Wheel Loader vs. Skid Steer: Picking the Right Machine for The Job
At first glance, skid steers and wheel loaders, especially compact ones, may look like they can accomplish similar tasks, but there are some key differences between them. These machines accomplish similar jobs and tasks, but there are important cost, space, spec, and terrain considerations to evaluate before making an informed decision.
What's a wheel loader?
Wheel loaders are a class of heavy earthmoving equipment that carry and transport large loads of material around a construction site. Other wheel loader applications include placing loads into other vehicles like articulating dump trucks, clearing, digging, grading, and snow removal.
Wheel loaders have sealed cabins and a front bucket that can be swapped out for forks or other attachments. Depending on the size of the loader, bucket capacities can range from 0.8 to 8 cubic yards for most machines. This size of front loader is used typically for smaller residential or commercial projects where heavy earthmoving is required.
There are wheel loaders with bucket capacities of over 10 cubic yards but they aren't as common. These machines have operating weights in the 100,000s and are found on large-scale job sites like mill yards, mines, and quarries.
Check out the variety of wheel loader models offered in our wheel loader spec guide, as well as a brand comparison guide. As you'll see, wheel loaders can often lift more material and higher while also having more power and weight range than skid steers.
What's a skid steer?
Skid steers essentially look like tiny wheel loaders. They share a similar structure as skid steers have lift arms that control a bucket attachment and open or unopen cabins. Many skid steer models don't have the lift capacity or lift height that wheel loaders do, making them better for residential and small-scale earthmoving projects.
Skid steers are part of the compact equipment class, as most machines are only 3 to 6 feet wide. This makes them amazing for compact spaces where earthmoving is required but are too small for a wheel loader to fit. Mini skid steers, another product line offered, are only 36'' wide. Models of both sizes are used for digging and transporting material.
Read more about the variety of skid steer models and the differences in brands.
How are wheel loaders and skid steers different?
When it comes to size, operation, and attachment availability, skid steers and wheel loaders are relatively different. However, wheel loaders often come up in the comparison conversation since they're quite similar to skid steers with respect to functionality.
One of the main differences between wheel loaders and skid steers is their size which is an important factor to be considered on many job sites.
Skid steers are smaller, compact machines that typically weigh between 2,800 and 11,600 lbs. Due to their compact frames, skid steers can easily turn around in tight spaces and navigate job sites with restricted space. They also have a much tighter turning radius than wheel loaders and can work on indoor demolition and construction projects. There are also announcements of electric models coming in the future which will make them even more diverse and functional for indoor jobs.
Wheel loaders are larger machines that require more open space to operate. With operating weights ranging from 6,000 to 250,000 lbs, many wheel loaders are bigger machines that perform work at a level that skid steers can't handle. If your project is more small-scale, then looking at available space, lift height, and lift capacity is a great way to choose between a skid steer and a wheel loader.
One of the biggest differences between wheel loaders and skid steers is the attachment versatility. The main design purpose of wheel loaders is to move material from point A to point B. For this reason, most of the attachments on the market will serve this purpose. This includes different sizes and functionality of grapples, forks, snow blades, and buckets.
Skid steers have many more attachment options. Used for landscaping, snow removal, earthmoving, demolition, and more, skid steers can be fitted with so many attachments for different industries. For example, if working on a foresty project, you can use root rakes, brush cutters, and stump grinders. For demolition, you can use a breaker or shears. For earthmoving, you can use buckets or grapples, much like a wheel loader.
Picking between a wheel loader or skid steer, if working on a smaller, residential project, may come down to what you are asking of the machine and the attachment compatibility.
Purchase and rental cost is another comparison point to consider. Wheel loaders are more expensive than skid steers simply because they're larger and more powerful machines. New skid steers can cost anywhere from $25,000 - $65,000, whereas used models of comparable sizes are around half that price. Renting a skid steer is typically a more affordable option for many contractors, especially on short projects. They're also more cost-effective than wheel loaders to rent.
Wheel loaders can cost anywhere from $40,000 - $200,000. The large variation in model size and brand accounts for such a wide price range. Attachments on both machines can drive up the cost as well.
Because of their size and strength, loaders have much greater tipping loads and lift capacities than skid steers do. Loaders also have more reach, which allows the machine to pick up large loads and transport them to another area with less rollover risk. For more sizeable loads, wheel loaders are a better option for their lift capacity alone.
Operators have more visibility from the inside of a wheel loader cab than a skid steer cab because they are surrounded by clear windows and higher off the ground. As well, wheel loader cabs are more spacious than skid steer models.
How are wheel loaders and skid steers similar?
The biggest similarity between these two machines is their purpose. Both wheel loaders and skid steers can dig, load, clear, and transfer material from one area to another. With the right attachments, both machines are also great options for snow removal. The main reason these machines can be used interchangeably is because of how similar their purpose is. It's when it comes to specs, size, and attachment requirements that the differences really start to matter.
Skid Steers vs. Front Loaders: Making the Right Choice
In short, skid steers and front loaders can be used to complete the same tasks but the former does so on a smaller scale. Evaluating cost considerations and job site conditions will help you in making the right decision.