two options to this. The first option lets you switch from standard hand and foot control to "H-pattern" hand controls where the left lever controls the left drive and the lift, and the right one controls the right drive and the tilt. The second option is a selectable joystick control that lets you use an "ISO-pattern," which according to the Case sales rep is an electrical/hydraulic system as opposed to a mechanical system, and relies more on wrist action.

He also said that even though the hand controls in the Case cab were not as simple to learn as hand and foot controls, "guys like the them for better maneuvering and feathering."

According to the rep, Case used to offer a foot control package to try to win over operators who were used to the Bobcat controls but now operators only have a choice of H-pattern or ISO-pattern joystick controls.

In the Caterpillar machine, the right joystick controls the loader raise, lower and tilt functions while the left joystick controls the forward and reverse travel speed plus direction.

Optional deluxe joysticks provide additional auxiliary controls with fingertip control of many work tool functions, including proportional work tool hydraulics and work tool electrical.

The Cat 226B has both a hand and a foot throttle. The hand throttle is recommended for jobs requiring constant engine speed. The foot throttle lets the operator vary engine speed.

A radial lift path on this Case skid steer means that the loader mechanism travels in an arc from bottom to top and back down. This delivers the maximum reach of the arms at the midway point of the lift, which is typically at about truck bed height.

This Bobcat track loader is equipped with a vertical lift package, which gives it the ability to lift higher, keeping the load closer to the machine throughout the lift, and have more reach at full lift height than a machine with radial lift. Bobcat's vertical lift package was quoted at around $3,700 more than their radial lift package on the S510.

Carrying the Load
At the initial Bobcat visit, the rep said that the bucket should only be as wide as the machine is, measured from the outside tire edges. By the looks of the marketing materials, the other manufacturers somewhat agree. However when pressed, the Bobcat salesman did allow for using a wider bucket, for instance, when moving mulch.

Agreeing with this was the Case rep who said, "A wider bucket can clear a path for the wheels so that they don't rub along the sides (of a trench, etc.). Or if you are working up next to a curb, the wider bucket will keep tires from rubbing on it."

The Caterpillar rep suggested having two buckets - a 60-inch-wide model with teeth and a 66-inch-wide model with an edge. His reasoning was that the narrow bucket was as wide as the machine, which is necessary to protect the tires, and with the teeth, would be used to dig into harder materials, which requires all the driving force available. The wider bucket gave the machine more flexibility with looser materials.

He also advised that the smaller bucket can be easily carried to the job in the wider bucket and that they be switched out as needed, which he said is an easier task than bolting on teeth or an edge (the Bobcat quote included bolt-on teeth - the Case quote included a bolt-on edge).

Both the Caterpillar and the Bobcat have hydraulic self-leveling of the bucket to reduce spillage when lifting the arms.

As far as the lift goes, all three models have a radial path design, which means the arm movement forms an arc that provides maximum reach midway through the lift. That is usually about truck bed height. The radial lift pattern also is said to deliver better digging performance.

The Bobcat model also has an option for a vertical lift path that provides higher lift capacity. This keeps the load closer to the machine throughout the lift but at full lift height, the loader has more reach than one with radial lift does at full lift height.

The John Deere 1026R compact tractor features a 25 gross horsepower diesel engine, 4-wheel drive power steering, a 57-inch wheelbase, a 47-inch overall width, and is compatible with hundreds of attachments and implements including a backhoe.

The Power Within
When asked what set the Bobcat apart from its competitors, the rep opened up the rear of the engine compartment, pointed and proclaimed, "easy access to the engine." But he didn't explain to a newbie why that was important. By the end of the shopping expedition it was clear though - to keep these machines making money, much routine maintenance is required, which includes daily checks of the engine coolant, hydraulic oil level, engine oil level, fuel and air filter, and filling, cleaning or replacing where necessary.

The Bobcat did seem to focus a lot on the engine design. It has a patented dual-path cooling system that draws air from above, which they claim is cooler and cleaner, instead of over the top of tires or from the rear of the loader, which presumably their competitors do.

Another advantage according to the manufacturer is that the radiator and hydraulic oil cooler are positioned between the frame uprights above the engine instead of immediately inside the tailgate where it can be damaged by items that can poke through the tailgate ventilation holes. At first thought, the possibility of something, like rebar, finding its way through a small hole and damaging the coolers seemed remote but I'm sure it has happened and the owners of that equipment weren't happy when it did.

The Case model had a swing out rear door that allows access to some preventative maintenance, with other maintenance accessible from a tilt-up top panel or removable side panel. To reach some major components of the engine, the cab is tilted up from the front.

In the Caterpillar machine, the cab tilts rearward for access to all hydraulic pumps, motors, valves, lines and the hydraulic tank. It also has a rear door that opens 90 degrees for access to both sides of the engine.

The engines in the three models were diesel, as are most if not all of skid steer engines. The reason, explains Kyle Brandemuhl, the director of diesel engines for the Kohler Company, is because the torque that these engines provide allows the machinery to be operated more efficiently.

Since a skid steer loader will have multiple hydraulic pumps that it is driving, and all those pumps are being used at the same time, it puts a drain on the engine. According to Brandemuhl, diesel engines like Kohler's KDI model produce good torque at a lower RPM than gasoline engines do so you are able to run the engine at a lower speed, get all that torque, but also get the benefits of fuel efficiency and less noise.

The KDI engine is being used by JCB skid steer loaders now, and Kohler is working with several other loader OEM's in the U.S. that might have them in their machines in the future.

When evaluating a loader's cab, important considerations are the types of driving controls, hand and/or foot; the sight lines to the edges of the tires, the bucket or other attachment, out back and up top; and how easy it is to climb in and out.

The Caterpillar machine has an anti-stall system, which is a "load-sensing feature (that) prevents the engine from stalling even during part throttle operation, keeping productivity high and fuel consumption low."

Bobcats don't have an anti stall system but if you overload their working capacity, "you will get feedback from the engine and the controls, you'll feel it on the hydraulics, you'll feel it in your hands, you'll feel it in the way the machine runs," according to the rep.

One option the Bobcat machines do have is theft protection. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, $3 million in compact equipment is lost each day to thieves. To combat that, Bobcat offers password protected instrument panels and up to eight custom keyless start codes. They claim that having this feature could qualify you for reduced insurance premiums.

The Caterpillar machine has a lockable engine enclosure.

Various other features are offered on the various machines including Case's "ride control," which they explain is "shock absorption that reduces loader arm bounce at elevated speeds," and Caterpillar's "high flow hydraulics," for "increased work tool performance."

For added traction, over-the-tire steel tracks are available from Bobcat. And on their largest skid steer, they offer an all-wheel steer option to make more gradual turns that don't tear the turf up. This innovation might be available on smaller machines in the future.

Finally, Case and Caterpillar allow for rear counterweights that increase their machines operating capacity.

The Bottom Line
The quotes all came in at under $36,000 before taxes for the machine and bucket. The Case SR160 was the lowest priced by more than $2,000 and was paired with a 66-inch-wide low profile bucket. The Bobcat S510 with its 62-inch low profile bucket was the most expensive. The Caterpillar 226B was quoted at around $1,000 less than the Bobcat and that included the two-bucket option as discussed earlier.

Additional attachments included a 6-inch trencher for installing irrigation that was priced above $5,000 and an auger with two bits for tree planting that came in above $4,000.

Other options on the quotes were a 3-year/3000-hour total machine warranty for a little more than $2,000, and a cab accessory package for almost $400.

A cycle time is how fast a machine can complete a task such as lifting the bucket from the lowest point to the highest point, dumping it and lowering it back down again.

All three dealers offered 0% financing although the Caterpillar term in months was for one year less. Their 60-month rate was almost a percentage point higher than Bobcats.

In the final analysis, the quotes were about as expected - quite competitive with the higher price on the machine that seemed to merit a premium. A little surprise was that the Case was less than the Caterpillar given its higher operating capacity.

Before settling on which machine to buy, more test drives would be in order, even if that meant having to rent a machine and take it to a job to do so. And so this shopping expedition would necessarily have to continue but now equipped with this information, your shopping experience should be that much more agreeable and productive.

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February 28, 2020, 12:47 am PDT

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