Stop Trouble Before it Starts

As compact utility loaders continue to gain popularity, contractors are depending on them for more and more applications. To complete all of the tasks that a compact utility loader is used for, many contractors keep them running from sun up to sun down. With so many projects dependent on one machine, a breakdown can greatly affect the progress of a job, and the more time a repair takes, the more it will affect a crew's productivity. Therefore, it is essential that operators know how to detect and properly fix problems when they first appear to prevent larger issues that require more time and money to fix.


Being aware of how a compact utility loader operates is the most important factor in determining if a problem exists. The operator has a large responsibility in detecting anything unusual about the machine and properly reacting to any observations, such as rattling noises or jerky operation. Following are some of the most common telltale signs of problems that require immediate attention.

One of the most obvious indications of a problem is a smoking engine. A smoking engine is usually a sign of burning oil. Gasoline engines will usually produce white smoke, while diesel engines will produce black smoke. In either case, it is important to have the engine inspected immediately.

White smoke coming from an engine can also be a sign of a fuel problem and should be inspected. Additionally, a compact utility loader that sounds as though it is running out of gas even if gas is in the tank may indicate a problem with the fuel system.

Grinding sounds often signal a problem that you should address immediately. If you hear grinding, check and grease the pivot points immediately. However, grinding is often an indication that damage has already been done and parts will need to be replaced.

In addition, jerky operation or chattering noises are usually signs of hydraulic problems. If a chattering noise is heard, it most often is an indication of damage done by water in the hydro system. Jerky operation can be a sign of a problem with the hydraulic system that should be addressed by a trained mechanic.

Not only is detection important, but also knowing how to address the problem is critical. Many repairs can be performed by the owner with the help of manufacturer's resources such as manuals and specially designed Web sites. However, it is usually suggested that a trained mechanic, dealer or manufacturer handle engine or hydraulic system repairs.


While knowing how to react to compact utility loader problems is essential, the best way to address problems is to prevent them by developing a proper maintenance schedule. One of the first steps a contractor should take when forming a maintenance schedule is to consult the operator's manual. While many maintenance steps are suggested for almost all compact utility loaders, maintenance intervals and steps will differ for each machine because of variations such as engine type.

Regardless of the type of compact utility loader, one of the most important daily maintenance items is a check of all nuts and bolts. Compact utility loaders are often required to work in tough conditions that make them vulnerable to problems associated with loose parts. Taking time each day to look over the machine for loose nuts and bolts can drastically reduce repairs and replacements.

While checking for loose parts, an operator should also inspect the hydraulic lines for leaks. This quick daily check can save a contractor a great deal of money and hassle. A quick visual check under the machine will offer warning signs such as dripping oil or components wet with an oily substance. Small hydraulic leaks can quickly grow into large leaks that are expensive to fix and can cause damage to a customer's property. If a problem is discovered, find out where the substance is coming from and replace or tighten the leaking part.

Greasing all pivot points is another important daily maintenance step for all compact utility loaders. Because parts rub against each other and friction occurs at these points, it is important to protect them with frequent greasing. Making sure all pivot points are properly greased reduces wear and extends the life of components.

Additionally, the wheels or tracks on the unit should be inspected daily. An operator should check air pressure on a wheeled unit and track tension on a tracked unit. At this time, an operator should also check the wheels or tracks for wear. If working with a tracked unit, the road wheels, or boogie wheels, which the track runs on should be examined. Checking these items for wear is especially important if the machine is being used in an area with a lot of concrete or blacktop surfaces, which cause more wear than mud or grass.

One of the most important daily maintenance steps is cleaning and checking the air filter. An operator should clean an air filter with dirt or dust buildup by blowing on the filter from the inside with an air compressor. If an air filter is deformed, torn or clogged with dirt, it should be replaced immediately to prevent damage and keep the engine from running in a rich condition, which can cause spark plugs to foul and carbon to build on push rods.

Engine oil is another important element in a daily maintenance schedule. Running a compact utility loader with an insufficient amount of oil can cause serious engine problems and drastically reduce the life of the machine. If oil needs to be added or changed, an operator should refer to the manufacturer's specifications on items such as oil viscosity and how much oil to add to the machine.

Not only is it important to perform maintenance before work begins, but it is also equally important to clean the machine at the end of each day. Washing the machine provides operators with an opportunity to inspect the machine for damage, and mud that is not washed off can harden and cause damage to moving parts when the machine is restarted.


In addition to devoting time to daily maintenance checks, several items should be addressed on a weekly, monthly and time-specific basis. Belts should be checked weekly. The belt tension should be tight with a ¼-inch deflection at most, and a belt showing any signs of glazing or cracking should be replaced.

Check the fuel filter on a weekly basis. A mechanic or operator should look for signs of water in the fuel, and drain fuel with water present, especially when dealing with a diesel machine.

Another weekly maintenance item is a check of the hydraulic oil and filter. Because any dirt allowed into the tank can lead to pump damage, the area around the fuel tank opening should be cleaned before opening the tank. Hydraulic oil that is a milky color is an indication of water in the hydro system and should be drained immediately. Water molecules in the hydro system will turn to steam as the system heats up, causing damage to the pump and wheel motors.

The fuel system and hydraulic system not only require weekly maintenance but also time-specific maintenance. Perform a check of the fuel tank and entire fuel system for cleanliness monthly, and change the hydraulic oil and filter approximately every 400 hours. Check the operator's manual for specific replacement intervals.

Spark plugs also require time-specific maintenance. Spark plugs should be checked every 100 hours for excessive carbon buildup, porcelain damage and a proper gap. Replace spark plugs yearly or if a spark plug is cracked or damaged.

Furthermore, check the battery every 100 hours. Any white corrosive buildup on the battery should be cleaned off as it robs a battery of power. The battery connection needs to be checked to prevent problems with charging the battery as the machine runs and starting the machine.

Some of the most important maintenance steps are not done for the machine, but rather for the operator's safety. Before performing any repair or maintenance, the operator should shut down the machine, remove the key and place the key in a safe location to prevent the machine from starting. To prevent accidental starting while working on electrical problems, the battery should be disconnected. An operator should also use all built-in safety features, such as cylinder blocks. The most important requirement is to be alert and use common sense.

Contractors demand a lot from their compact utility loaders, and it is essential to follow a maintenance schedule to keep the machine in good working condition to meet all of these demands. However, the easiest way to increase the life and performance of a unit is not done before the workday starts or after it ends. Practicing proper operating techniques such as operating the machine smoothly, traveling with loads in a safe position and being aware of surroundings are the easiest preventive measures contractors can take to keep the machine in top shape for many years.

Fred Hemmer is a field service manager with The Toro Company (Bloomington, Minn.).

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