Choosing the Right Skid Steer for Your Application

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The skid steer loader is one of the most popular and multi-faceted pieces of machinery on the market — which, inevitably, means it's also one of the most difficult to select.

Choosing a skid steer, and the right skid steer for your exact job, at that, has been known to cause headaches for even seasoned experts. From auxiliary hydraulics to rated operating capacities to attachment types to lifts, sorting through skid steers can feel like sorting through a whole textbook of terms and technicalities.

Let's cut through through the noise to help you choose the best skid steer for your applications.

How Skid Steer Loaders Have Evolved, Giving Owners More Choices Than Ever

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A lot has changed since the first skid steer was built in the late 1950s. From a hand-fabricated prototype fashioned on a Minnesota turkey farm to the industrial-grade mechanical mules we know today, the skid steer loader has come a long way.

However, it's this evolution that's caused much of the confusion. While manufacturers nowadays distinguish models based on rated operating capacity, this isn't the only variable to consider.

In fact, the evolution of the skid steer loader has brought with it a number of design and functionality changes that, today, offer unprecedented capabilities for owners and lessees:

  • Controls: Many models have gradually moved away from the traditional lever-and-pulley system to joy-stick controls. Top-of-the-line Caterpillar® skid steers also come with electronic dashboards for highly accurate machine reads and maintenance.
  • Lift: There are two types of skid steer lifting capacities: radial and vertical. Each comes with their own design, features, lift height, and more described below. These will be key in making the right skid steer purchase.
  • Size: Skid steer sizes vary in height and operating weight. The smallest can weigh less than 6,000 lbs, while the largest models exceed 8,000-9,000 lbs. A skid steer's size and operating weight affect its mobility and safe operating capacity.
  • Horsepower: Similar to size, skid steers come diversified based on horsepower. Small units generally have a horsepower performance under 50 hp. Medium units are between 50-70 hp, and large skid steers are over 70 hp.
  • Amenities: Heating, air conditioning, adjustable seats, and noise reduction-technology can be installed for cab comfort. Depending on how long you and your crew will be using these machines, a unit or two with extra amenities makes the job more pleasant.

Knowing What to Consider When Choosing a Skid Steer

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Skid steers' versatility means they're able to tackle a range of construction applications — just not every application. To help choose the best skid for your specific job, thoroughly research the following unit details:

1. Rated Operating Capacity

A skid steer's rated operating capacity is how much load, or weight, it can carry without reaching its tipping point or causing dangerous load malfunctions. In even simpler terms, it's how much a skid steer can lift.

Rated operating capacities are not to be confused with operating weight, which is how much the piece of equipment itself weighs with a full tank of gas and average-sized machine operator inside.

Rated operating capacities are critical to determining the right skid steer. As a generalization, higher operating capacities will handle more grueling loads and lift applications due to their higher-output engines and hydraulic systems.

2. Size and Weight

Depending on your core application, either small, medium, or large skid steer frames will meet demands while remaining mobile and controllable.

Frames are defined by a unit's rated operating capacity combined with its horsepower. According to the Associated Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), size and weight frames are broken down into three generic categories:

3. Terrain

Consider the terrain of the site or area you'll be working. Generally speaking, skid steer loaders' wheels function best on smooth, even, and relatively solid surfaces. They do not fare well in mud or continuously rocky terrain. This is a rule of thumb regardless of frame, rated capacity, lift type, or operating weight.

4. Attachments

The next significant factor to consider with your skid steer acquisition will be attachments.

This requires a little foresight on your end, as attachments are any extra tools or extensions you hook up to your skid steer to perform a particular task. Attachments are a cost-effective alternative to buying or renting additional single-use machinery, allowing you to execute a range of applications from the convenience of your skid steer cab.

However, it's important to note that skid steer attachments need specific amounts of power, which only select machines can generate through their hydraulic flows.

5. Lift Type

As mentioned above, skid steers come with two different lift configurations: radial or vertical. This is the final major consideration you'll need to make when picking a skid steer for your application since the two types carry different limitations:

  • Vertical lifts are those designed for higher or taller load movements. They carry a higher midpoint lift cycle reach as well, meaning they're able to access spaces other equipment can't.
  • Radial lift design is more compact and simple than its vertical cousin. It holds fewer internal moving parts and is ideal for load movements that are at or around ground-level, such as digging dirt or shifting terrain.

Note that lift designs aren't size-specific. You'll find small, medium, and large-framed skid steers outfitted with each lift type. It's more important to view lift capacity as part of how you need to move loads rather than roped into size — if you're performing applications at or below eye-level, industry experts say opt for radial machines, while if your load movements will be predominantly above eye level, go for vertical.

Understanding the Difference Between Skid Steers and Compact Track Loaders

Remember how we mentioned skid steers don't play nice with uneven or soft terrain?

This mechanical reality has led to an iteration of the skid steer known as the compact track loader — a piece of construction equipment that performs the same general tasks and functions as its predecessor but sits atop rotating tracks rather than wheels.

This gives the compact track loader a distinct terrain advantage. Unlike the skid steer, compact track loaders are designed to operate on difficult surfaces like sod, mud, rocks, sand, and snow. Wet and uneven surfaces are also less of a concern since the rotating base tracks maintain an uninterrupted glide rather than separate points of ground contact like wheels.

Other significant differences between skid steers and compact track loaders include:

  • Stability: Because of their flat tracks, compact loaders will provide a more stable ride for operators sitting in the cab.
  • Maintenance: The actual rubber tracks of compact units are prone to wear and tear more easily than wheels, especially on concrete, asphalt, and rocks. They are also more expensive to source and replace.
  • Cost: Compact track loaders are more expensive to buy and rent up-front. When owning, you are responsible for rubber track maintenance and repairs. If renting, many companies will build the rubber wear-and-tear costs into the unit's pricing, charging you accordingly.

Selecting the Right Skid Steer Loader for Each Application

You have the skid steer terminology, considerations, and unit details in your back pocket. Here's where the fun begins: matching these skid steer unit characteristics to the actual job at hand.

This goes beyond selecting the machine with the highest rated operating capacity or a skid steer touting the flashiest auxiliary hydraulics system. These things are essential, but they won't make a match made in construction heaven.

Review the following popular skid steer applications below and see which best aligns with your need:

1. Site Development

Pair With: Cat 226D Skid Steer Loader, Cat236D Skid Steer Loader

Site development work encompasses projects like general landscaping, land clearing, earthwork, and paving. For operations like this without significant impediments, opt for skid steers that are mobile-forward and carry a radial lift. The mobility will ensure the unit easily maneuvers across all places on site, while the radial lift will be ideal for the kinds of groundwork at the heart of site development.

2. Digging

Pair With: Cat236D Skid Steer Loader

Any digging or excavation-centered application benefits from radial lifts. Once again, the movements and dexterity provided by a radial-lift design will better match those needed for bucket and digging attachment functionality. Plus, they complement these tools with robust and steady drawbar power.

Ensure your radial model for digging has a little bit higher of hydraulic flow — somewhere near 60 hp should do just fine. These mid-grade flows are responsible for powering any necessary digging attachments, and you don't want them to come up short while on the job.

3. Dozing

Pair With: Cat 246D Skid Steer Loader

For dozing applications where pushing, leveling, and spreading ground materials is the task of the day, you'll want a skid steer loader with a flexible yet strong mid-lift reach and plenty of horsepower to keep the job moving swiftly. Bigger is never necessarily better when it comes to skid steers, yet selecting one with a sizeable machine rated operating capacity, drawbar power, net power, and higher hydraulic flows covers your bases for large digging applications.

4. Backfilling

Pair With: Cat 226D Skid Steer Loader, Cat 236D Skid Steer Loader

Radial lift designs typically afford better 360-degree visibility from the cab, plus a longer reach in front of the skid steer unit. In applications where visibility, horizontal reach, and mobility are needed — like those in backfilling — select radial designs with steady digging and drawbar functionality. The simplified configuration at the heart of a radial skid steer also makes it the more practical choice for this application.

5. Material Handling

Pair With: Cat 272D2 Skid Steer Loader

There are few construction jobs where material handling or stockpiling isn't involved. From hauling rocks and broken concrete to soil, sod, sand, and so much more, a larger or heavier skid steer model will be in your best interest.

From a single machine, you can grade, scoop, transport, and dump physical debris, bolstered by a vertical lift, not a radial one. Depending on the nature of the materials at hand, you may even want a high-flow machine that can handle saws, cutters, and other high-shock material-preparation attachments.

What's more, material handling applications also require repeated lift-and-place motions, such as what comes with storing heavy pallets in a warehouse. These, too, are best accomplished with heavier models containing vertical lifts.

6. Loading

Pair With: Cat 262D Skid Steer Loader

In general, vertical lifts afford a higher reach and can carry heavier loads than their radial counterparts. This further solidifies their importance for loading-centric applications, such as carrying and dumping materials onto trucks, flatbeds, and other construction equipment.

With this specific application, you'll also want to prioritize a skid steer unit's rated operating capacity, tipping loads, mobility, and stability since all of them factor into how they port loads.

7. Demolition and Clean Up

Pair With: Cat 272D2 XHP Skid Steer Loader, Cat 272D2 Skid Steer Loader

Interestingly enough, some of the most straightforward applications can require some of the highest and most-intense output machines. In no way is this truer than for jobs like snow plowing and construction demolition.

Sure, the jobs may seem simple, but the engine strength and auxiliary hydraulic systems needed to perform these duties and power their essential attachments are only found in some of the largest skid steer models. These are the machines with superior rated operating capacities in the 2,000 hp-range and that are outfitted with the most durable vertical lift-force designs.

Choosing the Right Skid Steer Loader Attachments

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Choosing the proper attachment for your skid steer loader rests on two key variables: hydraulic flow and engine horsepower.

To simplify things, skid steer auxiliary hydraulics and engine outputs are a large part of frame classifications — meaning to best match attachments with a unit, you can generally rely on a frame size-to-attachment formula:

1. Small Frames (1,550-1,750 lb. rated operating capacity/~50 hp)

Small-frame skid steers intuitively feature simplified or more basic hydraulic systems. However, don't assume that just because they're the simplest, they cannot power attachments.

Many skid steer loaders with rated operating capacities in the 1,600 lb-range and hydraulic flows in the 50-59 hp range can support the following digging, excavation, and filling tools:

  • A range of dozer blades and buckets
  • Backhoes
  • Augers
  • Small trenchers
  • Hydraulic breakers
  • Skid steer grapples

2. Medium Frames (1,750-2,200 lb. rated operating capacity/50-70 hp)

Medium-framed skid steers, with their dynamic balance of rated operating power, net engine power, breakout forces, and steady hydraulic flows make an ideal companion to most attachments. Particularly for skid steers at or near the 70 hp output, you will find these frames can sufficiently power attachments at their optimal performance range while still running efficiently.

Overall, the list of attachments that work well with medium-sized skid steers is extensive. On top of powering the same attachments a small frame can (augers, trenchers, etc.), they will also handle the following:

  • Pallet forks
  • Bale spears
  • Industrial brooms
  • Standard trenchers
  • Standard saws
  • Mini excavators

3. Large Frames (2,200 lb. rated operating capacity/70+ hp)

With the highest operating capacities and strongest hydraulic flows, large-framed skid steers will power the most attachments.

Those looking for best alignment rather than blanket solutions, however, can specifically pair skid steer models with the hydraulic flows demanded by specific attachments. These flow demands can be broken down into the following three cases that — if looking for a single and not broad match — will even more accurately pinpoint the exact features to look for in your skid steer base:

  1. High Auxiliary Hydraulic Flow: The logic of hydraulic flows goes like this: The higher the flow, the more power can be delivered via the loader to the attachment. Typically, attachments requiring high flows are those that experience high rates of in-use motion, such as cold planers, stump or tree grinders, wheel saws, forestry cutters, and certain industrial trenchers. Select a high-hydraulic flow model if frequently using any of these attachments.
  2. High Rated Operating Capacity Applications: Similar to hydraulic flows, higher rated operating capacities will power more output-intensive applications. For those using snow blowers and snowplow attachments, you will likely need a large-framed, vertical-lift skid steer.
  3. High Force/Stress Applications: Jobs that will exert high shock or vibration onto the skid steer will need a stronger, more durable unit. Attachments that tend to do so include mulchers, drills, cold planers, and rock saws. Opt for large-frame radial lift machines in these cases, since their mechanical makeup contains fewer moving parts and is, therefore, less likely to incur damage due to shock vibrations.

Consult Thompson Tractor on the Best Skid Steers and Attachments for Your Application

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Thompson Tractor has provided premium skid steer loader sales, support, and servicing for over 60 years throughout Alabama and Northern Florida. Shop our catalog of new and used Cat skid steer loaders or get in touch with a representative today.