If you think back to ancient times, we’ve all seen photographs of the pyramids, aqueducts, and old buildings and marveled at their shapes and designs. Even more interesting, we’ve wondered how humans managed to build those structures more than five thousand years ago. How were they able to get those slabs of stone up to the top of the pyramids? While these structures still amaze us, we can imagine the amount of labor they took. To increase efficiency, the ancients used wheels to move large, heavy stones and put them in place. But lifting stone slabs to build a pyramid just wouldn’t be practical anymore.

Now let’s fast forward to today. You would never think of having a crew of 10, 20 or more, digging, dragging, and placing heavy rocks or stones. Now, there is equipment that replaces hand labor, and equally as important, these labor-saving devices also save you money. One of the most popular pieces of equipment is the skid steer loader, sometimes called compact loaders.

Early on, pne of the drawbacks of these machines was that it had limited use in housing developments, where maneuverability was a problem. The equipment could not fit through the side gates. To solve this problem, the mini skid steer loader was created. Much smaller in size, these units are ideal for landscape contractors. “They save a lot of time, because the requirements aren’t as great as hauling around some of the bigger equipment,” says Gene Petrini, director of operations, ISS Grounds Control, Phoenix, Arizona. “And you can use a smaller trailer, which more workers can operate; it’s easier to run than the larger machines.”

However, they do have their limitations. They are not as powerful, nor do they have the lifting capacity of their big brothers. But they are much less expensive to buy and to operate. It’s a big technological leap for your business to take, going from the trowel to the mini skid—kind of like going from the invention of the wheel to the jet age, all at once.

Let’s talk turkey

How could your company benefit from having such a piece of equipment? “The machine works for anywhere from $4 to $10 an hour, doesn’t call in sick, and doesn’t need a lunch break or health insurance,” says David Katz, owner of Elite Landscaping in Poughkeepsie, New York. A mini skid can really optimize your crew, allowing you to maintain a smaller, more reliable team without losing the output of a larger workforce.

“We have many contractors who have replaced hand labor with a compact utility loader,” says Neil Borenstein, marketing director at The Toro Company. “They see how productive they become, and change the makeup of their company by hiring fewer, more skilled employees.”

Let’s say, for instance, that you have three crews and that each consists of three workers. With a mini skid, a job that would normally require an entire crew—like digging a number of holes to plant a tree—becomes possible for a single crew worker to complete. The remaining members of that crew can then shift their attention to other portions of the project, or completing the current one faster. Either way, freeing up labor is a winning proposition, especially when it often amounts to 70 percent or more of the cost of a project. Anything to get that percentage down—even just five percent— would be a great deal.

To make this piece of equipment even more valuable to the landscape contractor, manufacturers have developed many new attachments for the device. For example, if you need to dig a trench, there’s a trencher attachment you can buy; you wouldn’t have to rent a dedicated trencher. Augers, box rakes, shovels, and more are available as attachments. The more attachments you have, the more time will be spent on productive work, and the more valuable that piece of equipment will become.

Why carry more than thirty tools to a job when you can take one machine and several attachments?

It affords you the freedom to choose rather than making you constantly run to and from the rental yard to get separate tools for drilling, trenching, and hauling. With a mini skid steer loader, you have one tool that can do it all. This increased efficiency saves time and brings back some of your profits.

Your prime consideration, of course, remains cost. How often will it be used and can you justify the expense? Mini skids often cost more than $20,000. But think of it this way: the cost is about the same as hiring one manual laborer for one year. Your initial expense translates into a quick return on investment and a rapid reduction of labor-related expenses.

Renting versus buying

Before you just go out and purchase or lease a mini skid steer loader, it’s usually advisable to rent one for a few weeks. Put it through the paces and see if it does what you’re looking for. Is it exactly what you need? If not, try another brand. It may be more to your liking. If you’re still skeptical, renting offers a safe alternative. After the initial rental fee, the labor savings alone will quickly put money back into your pocket and allow you to take on more work.

Katz identifies one major downside, though, saying, “A lot of rental companies don’t always rent the atttachment itself; they’ll rent the attachment with the machine, or they won’t have the tool.” In other words, if you’re planning to do more than haul heavy loads, the rental companies may not have the attachments you need—or if they do, the cost of an attachment may not justify the expense. The time you use the tool also affects whether renting is a feasible alternative to buying.

“If a contractor rents a compact utility loader more than three times a month, it would be wiser to purchase one. Once a piece of equipment is used on a weekly basis, it’s often better to buy,” says Borenstein. And if you maximize the use of the equipment, your crews will be more effective, more efficient, and more productive, which all filters down to the bottom line.

Nick Marrali, landscape management operations manager at the Pattie Group in Novelty, Ohio, might say it best: “We’ve reduced our amount of labor so it increases the amount of work we can do in a given year.”