Transforming the Landscape

By John Kmitta

Mini skid-steers have transformed the landscape. Yes, in a literal sense, these tiny machines — also referred to as compact utility loaders or mini track loaders — have altered the terrain during multiple design/build projects. But perhaps the more lasting impact is how mini skid-steers have modified the entire business landscape.

Rising popularity

According to Bryan Zent, marketing manager, Bobcat Company, one reason why residential landscape contractors are opting for smaller equipment is that residential lot sizes have gotten smaller.

“Homebuilders are maximizing land by placing larger homes on smaller lots and building homes closer together,” said Zent. “Because of this, landscape contractors have less space to maneuver when completing tasks.”

The fact that contractors are able to increase their productivity and efficiency of their existing workforce without having to hire additional labor is another key factor in the growth in popularity of mini skid-steers, said Jon Kuyers, utility products segment manager for Vermeer.

“Another reason is many jobsites do not require large equipment and a mini is more suited to perform and maneuver better in tight spaces at a lesser cost,” said Kuyers. “With the increased cost of fuel, contractors are seeing that using smaller equipment consumes less fuel, thus reducing the operational cost inputs.”

Greg Lawrence, Toro marketing product manager for compact utility equipment, agrees.

“Today, more than ever, landscape contractors are faced with increased costs of doing business,” said Lawrence. “You don’t need to look any further than the price of fuel today versus what it was even a year ago to figure that out. This has caused contractors to look for other ways to save money and make their crews more efficient. Rather than looking for less expensive labor that would not have the same kind of experience as their existing workers, contractors are looking for equipment that can help replace some hand labor and make their existing crews more productive.”

 Matt Collins, compact equipment product manager for Ditch Witch, said that one of the driving forces in the popularity of mini skid-steers is the increased demand for versatility in products.

“Customers are looking to purchase equipment that can save them time, money and do a variety of tasks on a jobsite,” said Collins.

Andy Lewis, marketing manager for Compact Power, agrees that versatility is a key factor.

“With more than 50 hydraulic and non-hydraulic attachments, mini skid-steers can enable a single operator to do the job of an entire landscape, utility contractor or site work crew,” said Lewis.

According to Lawrence, because attachments are changed out relatively quickly — often by simply turning two locking pins and connecting hydraulic lines — mini skid-steers maximize productivity while remaining extremely efficient. To further increase efficiency, many contractors purchase loaders with specially designed trailers to carry multiple attachments to the jobsite at one time. This translates into fewer trips back and forth from the shop, saving time, money and energy. Also, contractors’ cost savings with a mini skid-steer can extend beyond just how quickly a job can be done.

“Because of the lightweight, narrow footprint of these loaders, it means less clean-up after a job is complete,” said Lawrence.

Mini skids vs. traditional skid-steers

So how do mini skid-steers stack up against their larger cousins?

“At often less than 36-inches wide, mini skid-steers are able to fit through a 36-inch yard gate and perform work that often proves difficult for larger units,” said Collins. “Once in the backyard, these units can utilize an array of attachments to complete projects that were once done by hand. In addition to working in backyards, mini skid-steers are ideal for zero-lot-line work due to their compact size.”

Before compact utility loaders, contractors would either perform tasks by hand or using a much larger piece of equipment, such as a skid-steer, said Lawrence. Contractors recognized that both of these approaches had some big drawbacks. They either had to manage larger crews or depend on bigger equipment that often created more work than it accomplished. Mini skid-steers have found a niche between those two options. They are being used on jobs that are too large to accomplish efficiently by hand labor alone and/or in areas where it isn’t feasible to use larger, bulkier machines.

“Though mini track loaders don’t have the lifting capacity of a full-size skid-steer loader or compact track loader, they are able to easily lift materials and perform smaller jobs,” added Zent. “The versatility of mini track loaders allows contractors to utilize a variety of attachments for carrying sod and paving stone, drilling holes for trees and fence posts, or installing irrigation and drainage systems. In addition, landscapers also like the machines because they are small enough to be quickly and easily transported from jobsite to jobsite.”

 According to Lewis, when a landscaper purchases a full system trailer with the attachments that suit his or her line of business, he or she can drive to the site and complete the project with a single piece of equipment and without labor overhead. This drops higher margins straight to the bottom line.

“For example, to install a path, four trees and a water garden without a mini skid, you would typically need to rent a mini-excavator, a skid-steer and possibly a two-man auger,” said Lewis. “Multiply this out by a few jobs a month and one becomes all too aware of the financial benefits of a single drive unit and multiple attachments.”

Industry impact

“These machines continue to find their way into contractors’ fleets by being versatile pieces of equipment that can replace many tasks traditionally completed by hand or larger equipment,” said Zent. “Their compact size allows them to access places larger equipment can not, while the attachment versatility makes them suitable for many different applications.”

According to Collins, one of the most challenging issues facing the construction industry is the ability to hire and maintain good help. By adding versatile equipment, contractors can reduce labor time, increase efficiencies and move toward increased profitability.

Added Lewis: “Mini skid-steers don’t call in sick, and can naturally out-perform any human being.”

Mini skid-steers have provided a way for landscapers to become more efficient and productive in a wide variety of tasks in the construction of a new landscape, said Kuyers.

“The landscaping business is a competitive and very seasonal business,” said Lawrence. “To be successful, contractors need to be price competitive, operate at peak productivity when the season is upon them, be diligent about keeping their overhead down, and deliver quality workmanship. These loaders are helping contractors address all of these areas while giving them a huge competitive edge. Some contractors tell us that a single loader has completely transformed their business model, allowing them to do much more with much less.”

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