April 16 2009 12:00 AM

It wasn’t so long ago when a simple planting job required the work of an entire crew if you wanted to get it done in a timely fashion. When you had no other choice than to dig each hole by hand, lift each tree by hand, plant each and every one of those trees—you guessed it—by hand, the job was no longer simple.

It was a tiresome and tedious task, and you could only hope you wouldn’t get stuck doing the whole job by yourself. That would take hours upon hours—possibly even days, depending on the magnitude of the job—to fulfill your obligations to your client.

All that changed with the advent of compact utility loaders, or mini skid steers. These user-friendly machines came into widespread usage in the mid-to-late ’90s and forever altered the planting methods of the landscape industry.

Unlike their traditional skid steer counterparts—which, at an average of about 6,000 pounds, can be rather unwieldy and have a tendency to tear up the turf when running on lawns—mini skid steers are comparatively lightweight, typically clocking in at around 2,000 pounds. They produce considerably less stress on the turf, and because they’re so much smaller, they allow for easier access through gates, doorways and around planting beds.

Mike Clarkson had been running his Lexington, Kentucky-based landscaping company, Lawn Works, for seven years before he purchased his first mini skid steer unit in 1997. It was a purchase he claims transformed his company overnight.

“If anyone wants to take their landscape installation business to the next level, the mini skid steer is the easiest way to increase net profit,” claims Clarkson. “It can do the work of at least three to four men, and it never gets tired and never complains.”

According to Clarkson, his company was able to augur 176 holes during an island tree planting job in less than 10 hours, a process that would have taken days if not for the help of a mini skid steer. “The savings in time and labor you’ll generate are amazing,” he says. “If I’d had one when I first began working in this business, I’d be several steps ahead of where I am now.”

6.jpgAs their recognition grows, more and more companies are offering mini skid steer units as part of their product lines. Companies such as Toro, Site Works, John Deere, Bobcat, Boxer and others are manufacturing these small yet powerful machines and selling them to a market where there’s an increasingly high demand for such a product. Mini skid steer units come with an array of innovations to further enhance their versatility. Boxer offers a variable track system, helping to further steer these machines towards the high-efficiency, high-profit technology of the 21st century.

Their maneuverability allows users access to tight, hard-to-reach spots. The array of attachments they can accommodate is staggering. Trenchers, buckets, augers, tillers, snow plows, backhoes—these are just some of the accessories you can fit onto a mini skid steer. The list goes on and on, and the possibilities such attachments afford the contractor seem endless. If you’ve yet to try operating a mini skid steer unit, now’s the time. More than likely, you’ll find some use for it which will increase your company’s ability to finish jobs quickly and with less manpower.

But before you make the big investment, you’ll want to understand the different kinds of mini skid steer units out there and where they’re going. Educating yourself regarding safety and maintenance wouldn’t hurt either. Hopefully, this article will help you gain some of that knowledge.

A closer look

There are two different ways you can divide mini skid steers. First, you can operate a unit that runs on wheels or one that runs on t racks . Secondly, units can be built as either a walk-behind or a ride-on, in which the operator is situated literally on top of the machine. Let’s talk first about the differences between wheeled and tracked units. Wheeled units used to be the standard when it came to mini skid steers. When Franky Rife bought his first mini skid steer for his Waipahu, Hawaii-based landscaping company, FHR Services, wheeled units were all that were offered at the time.

“At that time, mini skid steers were still really new and a lot of contractors weren’t even aware of them,” says Rife. “Tracked units were still several years away and wheeled units were our only option. But they still got the job done. Very rarely do you have to change the wheels. To this day, we still only use wheeled units.”

Units that run on wheels are slightly faster, though speed is a nuance you’ll hardly notice (we’re talking a difference of one or two miles per hour). They also take up less space than tracked units, allowing for more storage room when stuffed inside of trailers.

Where wheeled units fall short is traction. Tracks, on the other hand, excel in this department. If you’re looking for a smoother, safer ride, tracked units are where you want to go. They take the weight of the machine and distribute it evenly across its length, allowing for better weight distribution and more overall stability—an especially handy feature for when you’re riding over hilly or bumpy areas. “Tracked units will go places that the wheeled ones cannot,” says Clarkson.

Because of the way they distribute weight, tracked units also put less stress on the turf. “If you’re going to carry a tree across a yard, wheels would tear up the turf way more than they would if you were hauling a tree with a tracked unit,” says Andy Lewis, marketing manager for Boxer Equipment, Fort Mill, South Carolina. “And if you’re driving in slippery conditions, tracks are very helpful.” 7.jpg

“The traction they provide keeps the unit running smoothly in place,” Lewis continues. “If you try driving through muddy turf with a wheeled unit, those wheels are going to spin around on you.” You’re not going to get any flat tires running on tracked units either, so you need not fear coming into contact with thorns or stray nails.

You also have the choice between a ride-on unit and a walk-behind unit. If you’re operating a walk-behind unit, you can let go of the machine at any time and it will stop on its own. On a ride-on, you’re controlling the mower from a control console that’s actually mounted on top of the machine. It’s great for visibility. “A safety benefit for ride-ons is that you have 360-degree visibility,” says Lewis. “You can literally see perfectly in all directions.”

Getting attached

As a contractor, you’ll find a great way to get work with new clients is by highlighting the selling points of your business. In other words, you’ll want to lay out your greatest company strengths to potential customers so they understand the full virtue of what you have to offer. With mini skid steers, that case can also be made. Sure, they’re easy to operate and maneuverable as well, but perhaps the biggest selling point these compact machines have to offer is their ability to accommodate just about any attachment.

“Mini skid steers basically act as a tool carrier,” says Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager for The Toro Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota . “They can carry trenchers, augurs, cultivators, hammers, all sorts of things. The degree to which you can dress your machine up in different accessories is pretty staggering.”

Attachments fit onto the universal mount plate of the skid steer, fastened by two pins which hold the tool firmly in place. You can remove one attachment and put on another in a minute’s time. And with the variety of uses possible, changing attachments is a frequent procedure for any contractor who uses the machine.

“One of the first jobs we had with our company was installing approximately 75 yard signs,” says Rife. “The client asked if we had an augur. We didn’t; we only had a one man augur, which he had to manually start and then hold onto as best he could while we were drilling. There was no platform or anything. We had to just stand there and try to keep everything in place while we were drilling and it was really tricky, not to mention exhausting.

“After we got the mini skid steer, we were given another job, this time installing 100 signs. So we put the augur attachment on there and were able to cut the time of the job in half compared to the previous time. But we use almost every attachment the mini skid steer has to offer.With the amount of work we do, it’s impossible not to.”

Evolving in today’s market 8_2.jpg

Maneuverability and efficiency are the mini skid steers’ defining traits, so it makes sense that engineers would take strides to continue to make them more maneuverable and more efficient.

Case in point: the variable track system. This is an innovative new feature found in Boxer’s line of tracked mini skid steer machines which allows the unit to become even more compact. With the push of a button, the tracks will shift so that they are located directly underneath the machine, making the width of the loader narrower. “The tracks withdraw underneath the unit, taking the width down to 35 inches,” claims Lewis. “It’s like it’s walking on its tiptoes.” This allows the machine to access even tighter spots than it could otherwise. You can adjust the size of your wheeled units as well, depending on what kind of machine you’re using. Toro allows operators to attach small “slim tires” in place of the regular wheels.

These will allow you to pass easily through openings as narrow as three feet. Since regular wheels restrict the unit to openings of around 3.6 to 3.8 feet wide, this is a handy feature for those tricky little spots you might not otherwise be able to access. More innovations continue to be made with mini skid steers.

Toro’s patented T-bar control system allows for easier steering through fewer controls, and its Dingo unit can convert to either a walk-behind or a ride-on loader. Some mini skid steers are now hydraulically powered, making it easier to coordinate control between the attachments and the unit itself. “Hydraulics are the best thing they’ve done with mini skid steers,” says Rife. “Before, you would put an attachment on but you wouldn’t have any power for it until you moved the control knob to six o’clock. “But when you moved the knob all the way up to six, then you wouldn’t have any power to move the actual unit. These days, you can purchase a loader with a hydraulic system that will allow you to power both the attachment and the machine simultaneously.”

As more and more people learn the benefits of mini skid steers, more manufacturers are jumping on the technology. As Borenstein puts it, “They’re in high demand because until mini skid steers came along, there wasn’t really anything in between regular skid steers and using a pick and shovel. Your choices were hours and hours of manual labor or using this big, scary machine. The mini skid steer kind of fills in that gap.”

For those familiar with them, mini skid steers are the machines you’d never want to live without. For those who have yet to use them, you may want to think of them as nothing more than big funky toys with a lot of neat attachments. But when you do finally use it, it won’t take long to recognize these powerful machines for what they are: strong, reliable pieces of equipment that you can use to save time and labor.