IN PROFESSIONAL LANDSCAPING, MULTI-TASKING IS the name of the game. It’s a facet of the job that keeps things interesting . . . and challenging. Today’s multi-use loading, lifting and excavating equipment makes the job much easier. But deciding which equipment is right for your company can be daunting.
Compact tractors, skid steers, track loaders and compact utility loaders can all be used to perform similar work. They all allow you to tackle many different functions using a single power source. But each has its own advantages and limitations, depending on the kind of work you do and where you do it. While many landscape contractors own and operate all of these types of equipment, this isn’t a realistic option for everyone. Ironically, most of the research you need to do before making equipment decisions isn’t about the equipment itself. It’s actually about your own company.
You’ll need to evaluate the jobs you’re doing now and those you want to tackle in the near future. You’ll want to pay close attention to the kinds of terrain you work in and the access issues you encounter. You’ll need to consider the people who operate your equipment and their needs for training, safety and comfort. And you’ll need to examine just how each piece of equipment will generate income and pay for itself. These are just a few considerations that can turn your purchases into smart business decisions.
Today’s tractors come in all sizes. With the number of attachments and implements available, many compact models are well-suited to professional landscaping. Front end loaders and backhoes, mowers and brush cutters, box blades, tillers and seeders are just a few of the tools that can customize a compact tractor to the needs of almost any landscape business.
“It’s one of the most versatile pieces of equipment available,” says Ron Perrish, market development manager for Kioti Tractor, Wendell, North Carolina. “With the same piece of equipment, you’re doing everything from initial site prep to cutting the grass when it comes up.”
Many tractor owners appreciate the ability to carry more than one attachment at a time, so they can perform two functions without stopping to change attachments. “For example, with a bucket in the front and box blade in back, a single operator can haul in fill material and grade it right away without switching attachments,” says Bryan Zent, marketing manager for Bobcat, West Fargo, North Dakota. A tractor equipped with a front loader and backhoe can be an especially economical package for the small contractor, according to Keith Rohrbacker, construction equipment product manager, for Kubota Tractor Corporation, Torrance, California.
“Often, when landscapers are starting out, they don’t have a whole crew or a lot of funds,” says Rohrbacker. “A compact tractor is really three machines in one. With this machine and one operator, they’ll have a loader, a backhoe and the ability to use the 3-point hitch in one complete package. When it’s delivered, they’re ready to go to work.” Michael Burke, owner of MZJ Land Maintenance, purchased a compact tractor to start his small Keene, New Hampshire company. He uses it to perform a variety of tasks for his primarily residential clients and appreciates the access offered by the Kioti model he chose. “For example, when I’m mowing fields, I can get right up to the trees and under branches.”
Skid steers and compact track loaders
Skid steers are another popular multi-tasking option for the landscaping industry. These pack a lot of power and versatility into a compact, maneuverable package. Their size, agility and the multitude of available attachments make them machines many contractors wouldn’t be without.
Some jobs call for tighter turns than a tractor, even a small one, can accomplish. “One of the biggest advantages you get with a skid steer over a compact tractor is its high maneuverability, due to the fact that it can turn on itself,” says Zent.
This is an important asset for Bruce Allentuck, owner of Allentuck Landscaping in Clarksberg, Maryland, whose company serves both commercial and residential clients, often in confined areas. “We like them for their versatility and size,” says Allentuck. “They’re compact enough to operate in the tight spaces we encounter.” When deciding between a tractor and a skid steer, it’s important to consider the spaces you work in most often. If you’re frequently moving materials long distances on a jobsite, you might be able to move more quickly and comfortably on a tractor because of its longer wheelbase. But in a confined space, a skid steer will move faster because it can turn faster.
Zent points out that skid steers are not as intuitive to operate as tractors. While this won’t slow you down in the long run, you may need to factor in a learning curve. Also, because they skid to turn, they can be harder on a finished lawn. Where turf protection is a concern, all-wheel steer loaders are another option. These can be operated in either all-wheel-steer or skid-steer mode, depending on the conditions. An operator can use skid steer mode where space is tight and switch to all-wheel-steer when there’s more room and where it’s important to minimize turf damage. A compact track loader is another machine designed to handle tough terrain while being gentler on turf. Its operation is similar to a wheeled skid steer, but with more pushing power. Because its tracks distribute the weight, it’s easier on existing landscaping.
“With a track loader you get a lot more flotation,” says Jim Hughes, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment, Racine, Wisconsin. “It’s especially useful in existing construction because there will be less ground disturbance. But it’s also important for new construction because it allows you to access a site even during muddy seasons.” That additional access can mean a lot. “A landscape contractor recently told me he purchased a compact track loader to enhance his fleet and was able to complete four more jobs because of it. He was able to get it in during March in wet weather and those four jobs paid for the machine.”
From compact to mini
For even more access and maneuverability in tight spaces many contractors are turning to the “mini” genre of compact utility loaders or mini skid steers. These stand-on or walk-behind units are showing up in residential yards and other tight spaces everywhere. While they don’t have the power of a standard-sized skid steer or compact tractor, they can often zip through the garden gate and other places where the big guys can’t. Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager for The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota, says access and damage control are key. “Once you determine what kind of digging, excavating, grading and material handling you’ll be using the equipment for, you’ll need to think about the access you’ll have. You’ll also want to think about what kind of ancillary damage you may do with your equipment and the repair costs you’ll need to add into your bids. Compact utility loaders can get into very tight areas. And tracked loaders will do the least amount of damage to a landscaped area.”
Decisions should depend on the scope of the work involved, says Lisa McCarley, inside sales manager for Boxer Equipment, a division of Compact Power Inc., Fort Mill, South Carolina. When moving large amounts of material on a large lot, a large machine will get the job done faster. But a compact utility loader, or mini skid, is more efficient when working in tight construction or in residential areas where multiple attachments may be needed.
Borenstein points out that the ability to move more material in one load doesn’t necessarily mean greater efficiency. “Sometimes people will bring in a big machine and make fewer trips but will damage the turf and won’t be able to place material exactly where they need it. With a smaller machine, you may have more trips but you can put it where you need it and do less damage.” These are some of the reasons that went into Allentuck’s decision to add two Toro Dingos to his fleet. “We use these on most of our residential jobsites,” he says. “We got them because they save labor. With a trencher attachment, for example, they’re a great way to put drain lines in a yard, versus having three or four people dig the trench.”
For many, the economics of a compact utility loader are very attractive. “For the price of a tractor or skid steer and a few attachments, a contractor could purchase a full compact utility loader with a system trailer and attachments,” says McCarley. “Now he will be able to do multiple tasks and rent larger equipment when there are larger jobs to be tackled.” Getting the equipment to the jobsite is another advantage. On one system trailer, you could load equipment to tear out concrete, trench for irrigation, prep the lawn for sod, lay sod, install fence posts, auger holes for trees and shrubs, carry materials around the yard and more.
Visibility and operator access to the machine should also be considered. “With a compact utility loader, the operator is standing on a rear platform so he can easily change out attachments to handle multiple tasks,” says McCarley. “He can also see the performance of the equipment and 360 degrees around the unit for safety.” Borenstein says this easy-on/easy-off access can significantly cut down on labor. “With a skid steer, you generally need two people—one to operate the equipment and one to do what needs to be done with materials. With a compact utility loader, you generally only need one because it’s easy to hop on and off to do the raking or place materials, etc.”
The right stuff
When deciding which type of machine or which model will work best for your company, it makes sense to start with the attachments you want to use and the specific duties you need to perform. What lift capacity do you need? What kind of reach will you require? For a backhoe, what digging depth will you need? What other attachments and implements do you want to use? Does the machine you’re considering have the PTO hp or the hydraulic flow capability needed to operate these attachments?
Don’t just consider your minimum requirements. Your machine might be able to handle the job, but can it handle it efficiently? “You don’t want to limit yourself,” says Hughes. “You want to get into a machine that will allow you to do your jobs profitably, not just get by.” Allentuck suggests thinking ahead a bit when evaluating the power and lifting capacity you’ll need. “The first skid steer I bought wasn’t powerful enough to unload full palettes of wet mulch or palettes of stone. We had to up the size so we could handle that.”
But upsizing too much doesn’t pay either. “If you think you need a 30hp tractor and you have the ability to buy one that’s 35hp or more, you’re probably going to do better,” says Perrish. “But don’t overkill. Don’t buy a 90hp to do a 20hp job. You won’t be using that investment.”
Borenstein agrees. “Contractors often buy the biggest piece of equipment they can afford or can put on a truck. The thought process is that they’re going to need it sometime. But it’s a mistake to buy a product for exceptions rather than the routine. The way to handle exceptions is to rent. A lot of rental companies offer delivery and you can add the rental price into your bid.”
No matter what machine you buy, chances are you’ll find many uses for it. But taking time to research your own company as well as the equipment you’re considering will help ensure your purchase is a profitable one.