Minimizing Fuel Costs for Compact Loaders and Skid Steers

Morbark’s Rayco 1800AWL articulated loader sports a 24.8-hp Kubota D1105 diesel engine. The company recently changed the gasoline engine in its Boxer 375 from a 20.5-hp, carbureted, gasoline engine to a 25.0-hp, electronic fuel injection (EFI) engine for a 25% fuel savings. Photo courtesy of Morbark.

The little brutes – compact loaders and skid steers – are hardworking, labor saving and economical to be sure, but in day-to-day operations, there are ways to economize further with them, especially with the painful rise in fuel costs. For this article, we found there are a lot of little things, some free, that add up to significant savings.

Take, for example, Morbark’s Boxer line of compact loaders. “We have recently changed the gasoline engine in the Boxer 375 from a 20.5-hp, carbureted, gasoline engine to a 25.0-hp, electronic fuel injection (EFI) engine,” says Jason Showers, Morbark’s director for tree care products. “The EFI engine boasts 25% greater fuel economy than the smaller, engine previously used, giving it greater onboard power, quicker recovery and improved fuel efficiency.”

Fuel preservation

Even at that, he adds, “Additional ways customers can preserve fuel is to take a more methodical approach to the job site and plan equipment movements. For example, if using the machine to clean up a tree care work site and feed a chipper, instead of grabbing one piece at a time, wait until multiple pieces are on the ground that can be collected to reduce the number of trips back and forth.

“Additional fuel savings can be had by shutting the machine off when not in use, versus long idle or wait times,” Showers maintains. “While the individual work-site fuel savings appear minimal, over a period of time, the fuel usage and savings add up and become noticeably more substantial.

“Obstructed filtration systems, bad fuel or water in the fuel can lead to additional engine laboring, generating additional fuel waste,” Showers says. “A small step to put into practice is, before refueling equipment, to make sure the fuel fill area is cleaned prior to removing the fill cap to avoid unwanted contaminants from entering the fuel system.

“Another important consideration is the proper maintenance of bulk-tank fuels when used,” Showers observes. “Often, larger companies can benefit from reduced fuel costs by utilizing bulk (storage) tanks; however, it is important to maintain bulk tanks to make sure the tanks are clean and the filtration systems are in good operating condition, ensuring the fuel is clean entering the equipment.”

Best burn

Brant Kukuk is compact-equipment product manager at Ditch Witch, maker of six models of stand-on mini skid steers (all diesel) and one ride-on, wheeled model (gasoline powered). He agrees, as do others contacted for this article, that the quality of fuel is critical, not only to ensure the best burn for the engine, but also to ensure that adulterated fuel does not contribute to early wear, which can significantly affect fuel efficiencies and possibly lead to premature engine failure.

Over-tensioning tracks on a loader taxes the machine so it consumes more fuel, says Brant Kukuk. Photo courtesy of Ditch Witch.

He cites the company’s version of separators that remove moisture from fuel. “It is important for the operator to always drain water and be watchful to ensure that water is out of the fuel.”

Water in diesel fuel may have nothing to do with the environment in which the machine operates or with operator care and maintenance, according to Kukuk. ‘Sometimes you get water right out of filler nozzles. Today’s machines are smart enough to recognize and aide in the removal of water, so it’s critical to be vigilant and follow manufacturers’ instructions.”

He offers the following, referring solely to the company’s tracked skid steers, but this maintenance-based concept may have relevance in other areas. “Over-tensioning (the tracks) taxes the machine so it consumes more fuel,” Kukuk says. “The looser tracks are, the less horsepower and fuel are required, and there is less wear on the machine.” He warns about tracks being too loose and stresses that “proper tensioning of tracks is a big deal.”

Referring to others’ comments on wasted fuel from idling, Kukuk states that, while he does not have significant quantified research on the subject, “I have done some research on engine controllers and looked at the diagnostics. Mostly I see 50-60% idle time – operators jumping off to do something while the engine is running.” In his estimation, and based on the numbers, operators can save up to a quarter of their fuel costs just by turning off the machine. He adds, “Diesel engines run best and most efficiently when they are hot. Idle time is bad for those engines and consumes more fuel than needed, even idling for only a few minutes.”

Best operating practices

Trevor Koolmees, sales manager for Vermeer Environmental Equipment, agrees that, with respect to improving/increasing/preserving fuel-consumption rates, “A lot will be maintenance related, but also related to user practices. Managing fuel costs comes down to making sure mini skid steers are well maintained and operated appropriately. Good maintenance practices as outlined in a mini-skid-steer’s operator’s manual will help ensure a mini-skid-steer loader (operates) as it was designed to. Missing scheduled preventative-maintenance intervals, such as oil changes, impacts the machine’s fuel efficiency.

Missing scheduled preventative- maintenance intervals, such as oil changes, impacts the machine’s fuel efficiency. Photo courtesy of Vermeer.

“Also, how a mini-skid-steer loader is operated throughout the day can impact fuel consumption,” Koolmees stresses. “Running full throttle when the application doesn’t require it can waste fuel. So, too, can aggressively turning when conditions do not demand that kind of operation.”

He introduces another concept that starts long before the job. “Another way contractors can better manage their fuel costs is by choosing a mini-skid-steer loader sized for their needs. Higher-horsepower machines burn more fuel. So, if a contractor doesn’t need the extra power or lift capacity, it’s better to choose a smaller unit.

“Regarding fuel quality, contractors should always review their operator’s manual to determine what type of fuel the manufacturer recommends,” he warns. “There are many gas options available for over-the-road vehicles; most small-engine manufacturers recommend avoiding (gasoline and) ethanol blends.”

Throttle management

Buck Else, northern Midwest territory sales manager for Giant Loaders North America, notes that the company “offers one model of skid steer and 10 different articulating loaders. Each model is available in different boom configurations, and one is available in electric. We offer Kubota diesel engines in all models. In addition, we offer an electric drive available in the G2200E.”

“Limit a wide-open throttle to only when necessary, and shut the machine off as often as possible, eliminating any idle times that exceed one minute,” says Buck Else. Photo courtesy of Tobroco/Giant Loaders.

For fuel savings, he echoes the sentiment to “limit a wide-open throttle to only when necessary, and shut the machine off as often as possible, eliminating any idle times that exceed one minute.

“Depending on engine size, it’s not uncommon to burn a half to one gallon (of fuel) per hour at idle,” Else explains.

By this assessment and prior statements that machines spend up to half their time at idle, what is that cost per week or year? Assuming a 40-hour work week, half of that, or 20 hours, at idle at a half to one gallon per hour would be 10 to 20 gallons a week in unnecessary fuel consumption. At $4 a gallon, that is $40 to $80 per week, which equates to $2,000 to $4,000 a year (50 weeks).

As an aside, and to compound the situation a bit, Else reports that machines idling in cold weather use more fuel.

To help with the fuel-consumption issue, Else notes, “The Giant machine engine does not need to be run at full RPM to efficiently operate. Our drive systems are designed similar to those of a passenger vehicle. The throttle pedal works as an engine-accelerator pedal and hydrostat pedal simultaneously, using less fuel when you are traveling at slow speeds and not hauling heavy loads.”

Battery power

Regarding electric models, Else says, “Tobroco (Giant’s parent company) currently offers one electric model, the G2200E. We have two additional electric models in R&D, with future plans to release electric options for all Giant loader models.”

As an alternative to fuel-powered machines, Else says, “Electric loaders have pros and cons. Pros are extremely quiet operation, programmable speeds and proportional controls, instant torque, higher travel speeds, no engine oil, filters or coolant – helping to lower maintenance costs – no fuel costs and zero emissions. Cons are that our G2200E has a six- to eight-hour run time per charge, and the initial investment can be 40-60% more than a diesel loader.”

However, he concludes, “Electric-powered machines are receiving more and more attention as fuel costs skyrocket and emission standards increase. Both factors are pushing the electric models up on the priority list for development.”

Plan for growth

Were it up to TNE Distributing’s Harry Fleegel, in dealer development, he’d offer a different take on limiting horsepower at the time of purchase, recommending a bit more power than just what one needs. TNE is an importer and dealer of the Cast line of loaders and a stand-on skid steer.

It is extremely important to understand what machine size fits your company, its mission and its target for future jobs. Photo courtesy of TNE Distributing.

Admitting he is a proponent of “more power is better,” Fleegel explains his reasoning this way. “There’s no replacement for displacement (engine size),” he quips. “Of course, buy what you need, but you also will need to plan for growth. The machine may be too big today but too small next year, depending on how the business grows.”

But along the way, as Fleegel explains it, people often don’t realize that “if you run a larger (displacement) machine at 50% throttle, versus a smaller one at full throttle (to get the same work done), know that the smaller one is likely to use more fuel. Of course, if you run them both at full throttle, the large machine will use more fuel.”

He says he finds, “If you constantly run too small a machine at 100% to get every ounce of power out of it, you’ll likely be dumping in more fuel,” adding that one has to weigh all the pieces of the equation. “A small machine may be perfect for the next 10 years. You may find yourself having to go from a 25-horsepower range to 35. And you may buy the biggest right out of the gate, only to realize that you may not need it.”

In the end, he says, “It is extremely important to understand what machine size fits your company, its mission and its target for future jobs. This will allow you to work on jobs efficiently and will help you land jobs in the future. If you have a machine small enough, this will make you stand out for future compact jobs. If you have a machine big enough, this will make you stand out for future, larger-capacity jobs. Understanding what machine is correct for your company’s mission brings the opportunity to cut back on waste and consistently reach maximum potential.”

Fleegel agrees with every point made thus far on routine maintenance, especially oil, as well as checking vital fluids and tire pressure prior to startup, and comes down hard on the idling question. “An operator must understand where they can save fuel while running a machine.

“Cast Loaders offers an Electric 800 Series Loader. This machine is very quiet, and the battery offers an autonomy of up to four to four-and-a-half hours, depending on the intensity of use.” Furthermore, he states, “Cast offers an electric model for the Worky-Quad stand-on skid steer, the SSQ EcoQuad-S. This new, fully electric machine, with an autonomy of up to seven hours, has been designed to fully respect the environment. The sweeper in the collection is one of the most-used accessories for cleaning squares, sidewalks and private areas.

“Electric-powered compact-loader/skid-
steer machines will continue to gain more interest in the industry,” he maintains. “At the moment we would choose diesel for loaders, but as electric loaders continue to develop, we see the potential for this to make a mark on the industry.”

ABCs of fuel management

Kyle Cartwright, marketing manager for Toro, says the company’s compact-utility-loader portfolio “ranges in size from 500-pound-rated operating capacity, starting with our wheeled models, all the way up to 2,000 pounds with our tracked Dingo TXL 2000. That includes the new Dingo TX 1300.”

Preventative maintenance, smart operation and idle reduction will reduce fuel waste when operating compact loaders, such as Toro’s new Dingo TX1300, shown here. Photo courtesy of Toro.

Cartwright supports the three-part foundation for reducing fuel waste: preventative maintenance, smart operation and idle reduction.

Adding to the mantras of the others interviewed, he says, “Contractors should always use the recommended engine oil and keep track of when an engine is due for regular tune-ups. Additional best practices include using a fuel stabilizer or conditioner to keep the fuel fresh during storage, clean the engine while it runs and eliminate gum-like varnish build-up in the fuel system.” And, he underscores, “For best results, always use clean, fresh fuel.

“One of the primary trends we’re seeing for the tree care market as it pertains to equipment,” Cartwright says, “ is arborists needing to do more with less. Many arborists and tree care contractors are looking to optimize their equipment fleet with smaller, nimbler and more productive equipment.

“For example, both (mini-) skid steers and compact track loaders have been popular equipment options for the industry; however, many tree care professionals are now looking at smaller equipment options with comparable lifting capacities as a substitute for their bulkier cousins that consume more fuel. For more than two decades, Toro has manufactured the Dingo compact utility loader, and, with the launch of the Dingo TXL 2000, compact utility loaders are now rivaling – and surpassing – the lifting capacities of some skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders.”

Toro’s take on electric compact loaders, according to Cartwright, is, “As emissions regulations continue to evolve, many contractors are looking for ways to meet environmental regulations, and battery-powered equipment is often the answer. Having battery-powered equipment opens the door to working on unique applications, such as in highly populated urban areas with noise ordinances. For these types of jobs, battery-powered equipment offers contractors more flexibility and easily increases productivity and efficiency when compared with manual hauling.

“As the industry looks to the future, rugged battery-powered equipment is certainly a part of the picture,” Cartwright says. “Toro launched the revolutionary e-Dingo 500in 2020. It provides an unprecedented combination of power, versatility and durability, and it’s safe to say that this battery-powered e-Dingo doesn’t sacrifice quality or performance. Toro engineers wanted to build the e-Dingo to allow tree care professionals and arborists to reap all the benefits and power of a standard compact utility loader with zero engine exhaust emissions.”

While it’s obvious these “little brutes” can do a lot of work and perhaps offset labor shortages in some ways, it also should be obvious by now that seemingly small changes in behavior can add up to large savings in fuel. In this economy, every dollar counts.

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