Photo courtesy of John Deere

hether you’re grading, digging, lifting or hauling, compact loaders can make landscaping jobs a little easier. But choosing the best machine for each job can be a challenge – especially when deciding between compact wheel loaders (CWLs) or compact track loaders (CTLs).

“They’re different tools,” says Lew Marotti, regional director of construction at Juniper Landscaping in Southwest Florida. “You need to know what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be working so you can use the right tool for the job.”

Both types of compact loaders have their strengths and weaknesses depending on the site conditions and the task at hand, and can lead to better productivity in the field.

After the rain.

Last Christmas, Charlotte received so much rain that developers were literally stuck in the mud. Baytree Landscape Contractors – a commercial landscape company based in Atlanta with offices in Charleston, Charlotte and Nashville – sent CTLs to the rescue.

“(Developers) were unable to get closings done because they couldn’t get the yards done,” says Matt Maurer, a principal at Baytree. “We took all our track loaders in there and dug out eight inches of mud and muck, replaced the fill dirt, and finished those yards. That would not have happened if we did not have compact track loaders, because a rubber tire loader would just get stuck.”

When the ground is too wet or muddy for wheels, CTLs prevail. That’s why Baytree relies primarily on this equipment – with 25 CTLs in its fleet, compared to just two CWLs.

Superscapes deals with similarly soggy conditions near Dallas, with clay soils that absorb rain like a sponge. With 11 CTLs in its fleet, Superscapes’ crews can get out in the field faster after downpours – “which means less downtime and greater productivity, because we’re actually out there working rather than waiting for the site to dry out,” says Craig Duttarer, vice president of operations at Superscapes. “That’s the greatest advantage of using the track machine compared to the wheel loader.”

Tricky terrain.

Tracks are designed to thrive in more difficult terrain, which makes CTLs well-suited for grading slopes.

“Track loaders are better for dealing with slopes and embankments because the center of gravity is lower to the ground,” Marotti says. “A track machine can actually pick up more weight than a wheel loader – where the center of gravity is higher off the ground, making it more likely to tip over.”

This stability and lifting capacity explains why Duttarer prefers CTLs over CWLs. “The greater stability on slopes or with heavy loads eases an operator’s mind to know that you’re not going to have tipping or rocking back and forth, potentially causing an injury or even a skid down a steep slope,” he says.

“While the cost of a track loader is a little bit more, that can easily be outweighed by the number of days you’ll be able to produce, especially in wet weather, when you’d be sitting at home, not producing anything if you had a wheel loader.” Craig Duttarer, vice president of operations, Superscapes.

Solid ground.

However, if your crews mostly work on even, solid ground, CWLs may be more efficient. Wheels move faster on pavement than tracks, so CWLs suit enhancements and maintenance projects better than new construction sites.

“Wheel loaders definitely have their place,” Maurer says. “We use compact wheel loaders in our maintenance division when we’re doing enhancements on existing properties, like shopping centers and apartment complexes, where we’re not working in the dirt.”

Although CTLs can tackle most terrains, paved surfaces accelerate wear-and-tear – whereas CWLs have the advantage of speed on solid ground. “If we have a lot of distance to cover, we try to get a wheel loader to move material back and forth because you’re going to have a faster ground speed,” Duttarer says. “The track loader is slower on a parking lot, and plus, the concrete adds wear and tear on the tracks.”

Of course, turning too sharply in either machine can damage any surface underneath. But even with careful operation on dry ground, wheels can leave ruts. The pounds of force per square inch (PSI) are isolated into each tire of a CWL, whereas with CTLs, “the weight is evenly distributed over a larger area on the track,” Marotti says, “so you do less damage to your finished grades than you would with a wheel loader.”

Comparing costs.

Although CTLs excel across most terrains, their versatility comes at a cost. In terms of both purchase price and ongoing maintenance, “the track loader is more expensive,” Duttarer says. He estimates that these machines cost between 10-20 percent more than a wheeled equivalent. Maurer says that’s an additional $10-$15,000 upfront. CTL expenses also add up over time due to higher maintenance and replacement costs than CWLs.

“We usually get about 1,000 to 1,200 hours out of a set of tracks, and we run our machines 3,000 hours so we’re putting on a minimum of two sets of tracks per lifecycle of a machine,” Maurer says. “It’ll cost me about $6,000 to replace one set of tracks. So, over the 3,000-hour life range, the track system will cost us roughly $12,000 to own, from a maintenance perspective.”

Superscapes replaces the tracks on its machines every year, but Duttarer admits that they “probably could extend that a little further if we stayed off the pavement.” At Juniper Landscaping, Marotti says tracks last up to two years because they don’t use CTLs on finished surfaces; they have CWLs for that.

When it comes to CWL maintenance, tires are cheaper to replace than tracks, even though they have to be changed more frequently.

“If you’re using standard tires, which are about $250 each, it’s $1,000 for a set of tires,” Maurer says. “Through that same 3,000-hour lifecycle, you may put on four to six sets of tires on average. That’s about $4-$5,000 for the cost of ownership.”

Contractors also must consider the cost of downtime when machines aren’t being used.

“Contractors are thinking about one thing: producing revenue,” Duttarer says. “While the cost of a track loader is a little bit more, that can easily be outweighed by the number of days you’ll be able to produce, especially in wet weather, when you’d be sitting at home, not producing anything if you had a wheel loader. Don’t get scared by the track loader’s cost; look at what it’s going to produce in the field.”

The bottom line.

So, do you want tracks or wheels in your landscaping fleet? Knowing how and where you plan to use your compact loader will dictate which machine to use.

“If you’re a residential contractor working in small areas or finished yards where your machine is just a lifting tool, then you can probably get away with using rubber tires,” Maurer says. “It’s going to be a lower cost of entry.”

However, he says, “If you’re a contractor who does a lot of grading, heavy tree planting, or slope work, then you need to look at track loaders because you’ll remain more productive.”

And contractors who do both types of work but can only afford one machine? “You need to buy the machine that’s going to be the most helpful in your worst-case scenario,” Maurer says. “You’re probably looking at a track loader, because it’s one of the most versatile pieces of equipment that a landscape contractor could have. You can utilize it in both aspects of your business, whereas if you just bought that rubber tire (machine), you may not be able to do new construction when the weather turns.”