How to Buy a Skid Steer

Possibly even more so than with most equipment, matching a skid steer to your business and the work you do can mean the difference between adding a productive piece of equipment to your fleet and buying some big iron that makes you feel good – until you walk by it sitting in the yard day after day.

And that’s not because the skid steer is a risky investment – it’s not. It’s because there is such an array of features, sizes and options that only proper planning and an examination of your operation will assure a productive and efficient match.

“You need to know what the expectations are for that machine,” says Mike Fitzgerald, product specialist for Bobcat. “You need to know what type of productivity you expect, you need to know the performance you expect.”

Knowing what you expect of your skid steer will affect the physical size of the machine you buy, the amount of power you pay for, the operator comfort you invest in, the hydraulics package you buy, the type of lift mechanism you opt for, the type of attachments you own or might need and more.

Frame and equipment size

One of the first considerations is the overall size of the skid steer. Frames are generally large, medium and small and there’s a relationship between the size and what the machine can be expected to do. Manufacturers say the most common mistake contractors make when buying a skid steer is not selecting the proper size, including horsepower, for whatever work they’re doing. “I’ve been on jobsites where they’re trying to do more with a smaller machine and also on sites with too large a machine for the construction area they’re working in and neither situation is very efficient or productive,” Fitzgerald says.

For example, larger units generally lift higher so if you are using the skid steer to load into a dump truck with higher sideboards you might want a larger skid steer. Size also plays a role depending on the jobsite.

“Where are you working?” Fitzgerald asks. “If you’re on an open area like a large parking lot then size might not be an issue – unless there are tight areas you need to fit into. If you’re working in tighter areas like streets then you might opt for a smaller machine.”

And if you’re trying to force a large machine into a tight area it will reduce productivity, where using a small machine on a large job in an open area will be less productive as well. “Smaller machines fit better in smaller spaces and do a better job of getting into smaller jobs and tight areas,” says Tim O’Brien, brand manager, Case Construction Equipment.

Size also plays a role in how you transport the skid steer. Not surprisingly a large-frame skid steer weighs more than a smaller-frame machine, and contractors towing with a pickup and lighter trailer might need to buy a smaller skid steer. “If you’re an owner/operator with a one-truck operation and you’re not going to upgrade then you need to look at a smaller machine,” Fitzgerald says.

O’Brien adds that owning a smaller skid steer better enables you to tow it and another piece of equipment, such as a mini excavator, on the same small trailer.

In general the larger the frame the greater the horsepower, but O’Brien says that relationship is not as clear cut as it once was.

“Today you can find the benefits you need in a machine that’s smaller than what you had originally,” O’Brien says.

Sean Bifani, Mustang product manager, says there are plenty of skid steers on the market so contractors should have no problem finding the right fit for their company.

“With the availability of different skid steer loaders with different operating capacities and different lift arms you want to find the piece of equipment that best serves the needs for the business,” Bifani says. “Typically, you don’t need to buy more than you need and it’s not effective to buy less than you need.”

Horsepower & torque

Part of determining the appropriate size skid steer is determining how much power you need to buy. Generally contractors look at a machine’s horsepower but O’Brien says that, especially in the case of skid steers, torque is more important.

“People are becoming more educated to it [torque] on trucks and the same applies to skid steers. Torque – how hard the engine can turn that crank – is really what does the work, and it often does it at a lower engine speed,” O’Brien says. “So torque is really the spec they should be looking at rather than horsepower.”

Bifani agrees. “Power isn’t always about horsepower,” he says. “Horsepower is really about the speed of getting the work done where torque is about the ability to get work done. Torque is power.”

O’Brien says that smaller skid steers manufactured today with electronic engine controls have much more torque than previous machines. “So today you might want to consider a smaller model than what you may have been looking at for horsepower.” He says contractors don’t usually run their equipment at full RPMs and a high-torque machine enables them to run the engine at a lower speed – resulting in greater fuel efficiency.

Fitzgerald, however, says don’t place too much emphasis on torque. “I look at it as much broader than just getting the maximum amount of torque,” he says. “That’s very important but I don’t think that’s the most important thing to consider.”

The impact of hydraulics

Bifani explains that flow is the volume of hydraulic oil moving through the system and pressure is the ability to get the work done. “You want to have enough pressure to operate the various systems without lugging down your engine,” Bifani says.

All skid steers come with a standard hydraulic package matched by the manufacturer to the skid steer size, and that package works fine for a lot of work skid steers do.

“If you’re just milling a small area once in a while you can get by with the standard hydraulic package, but if you’re going to be asking the unit to operate planers a lot or pavement saws a lot then it’s probably worth your while to step up to a higher-flow hydraulics,” Fitzgerald says.

O’Brien says auxiliary hydraulics – which can include a high-flow system and often increased hydraulic pressure – enhance the versatility of the machine by enabling it to use larger and more powerful attachments. But if you’re not using it for that type of work all the time then it might not be worth the additional expense of an optional hydraulics package to be more productive.

“Standard hydraulics on small equipment will run a broad range of attachments but on our medium and large frame machines we offer a high-flow option,” O’Brien says. “We also offer an enhanced high-flow that provides higher flow and higher pressure and this enables them to run high-production versions of our cold planers.”

Getting the most out of attachments

Hydraulics are important because they run the attachments, and attachments maximize the use of any single machine and result in greater productivity.

“You need to have the right flow of auxiliary hydraulics in order to power the different tasks,” Bifani says. “Otherwise the attachment may work, but it won’t work efficiently. With a cold planer you really need to keep the drum moving to be effective because if the drum slows down it won’t be cutting effectively.”

Bifani suggests that when considering attachments contractors look at two main specifications for choosing a skid steer unit — rated operating capacity and auxiliary hydraulic flow. “You want to have the right size loader for the particular attachment,” Bifani says. “There is a weight to attachments. If an attachment weighs 2,400 pounds you don’t want to be carrying it around with a 2,200-pound loader.”

Fitzgerald says that high-flow machine attachments provide the best productivity and the best job -- if you do that job frequently. “If you just do it occasionally you can get by with standard attachment and standard flow,” he says. “Or maybe it’s more reasonable to rent in that case.

“If you’re a pavement contractor and all you’re going to use the skid steer for is milling then you want to get the biggest machine with the most horsepower – because you’ll be using it all the time doing that and you want the greatest productivity.”

O’Brien agrees and encourages contractors to think about the tasks they will be doing with the skid steer. “Consider the attachments you currently have and the ones you might have in the future,” he says. “You want to keep the operator in the seat to get the most out of your machine and the more attachments you can use on the machine enables it to be more integral on the jobsite.”

How to lift: Radial or vertical

There are two approaches to lifting the bucket of a skid steer – radial and vertical -- and manufacturers say neither is better than the other – though each is more appropriate for certain work. Fitzgerald says radial lift machines have slightly better visibility and slightly longer reach in front of the machine. “So if they’re working on ground level a lot of contractors opt for the radial lift,” he says.

“Radial lift models tend to be more oriented to applications where the brunt of the work is digging in the ground,” Bifani says. “Vertical lifts are capable of reaching truck bed level for lifting pallets off the truck and moving to a different location. Vertical lift models perform better in lift-and -place applications while radial lift models perform better in dirt work.”

Fitzgerald says vertical lift machines normally have a higher-rated operating capacity because of the way they are structured and because they usually are called on to lift buckets of material or forklifts of pallets to high heights. He says contractors expecting their skid steer to lift a lot of debris or material into a dump truck, especially a truck with high sides, often benefit from a vertical lift machine.

O’Brien agrees. “Both radial and vertical are effective technologies but in general the vertical lift machines can lift heavier loads higher so if you’re planning on using your skid steer for dumping into a dump truck with high sides a vertical lift skid steer might be something to consider,” he says. “On the other hand, radial lift machines offer extended reach in front of the machine and that can be an attribute when working on pavement.”

“If you own a skid steer today you can decide to move up or down based on what you have,” Fitzgerald says. “If you don’t own one and are buying your first skid steer go to a dealer and ask the expert who can answer just about any questions you have and help you match the equipment to the work you do. It also makes sense to talk with other contractors.”