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Tooling Up ... Your Compact Loader for Working With Dirt

Posted on 31st Mar 2014 @ 10:33 AM

Whether you need to dig, grade, scrape, push, spread, level, haul, load, or dump dirt and other construction materials, there’s an attachment designed to help you and your compact loader do it quickly and easily. Here’s a look at some of the many choice available and some tips to help you select the tools that best fit your needs. 

When it comes to grading and excavating in tight quarters, it’s tough to beat a skid-steer or a compact track loader. They can compete with big iron in smaller areas, making up in speed and agility what they might lack in brute strength in all or part of a construction project. Often these efficiently sized, rugged loaders are the only alternative to costly, unreliable hand labor in really confined quarters.

Good thing, because the size of construction sites in many parts of the country continues to shrink as the flatter, easier-to-work areas fill up with warehouses, commercial malls, and homes and as developers head for the hills and hollers in search of new opportunities. What’s more, redevelopment in aging, crowded urban areas often means limited working space for new projects there too.

No doubt about it, today’s lineup of skid-steer and compact track loaders plays a vital role in the construction business. However, the key to harnessing the full potential of these productive machines is the attachments you hang on the front of them.

"Skid-steer loaders are merely power platforms for the tools," states Richard Oncken, work-tool solutions supervisor with Caterpillar. "The increasing array of tools is one of the main factors driving the popularity of skid-steer loaders. Variations in these tools are leading to improvements in the skid-steer loaders, such as electric and proportional controls, hydraulic systems, tracks, and increased horsepower."

The selection and capabilities of skid-steer and compact-track-loader attachments far exceed those available for the early skid-steer loaders of 40 years ago–mainly buckets, grapples, and pallet forks. (The very first attachment used with the forerunner of the skid-steer loader was a manure fork.) "At one time, we thought that just about every attachment for skid-steer loaders had been made," admits Paul Anderson, attachment sales and marketing manager with Bobcat, "but they continue to grow in variety, size, and performance." In fact, his company now makes more than 50 different types of attachments. Counting the various models, sizes, and options, the number of individual attachment products totals about 450.

"The attachments available today started with an idea in someone’s mind," relates Craig Hammann, attachment product manager with Gehl Company. "Over time, the good ones catch on because they save contractors time and labor and because they offer them opportunities to increase business by expanding their line of work."

The demand for attachments has also been fueled by the availability of universal attachment mounting plates. As a result, different brands of attachments can be used on various makes of skid-steer and compact track loaders. In the past, attaching tools to a skid-steer loader involved a fair amount of time and effort lining up holes and dropping in pins. Today the job is done using a lever and spring-loaded wedges that accommodate for wear to maintain a secure fit. Some compact-loader manufacturers even offer a switch inside the cab to detach from one nonhydraulically operated attachment and hook up to another without leaving the operator’s seat.

The types of grading and excavating tools range from a basic $500 bucket for digging, hauling, and loading dirt to a sophisticated laser grader system priced up to about $14,000. In between this range, for several thousand dollars you can buy a multipurpose bucket that can also doze, scrape, and drag a site and clamp onto chunks of concrete, brush, and other debris. Invest $8,000 or so and you can have a backhoe that will excavate 10 ft. or deeper, depending on make and model.

In the right applications, say contractors, these and other grading and excavating attachments can quickly pay for themselves and a whole lot more. Among the choices from various compact loader and attachment makers:

Auger. Used with bits ranging in diameter from 6 to 36 in., this tool makes fast, simple work of drilling holes for posts, poles, piers, and trees as deep as 5 ft. with plumb-line accuracy. Standard, chisel-point, hard-faced, and carbide teeth are available to match different digging requirements. Depending on torque and speed of specific models, they can be used in conditions ranging from loose, heavy, or rocky soils to hardpan, frost, and asphalt.

Backhoe. Backhoe attachments come in a variety of sizes. They offer a 180° swing arc, a maximum reach at ground level of up to 13 ft. or more. Maximum digging depths range from about 5.5 ft. for footings, utility trenches, and other smaller jobs to about 12 ft. or so for high-performance work such as sewage lines and septic tanks. Features include a single bucket-mounting position for both straight wall digging and power digging, fold-down or vertical front stabilizers, and optional street pads and rear stabilizers for working in uneven terrain and improving digging performance in some cases.

At least one skid-steer loader manufacturer offers a quick-coupling hydraulic hammer and a ripper tooth to replace the bucket for added versatility.

Bucket. The first tool of choice for most contractors, buckets are available in more styles and sizes than any other single compact-loader attachment. They include a utility bucket for general purpose and material handling work; the beefed-up construction bucket, which offers improve breakout force for better digging and easier bucket filling; and a low-profile bucket, featuring a lower back height for better visibility of the cutting edge and more accurate grading and leveling. Other variations include angling bucket, contour bucket, side dump, grapple, and stone sieve models.

Many contractors who use a multipurpose bucket, often called a four-in-one or combination bucket, wouldn’t dream of leaving the shop without it. The front part of the bucket, or clamshell, raises and lowers hydraulically, enabling this tool to grab loose material or bulky objects and to doze, level, dig, load, and dump. It also gives you extra height for dumping.

An ejector bucket hydraulically pushes material out of the bucket, which can save time when dumping wet, sticky material. By eliminating the need to dump the bucket, it also allows material to be piled higher. And it’s handy for dumping into the center of larger dump trucks.

Bolt-on reversible cutting edges can extend the life of a bucket, while a bolt-on tooth bar can be added to increase excavating production in tough digging conditions. This tooth bar can then be removed easily for loading or grading work.

The popularity of specific bucket styles can vary from one region to the next depending on soil conditions. For example, Ralph Woodson of Palmetto Equipment Sales Inc. in Williamston, SC, reports that just about every skid-steer loader bucket he sells has pin-on replaceable teeth with shanks that are flush with the bottom of the bucket.

"These teeth dramatically increase digging power in the hard, red clay around here," he says. "In other areas of the state where soils are sandy, you don’t need this type of bucket.

"When filled with dirt, you can lay this bucket down with the bottom flat on the ground to put on a smooth final grade. The extra weight of the dirt helps stabilize the bucket, and the flush-mounted shanks don’t leave any grooves in the soil surface. Tooth bars drop below the lip of the bucket an inch or so and will gouge small grooves in the ground."

He notes another use of a tooth bucket: When pulled backward, it can be used to break up the soil surface for seeding.

Woodson also sells an extra-heavy-duty bucket with a thicker and wider cutting edge and an extra bracing in the back to prevent stress cracks. "These extreme-duty buckets aren’t for every application," he says. "They weigh about 30% more than a standard bucket, and that can reduce payload. Otherwise you might exceed the rated operating capacity of the loader. They’re used around here for digging in rocky ground and for digging up tree stumps."

Landplane. One of the latest grading tools for skid-steer loaders to hit the market, it’s designed for finish grading in a variety of conditions and soils. This multipurpose tool allows you to control grading and leveling in both forward and reverse directions. Forward is best for cutting and sod peeling. Reverse is better for controlled cutting, pulverizing clods, sorting debris from soil, and scarifying hard ground. You can also use it to transport material on-site.

Dozer Blade. Designed to move or push material quickly, models include a blade you can adjust six ways from inside the cab using electric-over-hydraulic controls, adjustable skid shoes, and a reversible cutting edge for longer life.

Grader. Basic models, in which you adjust the moldboard and blade angle manually, can be used as a grader or a box blade for landscaping and ground preparation jobs. As a grader, you control the blade depth with auxiliary hydraulics and the blade pitch using the attachment hydraulic. Locking the hinged end plates forward converts the tool to a box blade.

High-performance graders are designed for fine precision and utility grading in landscaping, asphalt, curb and gutter, and concrete flatwork applications. They feature a six-way hydraulically controlled moldboard, which you operate using switches on the loader’s steering levers. Options include a scarifier for hard ground and laser-control packages that automatically adjust the blade up or down for exact, on-grade work to save time, base materials, concrete, and asphalt.


Scarifier. The teeth on a scarifier can be used to prepare hard-packed ground for digging or landscaping and to rip asphalt for removal. Adjustable depth skids set digging depth. One skid-steer loader manufacturer offers a scarifier that can be used alone or with a bucket, a landplane, or a grader to boost productivity. When mounted on another attachment, a manual locking mechanism holds up the scarifier’s teeth in the stored position. It requires no auxiliary hydraulics and will scarify only when the loader is traveling in reverse. For example, when mounted on a bucket, the scarifier teeth rotate up out of the way against a mechanical stop when the loader is moving forward. This allows the bucket to grade, level, or remove soil. When the loader travels in reverse, the teeth drop down to a digging depth of 3-4 in.

Trencher. Trencher attachments are available for light to medium trenching jobs with depths to about 4 ft. and widths to about 12 in. Higher-production models, designed for high-flow hydraulic skid-steer loaders, will excavate even deeper. Features to look for include single or dual augers, hydraulic side shift for trenching close to buildings and fences, and trench cleaner.

Trench Compactor. This tool uses a large-diameter wheel to pack trenches to specifications as the loader moves forward with the lift arms in the float position. It works best on trenches 4-12 in. wide and up to 4 ft. deep.

Vibratory Roller. Two versions of this compaction tool are available: a smooth drum for sand, gravel, pea rock, and asphalt patching and a padded drum for heavy soils, clay, and clay-based backfill.

More Choices  

While they don’t grade or excavate, a variety of other attachments and accessories can help you save time and labor on certain grading and excavating jobs. They include:

Attachment Tilting Tool. An interface between the loader and attachment, this convenient, hydraulically controlled device lets you rotate either side of the attachment up and down and forward and backward 15° from center to increase versatility and production. Use it with a bucket, for example, to cut a level path out of a hillside, to dig drainage ditches with the corner of the bucket, or to keep the load level on uneven terrain.

Dumping Hopper. Like an oversized wheelbarrow with one or two front wheels, a heavy-duty dumping hopper attached to the front of a skid-steer loader can reduce travel times between a work site and a dumpsite or receiving truck. Park the hopper on the job and use your loader to fill it with excavated material or construction debris. Once the hopper is full, hook on and push it to the dumping area, where you raise the loader arms to empty it.

Grading Rakes. Several types of rakes can save time and work in final site preparation. One popular model among landscapers not only levels a lawn site but also prepares it for seeding and sodding. Push it forward to scrape off high spots and pull it backward to rake and collect rocks, clods, and other debris. When it’s full, carry the material to a dumpsite to fill low areas or dispose of debris.

"Contractors are under more and more pressure to finish the job site because home and building owners don’t want rocks, bricks, and other construction materials lying around," observes Charlie Foster, general manager of attachment maker FFC Inc.

Another type of rake allows you to grade, level, fill, and tear out sod. The hydraulically driven roller with tilling teeth pulverizes dirt clumps. An adjustable barrier separates rocks and debris to keep them in front of the roller. The rake can be angled hydraulically to windrow rocks and debris to either side. Also, end plates can be attached to work the tool like a box blade to keep material piled ahead of the rolling action.

Tracks. Available in steel and rubber versions that fit over the tires, tracks can turn a skid-steer loader into a mini-crawler tractor. This accessory can improve traction and ride on rough, rocky, or sloping ground and increase flotation in soft or muddy conditions.

Selection Tips

One key to getting the most work from any attachment is choosing the one that best fits your particular skid-steer or compact-track-loader model and your job requirements. Whether or not a given attachment model will work properly with any one loader can depend on such factors as physical size and capacity of the tool; size, horsepower, and rated operating capacity of the loader; hydraulic flow rates and requirements; and any electrical connections. Suitability of an attachment, of course, also depends on the type and amount of work you will do with it and your work environment.

"It would be impossible to design an attachment that would work effectively with each and every model of skid-steer loader," states Woodson. "Even though you have a universal attachment mounting, an attachment may not fit because of things like the design of the loader boom, the size of the tires, and the location of the hydraulic outlets."

Compact-loader manufacturers that make attachments design them to fit their machines. Many also brand or market approved tools made by attachment manufacturers, which meet the loader companies’ individual requirements. Check the recommendations and specifications supplied by the skid-steer loader and attachment makers.

"Most skid-steer loader manufacturers have formal procedures for testing and approving attachments for their machines," points out George MacIntyre, skid-steer loader marketing manager for Case. "For best results with their loaders, use only the attachments they approve."

Another good bet in selecting an attachment is to seek the advice of your loader dealer. A knowledgeable dealer can explain the features and benefits of specific attachments and should know which tools work best with the loaders he or she sells.

Contractors and operators who have used a particular attachment are another excellent source of buying information. They know, firsthand, the strengths and drawbacks of the tools they use.

As good as this advice can be, though, probably the best way to decide if an attachment fits your machine and your needs is to try it yourself

"You should always operate an attachment before you buy it, either as a demo or a rental," advises T.R. Cagney, sales manager for Carleton Equipment Company in Kalamazoo, MI. "That’s the best test."

What to Look For

Depending on the type of attachment, some features might warrant more attention than others in making your buying decision. Among the factors you might want to consider.

Quality. A low price can be tempting when it comes to choosing between two alternatives, but it might not be the best clue for finding success on the job.

Bob Davis, market development manager for kat-Trak, ranks quality above price in selecting tools for your skid-steer loader. "Price by itself doesn’t tell you how well an attachment works or how reliable it is."

One measure of quality, in addition to performance, is how well the attachment is designed and built. So is a product’s reputation. Another is strength and durability of components and construction methods. Excavating with a bucket, for example, calls for a heavy-duty model that can withstand torsional stresses. But thick, heavy metal by itself might be misleading. "Good engineering is also important," remarks Anderson. "By using sound engineering principles and innovative design and materials, you may be able to build an attachment that’s lighter but more durable."

Fit and finish can also be good indicators of quality. Check such items as uniformity of welds; type of hose fittings and routing of hoses to prevent rub points and leaks; plating of unpainted metal parts, including pivot pins, to protect against rust and corrosion; and visibility of the tool’s cutting, gripping, or other working area.

Size. This is another critical factor that affects attachment performance. Sizing includes the work capacity of the tool as well as the physical fit, not to mention length of hydraulic lines and electrical cables, with the loader.

"Bigger is not always better," believes Caterpillar’s Oncken. "Performance is optimal when the tool is matched to the machine and your job requirements. In the case of buckets, for example, they need to be matched to the capabilities of the machine and to the task and material you’re working with. When an inappropriate bucket is used for the task and performance is compromised, the skid-steer loader often takes the blame.

"If a bucket is not wide enough, it won’t cover the width of the skid-steer loader. On the other hand, if the bucket is too wide or has too much capacity, it will reduce skid-steer loader efficiency due to lack of enough horsepower. When full, the bucket can also exceed the rated operating capacity of the skid-steer loader. For loading work, the primary factor to focus on is capacity relative to density or weight of the material being handled."

Hydraulic Compatibility. Some attachments, including a few used for grading and excavating (e.g., some models of augers and trenchers), require a skid-steer loader equipped with high-flow hydraulics, usually with at least a 25-gpm flow rate. Using a high-flow attachment on a skid-steer loader with standard flow hydraulics could not only reduce performance of the tool but also damage it.

At the same time, operating a standard-flow hydraulic attachment on a high-flow loader can overheat the tool’s hydraulic motor or blow a cylinder seal on the attachment if the loader is not running in standard flow mode.

Also, potentially damaging high oil temperatures can be a problem when using hydraulic attachments for prolonged periods in hot weather. In that case, a high-capacity cooler on the skid-steer loader can prevent excess heat build up in the hydraulic system.

Hydraulic quick couplers can save time when switching attachments. Multifunctional tools, such as graders, require an electrical outlet and switches on the loader to control hydraulic diverter valves. Laser systems also require a source of electricity.

Currently there is no common method of connecting hydraulic and electrical lines among different brands of skid-steer and compact track loaders. But that could change, says Foster, who also chairs the Attachment Council for the Equipment Manufacturers Institute. He reports that a committee is developing a standard to achieve this. "It’s probably a year or so away, but we want to have a common connection so attachments with electric-over-hydraulic controls will fit different makes of skid-steer loaders that are similar in size."

Hydraulic and Electrical Controls. For convenience and safety, some skid-steer loader manufacturers mount switches on the steering control grips or levers to control these multifunctional tools.

"A multifunction grip makes life easier on the job site," observes Kent Pellegrini, product manager for skid-steer loaders and attachments with New Holland Construction. "That way you can operate the angling attachments from the fingertips."

Control boxes installed on the side screens of skid-steer loaders can make it difficult to operate attachments efficiently, compared to multifunctional grip controls, he adds.

Warranty. Don’t forget this item either. Some manufacturers warrant a new attachment for six months. For others, the warranty might last 12 months or more.

Making the Most of Your Attachments

As with any tool, proper operation and maintenance help ensure that you get the best performance and longest useful life from your skid-steer loader attachment.

Know Your Attachment. That means reading the manufacturer’s operating manual, observing warnings and other decals on the tool, and watching any available training videos. Ideally, have someone familiar with the attachment demonstrate the right way to use it. Foster advises plenty of practice. "There’s no substitute for actual operation when it comes to learning how to use an attachment. Don’t be afraid to test it out."

Service It Regularly. Operation of many skid-steer loader attachments involves plenty of vibration. That’s why Pellegrini recommends daily service checks to make sure bolts and any loose items are tights, zerks and pivot joints are greased, and tires are inflated to the correct air pressure.

Oncken emphasizes the importance of maintaining hydraulic cylinders and hydraulic motors. "Contamination in the hydraulic system of the skid-steer loader not only shortens pump life, but it damages tool components such as seals, O-rings, and lubricated parts. Also, change filters more frequently when switching multiple tools on a regular basis. That’s especially important when some of the tools are rented, because oil in the attachments will mix with the hydraulic oil in your loader’s system."

Operate Within the Tool’s Limits. "One of the biggest faults I see in using a grader attachment is operators trying to use it as a bulldozer," Cagney points out. "You don’t try to cut 5 inches off a driveway at one time. You do it in several passes cutting an inch or so with each pass; otherwise you can wear out shims prematurely. You could even spring the turntable. That will prevent you from ever getting a perfect grade."

In some cases, slower operation might be more productive and safer. The optimum hydraulic flow rate for an attachment might be less than what the skid-steer loader can produce, notes Foster.

"If you’re operating a backhoe attachment with the loader’s throttle wide open, you’ll generate more hydraulic flow and speed, but the backhoe may not want to move that fast," he explains. "At a high hydraulic flow, the backhoe may be more difficult to control too, so reduce the engine rpms to match the best flow rate for the attachment."

Woodson offers similar advice. "Sometimes you can do an amazing amount of work with a skid-steer loader if you take your time," he says. "I’ve used a long, tapered bucket and a skid-steer loader with a 1,700-pound rated operating capacity to dig around and root out a 5-ft.-diameter oak tree stump. A bulldozer, of course, would have done the job faster, but I didn’t have one, and I still got the work done."