One of the greatest summer pleasures is catching a professional baseball game. There’s something thrilling about watching a pro throw a shutout or leap for a line drive. As it turns out, baseball and power equipment have something in common.

In both, virtuosity is admirable, but there’s also a strong case to be made for versatility. For every Roger Clemens, there’s a Tim Wakefield, the multipurpose knuckleballer who has been boosting the Boston Red Sox’s production since 1995. For every excavator and backhoe loader, there’s the jack-of-all-trades utility loader.

Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to choose a utility loader is its ability to outpace human labor on several critical tasks. With the labor shortage that’s currently crippling the green industry, this can be a big productivity booster. And though the name and lack of bulk associated with power equipment can be deceiving, these machines are more than capable of hard labor. Up to four-cylinder engines, nearly 100hp in the upper limits and a range of attachments mean that you can dig, grade, trench, haul and grind with the best of them. You may be able to take on a greater range of jobs than you could before. Even better, these machines are relatively easy to operate, which cuts down on training.

The trick is navigating the sea of choices from the many manufacturers. Some of the biggest names in the industry are in on the action, so how do you pick the machine that’s right for you? Luckily, there are a few guidelines that can help. Whether you’re interested in a skid steer loader, mini skid steer, compact utility loader or mini-loader, here’s what you need to know to narrow down the choices.

Know thyself

Every contractor is different, just like every job is different. You must figure out what balance of size and power is appropriate for the work that you perform. “Choose something that meets your needs,” advises Matt Bland, owner of Bland Landscaping Company, Inc., in Apex, North Carolina. “For example, we use a ride-on mini skid steer for enhancement work because it’s lightweight, mobile and performs multiple functions.” “Lift capacity and width are the two main factors,” adds Craig Qualls, general manager for Dynamic Equipment Corporation in Pacoima, California. If you take a lot of residential and/or small commercial jobs and need to squeeze through gates and tight alcoves, you probably can get by with a smaller machine with less horsepower. Among the different models of these machines, width can range from 3' to more than 6', while heights generally fall between 5' and 7'. If you pour concrete or haul rocks and bricks, a larger machine with a bigger bucket might be a better bet.

Lift capacity determines how heavy of a load the machine can handle and how high it will reach. This will affect the size of the machine. So if you need to load trucks or carry heavy materials, you may have to compromise your maneuverability in small spaces. Maximum lift height can vary from 3' to 12', with most models averaging somewhere between 8' and 10'. And remember that whatever you purchase will need to be transported to jobsites.

Decide how you roll

Utility loaders are either wheeled or tracked. Each option presents some advantages and disadvantages, depending on the conditions in which you will be working and the type of work. Tracked units provide increased traction and lower ground pressure, which results in better flotation. Therefore, less damage occurs to the surface and soil compaction is reduced. It means less time spent on worksite restoration and no flat tires.

“A tracked unit allows the owner to operate in wetter conditions,” said Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager, Toro Sitework Systems, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For contractors who work throughout the year on established lawns, a tracked utility loader may be the better choice. But that doesn’t mean tracks are for everyone, says Matt Collins, a product manager for Ditch Witch in Perry, Oklahoma. “There’s more to maintain: bearings, sprockets, rollers, etc. Contractors need to take this into consideration when evaluating tracks versus tires.”

Tires also offer benefits and drawbacks. For one, they work well on a variety of surfaces and are well suited for lifting and loading tasks. Articulation on some loaders allows for turning without ripping the turf. This left or right motion is controlled by the steering cylinders. Because the rear wheels follow in the same tracks as front wheels, they don’t skid. However, they can’t counter-rotate like other skid steer loaders.

Some units with tires are smaller, meaning that they can work in smaller spaces and eat up less space on a trailer. Collins adds, “Tired units can cost less and require less maintenance than tracked loaders.” If you do choose tires, consider the areas you typically service. In boggy, wet areas you might need a wider tire, whereas if you’ll be working in rocky areas with lots of sharp objects, a solid pneumatic tire becomes important. Choosing the appropriate setup can extend the life of your tires.


Walking tall is just as good as easy riding

Do you want to walk behind or ride on the unit? The answer may seem obvious on the surface, but how the utility loader is used will dictate what will be easiest for the operator. If the machine will be operated continuously, the operator will be more comfortable riding. On the other hand, if your workers are performing other tasks, they can walk with less effort than repeatedly climbing on and off the machine.

Insist on having your cake and eating it, too? Some manufacturers offer a choice: platform or no platform. The platform can be attached to the frame for use in wet conditions, and easily detached when it is no longer needed.

There’s also a considerable price difference between the two options, as well as differences in functionality. “A walk-behind unit is better for small areas,” says Qualls. “It won’t lift as much or as high.” Ride-ons may have more lifting capacity. Considering that you could wind up paying $15,000 more for a ride-on unit if you really need a walk behind, this is an important consideration.

Be a smooth operator

While the utility loader’s versatility could be exalted for days, the potential for increased productivity is diminished if the unit is uncomfortable or difficult to operate. “Simplicity is imperative,” says Product Specialist Group Manager Joel Powell with Volvo Construction Equipment in Asheville, North Carolina. “Simplicity translates into productivity and safety. We have to make our skid steers easy to learn for a wide variety of potential operators.”

Many manufacturers boast ergonomically-designed controls. However, evaluating the ease of use includes testing the controls for an extended period of time. If operating the machine wears your employees out, chances are that the end-of-day cleanup is going to take longer, too. This can snowball into reduced productivity throughout the week.

During testing, ask yourself if the controls can be reached without much effort. Do they strain the operator’s arms and legs? How long can the machine be used before fatigue sets in? Is the steering responsive? Remember that the noise level and vibration can also negatively affect the comfort level. Also, if the utility loader is operated from a cab, visibility can affect the operator’s ability to use the equipment.

Who will be operating your equipment should be factored into your decision. Will it be a seasonal employee who doesn’t have experience swapping out attachments or someone who has used these machines for years? While the popular opinion seems to be that the operation isn’t difficult to pick up, every employer knows the value of training employees about how to properly use equipment.

Don’t get too attached

To the multitude of hydraulic attachments, that is. From a cold planer to a brush cutter to a stump grinder, you name the job and chances are there’s a work tool to complete it. But while the temptation to purchase “just in case” may be great, you know realistically that only certain tools will make you more profitable in the long run. Buckets, pallet forks, trenchers, augers and cutter heads are more common for landscaping. Remember to verify that the attachments you need are available for the model that you buy.

Another way to approach the issue is to “put the cart before the horse,” as Powell suggests. “Look at what needs to be done first; then match the attachment to the job.” If funds are limited, it might be a good idea to buy only those attachments that can be used for as many jobs as possible. Then, if you need another tool in the future for a special project, you can pick it up from the nearest rental house or dealer. Should the need for that tool become more frequent, there’s still the option to purchase it at a later date.

Avoid machines that are difficult to maintain

As when purchasing any piece of equipment, you want to consider the ease of preventative care and maintenance. If the utility loader is difficult to maintain, for either you or whomever performs maintenance, you’ll just end up sinking more money and time into the machine than it may be worth.

Although maintenance shouldn’t vary considerably from one manufacturer to the next, you do want a unit with easy-to-access components and a simple design, if you’re going to be doing repairs in-house. Choose a model that you feel comfortable with. Your daily checks should be quick and easy. You don’t want changing a filter to become an all-day event.

Make a deal

The right dealer (or manufacturer) should be willing to help you find a financing option and payment schedule that you’re comfortable with. If you already have a relationship with a dealer in your area, see if it carries utility loaders. Ask what types of attachments are available for you to rent.

The dealer should be attentive and honest. Not listening to your needs or returning your calls could be indicative of the type of ongoing relationship you would have with the dealer. Poor customer service just isn’t worth the hassle. Qualls suggests that contractors first talk to other people in the industry who have bought from the same dealer. “Every dealer will claim to be the biggest and the best,” he warns.

Bland agrees. “We look for someone who will have solutions for our problems and who is willing to stand behind the machine, even outside of the warranty if something should have been fixed.”

“When selecting a loader, don’t evaluate only the dealer but also the manufacturer,” said Borenstein. “Does the manufacturer have a history of standing behind their warranty? Does the manufacturer have parts in stock? Do they have a parts management and ordering system that enables the shipment of parts within 24 hours? These questions should play an important part in your decision of which piece of equipment you should purchase.”

Ask your dealer about servicing—will you need to bring the unit into the shop, or will someone come pick it up? Does the dealer lend the same or similar models while yours is being serviced?

This can go a long way towards eliminating costly downtime. If your local dealer will perform maintenance, check to make sure it stocks a range of parts and has trained technicians who can make repairs quickly and reliably. 

Try before you buy

“Demo the units,” suggests Bland. “When we’re looking at buying a new machine, we take it around to a few jobs and even keep it for a few months. We can evaluate the reliability and whether people in the field like the machine.”

Remember, you can always rent a machine or an attachment to familiarize yourself with different brands and functionalities before you make a purchase. This allows you to try without commitment.

Above all, take your time when making a purchasing decision. A utility loader should add to your productivity, not subtract from your bottom line. “A loader can help you better manage your time and be more efficient. It shows up to work every day and works all day,” says Collins. Find one of these “employees of the year” and you’ll be ahead of the game.