By Kent Kiser
If you’re in the market for a skid-steer loader, answering these 15 questions can help you select the best model for your operations.
Among scrap loading and handling equipment, skid-steers can claim the three superlatives of most versatile, most maneuverable, and most compact. Their versatility comes from their ability to use numerous attachments to lift and move scrap, do basic sorting of mixed loads, feed equipment, load trucks or containers, break up concrete, sweep the work site, plow snow, and more. A skid-steer’s design allows it to make zero-radius turns, which means it can spin within its own footprint, giving it unmatched maneuverability. And skid-steers’ small frame size compared with other loaders and handlers makes them ideal for working in tight spaces. For these and other reasons, skid-steers are invaluable machines for many indoor and outdoor scrap operations. “For anybody who is starting a recycling business and does not have a lot of capital, a skid-steer is one of the best pieces of machinery to purchase,” says Randy Castriota, president of Castriota Metals & Recycling (South Hills, Pa.). To find the right one for your needs, consider the following 15 questions.
1. Tires or tracks? The first point to resolve is whether you want a skid-steer loader, which runs on four tires, or a compact track loader, which has rubber or metal tracks. Skid-steers with tires offer better traction and maneuverability on paved surfaces, faster operation, higher travel speeds, and a lower price tag compared with similar CTLs. Although skid-steers generally wear out tires faster than CTLs wear out tracks, tires are less expensive to replace.
CTLs exert less ground pressure because their tracks spread the weight across more ground than tires do. As a result, they don’t compact or tear up softer work surfaces as much as wheeled skid-steers might. They also offer more stability, making them a better choice for any work site that requires surer footing and tasks that demand finesse.
Some recyclers see benefits in owning both. Grossman Iron & Steel Co. (St. Louis), for one, operates five wheeled skid-steers and one CTL, which it uses in muddier areas of the yard and for pushing material into trailers, notes Dave Johndrow, vehicle maintenance superintendent.
If you primarily need a skid-steer but occasionally want the ground flotation and stability benefits of a CTL, you can outfit a skid-steer with over-the-tire rubber or metal tracks. Operators note, however, that the skid-steer must have good tread on its tires for the tracks to work their best, and that steel tracks can cause excessive wear on the skid-steer.
2. Skid-steer or all-wheel steering? In standard skid-steers, the tires are fixed in one position, which is why the machine must skid to turn. At least one manufacturer offers a skid-steer with an all-wheel steering option. Its four steerable axles allow the tires to turn, reducing tire wear and ground disturbance. That version can operate either in standard skid-steer or all-wheel steer mode.
3. Small, medium, or large frame? Manufacturers make skid-steers in a range of frame sizes. Which size is best for you depends largely on your job tasks and work sites. Small-frame skid-steers operate best in close quarters and are the easiest to transport, but they lack the power of larger models. Large units deliver the breakout force and lifting power that make them suitable for heavier-duty jobs, but they might not fit in tight spaces. As a result, many recyclers find midsized models offer the best balance of size and power.
4. Vertical or radial lift? Skid-steers come with lifting arms that raise and lower following either a vertical or a radial path. Vertical-lift loaders raise the load straight up, with the bucket staying a consistent distance from the machine. Radial-lift loaders raise the load in an arc, with the bucket at maximum distance from the machine at the middle of the lift height, roughly even with the operator’s eye level. Each lifting “geometry” performs better in certain work tasks.
In general, vertical-lift machines are best at tasks above eye level, such as loading high-sided trucks and material handling. These models keep the load closest to the machine throughout the lift path, allowing them to safely lift more than comparable radial-lift machines. They also offer more reach at full lift height. Radial-lift units—which generally cost less than comparable vertical-lift loaders—are best for tasks at or below eye level, such as loading flat-bed trucks and ground-level work. One manufacturer also notes that radial-lift models have fewer greased pin locations than vertical loaders, which means fewer wear locations and reduced maintenance.
While most skid-steers have two lifting arms, one manufacturer’s loaders have a single, curved loader arm design, available in both vertical- and radial-lift versions. In addition to offering “many performance advantages,” the manufacturer says, this single-arm configuration allows its loaders to have a side-entry door for the operator. In other skid-steer models, the operator enters the machine through the front.
5. What lifting capacity do you need? Since many skid-steer tasks involve lifting, it’s essential to know the heaviest weight you expect the loader to lift. A skid-steer’s lifting ability is described as its rated operating capacity, which usually is 50% of its tipping load—the weight that will cause the loader to tip over. Skid-steer models offer rated operating capacities that range from roughly 700 to 4,200 pounds. Manufacturers advise buying a loader with a higher operating capacity than your highest weight expectations so you don’t “buy yourself short.” A skid-steer with an additional counterweight has a greater lifting capacity for its size and “gives the operator more peace of mind when picking up heavy loads,” says Todd McLaughlin, buildings and mobile equipment manager for E.L. Harvey & Sons (Westborough, Mass.).
6. What engine features do you want? Horsepower is one key engine feature to consider, and skid-steer models offer horsepower that ranges from about 23 to 120. Notably, more horsepower does not give a skid-steer a greater lifting capacity; the hydraulic system is what determines that, one manufacturer notes. For instance, a 75-hp loader and a 90-hp loader both can have 2,700 pounds of lifting capacity, but the latter machine’s greater engine power helps it reach the required hydraulic pressure and flow faster, which translates to faster cycle times and greater productivity. More horsepower also helps the loader perform better when doing multiple tasks at once.
One manufacturer encourages recyclers to look beyond horsepower to consider engine torque. Combustion pressure inside the engine is what generates torque, the manufacturer says, so engines that can handle higher combustion pressure can generate higher torque. Consider how consistently the engine can generate the highest torque throughout its operating range. The wider the range, the easier it is for the operator to achieve and maintain maximum torque and increase the loader’s overall productivity.
All new skid-steers come with engines that meet Tier 4 final regulations, though manufacturers use different technologies to do so, including cooled exhaust gas recirculation, diesel oxidation catalyst, selective catalytic reduction, and exhaust gas recirculation combined with a diesel particulate filter. Each technology has its advantages, but they all are designed to meet the emissions requirements without limiting engine performance while minimizing maintenance concerns.
7. What travel speed do you want? The faster a skid-steer can travel around the work site, the less time it spends in transit and the more work it can accomplish. In other words, faster travel speed can mean higher productivity. Skid-steers generally can travel 6 to 8 mph, and with a two-speed transmission they can go up to 12 mph. Most manufacturers offer the two-speed feature as an option, though it comes standard on some models.
8. How important is ride control? Ride control goes hand in hand with travel speed. When a skid-steer is carrying a load, the smoothness of its ride can determine how much material it spills and how comfortable the ride is for the operator. Ride control allows the lift arms to “float” during travel, smoothing out bumps in the loader’s travel path and dampening shocks along the way. Some manufacturers include a ride-control feature as standard, while others offer it as an option. When included, the operator generally can turn the feature on and off from inside the cab. Some models offer an automatic option, in which the feature activates when it senses higher lift-arm pressure and deactivates when the arm pressure dissipates.
9. What type of operating controls do you want? One skid-steer brand is known for its standard controls that rely on two steering levers to move the machine and foot pedals to direct the lift and tilt functions. That manufacturer and virtually all others also offer joystick controls that allow the operator to direct all loader movements and functions by hand. Shawn Crowley, general manager of Castriota Metals & Recycling, says the joystick controls make it easy for new operators to learn to operate skid-steers, especially if they have joystick experience from video gaming.
In most joystick-control systems, the operator can flip a switch to choose between ISO- and H-pattern controls. With ISO, the left joystick controls the drive functions and the right joystick manipulates the boom and bucket. In the H pattern, the left joystick controls the left tires when moved forward/backward and the boom when moved left/right, while the right joystick controls the right tires when moved forward/backward and the bucket when moved left/right. “Having the two control options really makes it easier to operate this equipment,” McLaughlin of E.L. Harvey says.
10. Which attachments do you plan to use? In the scrap and demolition industries, the most common attachments include general-purpose buckets, grapple buckets, rake buckets, pallet forks, hammers, sweepers, and snow plows/blowers—but the list of options goes on from there. “There are so many attachments you can put on these machines now,” says Vincent Costanza, a senior manager with All Scrap Metals (Harvey, La.). “If you can think of it, they have it.”
These attachments draw their operating power from the skid-steer’s auxiliary hydraulic system, which manufacturers offer in standard-flow and high-flow versions. In standard-flow systems, the flow rate ranges from roughly 17 to 24 gallons per minute and operates at about 3,000 psi. A high-flow auxiliary hydraulic system operates at about the same pressure but offers a flow rate from about 30 to 38 gpm. In general, standard flow is enough to power the attachments used in recycling operations, though one manufacturer cautions that “having high flow and not needing it is better than not having high flow and needing it.”
11. How easy is it to change attachments? Because skid-steers rely on attachments, manufacturers have made it as easy as possible to change them through quick-coupler systems. Some quick-couplers require the operator to manually engage and disengage the attachment, while electric-powered couplers allow the operator to change the attachment without leaving the cab. If the attachment requires hydraulic power, however, the operator still must exit the cab to connect the attachment’s two hydraulic hoses to the couplers on one of the loader’s lift arms. One manufacturer now offers a mounting system that works with its quick-coupler to automatically connect the hydraulics on attachments that have a special adapter plate suited to the mounting system. This new approach allows the operator to change and hydraulically connect a new attachment without leaving the cab.
12. Which cab features are important to you? A comfortable skid-steer operator experiences less fatigue and will be more productive throughout the workday, so manufacturers offer many cab features to ensure operator comfort and efficiency. An enclosed, pressurized cab, for instance, protects the operator from dust and debris while reducing sound levels inside the compartment. Climate-control features such as air conditioning and heat can moderate extreme temperatures, while easy-to-open side windows can help control air flow and a rear defroster can keep windows clear.
In terms of space, look for a cab opening large enough—with sufficient head clearance and a low door threshold—to allow easy entry and exit. Inside, ensure the operator’s arms, legs, shoulders, and feet are not cramped. The seat should be comfortable and adjustable, and an air-suspension feature on the seat can make for a smoother ride. Consider whether the loader’s operating screens are large enough for easy readability and offer user-friendly operation and whether other controls are within reach.
A cab’s overall view area is a critical factor that can affect productivity and safety. Large front, side, and rear windows are key. Some skid-steers have a cab-forward design which positions the operator farther forward to enhance all-around visibility.
13. Is the loader easy to maintain? All skid-steer manufacturers boast that their models are easy to maintain, and they point to specific features to support their claims. Virtually all models feature a tiltable cab to reveal the hydraulic system underneath, though some machines reportedly need the lift arms to be raised and supported to perform work in that area.
To ease engine maintenance, most skid-steers have a swing-out rear door and/or a liftable cover over the engine to allow easy access to service points such as filters, fill points, indicators, and the battery. “Everything is very, very accessible, which makes it a lot easier to maintain than having to call someone in and rip half the machine apart to do something to it,” Crowley says. The position of the radiator varies, with some mounting it vertically in the rear and others mounting it on top of the engine. In some models, the radiator fan turns only as fast as needed based on engine speed, and loaders differ in how they draw air into the engine, with some pulling it from above and others drawing it from the rear. Some models also offer an optional radiator fan that can reverse its blowing direction to clear debris from the radiator screen to ensure good air flow and prevent overheating.
One skid-steer line has the fuel tank mounted inside a heavy-duty rear door, a design that removes 26 gallons of volume from the engine compartment, the manufacturer says, noting that the additional free space makes it easier for operators to access the engine and perform daily checks and services.
In general, “if you take care of your skid-steers and stay within your preventive maintenance programs, you can make them last,” says Johndrow of Grossman Iron & Steel. How long skid-steers last in scrap operations depends on many factors, but several recyclers say their machines have passed the 10-year mark. One maintenance issue to anticipate, Costanza notes, is that a skid-steer “tears up its own tires. Every time you make a turn, you’re forcing a skid and leaving a little rubber on the ground. That also contributes to other maintenance issues.” This consideration can affect your tire choice. Softer tires offer a more comfortable ride for the operator but are more susceptible to wear, whereas harder rubber tires wear more slowly but are tougher on the machine and operator.
14. What safety features does the loader offer? A skid-steer can pose safety risks to the operator and those working around the equipment, so assess the safety features of any model under consideration. First, determine how easy it is for the operator to enter and exit the loader, then check the view from the cab. Other basic safety features should include a rearview mirror, a backup alarm, an operator seat belt or restraining bar, and a falling object protective structure/rollover protective structure. Skid-steers also can come with a rearview camera, a revolving beacon light, a fire extinguisher, front and rear working lights, a seat switch and arm bar switch that prevent the loader from starting unless the operator is in the seat, and a system that applies the brakes whenever the operator raises the restraint bar, rises off the seat, or turns off the ignition. Some models have a dead-engine feature and a hydraulic accumulator that allow the operator to lower the lifting arms safely if the loader shuts down unexpectedly.
15. What is your budget? A new skid-steer’s price tag depends on its size, features, and brand, but in general you’ll find models ranging from $12,000 to $70,000. Used machines cost less, but their prices vary widely based on their age, condition, and features.
Beyond a skid-steer’s operating features, consider the loader’s warranty and local dealer support. Many skid-steer manufacturers offer a similar standard, full-machine warranty of two years or 2,000 operating hours, but some cover a shorter time span or fewer hours. You also have the option to purchase an extended warranty on certain components. And definitely consider the local skid-steer dealer’s reputation for providing excellent service—or not—as you may need to rely on the dealer for parts, repairs, or other service in the future. That’s why some recyclers advise buying a skid-steer from the brand with the best dealer in your area.
Kent Kiser, former publisher of Scrap and assistant vice president of industry communications for ISRI, is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
Use this 15-question checklist as a guide when selecting a new skid-steer loader for your operations.