Skid Steer or Compact Wheel Loader?

This exclusive test evaluates which machine is the right choice for your application.

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Compact wheel loaders and large skid-steer loaders are both versatile tool carriers that can accomplish many of the same tasks. To gather insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each machine, we gathered four expert operators and turned them loose to complete five common tasks. Among the operators we assembled, most were more familiar with the skid-steer controls. While this made them more comfortable using the skid steer in most tasks, they also came to recognize the potential advantages a compact loader can offer.

For the test, Case Construction Equipment opened its Customer Experience Center in Tomahawk, WI, to us and provided the machines and attachments necessary for the event.

The four operators included:
Jamie Steen is a 15-year veteran who works for Haas Sons Inc. and owns SJS Excavating, Curtis, WI. His equipment includes a Case 85 XT skid steer and 621D loader.
Mark Rosenlund, Dollar Bay, MI, started his electrical contracting company 14 1/2 years ago. His fleet includes a skid steer, compact excavator, cable plow and horizontal directional drill.
Randy Passow, Minocqua, WI, has spent the past 20 years as an operator for Howard Brothers, a plumbing and heating contractor performing a variety of municipal water and sewer work. The company runs wheel loaders, excavators and dozers.
Jamie Greenberg, Stratford, WI, has been a co-owner of Greenberg Farms for 10 years, and has been operating equipment for 20 years.

Three Case machines were used for the comparison: a 21E compact wheel loader, a 465 vertical-lift skid steer and a 450 radial-lift skid steer. The 21E compact loader is powered by a 52-net-hp Deutz engine, while the 450 and 465 skid steers feature 82-net-hp Case Family III engines.

Task 1: Truck loading
In this task, operators were asked to transfer soil from a stockpile to the bed of a Class 8 dump truck. A couple weeks of wet weather meant the Northern Wisconsin soil was very heavy, with an estimated weight in excess of 4,000 lbs. per cu. yd. Underfoot conditions on the load floor were also soft.

For the test, the 21E compact wheel loader was equipped with a 1.05-yd. bucket. The unit has a 10,168-lb. operating weight and a maximum hinge pin height of 127.7 in. The vertical-lift 465 skid steer was equipped with a .72-yd. bucket. It has a 125.5-in. hinge pin height and weighs in at 8,910 lbs.

The operators were asked to complete the task with both machines, then give us their impressions.

Steen liked the increased visibility from the seat of the 21E. "You have all four views," he states. "You can see out the front, back and sides."

"There is a lot more visibility out of the loader," agrees Passow. "You are up a lot higher." This allowed for improved visibility when backing.

The increased weight and larger bucket were advantages for the wheel loader, as well. "The wheel loader was nice for the capacity," says Steen. He felt the skid steer bounced more when handling the heavier material.

Greenberg appreciated how the loader handled while entering the stockpile. "With the loader, you didn't lose power driving into that stockpile. You were able to control the power and still get your full load into the bucket," he says. He also felt it was easier to keep the bucket level. "You tend to want to dig down more with the skid steer rather than stay level."

Even though it had a smaller bucket capacity, the skid steer was able to maneuver quickly in the space allotted for this task. "The cycle times were definitely faster for the skid steer because of the short turning radius," says Steen.

"The maneuverability of the skid steer is unbeatable," Greenberg adds.

However, the added reach and lift height favored the wheel loader. Rosenlund said this made it easier to position the load over the truck.

"You had more visibility and you could fill the truck more fully with the loader than you could with a skid steer," Greenberg adds. "You could dump a little higher. Finishing off the load is way easier with the loader."

"With the skid steer, you have a blind spot," Passow notes. "You can't see real well when the bucket is up high in the air."

But the skid steer maintained stability, even in the heavy soil. "It was not 'rocky' or anything like I thought it would be," Passow says. "It was nice and stable."

The choice of which machine the operators would choose for this task really depends on jobsite conditions.

According to Steen, his choice would be based on the distance between the stockpile and the truck. "If it was further away, I would use the wheel loader because you have less bouncing around," he explains. "But the skid steer worked in a tighter area."

The level of ground disturbance on the loading floor is also a consideration. "With the loader, you are not tearing up as much," says Passow.

He adds, "Overall, for loading out of a stockpile, the loader is much more versatile."

Task 2: Fork operation
Pallets containing several materials, including steel tracks and concrete blocks, were picked off the ground, transported and loaded onto a Class 8 flatbed trailer. The pallets were then picked off the trailer, transported and set on the ground.

Visibility to the forks was a major criteria. "With the wheel loader, you couldn't see the ends of your forks," says Steen. "You have to tip your forks down to see where you are going to put them into the pallets. You can guesstimate, but a lot of times you are going to hit the pallet and break it."

Greenberg had a similar experience. "I had a little bit of trouble finding placement with the forks. I had trouble seeing where I was at," he states. This was especially true when picking a pallet off the trailer.

The skid steer, on the other hand, surprised operators with its visibility when it came to picking the pallet off the trailer. "You are down lower and you can see your forks going into it easier," says Steen.

"With the skid steer, you are a little bit lower than where the forks slide into the pallet on the truck bed," Greenberg adds. "It is a lot easier to see that from the skid steer vantage point."

Having the pallet close to the machine can also be an advantage. "The skid steer felt a little more stable with the load of blocks on it being closer," says Passow. "I was shocked how nice it handled the load of block."

Yet, he still preferred the overall visibility provided by the cab height of the wheel loader, and the fact it is easier on the work surface. "In a lot of our operations, we are on some older asphalt. I think you would chew it up with the skid steer, even though you could get into tighter places," he explains.

Rosenlund, however, was more comfortable using the skid steer in this task. "It may not have felt 'tippy' because I knew its capabilities," he comments. "It almost seemed that the loader - with the load further out in front of me - felt a little more unstable, especially when I turned."

He felt the wheel loader offered better transport speed and visibility around the work area when traveling with the load. But the skid steer provided better visibility to the forks. This was especially true when unloading from a trailer. "The skid steer, being closer, I could kind of see underneath it," he says.

"As far as maneuverability, I think you can probably maneuver better with the skid steer," says Greenberg. "Even with the load raised, I didn't feel uncomfortable."

The skid steer also allows for easier repositioning. "If you set the load on the truck, then realize you are off and you have to reposition [the load], it is quicker to reposition it with the skid steer," he adds.

Again, travel distance can affect machine choice. "If I had to haul anything, I would feel more comfortable in the loader because the visibility is better and it is a little more comfortable," Greenberg concludes.

Task 3: Digging a hole
Both machines were used to dig a hole in the wet, slippery conditions. The bucket breakout force for the 450 radial-lift skid steer is 6,200 lbs., while the 21E wheel loader produces 8,386 lbs.

The visibility and breakout force of the wheel loader impressed Passow. "The visibility out of the rear and sides of the machine is excellent," he says. "You could see the bucket very well. It has the breakout forces I thought it would have. It was a comfortable machine to dig with. Going into the hole, it was real snappy and it offered really good speed for the size of machine it is."

Visibility proved a little more limited with the skid steer. "The visibility was not there when you are backing up," says Passow.

Steen also notes, "Getting out of a hole with a skid steer was very difficult. You dig deeper and you get your back end hopping up and down. With the loader, you have your weight dispersed; you can go in and out [of the hole]."

Steen attributes this partially to the weight of the material and to the skid steer's shorter wheelbase. "If you have a short hole that has to be deeper, you are better off with a loader because you can't get out of there very easily with a skid steer," he says.

He also reports that the skid steer rips up the ground a little more while maneuvering due to the nature of the steering. However, he appreciated its visibility to the bucket cutting edge. "With the skid steer you can see the cutting edge. That is really handy," he says.

Rosenlund actually felt more comfortable using the skid steer. "Part of it was getting comfortable with the loader. But for digging and backfilling, the skid steer was faster," he says. This can be attributed in part to the difference in throttle control. "With the full power all of the time [on the skid steer], I can slow down my travel speed and work my bucket. With the loader, I am looking for a hand throttle to get the [engine speed] up and be able to have full loader function."

Visibility to the bucket was also considered. Rosenlund felt the skid steer offered a better view to the cutting edge. "I can actually see the lip of the bucket," he states.

Consequently, Rosenlund was able to work more efficiently with the skid steer. "I dug and backfilled that hole in about half the time it took with the loader," he points out.

He admits his impressions might have changed if the dirt was being placed further from the hole. "There might have been some advantages to the wheel loader," he says. "But with the skid steer, I can get in and out of there. I spin sideways and dump. I don't have to back out and go forward."

Greenberg also touts the benefits of added maneuverability. "With the loader, you have to back out a little bit further before you can turn and dump," he says. "With the skid steer, when you get to the edge of your hole, you can turn and dump."

Again, transport distance factors into which machine operators would choose for the task.

The skid steer was Greenberg's choice based on how the task was laid out. "If you are not just digging, but digging and transferring that material a longer distance, the wheel loader might be a more comfortable machine," he adds.

He also noted a difference in visibility. "With the skid steer, you end up looking around the arms sometimes," he says. "With the loader, you always have good visibility. You don't have anything to obstruct your view."

Task 4: Auger operation
A 24-in. auger was used for this task. Both units proved to have ample power for digging the holes.

Because the wheel loader arm places the auger further away from the machine, pinpointing the auger on the ground proved a bit more challenging. "That was a little more difficult because you were a little farther from it," says Passow. The skid steer places the auger right in front of the operator. "You were right there and you could see it nicely."

While the single arm on the wheel loader provides good visibility to bucket edges, it did appear to obstruct the view to the auger. However, once the auger was positioned on the target, it worked well.

Most of the operators agreed that visibility to the tool was an issue with the wheel loader. "You could not see how straight the auger was. You were always looking around the arm," Greenberg comments.

Steen shared the others' concerns about visibility to the tool. Yet, he also saw benefits to using the loader in this task. "You are out further and you can get deeper with it," he says. "You are so close with the skid steer that if you want to get deeper, you are constantly pushing material back in [the hole] with the front end."

Greenberg still preferred the skid steer for this task. "With the skid steer, you definitely have better visibility," he says. "You are right there and you are just so close to the equipment. You can see it a lot better. I felt I had better control over it with the skid steer."

Maneuverability was also a key issue for Greenberg. "When you start drilling, you start hitting rocks. You often have to reposition," he notes. "With a skid steer, you can turn right on the spot. You can go forward a little bit, to the side, angle it. You just don't have that much maneuverability with a loader unless you back out of the hole. If you don't have rocks, it wouldn't be a problem."

The size and condition of the work area also play a role. "If you are traveling out to the site, you are probably better in the loader, especially if you have potholes," says Rosenlund. "In a close area, the skid steer would outperform the loader."

Most of the time, Rosenlund's work is in confined areas, so a skid steer is the preferred choice. Yet, he cites a situation where a loader might have proven a better option. "I just had a job this summer - airport light bases. There, the loader probably would have been better because I had about 200 ft. between holes," he says. "The travel time would have been better with the wheel loader."

Task 5: Grapple operation
For this task, a pile of brush was moved from one side of a work area to another using a grapple bucket. Lifting capacity, maneuverability and visibility became the critical criterion.

"The maneuverability was better with the skid steer," says Steen. But he felt the wheel loader offered more capacity. "If you have a lot of material to move, the wheel loader would work best because you have way more capacity to lift. But if you have someplace you need to keep clean, I would use the skid steer because of the maneuverability."

"The visibility on the loader is a lot better, and it is a lot faster," agrees Passow. "I could cycle faster with the wheel loader."

He adds, "The skid steer would make more of a mess turning." Dumping into a dump truck could also be a challenge. "If you had to raise the load up higher to dump, I think it would be very hard with the skid steer to get it into a truck."

Greenberg felt the wheel loader offered better visibility to the surroundings. "But with the skid steer, you are closer to the material," he says. He also liked the skid steer's maneuverability. "You are able to spin and get in and get out." As a result, he accomplished the task in less time with the skid steer.

Rosenlund also preferred the attachment placement with the skid steer. "You are close to what you are grabbing," he says. This made it easier to make sure the grapple was full. "I could move over a little bit rather than pick it up and look to see it isn't there. With the skid steer, using just a little more maneuvering, I could actually fill that bucket. Being a business owner, you are looking at productivity. If I go to grab a pile of brush, I want a full load."

However, he felt the increased visibility to the surroundings would favor the wheel loader if you were working in close proximity to employees on the ground.

Clearly, both the compact wheel loader and the skid steer proved capable of accomplishing the tasks described. But their efficiency really depends on jobsite space requirements, and the operator's proficiency with the equipment.

Yet, before deciding to stick with what's familiar, you need to evaluate for yourself which machine can offer the optimum productivity given the conditions on your jobsites. The operators participating in this event were often surprised by the capabilities each machine had to offer.

Ultimately, the choice boils down to which machine can deliver the quickest possible ROI for your business. "One of the big things for me is the cost of each piece of machinery," Rosenlund asserts. "Where am I going to get the most value for my dollar?"

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