Demolition, excavation, waste removal, finish-grading,
landscaping, and hauling heavy objects: For residential
builders and remodelers, it's all in a day's work.
Subcontracting these tasks, of course, is always an option
— but on a residential site, where projects tend to be
small, the cost of doing so can take a disproportionate bite
out of the budget.
Believe me, I know — I used to be a residential general
contractor. However, after I bought my own machinery to perform
routine heavy-equipment duties, I began generating enough work
to move full-time into sitework and excavating.
So if you find yourself spending too much time waiting on your
excavator — or if you'd like to keep a little of the
money you've been paying him — think about buying a
skid-steer loader for yourself. After all, this machine is the
Swiss army knife of the heavy-equipment world: It can do all
the work mentioned above and then some.
Choosing a Brand
Skid-steer loaders come in several different brands. Which one
to choose is entirely a matter of what you like and what your
Operating conditions are severe for my excavation business, and
minimizing downtime is a priority. So I bought a Caterpillar,
the machine that I think is the strongest and most comfortable.
In addition, it has the best parts availability and the highest
resale value, and I've had positive experiences with other
machines made by the same company. Not surprisingly, the
Caterpillar is also one of the more expensive skid
Figure 1.Skid-steer loaders fall into two general
categories: vertical lift and radial lift. Radial-lift machines
are considered more durable because their lift linkages are
less complicated, but vertical-lift machines (shown) can reach
higher, making them a better option for loading
I have used other brands, so I was able to make comparisons
before making my decision. One of the greatest benefits of the
Cat is its piloted hydraulic controls, which make a huge
difference in operation, especially as the machine ages. Less
expensive machines have cable-operated controls, which tend to
degrade over time: When they get dirty, frozen, worn, or
stretched, it becomes much more difficult to control the
machine, which increases the likelihood of causing serious
damage on a close-quarters residential construction site.
Cheaper machines also have lower-quality bushings and wear
parts — and regular repairs can quickly eat up any
up-front cost savings.
Still, not every user requires a top-of-the-line machine. If
your skid steer will see only occasional use, or steady use
under light conditions, you should be able to spend less and
get satisfactory results. For such buyers, the best advice I
can give is to talk to other skid-steer owners about their
experiences and their dealers.
Also, demo or rent machines from at least three different
manufacturers before you buy. Most equipment dealers are
willing to let you try the machine; often they'll even bring it
to your site.
In my opinion, the single most important factor in the buying
decision is dealership support. If your dealer provides timely
parts delivery and professional service after the sale, you
will be much happier with your choice. If you cannot get good
service or if you have to wait a long time for parts, you'll
end up regretting that you bought that brand.
I once had a fan belt break on a mini excavator. The dealer
didn't have one in stock and couldn't even tell me the size so
that I could pick one up at the auto-parts store. I ended up
paying $70 in shipping and wasting two days of work — all
for a part that took 15 minutes to install.
Compare that with what happens when I need a Caterpillar part:
If the company can find the part within 500 miles of my home,
it will deliver it to my site by 7 a.m. the next day at no
charge. I can also go to the Cat Web site with my serial number
and order parts online. The company provide a parts book and a
CD-ROM to make ordering easier.
Features and Options
In general, skid steers boast between 47 to 84 hp and weigh
5,500 to 7,500 pounds. Wheelbases typically range from 39 to 48
inches; machine widths fall between 5 and 6 feet. Operating
capacity runs from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds.
The range of sizes can make choosing what to buy tough. Just
remember that bigger is not always better. A skid steer's
strong suit is speed, agility, and maneuverability. And nothing
is more frustrating than having a machine that's just a few
inches too wide to fit on site. Smaller machines tend to be
more nimble and are easier to tow behind pickup trucks.
If you need the lifting or digging capacity of a larger
machine, then go ahead and buy one. But buying more than you
need can be counterproductive.
Radial or vertical lift? There are two types of lift linkages:
radial and vertical. Since radial systems are less complex,
they're generally stronger and less expensive. Machines with
radial lifts usually offer better views out the side of the
Vertical-lift machines, by contrast, have more complex linkages
and can load almost to the center of a tandem-axle dump truck
(see Figure 1, page 2). If you spend most of your time loading
trucks, the vertical lift is the way to go. If not, the
simplicity and durability of radial-lift machines may make them
a better choice.
Track or rubber tire? Unless you need the flotation of tracks
for soft or muddy ground, rubber-tire machines should be
adequate. Track machines are more expensive by 15 percent to 25
percent; it makes sense to spend the extra money only if you
lose a lot of time to muddy conditions.
Track machines also provide better stability when traveling,
grading, and lifting — but they cost more to maintain
because they contain more moving parts that are exposed to
And while tires — at $1,000 for four — aren't
cheap, a set of tracks can easily cost two to three times that,
and they may not last as long.
Open or closed cab? This is a matter of personal choice and
depends on your climate, operating conditions, and budget.
Operator comfort is crucial, however: A comfortable operator
will be safer and more productive. For me, a cab with air
conditioning and heat is worth every dime (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Considered a necessity by the
author, a closed cab with air conditioning makes operators more
efficient and increases safety by eliminating extreme heat as a
source of fatigue. It also helps with employee retention: An
uncomfortable operator may be lured away by another employer
with air-conditioned equipment.
When it comes to loading or carrying dirt and gravel, a
skid-steer loader is the star of the show. But it can do so
much more. With a backhoe attachment, you can trench for
utilities or dig shallow footings (Figure 3). And pallet forks
make quick work of moving asphalt shingles, bagged concrete,
and other heavy, palletized loads (Figure 4).
Figure 3. With its short wheelbase and
narrow body, a skid-steer loader with a backhoe attachment
($12,000) can fit in places too small for a conventional
backhoe. One drawback: Whereas the backhoe is operated from
outside the cab, the skid steer itself is controlled from
inside — an arrangement that can lead to a lot of
clambering in and out of the cab.
Figure 4. Pallet forks — which cost
about $1,000 — are one of the most valuable attachments,
allowing GCs to unload trucks and move heavy materials quickly
Material-handling booms are great for lifting heavy objects on
sites where a crane won't fit. A brush grapple is one of my
favorite attachments. I once cleared a mile of road with a
dozer and a skid steer equipped with one; the resulting brush
pile measured more than 830 cubic yards. The skid-steer allowed
me to carry brush and roots a pickup truckload at a time. The
same grapple works equally well on demolition waste (Figure
Figure 5. Designed for carrying bulky
irregular-shaped objects, a grapple bucket makes moving tree
stumps and demolition waste easier. Models come with either one
or two grapples; prices range from $2,500 to
With a hydraulic hammer attachment, you can break up the
thickest concrete. Broom attachments allow you to sweep streets
quickly, which keeps the neighbors happy. There are compaction
rollers for road building and backfilling (Figure 6) and
several attachments for landscape and seeding prep (Figure
Figure 6. Compacting soil while
backfilling or building roads on residential sites is seldom
given the attention it deserves. A vibratory roller ($10,000)
makes the process faster and relatively foolproof.
Figure 7. The author frequently uses a
rock rake ($1,000) to prepare soil for backfilling utility
trenches and final grading. The tool sifts out large- and
medium-sized rocks so they won't damage underground utilities;
the separated rocks can often be used for other purposes. The
rake can also eliminate the need to import clean fill for
Dozens of attachments are available. Thanks to them, I find
additional uses for my skid steer all the time.
Maintenance and Repairs
Neglecting maintenance can increase your liability and result
in expensive repairs. Plan on spending a half-hour every day
greasing, fueling, and inspecting your machine, plus making
minor repairs. Schedule more extensive maintenance — a
half-day in your shop or a full day in the dealer's service
department — every 250 hours for severe use or 500 hours
for light use.
Skid-steer loaders are tough, but there are ways to help the
machine last longer with fewer repairs. Probably the most
important precaution is to warm it up adequately, especially
the hydraulics, before use. To do this, let the engine run for
five to 15 minutes at a fast idle (depending on ambient
temperature) and operate several hydraulic functions gently,
without a load, to circulate the oil.
The next most important practice is to cool down the
turbocharger by running the machine at a slower speed for at
least a few minutes after any hard use. Failure to do so can
destroy the bearings in the turbo; repairs can run into the
thousands of dollars.
Stalling the machine under load is also severely abusive to the
turbocharger, because it leads to oil starvation. And shutting
down a turbocharged engine right after heavy use can set up
thermal stresses. Instead, let the engine idle down for a few
minutes. Another no-no is ignoring hydraulic leaks: If oil is
leaking out, dirt is getting in.
Finally, operator abuse — such as driving into hard
objects — is really tough on pivot points and
Choosing the Best Tires
There are numerous options for tires. Pneumatic tires provide
the best ride for the least cost. If you work around minor
puncture hazards like nails, add a sealant to prevent flats. If
you work around severe puncture hazards, you can have your
tires filled with urethane foam. This makes the tires about
twice as expensive, but I do it anyway; I don't want to worry
about flat tires and I find that the extra weight makes the
machine more stable.
I've destroyed an entire set of tires in 200 hours. I've also
had tires last twice that long with no appreciable wear. It all
depends on the terrain and the operator.
You can also buy solid tires, but they are generally designed
for specialized industrial applications, not for residential
The Scoop on Trailers
Most skid steers can be moved on a trailer behind a 3/4-ton or
larger pickup; unless you buy an oversized truck or trailer you
won't need a CDL. The trailer and hitch should be rated for the
weight of the machine, and the trailer brakes should be checked
before every trip.
Appropriate tiedowns are essential, too. Using anything smaller
than 5/16-inch Grade 70 chain with ratchet binders is imprudent
— and nylon load straps are a very bad idea, as the
straps can chafe and fail catastrophically in as little as a
half-hour (Figure 8, next page).
What Does It Cost?
The monthly payment for my top-of-the-line machine with all the
bells and whistles is $650. Insurance runs about $300 or $400
per year. I budget $4 to $6 per hour for maintenance and
repairs and $5.50 per hour for fuel. My maintenance budget for
the machine ends up being $4,000 to $6,000 per year.
Most contractors won't need to spend that much, but I like to
be conservative in my estimates. Given the costs, I find that
just to break even, most contractors need to bill between 350
to 500 machine hours per year depending on the cost of the
machine, which commonly ranges from $25,000 to $45,000.
For occasional use, renting is the way to go. (If you're on the
fence, try renting a machine for a while, and then, if you
decide it suits your business, buy one.) But for regular use,
the typical $180-a-day rental is too expensive to be
The key is to estimate your utilization rate. If you can get
enough billable hours a month to cover the cost of the machine,
I don't see why you wouldn't buy one. The resulting increase in
productivity should allow you to take on more jobs —
which, in turn, would mean even more billable hours for the
Figure 8. Moving a skid steer requires a
sturdy trailer rated for the machine's weight as well as for
any additional attachments carried along. The machine should be
secured to the trailer at four points with grade 70 5/16-inch
chain. Nylon straps are insufficient.
By the pound or by the dollar, these rats are among the most
productive and profitable machines on the job site.
If you employ one or more helpers to do little more than
sitework and carrying material, consider letting them go the
next time they show up late or hung over, and buy a skid-steer
You'll probably come out ahead and you'll definitely have fewer
headaches.David Crosby is an excavation contractor.
He owns Crosby Construction in Santa Fe, N.M.