In today’s world, it’s no longer enough for a piece of equipment to do just one task, no matter how well. If you doubt this, consider the telephone. It used to do one thing, and one thing only: facilitate calls. And that was enough, for decades. As time went on, phones became able to transmit data as well. That was another huge step forward.

Now phones do so many things, it would take this entire article to list them all. They’re entertainment centers, data managers, storage devices, navigation systems, and access portals to the Internet, all in a compact size that fits in your pocket. No one wants a phone that just makes calls anymore.

But this article is not about phones. It’s about mini skid steers, compact utility vehicles and utility terrain vehicles (UTVs). Like today’s cell phones, these machines can do a lot of things and fit in relatively small spaces. They give the professional landscape or irrigation contractor the versatility he needs in today’s demanding marketplace.

Like a phone in your pocket, they help you be prepared for the unexpected. And the unexpected should be expected, especially on installation jobs. Whether it’s a hardscape, irrigation system or landscape you’re putting in, no job is ever the same as the last one. You constantly need to be ready to put out fires as they occur. No matter how much prep work you do previous to starting a job, there’s a client’s idiosyncrasies, Mother Nature or Murphy’s Law that can always throw you a curveball.

These three machines—mini skid steers, compact utility loaders, and UTVs—though different in size and function, are the secret weapons needed to effectively hit one out of the park, no matter what unexpected surprises might be thrown at you.

Growing a smart, profitable business depends on how wisely you manage your time. In the modern landscape industry, time is money. Spend your time poorly, and you can risk missing out on available job opportunities. Efficiency is essential to success, and these compact, timesaving machines can give it to you.

Full-sized tractors, utility loaders and skid steers take up a lot of space and weigh many thousands of pounds. They’re much too big for most landscape operations that must deal daily with narrow residential passages. The compact versions of these are much more versatile; however, even these smaller units come in a variety of sizes. We can’t tell you which size, or sizes, of units will be best for your company’s needs; only experience can do that.

Stan Hoglund, owner of Hoglund Landscape in Fargo, North Dakota, can attest to that. His company does a lot of hardscape work, building outdoor living spaces, water features, fire pits and other things. “We used to have three different sizes of skid steers: small, medium, and large,” he recalls. “We ended up selling the medium-sized one, because my guys ended up using it for maybe, ten hours. They preferred using the small walk-behind mini-excavator instead.”

Hoglund really thought his crew would like the unit he ended up getting rid of, because it was enclosed, and had heat and air conditioning. It may well have been a great machine, however, “a lot of our work is done in backyards, and it couldn’t fit through a lot of the gates.”

His largest unit, weighing in at around 10,000 pounds, doesn’t fit through gates either, but its lift capacity of 3,500 pounds makes it far more useful in other ways. “It’s ideal for excavating, bringing material in like Class 5 aggregate and sand, and hauling dirt and concrete out. That’s the one the guys really prefer, and we use it all the time, where it’s permitted. It’ll lift 3,300- pound pallets of pavers or rock-faced block off a semi.”

Multitasking marvels

Any worker who can do a variety of tasks is more valuable than an individual who can’t. Mini skids and compact utility loaders are inveterate multitaskers. They get that way via a large assortment of attachments that can instantly transform them into trenchers, augers, bucket trucks and backhoes. The more attachments a unit has, the more valuable it is.

With the right set of accessories, one machine can accomplish almost any landscape task imaginable. Whatever you need to do, from removing snow to installing irrigation pipe, there’s probably an attachment for it. Many of these easily snap onto a machine’s universal mounting plate. If you’ve been renting separate pieces of specialized machinery for certain jobs, consider whether owning a machine and an array of often-used attachments would be more cost effective.

Hoglund’s large skid-steer has a large number of attachments. Some of the most used include a jackhammer, power broom and power rake.

“If we need to take out concrete, we just put the jackhammer on it and do all our excavation with it.”

Once easy to differentiate by their size, both mini-skids and compact utility loaders have seen major makeovers in recent years. “The line between mini-skids and compact loaders is starting to blur,” said Sean O’Halloran, product manager with The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “We’ve seen a shift in the industry where compact loaders are becoming less compact, and miniskids are growing in size.” The newer, lighter models can easily fit into the back of a pickup or an attached trailer. Most come with self-towing attachments.

Show me the benefits!

Before you start your research, analyze the types of work your company performs. Ask yourself, “How can one of these machines help us do what we do, better and faster?”

Think about the types of properties you service and the kind of lifting and hauling that’s required when you work on them. Weigh this information against a machine’s rated operating capacity, dumping height, and any other relevant data.

Ask yourself how often you’ll actually use it. Mini skids often cost more than $20,000, so they’re hardly spur-of-the-moment purchases. Make sure it really fills a need. Of course, there may be services you can add to your menu once you purchase a skid-steer. If the profits you’ll make from those services would more than pay for the unit, that’s certainly a mark in its favor.

“We couldn’t do without our machines,” said Roger Myers, owner American Beauty Landscaping in Boardman, Ohio. Myers has been in the business 36 years, and remembers a time when he didn’t have any of this equipment. “But nowadays, you just can’t compete if you don’t have them.”

He finds the attachments invaluable. In the winter, the power brooms let his crews ‘zip down sidewalks’ to remove an inch of snow.

“When you’re putting in driveways, you have to tamp down your sub base. There is a tamper attachment that tamps like crazy. If we’re planting a whole bunch of trees, we can use the augers we have—from a foot to three feet in diameter—and punch three-foot deep holes in about a minute.”

“Having these machines definitely cuts down on the number of people it takes to do jobs,” says Myers. “At the end of the day, a man still has a little bit of energy left to drive home. In the old days, we used to crawl home.”

A high price tag can be a deterrent for a newer or smaller company. If that describes your business, you might think of it this way: the cost is comparable to what you’d have to pay a worker for a year. You’ll have to decide which one would be more versatile.

Does part of your work include hauling and placing heavy boulders? If so, how many people does that typically take to get done? Now, think about how a mini skid or compact loader could help. Will it save you time, and possibly even avoid injuries for your crew members? (Not to mention the worker’s comp costs and the missed work time.)

Labor is the biggest business expense for most contractors, often accounting for 70 percent of a project’s cost. Assigning more workers to a job than is actually needed can cut deep into your profit margin. If a piece of compact machinery would allow one or two well-trained workers to do a job that used to take a four-man crew, that cuts your labor costs in half. Those ‘extra’ crew members are then freed up to work on other jobs. You’ve gained the productivity of a larger workforce without having to hire additional people.

What to consider before purchasing

First, locate the machine’s rated operating capacity, often found at the end of a product name (i.e., the Dingo TX 1000 has a capacity of 1,000 pounds). This number is comparable to measuring your machine’s muscle strength, telling you how much weight the mini-skid or loader can handle before tipping over.

When Toro was designing its new Dingo TX 1000 mini skid steer, the company talked with customers who already owned or operated such units to see what was most important to them. Loudest and clearest was productivity and time management. “They wanted a product that could lift as much as is safely possible because it’s going to help them in terms of efficiency,” said O’Halloran. “The more you can lift, the more efficient you are, and the quicker you’ll be at completing jobs.”

Next, you’ll need to consider whether you want a unit that moves on wheels, or on tracks (also called treads), like military tanks. Wheeled units are great for contractors who do most of their work on concrete and asphalt; they move slightly faster than their track-borne counterparts. Wheeled units take up less storage space, but they can leave ruts behind them. Tracks, on the other hand, distribute weight evenly, making them gentler on turf. Tread units also have better overall traction and work better in wet conditions.

Hoglund used to own a mini-skid with wheels. “It had a tendency to rut up people’s turf,” he said. “If the ground was soft, the wheels would just kind of sink down.” The two units he now owns are tracked. “With the tracks, there’s less of a footprint, fewer pounds per square foot of pressure on the ground.”

Another important aspect to consider is whether your operators prefer sitting, standing, or walking. Operator comfort can make a big difference in productivity. Manufacturers say that preference is a tie between sitting and standing, because both give you 360-degree visibility from the control seat.

It might be a good idea to rent a couple of different models of various brands and put them through their paces. You’ll have more of an idea of what features you and your workers like and don’t like before you plunk down your money.

There are other things to think about besides the characteristics of the machine itself. Service is one. For instance, Hoglund tried several brands of skid steers before settling on the brand he uses now. At first, he liked the performance of a certain company’s units, and bought one. However, when it needed service, it seemed to take forever for the dealer to get parts, and there were no loaners.

The two skid steers he has now are a different brand.

When they need repair, the dealer usually fixes them the same day, and gives him a loaner to use until then. Even though he still thinks the other brand is slightly better, good service tipped the scales.

Small yet mighty, these compact machines allow contractors to do more with a smaller footprint. Their versatility saves both time and money, both of which are precious commodities. They can help you meet the challenge of doing all the things you need to in today’s increasingly demanding marketplace.