When it comes to choosing a skid steer for your construction job, you have no shortage of options.
A skid steer is a piece of heavy equipment that sits on four wheels or two tracks and can be equipped with a variety of attachments, depending on the job you have to perform.
Those attachments, which fit on the front of the vehicle, include a bucket for lifting and moving heavy material, a dozer blade for plowing and grading, a backhoe for digging trenches, a mulcher, a saw, a two-pronged pallet fork, and a snowblower. The resulting versatility makes a skid steer an important tool for use in construction and landscaping.
When deciding on a skid steer, you’ll have your choice of well-known brands. You’ll want to evaluate their user ratings, attachment options, durability, maintenance records, and operator comfort, among other things. In the article that follows, we’ll be looking at these six brands:
- John Deere
Bobcat (previously known as Melroe Manufacturing) actually made the first skid steer. In 1957, they bought the rights to a front-end loader invented by two brothers in Minnesota and brought them on board to refine it. Production started in 1958. The North Dakota-based company has a line of skid steers with rated operating capacities (ROC) ranging from 760 to 2,000 pounds.
Bobcat accounts for about 40% of the global market for skid steers, making it the industry leader. It boasts a powerful hydraulics system, rear cab isolators to minimize sound, a touch display, superior lift arms, an improved cooling system, and effective weight balance.
Caterpillar has made skid steers since 1999 and offers eight models.
The company is the overall industry leader in construction equipment manufacturing. Its skid steers range from 66 to 106 horsepower, with operating capacities ranging from 1,550 to 3,650 pounds. Radial- and vertical-lift designs are available.
Cat skid steers have a reputation for being reliable, powerful, versatile, and easy to use. They come equipped with an electronic throttle and intelligent leveling (ILEV) system and have an excellent hydraulic system and ground-level serviceability.
CASE is one of the largest construction equipment manufacturers in the world. It merged with New Holland in 1999. CASE has manufactured skid steers since 1969, first in Iowa and then in Wichita, Kansas. Its machines are popular for landscaping and agricultural material handling, ranking among the top three snow and ice removal companies in North America.
The company’s eight B Series skid steer models offer horsepower ranging from 60 to 90 and a rated operating capacity of 1,600 to 3,400 pounds. They come with a wide variety of attachments ranging from rakes to augers, from hoes to post drivers to tree shovels. CASE users find advantages in the brand’s engine protection, economy mode, auxiliary hydraulics, easy maintenance, and control options.
John Deere, based in Moline, Illinois, has skid steers ranging in weight from 6,140 to 10,000 pounds, and in horsepower from 65 to 100. Rated operating capacities range from 1,750 pounds to 3,600 pounds. A large selection of attachments is available, including brooms, buckets, grapples, planers, plate compactors, rollers, and snow attachments.
John Deere is widely trusted and considered reliable. It has skid steers that are built for heavier attachments and have plenty of horsepower. John Deere offers large and compact machines in wheeled and tracked models such as compact track loaders.
Japan-based Kubota received Equipment Watch’s “Highest Retained Value Award” for 2021. Every model comes standard with a suspension seat and two-speed engine, so you can move from 7 to 11 miles per hour at the flick of a switch.
Kubota’s line of models includes wheeled and tracked vehicles that range from just over 10 horsepower for compact equipment to more than 96 horsepower. Some are made for tight spaces, others for breaking through tough obstacles, and still others to emphasize maneuverability. Machines can be paired with a variety of hydraulic and non-hydraulic attachments.
Komatsu, like Kubota, is based in Japan. It produces four different user-friendly models of skid steers capable of handling operating loads from 1,100 to nearly 2,000 pounds. Models come in 32, 46, and 48 horsepower.
The company is known for market-leading excavators and first wheel loaders, and for building reliable, tough machinery. Focuses include hydraulic technology, digging force, lifting capacity, low fuel consumption, and limited noise.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Skid Steer
Lift Height or Lift Capacity
Skid steers employ two different lift arm styles, and you’ll want to choose a piece of equipment that works best for your purposes and on your job site.
- A radial lift is best if you’re planning to dump material over walls, backfill, or load flatbed trucks. It allows you to lift the bucket in an arc, providing greater range or reach at moderate heights (its greatest reach is at the operator’s eye level or below). It also has fewer greased pins than a vertical lift, meaning it’s susceptible to wear at fewer locations and easier to maintain.
- A vertical lift is designed more for up-and-down movement than for reach. The load remains closer to the body of the machine (and to the machine’s center of gravity). This kind of lift is a good choice for placing pallets of blocks or sod or dumping material into high-sided trucks.
As with any piece of machinery, reliability is an important factor when deciding on a brand and model. You’ll want a skid steer that is efficient and effective, and that will get the job done without causing any injuries. The following qualities are important considerations:
- Durability: Skid steers typically last about 5,000 hours. The more you keep up on maintenance, the less you’ll have to pay. Check your tires for wear and inflation level daily, clear away any debris, check your fluid levels, and do a walk-around inspection before starting up your skid steer. Replace the oil and oil filter after 250 hours, the fuel filter after 500 hours, and the radiator coolant, hydraulic oil, and chaincase oil at 1,000 hours. Compare specific maintenance requirements for each model before you choose one.
- Versatility: If you’ll be working in tight spaces, maneuverability is important. If you will be dealing with heavy loads, a higher ROC is important. The more attachments that are available, the more versatile a machine will be — but make sure the attachments that you’re most likely to use are all available.
- New or used: If you buy a new skid steer, you’ll be getting a machine with the latest technology. It should be in prime working condition and will likely come with a warranty against defects. By contrast, you’ll pay less for a piece of used equipment. If you’re buying used, you’ll want to try the machine out and have it inspected to avoid unexpected maintenance costs.
- Brand reputation: Check customer reviews and expert opinions. How trustworthy are the machines, and how long has the company been in business? This isn’t just important for reliability’s sake; it also ensures that parts and servicing will be available in the long term. (Bobcat, which has been in business the longest, also controls the largest share of the market.)
Types of Skid Steer Attachments
One thing that makes a skid steer such an essential and versatile piece of equipment is the wealth of skid steer attachments that are available to customize your machine to perform the job you need to get done.
Skid steer attachments that are available to you include:
- Backhoes: Available in swivel and fixed-arm models in various sizes with a selection of accessories, backhoes are digging buckets. They’re often referred to as JCBs in the United Kingdom, a colloquial reference to a trademarked brand.
- Pallet forks: Consisting of two parallel horizontal prongs that extend from the front of the skid steer at ground level, these attachments can be used to lift pallets.
- Bale spears: Sharp extensions allow operators to spear bales of hay and carry them across open spaces.
- Brush cutters: These attachments are equipped with blades that allow operators to clear fields of brush and undergrowth.
- Augers: Attachments such as these can drill post holes, mix and pour cement, or grind stumps, depending on the bit you choose — and a large variety of bits is available.
- Grapples: If you want to clamp hold of something, there’s a grapple to fit your job, whether you’re working with brush, logs, roots, rocks, or other material. These attachments often resemble jaws with steel teeth.
- Blades and buckets: These are good for leveling, scooping, and earthmoving.
- Manure bucket: Manure buckets or grapples allow you to clean pens and perform other work on the farm.
- Calf corral: This attachment is a handy device for rounding up newborn calves and separating them from their cows. The skid steer attachment is raised over the calf and then lowered to the ground, catching the calf inside.
- Trenchers: These allow you to dig trenches for drainage, lines, and other material you want to lay in the ground.
These are some of the types of construction projects a skid steer can be used for:
- Roadwork: Leveling roadbeds, digging trenches, moving dirt to create fill on hillsides and in other locations where roadbeds need to be created.
- Material handling: Moving material from one place to another, loading it into containers; moving hay and/or manure on agricultural sites.
- Brush clearing: Clearing vegetation away to open up space.
- Grading: Creating level surfaces for roads and at construction sites.
- Backfilling: Moving earth to fill an excavated hole.
- Debris removal: Removing debris that has accumulated at a site after a storm, or due to flooding or neglect.
- Demolition: Using a grapple bucket, hammers, or shears to knock down a structure; because skid steers are strong and maneuverable, they’re often called upon to perform this kind of work.
Skid steers employ two different types of hydraulic systems: low-flow and high-flow.
The two terms refer to the rate that hydraulic fluid is moved through two hoses in the skid steer. One sends fluid out to the attachments through the skid steer, while the other hose delivers it back to the main piece of equipment so it can go through a filtration system.
- A low-flow skid steer moves the fluid at a rate of 18 to 25 gallons per minute, while a high-flow system accelerates that to between 30 and 45 gallons per minute.
- A high-flow skid steer is a more powerful and heavy-duty (and expensive) option used to operate certain attachments that require a lot of power. These attachments include snow blowers and snow removal equipment, stump grinders, mulching heads, cold planers, and accessories for milling.
Again, which kind of skid steer system you need depends on the nature of the jobs you’ll be doing. If you’re going to be engaged in a lot of high-power activity, a high-flow system will be needed; if not, you can safely go with a low-flow, standard system — and save yourself some money in the process.
Before purchasing a skid steer, you should be aware of the EPA emissions requirements for operating one.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency required that all 75-horsepower diesel engines built for non-road use be Tier 4 compliant, which means they’re cleaner burning and reduce nitrogen oxide emissions as a result. Tier 4 is the latest and strictest requirement; it was applied to smaller engines — under 25 horsepower — from 2008 to 2011, while some midsize engines also made the move to Tier 4 at that time.
Tier 4 engines require additional maintenance to prevent engine damage during cold weather, when water molecules can split off from diesel molecules and settle in fuel tanks, leading to bacteria growth. Lower sulfur content in low-emission diesel fuels can also cause fuel to thicken and clog the filter in cold weather.
These changes require extra monitoring and maintenance. Keep your fuel filters clean and remove any water from your filter every day during chilly conditions; use 2-micron filters and test your machine’s bulk fuel tank twice a year. Tier 4 engines take CJ4 engine oils, available at equipment dealers, which reduce the chances of engine damage.
Your skid steer may be equipped with a non-DPF (diesel particulate filter) engine, which eliminates the need for filters by using an ultra-low particulate combustion engine. Less maintenance is therefore required. Such engines can achieve Tier 4 compliance without using a DPF filter, and as an added benefit, offer an increase in torque of 4% to 12%.
If you’re just doing a single job and don’t want to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a machine and attachments, renting a skid steer is probably your best option. If you’re just doing that one job, you can also more easily choose a machine that works best for your specific project, whether it’s lifting, loading, grading, snow removal, or forestry projects such as removing stumps.
Whether you’re buying or renting, it’s important to research which skid steer and which attachments are best for your job, so you can save money, headaches, and hassles getting it right.