What’s in a Small Wheel Loader?

When a forklift is too large, a skid steer is too small and a
compact tractor is too cumbersome, what’s a contractor to do? The quick
answer: Choose a compact wheel loader. Known for their ruggedness and
maneuverability, compact wheel loaders are quickly becoming the new
catchall machines for contractors who want it all from one unit.

So popular are the machines that the compact wheel loader market grew
25 percent in 2004 alone. More than 3,000 units were sold in 2004, up
from approximately 2,500 units in 2003. Industry experts predict that
this growth will continue through 2007.

What makes these units so desirable on the 21st century jobsite is the
combination of lift capacity and maneuverability. Most compact
equipment purchasers are in search of one machine that is powerful, yet
nimble enough to maneuver jobsite obstacles. They want to achieve this
level of performance and do it comfortably. Compact wheel loaders
provide these benefits.

Operators
also appreciate the added durability of the units, particularly when it
comes to tire wear. Because skid steers tend to wear out tires quickly
on hard surfaces, such as blacktop or concrete, and tear up sensitive
ground,

such a turf or grass, the compact wheel loader is a
favorite among contractors who work in both hard- and soft- surface
applications.

The typical applications for compact wheel loaders closely mirror those
for skid steers. Contractors working in landscaping,
demolition/recycling, road construction,

residential/commercial construction and agriculture can find many uses
for these machines. With special adapters, compact wheel loaders can be
equipped with some of the same attachments as skid steers, which make
them even more versatile. And because many models have hitches, owners
can even use their compact wheel loaders to transport other equipment
from worksite to worksite.

Visibility is much improved in a compact wheel loader vs. a skid steer,
giving it an extra boost in popularity among contractors working amid
jobsite obstructions.

So if you’re considering adding a wheel
loader to your fleet, how should you prepare? First, realize that many
contractors are new to this equipment category, so you’re not alone if
you feel confused when comparing the specs of several wheel loader
models.

Second, prepare yourself for a higher price tag than you might be used
to. Compact wheel loaders up to 80 hp typically run somewhere between
$45,000 and $85,000, depending on the manufacturer, model and brand on
which the buyer settles.

But you get what you pay for when you purchase a compact wheel loader.
While higher initial cost units may be tough to justify at the outset
of a purchase decision, it won’t take more than a few productive hours
on the jobsite to squash most of your concerns about expense. In fact,
you’ll practically hear the “cha-ching” of your return on investment
while test-driving these outstanding machines.

There are two basic types of compact wheel loaders — articulated and
all-wheel-steer. Articulated units are designed with a jointed frame,
which allows the machine to “bend” during turns. All-wheel-steer
models, on the other hand, are built on a one-piece chassis that
remains constant throughout the turning circle, as the unit turns by
utilizing two steerable axles.

Operators who take the time to test drive the two types will notice a
distinct difference in stability between the articulated and
all-wheel-steer units. A tighter turning radius and the ability to lift
and turn the unit without losing any lifting capacity or machine
stability are two distinct advantages of the all-wheel-steer design
over the articulated design. This type of machine comes in particularly
handy on congested jobsites, where making tight turns is not just an
advantage but also a requirement.

Before buyers get too far into shopping for a compact wheel loader,
it’s important that they consider how the wheel loader will most often
be used within their fleet.

Is the unit replacing another machine
for an everyday or “core” application? Or will the wheel loader be an
addition to the buyer’s fleet, allowing him or her to perform new tasks
and grow the contractor’s business?

If the task the contractor is hoping to accomplish with the unit is a
new competency for his business, it’s a good idea to talk with the
wheel loader dealer to be sure the unit is appropriately designed for
what the buyer wants it to do.

After
determining that a wheel loader is the right machine, the buyer must
then turn to specs. Among the most important to review include: overall
size and weight of the machine; turning radius; dump and pin heights;
lifting capacity in both the straight position; and the full-turn
position.

Beyond specs, it’s important to consider how the machine will be
maintained. Buyers should talk with their dealers about the ease of
access to components like oil and air filters, batteries and
lubrication points. Pay attention to the warranty offered on new units.
Most manufacturers offer at least a one-year warranty, covering parts
and labor.

Safety should, of course,
be considered during the purchase decision. Buyers should inspect the
machine to be sure that the canopy or cab is ROPS and FOPS certified
and that entry and exit from the machine is simple.

Safety First

Not only should buyers consider operator safety, but they should also
plan for the welfare of those who will be working around the unit. Does
the unit come standard with a backup alarm, front and rear work lights,
rotating beacon and enough mirrors to see around all sides of the unit
at all times? How’s visibility from the cab?

It’s a good idea to take the unit for a test drive to see if 360-degree
visibility is possible. This is extremely important considering the
types of jobs compact wheel loaders are typically put to work on. The
tighter the areas, the more vital it is to have good sight from the
cab. It’s also important to keep in mind that the operator should be
able to see straight down the boom assembly from the seat.

When selecting options for a compact wheel loader, buyers will probably
spend much of the time considering what type of attachments they are
going to need for the machine. Typical attachments wheel loader buyers
acquire for their machines include heavy-duty buckets, light material
buckets, side dump buckets, grapples and grapple buckets, pallet forks,
snow plows, tree re-planters and work platforms.

Universal skid steer attachment plates are also purchased frequently.
Some designs have manual on/off attachment systems, such as the Mustang
Skid-a-Tach, which offers hydraulic on/off attachment of almost any
skid steer attachment. These adapter plates are popular among customers
who are transitioning from a skid steer to a compact wheel loader
because it allows them to utilize attachments they already have.

Once the wheel loader is off the truck and on the jobsite, it’s
essential that owners and operators alike follow the maintenance
schedule that has been laid out for them by the manufacturer. This is
probably the single most important piece of advice, yet the one that is
most often ignored. Manufacturers today are doing an increasingly
stellar job of compiling information on basic service and maintenance,
and the owner’s manual is a wealth of knowledge for anyone new to (and
even those familiar with) a compact wheel loader.

Wheel loader owners should be sure to use OEM parts supplied by the
manufacturer when repairing their machines. This practice will go a
long way toward extending the life of a compact wheel loader because
most of the components are specifically designed to the highest
standards for the specific models. Aftermarket or similar components
may not only compromise the reliability of the machine, but also

the safety of those who work in and around it.

Compact wheel loaders, like any piece of construction equipment, have
their limitations. But if you do your research, pay attention to your
dealer and commit yourself to making well-informed decisions, a new
wheel loader could be the best thing for your fleet since the skid
steer.

Brian Rabe is an AWS loader product manager with Mustang Mfg. Co., Owatonna,

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