Wheel Loaders: What Types of Construction Loaders Are There?

If you're interested in becoming a heavy equipment operator, a front-end loader is a popular place to start. They're common, versatile, and a little less complicated than other types of equipment.

What is a Loader?

A loader machine is a type of heavy equipment used in construction to move soil, rock, debris, and other loose materials, often with the goal of dumping the material in a truck or container. The body is essentially a tractor.

While some loaders come with a single fixed attachment for a specific kind of work, most front-end loaders now come with removable attachments that make them extremely versatile.

There are different types of loaders, but loader machines in general are often referred to as front loaders, wheel loaders, bucket loaders, dirt loaders, or payloaders.

In addition to construction, loader equipment has applications in other industries like agriculture, landscaping, mining, and more.

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How are Loaders Different From Similar Heavy Equipment?

Loader machines have significant overlap with other kinds of earthmoving or materials-moving equipment.

To a layman, bulldozers and wheeled loaders may look alike, but they have different applications. Dirt loaders or payloaders are designed to carry and lift material, while bulldozers push material along the ground. Unlike wheeled loaders, bulldozers can be used to level and grade a site.

Excavators and backhoe loaders both have a scooping arm to dig up and move ground materials, but excavators are single-purpose. Excavators are usually capable of moving much larger loads than a backhoe. They're also better at pivoting – their construction makes rotation faster, more precise, and more flexible (360° for excavators vs 200° or less for backhoes).

Wheel loaders can be fitted with forklift attachments, which can be a good solution when you need to move pallets of material on rough terrain. A proper forklift needs a flat, hard, smooth surface, but it's more compact, more maneuverable, and gives you more precise control to adjust the position of the load.

How Much Does a Front Loader Weigh?

It depends heavily on the type of loader. Small or compact loaders can weigh as little as 2,000 lbs, while the largest loader on the market is 260 tons.

The front loaders on construction sites are usually between 10,000 and 80,000 lbs, but heavy construction can require large loaders with an operating weight over 100,000 lbs.

Types of Loaders

To someone who's new to construction, front loader categories can get kind of confusing. That's because there are a few ways to split up types of loaders. You can divide them by the job-specific equipment that's attached or by the body design that dictates how they move. There's a lot of mixing, matching, and overlap.

Insider shorthand makes it more confusing since it's partly based on how loader equipment has developed over time. In other cases, people use brand names to describe a type of vehicle. "CAT loader" is short for Caterpillar.®

Front Loaders vs Backhoe Loaders (and Other Attachments)

Loader equipment is often called a front loader or front-end loader because it has a scoop or bucket mounted to the front side of the vehicle.

Sometimes the term is used to describe wheel loaders in general, but often "front loader" is used to distinguish single-attachment machines from backhoes.

A backhoe is essentially a front loader that has an excavation arm on the back end. Sometimes you'll hear them called a backhoe loader, but "backhoe" is more common. It's also possible to attach a breaker or hammer to the excavation arm to make hard ground easier to work.

As we said earlier, wheeled loaders often have job-specific equipment that can replace the bucket. As a result, front loader" is sometimes used to describe the earthmoving attachment itself. In many models, it can be replaced by anything from a stump grinder to a grapple.

Compact, Small, Medium, and Large Wheeled Loaders

Loader equipment comes in a range of sizes that serve different purposes. Size is mainly determined by the amount of material it can lift, but the overall vehicle size, horsepower, and lift height usually increase in proportion.

Small and compact loaders have can handle loads of 1-2 cubic yards. They're popular with landscapers but also have applications for construction in tight spaces or small jobs.

Medium wheel loaders are the most popular for general construction with a bucket size of 3-5 cubic yards. They can handle a heavier load than small models (in addition to taking more volume).

Large models with even bigger capacities are used for heavy-duty lifting. They're typically seen in heavy construction projects and industrial settings. They have the most powerful engines.

Wheeled Loaders vs Track Loaders

Wheeled loader or wheel loader is often used to describe bucket loaders or payloaders in general. That's because the first models were based on a tractor, which made them different from vehicles with continuous tracks like bulldozers.

These days, loaders sometimes have tracks (and bulldozers sometimes have wheels), so in addition to the general meaning, "wheeled loader" is also used to distinguish models with tires from models with tracks.

Loaders with wheels travel at higher speeds with better visibility, and they don't tear up paved surfaces the way that tracks tend to. This makes them a favorite for urban construction and jobs with longer transport distances.

But tracks are still around for a reason. They perform better on slopes because they have a lower center of gravity and more surface area for traction. Tracks also don't get bogged down in softer ground the way that tires do.

Skid Loaders vs Wheel Loaders

Just in case that was too easy, "wheel loader" is used in one more context – as a label for loaders that steer like a normal tractor, not like a skid loader.

Wheeled loaders steer like a regular vehicle – the tires turn and push or pull the vehicle forward. As a result, you have a minimum turning radius that limits motion in tight spaces.

Skid loaders – often called skid steers or Bobcats® after the popular brand – turn differently. The tires are fixed facing forward, but the tires on the left and right can be controlled independently. They steer by skidding, usually with one side locked in place and the other side in motion.

This system lets a skid steer operate in extremely tight conditions and turn quickly back and forth "in place." They're made for moving materials within a close radius – they can't lift loads very high and the steering mechanism makes them too slow to transport loads over a distance.

Just like wheel loaders, skid steers may sometimes have tracks instead of wheels.

Track Loaders vs Multi-Terrain Loaders

Speaking of tracks, not all tracks are alike. There are two main types with different applications.

Compact track loaders (CTLs) and multi-terrain loaders look very similar from the outside. The differences are mainly in the undercarriage.

Compact track loaders are less expensive and more common, but they can still sink into terrain that's too soft. They perform better than tires, but the ground should be at least semi-solid, like gravel or clay.

Multi-terrain loaders exert less weight per square inch than a CTL so they're the best bet for extremely soft surfaces, like snow, wet sand, mud, and boggy ground. Their ability to "float" makes them a better choice for lawns or garden beds. They provide the best traction, as well, so they're the safest choice for severe inclines.

How to Safely Operate a Loader

Front-end loaders can be dangerous to the operator and everyone around them without the proper precautions. You need to learn how to avoid tipping or rolling and how to protect the people around you from being hit by the vehicle, struck by the payload, or pinned against another object.

As an OSHA-authorized online training provider, we can help you learn the safety fundamentals for operating a front-end loader. Enroll in our 1-hour online course today!

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