In the late 1990s, landscape contractors and equipment manufacturers alike identified the need for versatile equipment that could significantly reduce hand labor.

Enter the compact utility loader, which entered the U.S. market in 1995. Many refer to this piece of equipment as the Swiss army knife for the construction and landscape industries because it is multipurpose, utilizing a variety of attachments to tackle a wide range of applications, while also squeezing through a narrow gate.

Currently, there are a number of compact utility loader configurations, including wheeled, tracked, ride-on and walk-behind designs. Though similar in function and versatility, wheeled units are ideally suited for less-challenging terrain. Conversely, tracked models accommodate difficult terrain conditions, such as mud or sand, and can also help to maintain turf integrity.

Photo: Toro

Compact utility loaders versus skid-steers

Because of their versatility and ability to perform some of the same functions as skid-steers in confined areas, compact utility loaders quickly developed the reputation as “mini skid-steers.” Though skid-steers and compact utility loaders share some of these traits, their core strengths and applications are actually quite different. Rather than replacing a skid-steer, a compact utility loader complements it.

Compact utility loaders are designed to utilize hydraulic-powered attachments in confined or sensitive areas. Skid-steers were designed to move soil from point A to point B. By and large, compact utility loaders are used primarily with an attachment other than a bucket. Conversely, the majority of skid-steer activity involves the use of the bucket attachment.

An average skid-steer measures about 65 inches in width, nearly twice the size of a compact utility loader. With widths as narrow as 29.5 inches, compact utility loaders can maneuver through standard gates and door frames and travel and operate in areas where only hand labor could otherwise work. Additionally, ground pressures as low as 3.4 psi enables them to travel across sensitive turf without damaging the surface. This is not the case with skid-steers, which typically present a ground pressure of up to 15 psi, and can cause damage to turf, resulting in costly repair work.

In addition to the maneuverability and low ground pressure, a compact utility loader’s small size also makes transport easier, requiring only a single-axle trailer with up to six attachments included.

Minimizing manual labor, enabling add-on services

In addition to improving crew efficiency by replacing hand labor, compact utility loaders enable small businesses to expand their service offerings from seasonal to year-round with the addition of such attachments as rotary brooms, hydraulic blades and snow throwers. In addition, by adding a compact utility loader to its fleet, a grounds maintenance business can expand into landscape installation with minimal added equipment or labor expenses. Larger businesses with multiple crews benefit from the machine’s ease of operation and ability to perform big machine projects in compact spaces.

Photo: Toro

Intuitive controls

Landscaping operations often have crew members of varying skill and experience levels operating job site equipment. For this reason, ease of operation should be a major factor in selecting a compact utility loader. With a variety of control panel options on the market, the best advice is to choose something that’s well labeled and designed, easy to understand and will offer a comfortable and familiar feel to the operator.

Whether you choose the toggle or T-bar control, you certainly can’t afford to sacrifice safety. An automatic shutoff switch is imperative to any job site equipment — compact utility loaders included. This feature will disengage the machine should the operator release the controls or accidentally lose control, protecting not only the operator but other individuals on the site as well.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2015.