Skid Steers Versus Compact Wheel Loaders

March 12, 2015

Each machine is better at doing some jobs, under some conditions, than the other. The skid steer loader was born in the United States, and it far outsells compact wheel loaders in North America. In Europe, just the opposite is true; far more compact loaders are sold, and they do jobs that skid steers do in North America.

“By default most people in the US are going to say, I need a skid steer loader,” says Brent Coffey, product manager, loaders, Wacker Neuson Corp. “And that’s just because that’s the way they have been trained to operate. The skid steer loader has been around forever. But if you look at the marketplace in Europe, it’s the complete opposite. Everybody by default goes to wheel loader and in some cases they will use a skid steer, but very rarely.

Credit: Terex

“In the US what a lot of people learn when they use a wheel loader is that they experience a lot of the efficiencies of a wheel loader that they didn’t expect,” continues Coffey. “That’s because they have always used a skid steer loader.

For many applications, improved the improved visibility of a compact wheel loader is critical. Consider snow removal, for example. You’ve got to see the mail boxes, the light poles and so forth.”

Applications that involve a travel distance between picking and loading favor a compact wheel loader, because they can move faster and offer a better ride, says Doug Laufenberg, product marketing manager, compact wheel loaders, John Deere Construction and Forestry. “Anything where you’re picking pallets off the ground or from a truck, or filling a bin or a hopper, those are great applications for a wheel loader,” says Laufenberg.

On the other hand, skid steer loaders are better for operating in confined or tight spaces. They can turn on a dime. “So although the radius on a wheel loader is very, very tight, it is not as tight as a skid steer,” says Coffey. “In demolition for example, people may use a skid steer or in tight stables where you’ve got to back out or you have to make a zero radius turn, a skid steer will be better for you there as well. The height of our skid steers is 6 feet, 10 inches, and our wheel loaders have a higher cab height on them. So if you have an issue where you have a lower overhang, the skid steer will be better.”

Lars Arnold is product manager, compact equipment, Volvo Construction Equipment; the company builds both skid steer loaders and compact wheel loaders. He says the compact wheel loader is better when the ground surface is delicate because you steer it instead of skidding. If a landscape supplier wants to place one pallet of material atop another one on a truck, an articulated loader is better suited. “I used to say that an owner-operator who moves from a skid steer loader to a compact wheel loader usually will never go back to a skid steer,” says Arnold.

Credit: Bobcat
Skid steer loader

Arnold says that the overall performance of a compact wheel loader is better than a skid steer—in terms of lifting force and bucket break-out force. “And even though the initial price of the compact wheel loader is higher, its overall owning and operating cost is lower. You use less fuel and have less tire wear with a compact loader. And last but not least, the expected equipment lifetime is much higher on a compact wheel loader than a skid steer loader,” says Arnold. “Usually a compact wheel loader lifetime in hours is double that of a skid steer loader, for the whole machine.”

Arnold says that in general, skid steer loaders tend to have the advantage over compact wheel loaders in their auxiliary hydraulics and hydraulic horsepower. “A skid steer is much better at running high-flow attachments like a cold asphalt planer,” says Arnold. “And the lower weight of a skid steer makes it easier to transport.”

News of Bobcat

The skid steer loader has its roots in the Bobcat Co. Louis Keller and his brother Cyril invented the skid steer loader. In 1958 the Melroe Manufacturing Co. bought the machine, and the company later became the Bobcat Co. The company has produced more than 1 million compact loaders. Louis Keller died last July at the age of 87.

Bobcat recently introduced on smaller horsepower machines a Bobcat-branded engine that only has a Diesel Oxidation Catalyst and needs no Diesel Particulate Filter to meet EPA’s Tier 4 regulations. And the company recently completed its intro­duction of the M Series skid steers. Operator comfort is a focus of the M Series. “We opened up areas in the cab with larger windows to improve visibility,” says Mike Fitzgerald, product specialist, Bobcat. “We moved the cab forward so the operator could see attachments better. The cab itself is slightly larger. We have a nicer seat, better heating and air conditioning, and better ergonomics on the control placement.

“We actually reduced the number of hoses, tube lines and hydraulic fittings inside the machine,” says Fitzgerald. “When you do that you make the system more efficient and less heat is generated. There is less potential for leaks and you get longer durability. Maintenance is easier also.”

Fitzgerald says now that Tier 4 engines are electronically controlled, Bobcat can display items in the cab such as fuel use per hour and engine idle time. “The owner can actually track and log his machine costs better and understand if the machine is being used efficiently,” says Fitzgerald. “A contractor I know recently noticed that he was getting over 20 percent idle time on a (non-skid steer) machine and he figured it cost him $4,000 to $5,000 extra per year in fuel. That was upsetting to him. We discussed the bigger picture where you have 20% quicker oil changes; you have 20% more hours on that machine than you need to have, and so when you trade it the value is less. Today, we have a feature on skid steer loaders that permits owners to watch costs more closely.”

Credit: CASE
Skid steer loader

In addition to offering mechanical controls, Bobcat now offers Selectable Joystick Controls (electric over hydraulic). Joystick controls use electricity to control the hydrostatic pump for propulsion, and all of the hydraulic functions are run by electric actuators. The feature allows operators to choose the ISO pattern of controls or the H-pattern. With the ISO pattern, you drive the machine with one joystick and run the lift arm and bucket with the other. With the H-pattern, you move right and left hand joysticks forward and back to drive the machine, and cross-wise in and out to control the lift arm and bucket.

John Deere also offers electro-hydraulic controls on skid steer loaders. That permits Deere to offer three types of controls—the ISO pattern, the H-pattern, or a combination of foot and joystick controls. The foot pedals function much like joysticks, says Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager, skid steer loaders and compact track loaders, John Deere Construction & Forestry. With the foot pedal system you operate the loader and bucket with your feet, and drive the machine with hand controls.

Deere has recently changed its compact wheel loaders to offer two styles of machines. Earlier the company only offered higher technology machines with stereo steering, which means the machines articulate in the center and also steer with the rear wheels. Deere still offers those machines, but at customers’ request the company now offers lower technology models that simply articulate and do not have steerable rear axles. Stereo steering allows the machine to turn tighter, but some customers wanted a simpler loader, says Laufenberg from John Deere.

“Some customers didn’t want to have as much electronics on the loaders, so we went to a simpler technology for them,” says Laufenberg. “And we went down to an 8-foot overall height because they wanted to get into buildings and under tree branches. We went to an open canopy, or an open station only, for the guys that didn’t want glass. You can add air conditioning in a cab if you want, but they still wanted something simple. The loader control that operates the boom and bucket is a direct link to the control valve; it’s a mechanical link. It is not a pilot link like we have on our other loader. They wanted something simple and we gave them that.”

On skid steer loaders, the electronics involved with electro-hydraulic controls allow John Deere to offer an option called the EH Joystick Performance Package. One feature is a creeper mode, says Zupancic. If you are running an attachment like a cold asphalt planer or a trencher, you can run the wheels at a slower speed while maintaining a high engine speed for maximum attachment performance. “You can keep your engine rpm/auxiliary hydraulic flow all the way up and make full strokes with your joysticks for driving, yet your wheels just creep along,” says Zupancic.

That package also includes the ability to adjust boom and bucket speed. The machine has three positions for boom and bucket speed: Productivity Mode, which is full speed; Utility Speed for the average operator; and Precision Mode, which works well for applications that demand precise control of the boom and bucket. The other feature that comes with that package is Deere’s Joystick Control Aggressiveness Mode, which is really a drive control. The quickest response mode is Productivity Mode, for experienced operators and high production. The middle mode is Utility Mode again, and the last level is Precision Control.

“That way you can adjust your boom and bucket speed, and the other adjustment is for your drive aggressiveness, or joystick feel,” says Zupancic. “I’ve seen guys that will set their drive adjustment at middle level and leave their boom and bucket at full Productivity Mode. Or they can choose any combination of those that feels comfortable.”

Lift Higher, Reach Further

In the past five to seven years, manufacturers have increased skid steer loaders’ abilities to lift higher and reach further, says Jonathon Ferguson, regional sales manager, Terex Construction Americas. Additional reach capabilities enable operators to better center-load a truck, as well as to place pallets on scaffoldings.

Customers have asked Terex to make the cab environment more comfortable and intuitive for the operator, according to Ferguson. Specific features included fingertip controls to operate the unit and attachments, pressurized cabs and roominess for the operator. Enhanced visibility was also high on the list of customer wants.

Ferguson says the following features are included on Terex skid steer loaders:

  • 10 inches of ground clearance for pushing through rugged underfoot conditions
  • One-side daily service checks to make routine maintenance easy
  • Mechanically faced axle seals to provide long life for the axle bearings
  • Low tower design for excellent visibility
  • High tractive effort to push harder, making the unit more productive
  • Joystick control for smooth and easy operation
  • A tilt-up ROPS cab to accommodate maintenance checks
  • An optional hydraulic quick attach system

When it comes to wheel loaders, Ferguson says manufacturers have been introducing the hydrostatic transmission to replace the traditional mechanical transmissions. This drive system provides a high power output per unit mass and has infinitely variable and step-less speed. In addition, up to 90% of the maximum torque is available at start-up. Hydrostatic drive transmissions are also more fuel-efficient, Ferguson says. Manufacturer tests have shown that fuel usage can be reduced up to 10% with the new hydrostatic drive systems compared to mechanical drive transmissions.

Credit: Volvo
The loader arm is designed specifically for each model platform.
Credit: Gehl
Compact wheel loader

Terex offers a high flow auxiliary hydraulic option on the TL80 and TL100 models of wheel loaders, which allow the use of continuous flow attachments. The larger models in the Terex compact wheel loader line are equipped with SP-kinematics that combine the advantages of Z-bar kinematics (power at the bucket) with those of P-kinematics (precise parallel handling of the bucket and loader equipment over the entire lifting height).

Other features on Terex compact wheel loaders include:

  • Articulated, full hydraulic steering for fast and low effort steering for increased maneuverability while operating, even at low engine speeds
  • A universal coupler system to make the wheel loader compatible with all skid-steer attachments, as well as to make it fast and easy to switch from a loader to a material handler
  • Low front windshield and right- and left-hand side windows offer operators the best possible view of the job site.
  • Hydrostatic, four-wheel drive with creep mode and dynamic braking to give operators speed control when working in tight areas. The hydrostatic drive also reduces tire slippage, which results in faster cycle times and less wear and tear on the tires.

All CASE skid steer loaders now offer electro-hydraulic controls (branded EZ-EH) that feature nine preset speed and control settings, says Warren Anderson, brand marketing manager, CASE Construction Equipment. Research has shown that the nine settings meet the needs of most customers. For the rest, CASE’s controls can still be fully customized with more than 1,000 options. Electro-hydraulic controls also greatly reduce operator fatigue compared to mechanical controls, and that means more productivity. A single rocker switch allows operators to switch between the H-pattern and the ISO pattern of controls. Operators can simply choose the pattern they are most comfortable with.

Anderson says CASE skid steer loaders feature one of the industry’s widest cabs, a longer wheelbase for maximum stability, and best-in-class serviceability. Fuel tanks have been made larger when compared to previous models. That, combined with fuel efficiency measures, means a contractor can operate the machine all day without having to refuel.

What’s more, CASE has also patented ride control as an option in a skid steer loader. Ride control dampens the movement of the skid steer loader arms as it travels, allowing for a smoother ride and less spillage of material from the bucket.

CASE has recently introduced a complete line of new compact wheel loaders—the F Series. The lineup includes four new models—the 21F, the 121F, the 221F, and the 321F. Primary points of interest are:

  • A maintenance-free Tier 4 Final solution—no fluids to add, no filters to change or maintain
  • A more compact design than previous models, while increasing performance aspects such as breakout force and lift capacity
  • Two models—the 21F and the 121F—are available in two separate loader arm designs to tailor the machine to a specific application
  • New electronic controls increase precision and reduce operator fatigue compared to mechanical controls on older models
  • Hydraulic flow options and a new coupler design further enhance the machine’s versatility

New From Caterpillar

Caterpillar recently introduced its D Series skid steer loaders, which meet Tier 4 emission standards and include a number of other new features. “One of the most exciting features is the 5-inch, full-color Advanced Display control monitor,” says Kevin Coleman, senior marketing engineer for Caterpillar. The monitor provides machine security with up to 50 operator (security) codes and can store and recall the operating preferences of that number of operators. The customizable operator preferences include language choice, background color, gauge style, ride control setting, creep speed, top-speed limit, response for the hystat drive system and response for the implement control system. These allow the machine to be tailored to each operator’s preferences, experience level, and specific application.

“Cat’s Advanced Display is also video capable and supports the first integrated rearview camera ever offered on skid steer loaders,” says Coleman. The camera provides additional work site visibility to enhance safety, especially when working in tight applications.

All six Cat rubber tire D Series skid loaders feature electro-hydraulic (E/H) controls as standard equipment. The E/H system allows the Cat D Series machines to include productivity and comfort enhancing features, such as:

  • Selectable Drive (Hystat) Response Control, allowing the operator to customize machine drive response to his preference, skill level, and application requirements
  • Selectable Implement Speed Control, providing three levels of control provide adjustment for the responsiveness of loader arm lift & work tool tilt functions. Provides more precise implement control specific tasks or work tool attachments
  • Selectable “Creep” Speed Control, allowing the operator the ability to match machine ground speed, utilizing full joystick displacement, to achieve optimum work tool attachment productivity. Great for brooms, trenchers, cold planers, power box rakes, wheel saws, etc.
  • Selectable Machine Control Patterns, allowing operator to maximum job efficiency regardless of an operator’s control preference or fleet mix

Cat Compact Wheel Loaders

Caterpillar recently introduced the 903C compact wheel loader, which features a comfortable operator station, competitive operating weight, power and performance. This model is powered by the Cat C2.4 engine, which meets US EPA Tier 4 Interim standards. “When selecting a model in the less than 60 horsepower category, customers desire a simple, yet capable machine and the 903C delivers that and more,” says B. J. Meier, marketing consultant, Compact Wheel Loaders, Caterpillar Inc.

The 903C can be equipped with a skid steer loader coupler interface, which gives it the capability to perform many different tasks.

Meier says Caterpillar’s 910K and 914K compact wheel loaders offer features including:

  • Z-bar loader linkage. It offers fast cycle times, strong bucket digging, parallel fork lifting, tilt recovery, and forward visibility.
  • Joystick. New low-effort, electro-hydraulic joystick has fine controllability and yet commands fast cycle times. The multifunctional joystick has the F-N-R, Low Range Selector, differential lock, proportional auxiliary hydraulics (optional), and continuous flow for auxiliary hydraulics all in one hand to help the operator keep his eyes on the work.
  • Implement Modulation. Three adjustable performance settings for the loader enable the operator to match machine responsiveness to the application. For example, V-cycle truck loading may require fast, aggressive loader performance, versus smooth and precise response of the lowest setting needed for heavy pallet fork work.
  • Hystat Aggressiveness Control. The hydrostatic transmission and drive train also have three adjustable settings. The highest setting is used for fast, aggressive directional shifts like backfilling. Or, choose the smoothest setting for more precise work such as load and carry. Also, the maximum level ground travel speed is increased from 32 kph (20 mph) to 40 kph (25 mph).
  • Rimpull Control. It allows the operator to reduce the amount of tire slip through selectable hystat power between 60%, 80%, and 100%. In wet or poor underfoot conditions, the loader “crowd force” or “rim pull” can be derated to maximize productive traction, preventing excessive tire wear and minimizing operating costs.

JCB and Gehl

JCB skid steer loaders offer electro-hydraulic controls with three operator response modes that tailor the machine for specific tasks or conditions. Either ISO or the H-pattern is available. The controls permit the operator to have various response modes for different tasks. Control patterns can be changed with the push of a button.

Credit: JCB
Compact loader

Gehl recently introduced the R Series Radial-Lift Skid Loaders. The line includes three models—the R190, the R220, and the R260. These models have a redesigned operator station with an integrated digital display, improved visibility all-around, pressurized cabs, Tier 4 engines, and a high-powered hydraulic system.

The R Series radial-lift skid loaders fall into the large-frame category. When equipped with optional counterweights, the rated operating capacities range from 2,110 pounds on the R190 to 2,780 pounds on the R260. Lift heights reach up to 120.5 inches on the R190 and 123 inches on the R220 and R260.

These large-frame loaders come equipped with Tier 4 Yanmar engines that incorporate DPF (diesel particulate filter) technology. This engine technology does not require fuel after-treatments, such as urea. With maximum torque ratings from 173 ft.-lbs. on the R190 to 206 ft.-lbs. on the R260, Gehl says these machines have the power to handle demanding jobs.

Daniel C. Brown writes on safety and technology in the construction industry.