Photo courtesy of case

Two invaluable machines in the landscape construction and maintenance business are the compact track and wheel loaders. These two pieces of equipment have specific functions – as well as limitations – as they relate to landscape construction, maintenance and snow removal.

Track loaders are kind of like that power washer sitting in the garage. It’s not something some contractors need all the time, but when it is needed it sure saves a lot of work. Wheel loaders, on the other hand, are needed mostly when the weatherman is calling for snow, and lots of it.

Tread lightly.

Mark Smith, project manager with Belknap Landscape Company, knows a thing or two about track and wheel loaders. They service high end clients in the Lakes Region in the heart of New Hampshire. Much of their work is concentrated around Lake Winnipesaukee, the largest lake in the state.

“Ninety percent are second homes, high end residential,” Smith says. “We also have high end commercial accounts: shopping malls, schools, private, university and local hospitals – these people really value what they get out of a contractor.”

The track loader is the equipment of choice for most of this work, especially landscape maintenance, where it leaves less of an impact on existing lawns.

“We focus mostly around a lake and a lot of the terrain is very steep and difficult to traverse with a wheel loader,” says Smith. “It works good on existing lots, wheel loaders do much more damage to existing landscapes.”

Matthew Stano, owner of Stano Landscaping in Milwaukee has a similar opinion on track loaders.

“Two of our Bobcats are track loaders,” he says. “We use them specifically when we have site conditions where we need to preserve the appearance of the lawn.” He says they will also use them when the ground is wet and they need to grade out the site. He says the two compact track loaders they own work better than a skid-steer in these conditions.

“They’re absolutely required in our business,” says Stano. “I wouldn’t say we have a crew going out every day with them, but we use them a lot.”

Belknap Landscape has had a good year as well. While they have a lot of landscape maintenance and repeat business, new construction definitely helps their bottom line and helps to justify the purchase of the two track loaders they own. He says they’ve been busy this past year with a good deal of new landscape construction taking place around the lake and other properties in the area.

Belknap’s business runs the gamut from traditional landscaping, including landscape design, to masonry work, pool excavation, and brick pavers. They employ 90-100 people during peak season. The track loaders with different attachments make it easier and more efficient to perform the tasks at hand with less labor.

“The name of the game today is to be more mechanical and not as heavy on staff,” says Smith. “We rely on a diversity of wheel and track loaders, they’re more reliable than labor.”

The must-have labor-saving accessories they can attach to a track loader include standard buckets, forks and brush grapplers.

Track loaders aren’t without some disadvantages. They’re not as versatile for snow removal as wheel loaders, and they’re more expensive to maintain due to track replacement that is periodically required.

“The largest disadvantage of track loaders is the sheer cost of the track,” says Smith. “We take that into account with our financial planning and charge rates.” He says track replacement can run up to $10,000.

The heavy lifters.

One thing both Stano and Smith have in common is they live in areas that receive a significant amount of snowfall. This makes the wheel loaders invaluable, especially for clearing large, open lots.

“We use everything for snow removal in some fashion,” Smith says. He says this even includes compact track loaders, but more for smaller amounts of snow. The large bucket makes the wheel loader their equipment of choice for clearing large parking lots and pushing back snow.

Belknap deploys seven wheel loaders during the winter for snow removal and rents three more as needed.

One advantage of the wheel loaders Belknap owns, which are mostly Caterpillar, is the fact that the attachments they use with them are interchangeable with their skid-steer, making both machines much more diverse.

“We have a couple of Caterpillars (wheel loaders) that are very diverse that can service smaller lots,” Smith says. “They can go through tight locations, such as ATM drive thrus.”

The wheel loaders aren’t exactly left idle in the summer. They can be used in the yard to load large amounts of mulch, stone or topsoil.

priority on maintenance.

The only thing worse about having to shell out thousands of dollars on equipment would be to not properly maintain it. Both Stano and Smith can sleep a little better at night knowing they have reliable maintenance staff to keep these expensive pieces of equipment in shape. Their maintenance staff can take care of most of the maintenance issues. Like a lot of heavy equipment in this industry, a well maintained machine should last at least 10 years, something both landscapers strive to achieve.

“Generally, maintenance is done in-house,” Smith says. “Some of our equipment have 1-2-year maintenance plans. We have three in-house mechanics, they are our firefighters and general maintenance technicians. Large repairs are sent out.”