The increasing popularity of compact excavators in recent years has brought with it a vast selection of models. Today, equipment manufacturers make enough different models that landscape contractors can choose one tailored to any need. So with all of these choices, how do you find the machine that’s right for you?

What to consider before reaching a final verdict on a compact excavator

By Tara Deering


The increasing popularity of compact excavators in recent years has brought with it a vast selection of models. Today, equipment manufacturers make enough different models that landscape contractors can choose one tailored to any need. So with all of these choices, how do you find the machine that’s right for you?


Ask the right questions

First, there are some important questions landscape contractors should ask themselves, said Tom Connor, excavator product specialist for Bobcat Company. One of the easiest questions to answer is whether you need a compact excavator. If you frequently rent a compact excavator or subcontract work performed by compact excavators, then you can justify adding one to your equipment fleet. “Generally, landscape contractors will find more uses than anticipated for the machine once it’s in their possession,” said Connor.

According to Connor, once you’ve determined the need for a compact excavator, you must ask whether a unit can perform the required tasks. Does its width and weight allow it to access required work sites? Do the lift capacity and digging power and depth of the excavator provide the performance needed on the job site?

“A landscape contractor should evaluate the anticipated tasks and select a machine that has the capabilities to perform those tasks with room for growth,” said Connor. “It is also important to investigate attachment availability in order to assure maximum utilization of the machine. Does the machine have an easy-to-use attachment mounting system? Is the machine designed and able to accommodate a hydraulic clamp? Does the manufacturer offer attachments, and does the dealer stock them?”

Size, power and performance

For most landscape contractors, size of the machine will be of great concern. Because many contractors work in confined residential areas, they need machines that can access hard-to-reach job sites. “A contractor needs to evaluate the anticipated work-site limitations, primarily width,” said Connor. “In general, midsize to smaller models appeal to the landscape industry.”

To help contractors access confined areas, some manufacturers offer compact excavator models with retractable undercarriages. The feature allows the operator to retract the undercarriage, pass through a gate or fence, and then expand the undercarriage when actually working.

Knowing contractors don’t want to sacrifice performance for size, equipment manufacturers are packing their smaller excavator models with more power. And for added digging depth, contractors can choose compact excavators with long-arm or extendable-arm options.

“For example, if lifting 1,000-pound objects will be a frequent, reoccurring task for the excavator, then one needs to select a machine that will easily accomplish this,” said Connor. “If minimum cover is 8 feet, then at an absolute minimum you should be looking at a machine capable of digging 10 feet deep to achieve decent production.”


Tail and house swing options

When compact excavators first hit the U.S. construction market in the mid-1980s there was only one kind of tail swing — conventional. But today, there are also excavators with zero tail swing and zero house swing, which give operators more unrestricted rotation and provide flexibility when working close to objects or against a wall. The zero-tail-swing feature significantly reduces the chance that the excavator’s tail will inadvertently contact surrounding objects, and a zero-house-swing excavator all but eliminates the chance of hitting the right and left front corners as well, said Connor.

Generally, a zero-tail-swing or zero-house-swing compact excavator of any given size will be wider than its conventional-tail-swing counterpart. If you anticipate routine work where you must pass narrow property lines, gates or fences, a conventional-tail-swing excavator may be a better fit for your equipment fleet. For example, the typical width of a conventional-tail-swing, 3- to 4-metric-ton compact excavator will be about 60 inches, whereas zero-tail-swing and zero-house-swing excavators with similar performance will have a width of about 70 inches.


All the features you want

Other popular compact excavator features include independent boom swing, slew function and easy-to-use attachment mounting systems. Independent boom swing enables the machine to dig parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing structure. This feature also allows the operator to dig on either side of an obstacle without repositioning. A compact excavator’s slew function gives the operator the ability to rotate and place spoil in the most appropriate location, minimizing the need to relocate the spoil.

According to Connor, each manufacturer offers its own type of attachment mounting system. When attachment changes are simple, operators are more likely to use the best bucket size and attachment for the job. This can mean improved fuel savings, faster job completion and less wear on your machine. Common compact excavator attachments include trenching buckets, grading buckets, plate compactors, hydraulic breakers and augers.

Contractors know that the more comfortable their operators are, the more productive they’ll be. “Compact excavator comfort is important to more and more buyers,” said Connor. “This trend drives manufacturers to increase operator space, enhance entering and exiting of the machine, and provide features such as an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning.”


Safety and maintenance

After deciding on the compact excavator’s size, power and features, many landscape contractors will compare machine safety features and ease of maintenance.

Manufacturers have incorporated several safety features in their compact excavators to protect operators. For example, control console lock systems avoid unintentional activation of the machine’s boom, arm, bucket, slew and travel systems, and a pedal lock prevents inadvertent operation of the boom swing function. Landscape contractors should also check if the compact excavator comes with roll over protective structure-rated cabs and/or canopies and retractable seat belts.

Safety features aren’t as effective if your operators don’t know how to operate them and the machine properly. That’s why you should make sure the manufacturer provides all of the tools and instructions needed for safe and proper operation.

No landscape contractor wants a compact excavator that makes it difficult to perform routine maintenance. When comparing compact excavator models, Connor suggested that you investigate to see if routine maintenance items can be easily accessed. He said you should look for a compact excavator that has easy access to your daily maintenance checkpoints, as well as scheduled maintenance items such as filters and fluid drains. Also, check to see if the machine has centralized grease points for the slew bearing, pinion gear and swing boom.


Demo the equipment

Above all, the best way to compare compact excavator models is to operate them. Not all compact excavators are created equal. Machines may appear to operate close to the same speed when sitting in a parking lot, but they might have completely different characteristics when placed under load. According to Connor, you shouldn’t rely on simple dry runs to determine your purchase. You should try your targeted excavators in real-life situations, such as loading trucks or trenching, because you may find some machine’s production and speed increase by as much as 30 percent over others — simply due to the balance between the hydraulic system and engine horsepower. Connor said these differences are not evident until you work the machine in real job-site situations.

“Ask the dealer to demo the machine,” said Connor. “Examine the machine’s operator comfort and visibility, ease of routine maintenance, accessibility to components if service is needed, and of course, performance.”


Tara Deering is a technical writer with Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.

Article provided by Bobcat Company, West Fargo, North Dakota.