The first subcompact loader I ever used arrived by accident. I’d ordered a full-sized skid steer from the rental yard, but instead the delivery truck brought what looked like a riding mower on steroids. The driver mumbled, “We didn’t have any skid steers so I brought this.”

My blood pressure spiked. I hate digging footing and fence-post holes with a shovel and digging bar — who doesn’t? — and was relying on salvation from the skid-steer mounted auger. Worse, about 750 square feet of soil needed to be scoured to make room for a low deck and fence. I didn’t see a practical or profitable way to do this job without some serious, diesel-powered hydraulics. The overgrown Tonka toy sitting in front of me sure didn’t look up to the job.

My helper was calmer and suggested, “Why not check it out?”

I’m glad I listened. I started drilling post holes for the fence with the machine’s auger, and my fury was transformed to odes to hydraulic heaven. Next I turned to scraping the grade down to provide clearance for the deck joists. I’d dreaded this part of the job — even before I dug into the ground and found the tangled root system of a long-gone oak tree. Despite that unexpected development, the excavation ended up taking about half the time I’d figured. Since then, this category of machine has had a big impact on how I landscape and build decks, fences, retaining walls, and pergolas.

Hit the Ground Digging

Where I live, renting a subcompact loader costs about $250 a day plus delivery. If you’ve got the right trailer, you can pick it up and drop it off yourself (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Weighing in at around a ton, subcompact loaders are easily towed on a trailer. That can save you delivery costs if you rent.
Figure 1. Weighing in at around a ton, subcompact loaders are easily towed on a trailer. That can save you delivery costs if you rent.

One look at the gnarly tracks on these machines and you would expect them to take a toll on a finished yard. They do take some grass with them when turning and can leave a trail of depressions and track marks from back-and-forth operations. (All the manufacturers say you can minimize damage by making K-turns instead of hard nineties, but the reality is you need the patience of Job to do that.) Nonetheless, the increased production far outweighs what’s required to remedy the damage to the landscape.

Most subcompact loaders have tracks; some do have four-wheel drive, but for deck builders, tracks perform better than wheels. Tracks spread the machine’s load over a wider surface area, which has less impact on the turf — around 5 psi (Figure 2) — and they have better traction in mud or wet grass. Finally, tracks are flat, so they compress and flatten loose fill, while wheels make ruts.

Figure 2. In a tracked configuration, subcompact loaders impose a load of only about 5 psi, minimizing — although not eliminating — turf damage on finished lawns.
Figure 2. In a tracked configuration, subcompact loaders impose a load of only about 5 psi, minimizing — although not eliminating — turf damage on finished lawns.

These machines aren’t difficult to operate. I’ve rented subcompact loaders made by several manufacturers, and the controls are intuitive on all of them; I can pretty much jump on any one and drive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be careful, in particular when backing up. That requires turning your shoulders significantly to scout the area behind you for colleagues, client’s children, material, and the like. A smart operator gives more than a quick glance when backing up.

Although older loaders were walk-behinds, this generation has the operator standing on a platform. I like it and think it’s safer, and it saves pointless walking.

Gas or Diesel?

Of the machines I’ve used, those that have worked best for drilling holes, carrying materials, and prepping sites are in the 20 to 27 hp range. They weigh around a ton and can lift 1,500 to 1,800 pounds without tipping. This size is big enough to get most jobs done, yet it can fit through a gate in a suburban backyard and towing it won’t rip the transmission out of a 1/2-ton truck (Figure 3). Plus, the lighter weight is easier on the turf.

Figure 3. Deck builders often work in backyards with limited access. If the path is wide enough for walking, odds are a subcompact loader can get through.
Figure 3. Deck builders often work in backyards with limited access. If the path is wide enough for walking, odds are a subcompact loader can get through.

Subcompact loaders have either gas or diesel motors. Manufacturers say diesel delivers a little less speed and a little more low-end torque, just like with trucks. I’ve operated gas and diesel subcompact loaders side-by-side, and when the manufacturers say “a little,” they mean it. I couldn’t feel a difference in power. And speed isn’t a big factor: Flat out with the wind at your back these machines max out at 4 mph, gas or diesel.

I did notice noise. Neither type of motor is quiet, but the diesel has a lower-pitch rumble than the gasoline machine’s high-rpm sound. While this is subjective, I prefer the sound of a diesel. A lot depends on the individual unit too. I’ve been renting a Boxer machine lately, and its 27-hp Kohler engine is leagues quieter than any machine, gas or diesel, I’ve used.

Fuel consumption is another question. On a fence job — where I drill a hole, then shut the machine off while setting the post — an 8-gallon tank of fuel can last three days. On the other hand, if I’m constantly running the machine loading and carrying material, I figure on about a gallon an hour.

Attachments

By changing attachments, in two minutes you can switch from boring post holes to carrying lumber. About 30 attachments are available from Bobcat and Toro; 50 from Boxer. These range from tillers and levelers to backhoes and trenchers. For the most part, I use a toothed bucket, a leveler/carry-all, forks, and a trencher. Also available are power brooms, tree forks, snow blowers, and a brush-and-shrub ripper that resembles a medieval siege weapon.

You can even get a breaker hammer (Figure 4). If you’ve ever subbed out busting up a porch slab or concrete stair because you didn’t have the equipment, well, now you do. You can rent a machine with the hammer, or if you own the machine, you can rent the specialty attachment.

Figure 4. Getting rid of an old concrete slab or stair to make way for a new deck can be backbreaking work. You might compare the cost of renting a machine and a hydraulic hammer with that of a couple of weeks of chiropractic care.
Figure 4. Getting rid of an old concrete slab or stair to make way for a new deck can be backbreaking work. You might compare the cost of renting a machine and a hydraulic hammer with that of a couple of weeks of chiropractic care.

The “toughest” part of swapping attachments is aligning the machine’s mounting plate (the male end) with the attachment’s mounting plate (the female end). And that’s not difficult at all — especially linking up to a fork, a carry-all, or a bucket, because those don’t even involve the hose couplings. One operation is tricky — after connecting the auger’s mounting plates, picking the auger up (or dropping it) without taking a divot from the lawn or scratching the driveway takes some practice. Storing the auger on an empty pallet instead of on the ground helps.

Augers, trenchers, and other attachments with integral moving parts require hydraulic pressure to operate. Every machine I’ve used has quick-release hydraulic couplings (think big air-hose couplings) that enable swapping out attachments. Sometimes it’s a headache to get them to engage or release because the hydraulic fluid stays lightly pressurized.

While some manufacturers say you can swap out attachments with the machine idling, I find it’s easier, quieter, and cooler to shut the whole thing down. Baldwin Unlimited, the outfit I rent from, advises shutting the machine down and “draining” the fluid in the lines by pulling the accessory handle a few times. This dependably depressurizes the fluid and makes for quick exchanges. And unlike nail-gun hoses, hydraulic couplings have an integral check valve, so if you lose your grip the hoses don’t hiss and shoot away. Another trick is to make sure the couplings aren’t caked in mud before you connect them.

Owning vs. Renting

Because you can buy a subcompact loader for less than most pickups, ownership is an option for many deck builders. Currently, you can get no-interest financing from some manufacturers. Figure on $20,000 to $25,000 for a package that includes two augers (9-inch diameter for fences and 16-inch diameter for decks, pergolas, and retaining walls), a toothed bucket, a leveler/carry-all, a trencher, and a dedicated trailer. To that, you have to add insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs. You don’t need to garage it.

This article can’t answer the “own or rent” question because of variables in individual business models. The bottom line is whether you can make a return on the investment. Boxer has a calculator on its Web site (boxermeansbusiness.com) that it says paints a good financial picture.

One key to profitability is to keep the machine — and operator — working. Owning a subcompact loader may be a gateway to landscape projects beyond deck building, and possibly to subcontracting work as well. Sending a guy out with the machine for half a day now and then is another potential revenue stream (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The key to profitability in owning any machine is keeping it busy. Subcontracting for small jobs such as trenching for underground electrical conduit is one way to pay the bills.
Figure 5. The key to profitability in owning any machine is keeping it busy. Subcontracting for small jobs such as trenching for underground electrical conduit is one way to pay the bills.

Owning and operating a subcompact loader may change your insurance “exposure,” although renting one occasionally probably does not. Excavators tend to pay higher premiums than deck builders. Check with your agent: You want to be sure you have enough insurance — if the trailer fails during transit, or someone decides to steal your pretty new unit, or the like — to cover the risks of owning it. And if you take out a loan to buy the machine, the lender will require insurance anyway.

Whether you rent or own, the simple presence of such a machine on your sites may yield unplanned, yet profitable, jobs — it has on my sites. When homeowners see a machine that could move a boulder or transplant a giant shrub, they tend to ask, “While you’re here, could you …?” And you should charge for it. I do.

Call Before You Dig

It’s the law everywhere, but more important, it’s a safety concern. You can’t possibly know where underground gas and electrical lines are, and you or someone nearby could be killed by hitting them. Call 811 from anywhere in the nation to arrange for a utility locating service to mark the location of underground gas, electric, phone, and cable lines.

Never Hand-Dig a Footing Again

A subcompact loader’s main function on my sites is augering post and footing holes (Figure 6). I don’t care how fast or cheaply your fastest or cheapest helper digs, these machines dig faster and better. Plus, they go the same speed at 7 a.m. as at 4 p.m, unlike a helper.

Figure 6. Augering out footing holes may be most deck builders’ favorite use for a subcompact loader. Holes that might take half an hour to dig with a shovel are done in five to seven minutes.
Figure 6. Augering out footing holes may be most deck builders’ favorite use for a subcompact loader. Holes that might take half an hour to dig with a shovel are done in five to seven minutes.

Indeed, once I got the hang of it — not a steep learning curve — I was dropping 16-inch-wide, 40-inch-deep post holes exactly where I wanted them in five to seven minutes each. The trick to dropping a plumb shaft is to “follow” the bit with the machine. The bit naturally hangs plumb from the power head on level terrain. However, because lowering the auger moves it closer to the machine, it can swing out of plumb as the machine’s armature follows the auger down. Just inch the machine forward as you drill to keep the auger going straight. After a day or two, it becomes practically second nature.

One snag occurs on uneven terrain or hills, because the auger hinges front to back, not left to right. Approach the hole location from downhill and the auger will bore plumb. But if you have to orient the machine side-slope, the auger will point 90 degrees to the slope. In that case, over-drilling the top of the hole will allow you to set the post or footing form plumb.

Sometimes the auger hits rocks and pulls them out of the hole. Other times it smashes them back into the ground or breaks them. But if the rock is big enough, the bit just skates, and you have to go after the rock with shovels. And hitting the edge of a rock can re-direct the bit so that you have to break the rock out (for which I often use a rotary hammer and bull-point chisel).

Leveler/Carry-all Attachment

Every subcompact excavator I have ever used has been better than any wheelbarrow I’ve ever used for lugging material, from rocks to 6x6s to dirt and sod. And using the leveler/carry-all to grade loose soil has very nearly put my steel rake out of a job. I find that when a machine is available on site, some landscaping will be woven in with the carpentry.

A case in point is a recent fence job. The yard was badly out of level, so I imported dirt. I rough-leveled the piles with the bucket, then finessed the grade using the leveler (Figure 7).

Backing the machine right along the fence line and flattening out the piles was quicker and better than raking. After I finished that job, I backed the machine out while dragging the leveler. It erased the track marks I left on the yard, and a bag of Scott’s grow-anywhere grass seed (plus encouragement to the homeowner to water) made it a lock that the grass would grow back.

Figure 7. If you do any lawn repair, a leveler/carry-all attachment enables you to leave the rake at home (top). And it’s hard to beat for moving material from the driveway to the backyard (bottom).
Figure 7. If you do any lawn repair, a leveler/carry-all attachment enables you to leave the rake at home (top). And it’s hard to beat for moving material from the driveway to the backyard (bottom).

With the forks on a subcompact loader, it’s easy to carry lumber from the point of delivery to the construction staging area (the leveler/carry-all can do this too). On a big job, this saves hours of walking. For something like a fence, I can spread materials around the site efficiently — without a helper. To make the most of forks, you need to sticker the lumber on 2-by at the minimum. To insert the carry-all, which is about 2 inches tall, under a stack, the stack needs to be stickered on 4x4s or doubled 2-by stock. Carrying the load low is ideal, but make sure you give long stock enough room to flex up and down as you drive over the terrain.

At gates, you usually have to lift loads over the fence while driving the machine slowly through. Room between property lines, buildings, cars, and the like is generally at a premium on my sites, so I constantly look from side to side to verify clearance. To balance a load, I center the machine as I pull up to the pile. While carrying, I tip the carry-all or forks back toward the machine so that vibration causes the load to settle back against the machine rather than slip forward.

If It’s Dirt, You Can Dig It

A subcompact loader is orders of magnitude better than a shovel for site-prep projects. Compared with a full-sized skid-steer, however, a subcompact might leave you underwhelmed. Subcompact equipment moves earth and moves it well, but the buckets are smaller and the power less than you’d want for cutting out umpteen cubic yards of grass and earth (Figure 8). Hauling in dirt to level sections of a yard: yes. Cutting out a steep bank for a retaining wall: yes. Excavating for a slab patio or hardscape: no question. But more than that and a larger machine is probably better suited to the task.

Figure 8. While you wouldn’t want to dig a house foundation with one, subcompact loaders handle the equivalent of eight to 10 joint-compound buckets of dirt at a scoop and make quick work of the light excavation common to deck building.
Figure 8. While you wouldn’t want to dig a house foundation with one, subcompact loaders handle the equivalent of eight to 10 joint-compound buckets of dirt at a scoop and make quick work of the light excavation common to deck building.

How you dig with the bucket depends on what you’re digging. In almost all cases, though, a toothed bucket is eminently more effective than a straight-edged bucket. Straight buckets are good for scooping loose material such as sand or gravel from a paved surface.

Scooping a bucket of mulch is as simple as dropping the bucket flat against the ground and driving into the pile. Stripping a mud-caked lawn takes leveling the bucket about 1/2 inch above grade and driving slowly — using the bucket like a massive spatula to peel up the mud. When I dig into a grass-covered hillside, I angle the machine and use the corner of the bucket to undermine the hill until I’m in soft dirt, then I go straight at it working from the top down. Stripping turf takes a couple of shallow passes to pierce the veneer of grass before you’re working dirt.

It’s best practice to carry loads as low as possible. That achieves the best balance, and if you lose something it doesn’t have far to fall — and it can’t fall on you, which is possible in certain scenarios.

When lifting loads — say of concrete and brick chunks — over the side of a dump trailer and trash container, the bucket’s angle to the ground shifts as the armature travels up in an arc (like when you raise a cup of water to your mouth without unlocking your wrist — the water eventually spills). A sudden jerk could dislodge chunks of concrete and sent them tumbling your way. The solution is easy: Tip the bucket forward to keep it level as you raise it (Figure 9).

Figure 9. When raising the bucket of a loader, it’s important to simultaneously lower the bucket’s angle. Otherwise, depending on how it’s loaded, there’s a chance that material could fall out toward the operator.
Figure 9. When raising the bucket of a loader, it’s important to simultaneously lower the bucket’s angle. Otherwise, depending on how it’s loaded, there’s a chance that material could fall out toward the operator.

Leave Room and Protect Pavement

You need room to store and access the attachments on the job site, easily a 10-foot-by-25-foot swath of lawn.

If you’ve got rocks and debris to remove, make a clear path to and around a trailer or trash container. Note: These units lift in the 50-inch range, so it’s not possible to tip their payload into a dump truck; drive-in Dumpsters are best.

Sources of Supply

Bobcat Company 800/743-4340; bobcat.com

Boxer Equipment 800/476-9673; boxerequipment.com

The Toro Company 888/384-9940; toro.com

Vermeer Corporation 888/837-6337; www.vermeer.com

Cover walkways or patios with at least 1/2-inch plywood to prevent cracking mortar joints or damaging stone work. Both tracks and wheels can mark a driveway, particularly concrete. On asphalt driveways where I’ve used these units, you can’t tell they’ve been there after a few months of weather.

Mark Clement is a deck builder in Ambler, Pa., a PDB contributing editor, and a member of the DeckExpo live presentation team.