This thing is just bloody awesome! Joystick control, zero radius turning circle, instant response – and such subtlety of control! Want to move forward smoothly and progressively by just 10mm? Easy! Want to go instantly from moving forward to doing a reverse 180-degree turn? No problem! Want the bucket lifted just a tiny touch? Done!
WTF? What car has a ‘bucket’?
No car – this is a Cat 226 B2 Skid Steer loader. And it’s one of the best fun machines I have ever driven…
It all started when we saw the people living across the valley getting a driveway built. Having so much earthmoving machinery in this rural village is a rarity, so I jumped on the phone and asked if the boss of the earthmovers would drop in to give me a quote when they’d finished for the day.
A quote for what then?
Well, I needed a 30-metre driveway constructed with the 32 tonnes of road base I’d had delivered – our existing dirt driveway was badly rutted. And then I needed some huge mounds of bark chips (about 10 cubic metres) distributed around our 1-acre block.
And then the big one: the concrete slabs of an old shed needed to be ripped up and taken away, and the site prepared for a new shed. The required pad (that includes the facility for a later carport) needed to be about 14 metres square.
It was dusk by the time the earthmoving man arrived to do the quote. He moved slowly, thought even more slowly and wrote down figures excruciatingly slowly. In fact, darkness had completely fallen as he started jotting on the back of an envelope. I got a torch as it took him – no bullshit – at least 15 minutes just to add up his figures.
And boy, did they ever add up!
When I saw him writing down numbers like $3,000 for this and $1,700 for that and $900 for another, I started shaking my head. The total quote? Something like $8,000! Oh, and that plus 10 per cent GST.
And the price just to remove the concrete and do the shed pad? Over $4,000!
I thought for just an instant he was trying it on, but then almost as rapidly realised he was serious. And that was that: what he was asking for was at least double the money we had available… and even then it would have been a big stretch.
“OK,” I said to my wife Georgina as the man drove off, “let’s go hire something and we’ll bloody well do it ourselves.”
I was thinking of hiring something like a Dingo digger (right), those small machines often used for landscaping works. They’re the ones where you walk along behind.
But when I talked to the hire company, they dismissed such an option.
“No, that’ll be too small for what you want to do,” they said. “What you need is to hire our Bobcat.”
That idea both excited and frightened me – I’d never driven anything like it. But that didn’t worry the hire company.
“They’re easy to drive,” said the hire man. “And you can take the 3-tonne tipper and use that and our plant trailer to get the Bobcat to your place.”
It all seemed a bit extreme – a 2.6 tonne Bobcat, a 3 tonne tip truck… and all with just me to operate them! But the price was right for two days – only $900 for both machines. Of course it depended on how much I could get done in that time, but hell, even if it took four days, $1,800 was an awful lot less than around $9,000!
Driving a bobcat
The night before, I was so excited I had difficulty sleeping.
I’d been looking at all the YouTube videos I could find on Bobcat driving – and there are some very good ones. Knowing I was hiring a Cat 226B, I also looked up the Caterpillar site and found an excellent, detailed safety video on the machine.
Bit still I couldn’t help but wondering… Would I lose control and demolish the house? Would I be so ham-fisted that I couldn’t lift a bucket full of road-base – let alone load a concrete slab into a tip truck? And would I even be able to get the Bobcat off the trailer?
As it happened, the last point proved not to be an issue. The hire company was one trailer short so they decided to deliver the Bobcat to me with another truck – all I had to do was drive home in the 3-tonne tip truck, something able to be done on a normal car license.
Furthermore, the man driving the delivery truck was also an expert Bobcat driver, and he could give me some tuition at my place.
However the tuition wasn’t quite what I expected.
“Watch me!” he said, as he started building my driveway. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, he hopped out, talked for a few minutes about the controls, and had me jump in.
At least, having watched the videos, I knew how to get in! When climbing in, always face the cabin, keep three points in contact with the machine, stand on the dedicated footholds, then swivel and plump your bum down on the suspension seat. And then: put on the lap seat belt, pull down the peripheral bar around your body, turn the key and start the turbo diesel, wait for the check lights to go off, and then press the handbrake release button.
My tutor yelled through the open window as I gingerly operated the two hydraulic hand levers, moved the hand throttle and occasionally pushed on the foot throttle. I trundled back and forth a few times, lifted the boom and rotated the bucket.
Then, after what seemed like 30 seconds and could only have been about five minutes, the man happily said: “Well, I’ll leave you to it. It only makes people nervous if I stay!”
And I was on my own.
Georgina, having expected me to undergo perhaps an hour of rigorous tuition, was staring at me open-mouthed as I revved the diesel and headed for the first pile of bark chips.
In my head was a mixture of the safety instructions from the video, and some that I’d also been told at the hire place.
Always keep the bucket low when moving. Always move smoothly. The bucket must be on the ground and tipped slightly forward before you can stop the engine and get out. And, following from that, if you lift too big a load and the machine falls forward over onto its bucket, you have to escape out the back window.
“I’ve only have to rescue one man,” the hire company man had said. “That guy was tipped completely on his nose and couldn’t get out through the back window.”
I’d chosen the bark chips to learn on as they were light (no tipping over, I hoped), it didn’t matter if I was a bit clumsy, and it was just a case of picking them up, taking them to a new spot and then dumping them.
I lowered the boom, tipped the bucket forward until the leading edge (you can see it from the cab) was just touching the ground, and pushed forward into the pile of bark chips. The bucket filled, I stopped, tilted the bucket backwards and then lifted the boom slightly. And there it was: a bucket full of bark chips!
At this stage I was using the two hand controls one at a time.
The left-hand control lever is moved forwards to go forward, backwards to go backwards, to the left to turn left and to the right to turn right. This is as straightforward as it sounds – until you are going backwards where you need to remember which way you want the front of the machine to move…
The right hand control controls the boom – pull backwards to lift the boom, forwards to drop the boom. Tilt the control one way to tilt the bucket forward, the other way to tilt the bucket backwards. On top of this joystick is a roller control that opens and closes the ‘jaws’ of the bucket.
On the floor is an accelerator pedal, and as I moved forwards with a full bucket of bark chips I pressed on this control to speed my progress. Manoeuvring was dead simple and I reached my destination, lifted the boom and tilted the bucket forward. And there was the pile of bark chips at their new destination!
Working for an hour, I moved bark chips around the block, gradually growing in confidence, speed and precision.
However, one thing I did need was a guide person: I soon got Georgina to work with me, showing where to put the next pile of bark chips and generally ushering me into place.
And if picking up the bark chips was easy, the precision with which the Cat could be guided was just breathtaking. At one stage I was manoeuvring past a clothesline (full of clothes!) and around a tree and brick border. The available room was tiny – and the Cat could do it with ease. Even as a mere beginner, I could move just centimetres at a time. The precision of control is really that good.
Next it was time to tackle the driveway.
As expected, the road base, a gravelly mixture, proved to be a very different load to the bark chips - was it ever heavy!
I picked up the first bucket-full and spun around just like I’d been doing with the bark chips. The little machine immediately told me by its feel that the polar moment of inertia had greatly risen – there was now a big weight stuck right out the front and once you started spinning, you wanted to keep spinning. Nothing untoward happened, but I realised that I needed to be constantly feeling what the machine was doing.
Carving-out the driveway and then spreading the road base on it also needed different skills: sprinkling the road base out of the bucket, then using the leading edge of the bucket dragged backwards to smooth it, then running back and forth over the new material to compress it.
I also used a technique the hire man had suggested: pushing the right-hand lever fully forward enables a ‘float’ function where the bucket rests on the ground but floats up and down with any undulations. With float enabled and the machine driven backwards, smoothing the ground is much easier.
It was the end of the day by the time I’d finished moving the bark chips and building the driveway. I was physically and mentally tired, but at the same time still absolutely buzzing with new driving experiences. In fact, that night I dreamt numerous different Bobcat driving techniques, my mind thrilling right through the darkness.
The next day, well, the next day was going to be a very different type of driving experience…
The concrete slabs
I knew the shed site was going to be very different – and it sure as hell was.
The original sheds comprised a hotchpotch of a main small shed and two lean-tos. The concrete in these areas was thin and old – I could easily break it up with a crowbar and sledgehammer. But at the front was a 6 x 6 metre carport that had concrete of a very different type. This was 100 – 150mm thick, reinforced with steel mesh and very, very strong.
I hired a Makita electric jackhammer to break up the big slab but it did nothing at all. I then hired a Stihl two-stroke concrete cutter equipped with a diamond blade and used it to cut the slab up into ~1 x 1.5 metre sections. Work out how many metres of cuts this is and you’ll see how large the job was – the cutter moved at about 10mm a minute!
So what does a 1 x 1.5 metre x (say) 120mm thick concrete slab weigh? Oh about 350 - 400kg! And what is the Cat designed to lift? Up to 375kg! Now the danger of tipping forward when lifting the slabs into the back of the tip truck was very real.
But what alters the ‘tipping factor’? I soon found out that it depended on a bunch of things. Firstly, a lot depends on how gentle you are with the controls: stop with a slight jerk, for example, and the lifted bucket carrying a concrete slab will just keep right on going! It also depends on how much the bucket is tilted. Roll the bucket forward as the boom is being lifted (so keeping the slab horizontal) and the load effectively moves further forward, increasing the overturning moment.
Loading the tip truck required great care and smooth control movement. However, with one slab I bit off more than I could chew and the Cat smoothly and slowly fell forward, the raised slab resting against the tip truck. Very gently reversing and lowering got me out of the jam, but it was a clear indication that the ‘bobcat falling forward’ warning was a practical reality. I got the concrete saw back out and chopped that piece in half…
It took a full day and a half to chop up all the concrete, load the truck (Georgina drove it and dumped the slabs and some soil in a local farmer’s erosion gully) and roughly level the shed site.
That brought the tipper hire time up to 2.5 days, and we returned it at that point. We decided to keep the Cat for another half day to better finished off the site (and to also carve out a patio area – what you can do with these machines!) before the hire company came back to pick it up.
And for the final smoothing, using a laser levelling system, we hired the expert. He took about three hours to get the final touches right.
Including the final site levelling by the expert, buying fuel, hiring the laser levelling system and jackhammer and concrete cutting saw and tipper and Bobcat, the total cost was less than one-third the original quote.
But that kinda ignores the best aspect of the whole thing. Driving the Cat 262 was just an absolute blast, one of the pinnacles in my driving experience. Precision, coordination, danger, skill, fun, excitement, challenge, satisfaction…..
I just can’t wait to hire it again!