Sure, small wheel loaders are tool carriers, meaning they can operate a variety of attachments from pallet forks to cold planers, but most contractors still use compact wheel loaders for bucket work. These units excel at load, carry and dump operations in everything from snow removal to landscape supply shops. For starters, small wheel loaders are still bigger than most pieces of compact equipment, which means they typically carry a bigger bucket that can reach higher (there are even specific high-lift units). Models also offer great visibility via a high perched cab and affordable back-and-forth operational cycles with low tire wear, solid fuel economy and a light footprint. There are also tons of buckets to choose from.
“Bucket types range from general purpose and earth buckets to multi-purpose, light material, high capacity and compost buckets with prongs,” lists Erik Coyle, product specialist with Yanmar America, which offers four compact wheel loaders including the V4-7 in a new red color scheme. “The most popular bucket would probably be a general-purpose bucket. Having said that, it’s really based on application, material and job requirements.”
Picking the right bucket for the job is just the beginning. To better understand wheel loader bucket work, specifically earth and pile work, we reached out to four major manufacturers for advice and insights. They were all quick to note that it starts with ensuring that the operator is professionally trained to operate the equipment in a material handling application. Then…
Understand Your Worksite
Before you even begin to start wheel loading, operators must thoroughly plan the operating procedures of the machine on the project, based on the existing conditions.
Project layout plays a critical role in a wheel loader’s productivity and cycle times. The distance between pile and truck, the height required for lifting, ground conditions in between and required payload for each pass needs to be all planned to achieve high productivity. Selecting the right loader and bucket is often based on the amount of material (measured in cubic yards) that needs to be moved per hour, the weight of the material and the area that the loader will operate in. It’s important that you know how the loader will get the material, how quickly the material needs to be moved and where the material needs to go.
A Daily Walk-Around
Every workday should begin with walk-around-and-check-the-machine procedures. Clean the machine. Kick the tires. Inspect linkages. Top off fuel and DEF. Perform general housekeeping.
“A walk around is a good opportunity to inspect overall machine condition for damage or wear, and specifically, items like hoses, tubes, harnesses and hardware should be checked,” says Grant Van Tine, product marketing manager of compact wheel loaders with John Deere, which offers five units in its L Series. “Clean up the cab and the windows, if needed. Then, make any necessary adjustments to the seat and mirrors. Start the machine, test the controls and warm it up before going to work.”
The daily precheck can get super detailed. It can include everything from checking for foreign matter obstructing the engine, battery and radiator to inspecting the fuel pre-filter, looking for that elevated floating red ring and verifying there is no water in the fuel. We can’t compile a complete list in this limited space, so check your owner’s manual. Some of the majors include: check the engine for oil or water leakage; take a look-see at tires for damage, wear, pressure level and loose lugs nuts; and pay attention to areas most susceptible to damage, like the loader arm cylinders lines, coupler area and hitch. Also…
“It is important to check all of your grease points,” says Lee Padgett, product manager at Takeuchi-US, which offers three compact wheel loader models. “Other maintenance musts include checking the hydraulic oil level and engine oil level, inspecting and cleaning the air filter and cooling module, as well as an overall inspection of the controls. Preventive maintenance is the best way to keep your equipment in good working order and extend the overall life of the machine.”
After an extremely detailed prework inspection, it’s time to start up that compact wheel loader. The operator must be completely familiar with the layout and operation of all wheel loader controls, monitors and indicators. Fasten that seat belt. Adjust your seat and mirrors. Ensure there are no people or obstacles around the machine, and then sound the horn once or twice to alert people you’re about to fire this puppy up. Start the engine and then keep an eye on the control panel or LCD monitor for any abnormal indication or error codes. Then, test all wheel loader functions including the lift arm and bucket-tilt operations, steering and brake systems and lights and turn signals. Finally, with confidence in your machine, you can approach your first pile (could be dirt, gravel or mulch).
“First and foremost, learn how to get the bucket cutting edge flat to the surface you’re working on,” suggests Scott Britton, compact wheel loader application specialist with Caterpillar, which boasts seven compact and three small wheel loaders with high-lift variants. “Now that your bucket is level to cut into the pile, approach the pile. Right before you get to the pile, drop the bucket so it’s just scrubbing the surface. Engage the pile. Don’t touch the joystick. I know it’s tempting. Just don’t yet. Ram the pile until the loader stops. You don’t need to do this at high speed. Do this in a safe manner but penetrate the pile until the loader completely stops.
“Once you’ve stalled forward motion, you can release the throttle or use your left pedal to bring the loader to a stop. You will need to lift the loader arms, which is straight back on the joystick, but only slightly. This allows the weight of the pile to drive the loader front wheels vertically into the working surface. You’re now setting your tires to be ready to get to work. Stop lifting and drive slightly forward again, further penetrating the pile. You’ll feel a bit of a stall again. You’ve now basically established how much material you’ll be moving in this pass.”
Most compact wheel loaders have hydrostatic transmissions, and operators often use both feet when loading from a pile.
“Pressing the right pedal to the floor delivers maximum engine speed and hydraulic response,” says Van Tine. “The left pedal, often known as the inching pedal, is pressed at the same time to control speed and braking. Additionally, operators should work a pile from multiple angles to break up hard packed material and achieve more consistent loading performance.”
Load the bucket evenly and then avoid off-centered loading into trucks. When scooping material, it may be necessary to move the controls to move bucket teeth up and down slightly for better insertion into the pile or material. Once you get good at it, you’ll know how long to spend in the pile to get a full bucket versus when to get moving to keep material moving. Once full, you’ll need to keep that product in the bucket.
“Heaping a bucket is great but doesn’t help much if you can’t retain it,” says Britton. “Bucket shape is a very important thing to consider. Keeping a tidy worksite not only keeps the foreman and inspector happy, but it’s cost effective as well to keep material where it belongs without a lot of cleanup afterward. Using a loader can be tight V-cycle loading in less than 20 ft in a tight yard or as long as several hundred yards depending on the site. Options like ride control not only make it more comfortable on the operator by acting as a shock absorber but also help retain material in the bucket [more on automation further in].”
Approaching the truck, regardless of size, becomes a matter of timing and knowing your loader characteristics. More engine rpm equals a quicker loader arm movement but also higher ground speed, so you’ll need to know how to work the brake or deceleration/inching pedal to keep your ground speed in control as you approach the truck. Using programmable kickouts make repetitive cycles much easier as the loader is doing the thinking for you. Coyle expertly breaks down two popular examples of traveling and carrying loads to trucks and beds.
“When carrying a load, run the machine while keeping the bucket low to keep the center of gravity low. Try to select a travel path or route that will minimize excessive steering and traveling distances. Consider the terrain that will have to be traveled on. The recommended method is to load the bucket and back the wheel loader up. Move the dump truck between the wheel loader and the pile and unload the bucket into the truck. After the unloading is completed, pull the dump truck forward and repeat the process.”
“Park the truck at approximately a 60-degree angle to the direction the wheel loader will be performing scooping operations. After scooping a load, reverse the wheel loader, steer the wheel loader so that it will face the truck at the correct angle of the truck and move the wheel loader to dump the load into the truck. To increase efficiency, reduce the steering angle as much as possible. When raising the lift arm to maximum height with a full bucket, shake the bucket on the ground before lifting to stabilize the load and then raise the lift arm carefully so that the load will not fall backward.”
To complement all of these great insights, wheel loader manufacturers are engineering automation into units to help operators become more efficient and safer. Ride control, return-to-dig, diff lock, boom height kickout and rimpull control simplify operation and improve performance for compact wheel loader operators.
“Takeuchi wheel loaders come with several features to make operators more efficient,” says Padgett. “Self-level will assist the operator in keeping the bucket level as the loader arms are raised, while ride control will cushion the loader arms at higher travels speed for better material retention. Another convenience feature is the return-to-dig function. This returns the bucket to a preset level depending on the application.”
There’s lots more. Like return to dig, boom height kickout returns the bucket and boom height to a saved position. Rimpull control is a feature that helps reduce tire spin and prolongs tire life by managing wheel torque when crowding a pile. Bigger, more advanced units may offer multiple operating modes (like Eco Mode or Auto Mode, the latter for beginners). Manufacturers also offer unique automation solutions.
“The Articulation Plus steering system is an exclusive feature on John Deere 244L, 324L and 344L compact wheel loaders that allows operators to articulate less and lift more on the jobsite,” explains Van Tine. “In addition to articulating, the rear wheels also steer, resulting in a tighter turning radius and greater full-turn tip load compared to a standard articulated loader. The Articulation Plus steering system improves overall stability when turning for increased confidence moving around a jobsite.”
We All Operate a Little Differently
While safe and successful compact wheel loader operations always utilize these operational fundamentals, each individual operator will always have their own way of doing things.
“A manufacturer develops equipment based on the voice of customer,” says Coyle. “Many of these requests are based on location, terrain, jobsite conditions and not all can be achieved in a single platform design. Like a car or truck, not everybody is going to drive it the same way. Everybody has their own style or ways of doing things. The goal is to find a machine that offers the most benefits for what your application or type of work is.”
Dumping Loads into Beds
“Loading a commercial size dump truck with multiple passes is different than loading out your average half-ton truck with mulch for the homeowner,” says Scott Britton, compact wheel loader application specialist with Cat. “However, both share the fact that the first load should be a little gentler to take care of the bed. Some key things to pay attention to when loading larger trucks is to evenly load the truck. Don’t dump everything in the bed center and hope it settles out. You want to spread out the load for even axle distribution by dumping toward the front and back both if making multiple passes. Take care not to load too heavy on the tailgate, particu
Compact Wheel Loader Couplers
Most manufacturers offer two styles of compact wheel loader couplers: ISO or hook style and skid steer style. Depending on the definition of a compact wheel loader, manufacturers may also offer IT, fusion or pin-on couplers. The ISO-style coupler provides the highest bucket breakout force and operating capacity because the ISO-style coupler design positions the bucket close to the end of the boom, similar to a pin-on bucket. With the skid steer-style coupler, the bucket is positioned out a few extra inches, however the skid steer-style coupler is widely popular for the numerous attachment possibilities that can be shared with skid steer and compact track loaders. There are several styles of wheel loader and skid steer buckets available, including specialty buckets like rollout buckets that provide dump height capability above the loader hinge pin height. Regardless of the coupler style, the type and density of the materials that will be handled should be considered to determine the appropriate bucket size.
Four Stops to Leveling with a Bucket
By Erik Coyle, Product Specialist with Yanmar America
- Scoop up a load in the bucket and dump the load little by little while driving the machine in reverse to scatter the material load.
- After dumping the bucket, let the bucket’s edges touch the surface of the ground and drive the machine in reverse while dragging the bucket to level the ground.
- Scoop another load in the bucket, set the lift arm to “float” with the bucket horizontal and drive the machine in reverse to finish leveling the ground.
- You should only level ground while traveling in reverse.