9 tips for buying a wheel loader

Neil Dowling
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It all comes down to applications, features you need on the machine, and the support you will get post purchase

Wheel loaders are incredibly versatile machines that are used in a wide range of industries including construction, recycling, mining and farming, just to name a few.

If you're looking to get a loader for your operation, getting it right the first time is crucial, as with any other big-ticket investments. But with such a massive market and so many brands to consider, where do you start?

Looking within your budget is a good starting point but there are so much more to consider. Let us break them down for you:

Start with the applications

There are several different types of wheel loaders on the market - compact ones for use in residential areas, for example, and then there are the massive mining and quarrying machines for use to load and unload rocks. So, choosing the right type to suit the kind of work you will be doing is of utmost importance.

A good place to start is making a list of the jobs you may execute with the wheel loader you intend to buy. Try and be flexible - if you’re a contractor you will have to have a versatile machine that can do different tasks in order to maximise your potential to get work.

Pick a size and power

Now you have an idea of the type of loader you might need, size and power matters. Determine how much power and weight you need. If you need a machine to load a truck, for example, you will want to get the job done as quickly and with as few passes as possible so power and capacity need to be top of mind.

If you mainly work on building sites on residential areas where space is limited, a smaller articulated machine would be more ideal.

The performance of a machine is directly related to how much power the engine has and in turn, the volume and pressure of hydraulic fluid that can be pumped through the hydraulic system. Hydraulic flow is measured in litres per minute. As an example, a 260kW wheel loader with an operating weight of 38,000kg can have a hydraulic flow of 320l/min.

How much hydraulic flow you need depends on the application and the attachments you will be using. Standard flow hydraulics will be enough to operate buckets or forks but if you might use some more demanding attachments such as augers or snow blowers, you will need more than a standard flow. Dealers often supply loaders with high flow hydraulic options so be sure you are asking for the right one.

Determine the capacities

While wheel loaders are versatile machines, they are mainly used for stockpiling and materials handling purposes and are more often than not used with a GP (general purpose) or 4-in-1 bucket attachment.

Therefore, knowing what size buckets, how much you can carry safely and how high you need to lift are important, so the things here to look out for are the load capacities, lifting capacities, lift height and bucket sizes.

You need to match the bucket size to the power output and hydraulic flow of your machine to ensure it will do the job properly. Bucket sizes range from about 2m (in width) with a 1 cubic metre capacity to a mining spec bucket with up to 40 cubic metres in capacity.

Naturally, the smaller loaders have shorter reach heights and larger ones have higher lifts. So if you might be doing a lot of lifting in your job, for example stacking pallets or loading into high sided trucks, then pick a suitable sized wheel loader. It is worth noting that if you need extra lift in your job but don’t want a loader that might be too big for your operations, there is a specific linkage arm – the extended reach type- that will help give you that extra boost. More on that later.

Lift capacity, also known as Safe Working Load (SWL) or rated capacity is another key spec to look out for, which is the load you can safely lift at full lift height. Remember, the centre of gravity shifts when you lift a load and the last thing you’d want to happen is the machine tipping over if you lift a load that’s too great for your machine to handle.

Comfort and simplicity is everything

Generally speaking, you shouldn’t go for anything that’s complicated to drive. Wheel loaders should be kept simple and if you find yourself fumbling with the controls a fair bit, chances are that’s not the right machine for you.

As much as tech plays a huge role in machine nowadays and they do make operators’ lives much easier in a lot of ways, too much of it can be unnecessary and could even lead to faults and downtime.

Will the machine be used by different operators? If so, then it is even more important to get a machine that’s easy to use. That will save extra training time and cost, but may also prevent accidents and mechanical damage that will put a big dent in your pocket.

If you will have several operators using the wheel loader, make sure you get one with a decent sized cab with adjustable seats and steering etc to suit individual requirements. That will make sure you and your operators are comfortable with the machine. After all, a comfortable operator is a productive operator.

Climate control is another feature to look out for. If you are working in hotter regions such as Queensland, good air-conditioning matters more than heating abilities.

Articulated or fixed frame?

Articulated loaders have a pivot joint in the middle of the frame to reduce its turning circle and is therefore more ideal for work in tighter spaces such as in urban building sites. Another scenario where an articulated loader may come in handy is loading or unloading trucks parked on roadsides with little room for manoeuvring. Some articulated loaders have four-wheel steer to further reduce the turning circle.

Fixed-frame machines, on the other hand, have a rigid frame as its name suggests which makes manoeuvring sites trickier but are still able to do what its articulated sibling can.

Articulated machines are more expensive than their fixed-frame counterparts and require more maintenance so you should consider the balance between cost and versatility and factor in how much work will be done in tight conditions.

Pick the right linkage

Each manufacturer will produce wheel loaders with different linkage arms for different purposes but the most common one on the market is the Z-bar, named for the ‘Z’ shape formed by the tilt cylinder, level and link of the arm.

The Z-bar is the most suitable for most applications, but it is worth noting that the Z-bar arm has better breakout digging force which makes it more suitable for bucket work ie digging and loading.

Other arms on the market include extended reach/high lift arms and a tool carrier configuration. Extended reach arms give you that little bit extra reach and lift height which comes in handy if you need to lift a fair bit or load into higher trucks.

Tool carrier, or parallel lift linkage, is best for materials handling purposes such as lifting pallets or bales with a fork. Therefore, tool carrier loaders are perhaps more common for agriculture or warehouse use.

Aftersales support is key

There are plenty of brands in the wheel loader market meaning buyers are spoilt for choice. In addition to the well-known brands of Caterpillar, Komatsu, CASE and John Deere, just to name a few, an increasing number of competitors from Asian markets, particularly China, are slowly gaining traction in the local market.

Whichever brand you choose, pick one that offers strong aftersales support with service and repair premises close to where you normally operate. The well-known brands are generally well placed for back-up but don’t dismiss the lesser-known manufacturers who may be able to offer equal service in a bid to grow their business.

While cost understandably plays a major factor in your purchasing decision, it must be balanced with the reputation of the brand, quality of the product, and the aftersales support, warranty and spare parts back up you will receive.

What attachments?

As mentioned, buckets are most commonly used with wheel loaders for stockpiling and loading purposes, however loaders can be used with a wide range of attachments for various applications.

Here are some of the most common attachments that can be used with a wheel loader that you should consider purchasing along with your machine:

Buckets

Buckets come in a variety of sizes and designs to suit varying applications. The type of bucket will depend on your chosen area of work and the size of the bucket will depend on what you plan to move. Keep in mind not just the size of the material but density as well, so pick one based on the heaviest material you will be shifting.

Bucket styles include 4-in-1, general purpose, high dump, light duty, and rock. According to attachment manufacturer, Kerfab, the most versatile attachment for multiple applications is the 4-in-1 bucket that takes up to 1600kg/cubic metre for loads such as gravel, rubble and sand. It said this bucket can be used as a standard bucket and because it opens from the centre, materials can be dumped without tilting the bucket, allowing for dumping from a greater height. It can also be used as a grab by closing the bucket on objects and as a blade by opening the bucket fully. This bucket can also be optioned with teeth.

Forks

This is the second most common attachment used with wheel loaders and are used for materials handling purposes.

Some common uses include handling and stacking bales on a farm, moving pallets around warehouses, or even moving car bodies in a wrecking business using longer fork tines. Kerfab manufactures a series of fork attachments including rotating ones, forks for log handling, grape bin lifting forks, floating adjustable pallet forks and more.

Blades

Operators can equip wheel loaders with blades to use them almost like a dozer to spread, grade or clear materials. Some types of blades on the market include grass rakes with forks, grain pushing blades and more.

Grapples

Grapples are claw and jaw like attachments often with teeth like structures designed to grab, lift and release material. Some applications for grapples include handling cars in wrecking yards, landscaping (moving rocks and logs), forestry (moving logs of wood) and construction (moving building materials).

Buy, rent or lease

Wheel loaders don’t come cheap so you should probably consider different options, such as renting or leasing. If the loader will not be used very frequently within your business, will it be a smarter move to rent instead?

However, with increasing competition in the market especially from China, customers can often nab a brand new small wheel loader with attachment packages thrown in for less than $26,000.

Many manufacturers and dealers often have finance and insurance offers in place so make sure you do your research and ask all the right questions!

It is important to also speak to your accountant about tax implications or incentives such as the Government’s generous beefed up instant asset write off scheme.

9 tips for buying a wheel loader