April 19 2010 12:00 AM

You’ve just completed a few landscaping jobs in a residential neighborhood and you have happy customers spreading the word about your great work. Now eager neighbors are asking for your services.

Sounds like a good deal, but there are problems. You can’t get your full-sized equipment into these small backyards, so your crew ends up hauling a lot of material by hand. In the areas where you can use your equipment, it’s tearing up lawns and you’re spending extra time repairing the damage. The results look great, but your labor costs are high.

Should you skip jobs like this and stick with projects that are a better fit with your equipment? Or is it time to invest in a more streamlined, turf-friendly machine?

Many contractors turn to mini-skid steers and compact utility loaders to solve problems like these. Small but mighty, these mini machines can do many jobs their full-size cousins can do . . . and in some cases, they can do it more profitably.

With dozens of attachments, these multi-tools offer companies a relatively economical way to branch into new service. Often contractors find that a mini loader allows them to take on jobs they had to pass up before.

With an investment in one power unit and attachments, you can haul materials, dig trenches, remove debris, auger holes, sculpt the ground, rake it smooth and more. When winter hits, snow removal tools can keep the machine working year-round.

Mini-skid steers and compact utility loaders aren’t right for every company. Before investing in one, you’ll want to think carefully about the kinds of work you do now and your plans for the future.

Weighing size and performance

Loaders come in all sizes. Before buying, you’ll need to evaluate the physical size of the machine itself and balance this against the operating capacity, dumping height and other performance requirements you’ll need.

Don’t judge size by name alone.

The terms “mini,” “compact” and “small” can mean different things, depending on the manufacturer. Look at actual specifications. See how these measure up to the types of properties you access most often and the kinds of lifting, moving and other work you do.

Do you frequently encounter narrow spaces? Some mini skids and compact utility loaders are slim enough to slip though a narrow garden gate. If you foresee a lot of gated yards in your future, a model like this can save hours of labor.

“To determine whether it will be a profitable investment, contractors need to look at how a machine can save them money,” says Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager with The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “It’s usually a matter of whether it saves labor . . . either the time spent on the job or the number of people on the job. It’s also impacted by how flexible the equipment is and how many tasks it can do.”

With mini-skid steers and compact utility loaders, the labor savings can add up quickly. A single operator can do many jobs with one machine and tackle projects that would otherwise require a few workers with wheelbarrows, hand tools and lots of muscle.

As Borenstein points out, before this equipment was introduced there wasn’t much between a shovel and a skid steer loader. Now these machines fill that niche by offering the versatility and agility of hand labor without the payroll, workers comp, overtime or sick days.

“A small contractor might get this equipment so he doesn’t have to add more people,” says Tim Maloney, Vermeer, Great Plains, Olathe, Kansas. “A larger contractor sees this as a good way to do a lot more without having as much labor on the jobsite or trucks to haul. One person can operate it. They can haul it in one truck and do the work they would usually do with two or three people.”

Andy Batcheller, owner of Handy Andy Outdoors, Chamblee, Georgia, is on his second compact utility loader.

“I did my own lawn and fell in love with it,” says Batcheller. “We mostly do renovation work. It’s great for getting into backyards without damaging the existing landscape.”

He’s also in love with the versatility. “We have two buckets, an auger with three bits, a trencher, forks, a leveler, a tiller and a soil cultivator. Today we trenched, we moved mulch, we moved dirt, we leveled terrain. We can use it to move around rocks and boulders. It’s also great for drainage.”


A mini loader isn’t a replacement for a full-sized skid steer. If heavy lifting is the norm and narrow spaces are the exception, consider sizing up. Full-size skid steers cost more and sacrifice some accessibility, but offer increased operating capacity. They also offer the versatility of multiple attachments and the turn-in-their track agility skid steers are known for.

Patrick Shanahan, owner of Artistic Landscaping, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, opted for a larger multi-purpose machine, a compact track loader. It’s the size of a full-size skid steer but features tracks instead of wheels. “This one’s not narrow enough to go through garden gates, but it can take pallets of salt off of tractor trailers,” says Shanahan.

So far, he’s equipped his loader with forks, a toothed bucket, a grapple bucket and snow bucket. He plans to get a toothless bucket for moving mulch soon.

Shanahan admits that the snow bucket sat idle last year, but this year, he says, it practically paid for the machine. “We had the greatest snow on record. I can push much more snow with tracks and a snow bucket than with a standard bucket,” he says.


Whether you go with a full-size skid steer or mini loader, be sure to consider transportation needs. How easy and economical it is to transport your equipment can play a big role in profitability. Be sure to evaluate how your new purchase will fit into your current system and discuss this with your dealer.

“People don’t always understand what kind of truck they’re going to need and what size trailer,” says Maloney. “That has to factor into the decision. You don’t want to have to change the way you haul equipment.”

Batcheller purchased his loader with a trailer. “The trailer is set up so that there is a place for each attachment.”

Treads or wheels

Another big consideration when choosing a loader is whether you’d be best served by a machine with treads or wheels. Skid steers, mini-skid steers and compact utility loaders are available with either wheels or tracks. Track loaders travel around on treads like a tank or bulldozer.

Tracks distribute more of the machine’s weight, allowing equipment to “float” over the surface.

“If you’re seriously worried about damaging lawns, tracks are going to make it a whole lot nicer,” says Maloney.

Tracks can also make it easier to operate in soft soils or muddy conditions. That’s why Shanahan chose to go with his tracked unit.

Testing a machine in the field is one of the most important parts of the decision-making process.

This will give you a chance to see for yourself what all the specs in the brochures said.

Batcheller also opted for tracks.

He says that way he can use it more often, regardless of weather. “It’s a lot more versatile than a wheeled machine,” he says. “It’s more expensive, but you’re going to get more done.”

Sit, stand, or walk

Another decision to make is whether you want your operators to sit, stand or walk behind their machine. Operator comfort can make a big difference in productivity.

Standard skid steers and some mini-sized machines have an enclosed cab. This decreases visibility but increases operator comfort, especially in hot or snowy weather. In some weather conditions, a loader without a cab would be unusable.

Walk-behind loaders offer greater visibility and easy-on/easyoff agility for the operator. Many offer stand-on platforms to decrease fatigue.


Whether you choose a full-size skid steer, a mini-skid or a compact utility loader, attachments are what give you the ability to do more jobs with one machine. It’s worth a long talk with your dealer to make sure you choose the attachments that fit your needs.

“We try to determine their goals and plans for the business,” says Borenstein. “We look at what their business is like and what their overall operations are like so we can help them determine which equipment will be profitable for them. Are they an irrigation contractor, a landscaper? Are they putting in hardscapes? Where can they use their equipment and where can’t they use it?” It often boils down to financing and budget, says Maloney. “You can spend as much on attachments as on the machine. Some people only want a bucket and that’s all they care about. Some want to plant trees, rake the yard, prep for new lawns. This gives them the versatility to add attachments as they grow.”

Try it out

Testing a machine in the field is one of the most important parts of the decision-making process. This will give you a chance to see for yourself what all the specs you read about in the brochures will actually mean to your company.

Joseph Huling, Keystone Outdoor Equipment, Duluth, Georgia, points out that while some manufacturers offer stronger hydraulics or more horsepower, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. “It all boils down to how that power is used and the efficiency of the machine. Try them out. Do a side-by-side comparison.”

Another key question is service and availability of parts. “This is a huge consideration,” says Batcheller. “Another product may be able to lift more or do more, but at the end of the day, if you need a part, how soon you can get it is critical.”

Renting a machine is one of the best ways to determine whether it meets your needs. Many dealers will apply a month’s rental cost toward a purchase or lease.

“This gives contractors the opportunity to try it out and see how it fits,” says Maloney. “A lot of times, when they get in there and start using it, they see all the other applications they could use it for. It will also help them determine the best size. Maybe the size they rented isn’t lifting what they need it to lift and they see a need to step it up.” It will also help you judge how simple it is to use. This is another big factor in productivity.

“Make sure to look at how easy the machine is to operate,” says Borenstein. “That will tell you how quickly your crews or temporary employees will come up to speed.”

Sometimes it makes sense to rent the loader or attachments only for specific jobs by the day or week. Some decide a full-size skid steer is a better fit and only rent a mini loader for jobs in the tightest spaces. But keep in mind that picking up equipment from the rental store, bringing it to the site and returning it, all adds labor and slows down progress. All this should be factored in as you decide whether buying is a better deal.

“Before I bought, I looked at what it cost to rent for a day or a week or month and compared it to how many days we’ll use it,” says Batcheller. “It goes out on average three days a week year round, sometimes more, sometimes less.”

Many contractors start out with a mini loader and find it’s all they ever need. Others start with a full-size skid steer and add the mini loader later. Whether you go big or small, prepare to do many different jobs with these multi-tasking marvels.