More than Meets the Eye

To construct a summer blockbuster analogy, skid steers are the Transformers of the construction and landscape industry. With its quick-attach plate and hundreds of unique attachments, this protean piece of utility equipment is like a “constructicon,” able to shift gears, change implements and dig, saw, load, cut, lift and work through most jobs and jobsites. But sometimes even a skid steer has a tough time adapting to difficult terrain (mud, sand and demolition sites for example). That’s when you call in the loader’s changeling counterpart called the compact track loader, which rolls onto the worksite with a dedicated undercarriage, focused on conquering diverse ground challenges.

Traversing slopes, plowing through sand and traveling over muddy landscape sites are the demanding conditions for a compact track loader. For example, when operating on slopes, the weight of the track loader shifts and places a certain amount of stress on one undercarriage at a time. Given that compact track loaders can weigh significantly more than their wheeled skid steer loader cousins, that’s a considerable amount of stress. That’s why manufacturers build these tracked construct’a’bots like little Sherman tanks.

The undercarriage is as important to the machine as the attachment or engine. It is the combination of components that brings the machine to its assigned task. Without the undercarriage, a compact track loader can do limited work, similar to a car with flat tires.

Each machine’s dedicated undercarriage gives added tractive power (great in dozing operations), yet dispenses the weight of the entire machine through multiple track contact points for a lighter footprint. Extra power, lower ground pressure and added flotation and traction — the advantages of compact track loaders can add ammo to any contractor’s arsenal.

Large or small, vertical or radial lift, enclosed cab or just ROPs, basic or opulent, suspension or no suspension, cheap or expensive — today’s market offers a wealth of choices for buyers. Manufacturers such as Takeuchi, Terex, Bobcat, Caterpillar, Gehl, JCB, Volvo, Case, John Deere, New Holland, Rayco and Kubota make interesting track loader models in the industry. Overall, units range from 30 to 100 hp and operating capacities from 500 to 2,800 lbs (remember, that’s rated at 35 percent tipping load — not 50 percent like skid steers). Mid-size loaders are generally the most popular machines, because they are generally big enough to handle most jobs, yet compact enough to get into small spaces.

The most popular would have to be in the 2,000- to 2,500-lb range (at 35 percent tip). When it comes to finding the ideal unit, consider many of the same things you would on a skid steer — operating environment, creature comforts, spec checks, size constraints, speed, self-leveling, radial or vertical lift, brand, dealer and price, and of course, focus on the undercarriage. Each manufacturer creates a unique dedicated track system that has its merits and niche, so sample the market, talk to dealers and demo a few units.

Keith Gribbins is managing editor of Compact Equipment, based in Peninsula, Ohio.