Trenching, digging, dozing, levelling, mounding, shaping, piling and loading — when it comes to shifting earth, excavators can do it all. And choosing the right one can allow you to increase productivity and expand your business.
The range of sizes of excavator, along with their capabilities, is huge. To optimise performance, you need to consider carefully the type of work and volume of earth to be moved. That will indicate the appropriate size of machine and suitable attachments. But don’t forget about how the excavator will be transported and the access available to the type of sites you usually work.
These days there is a growing band of mini- and micro-excavators ideal for garden constructors needing to move equipment into rear gardens. Those with retractable undercarriages are even capable of "breathing in" to pass through narrow doorways.
Small machines are also agile and tend to have the upper hand when it comes to working in confined spaces. With less weight and reduced ground pressure, smaller machines are suitable for landscaping work where there are slopes or where the soil is fragile. They also boast remarkable cycle times — being quick to complete the scoop-raise-swing-dump-return movement.
Ease of transport is another advantage of smaller excavators but all these factors need weighing against the size of the job. A machine that is too small for the job is unlikely to cope with the weight of the work
— the job will take longer and profits will be squeezed.
The ground conditions of the sites you are hoping to work should be considered when deciding between tracked and wheeled equipment. Tracks have lower ground pressure, give greater traction and are highly manoeuvrable; but wheels provide mobility and speed, and they tend to cause less damage to driveways and pavements.
The latest wheeled machine from JCB is the Mini CX compact backhoe — everything you would expect from JCB but in miniature. For on-site movement it has a forward speed of nine kilometres per hour and weighs 1,500kg.
Where work is likely to be alongside or close to fences, walls, buildings or landscape features, it is worth considering the advantages offered by zero tail-swing excavators. These excavators need the least amount of room in which to swing because the rear portion of the machine does not extend beyond the footprint of the track. One of the latest zero tail-swing machines from Bobcat is the new conventional drive 430. Completing the 430/435 family of excavators, users can choose from either conventional drive or Bobcat’s FastTrack drive system if they need to work around barriers and obstacles.
Speed of transport tends not to be a major consideration unless it is likely that the excavators will need to work on several plots across one site or where the machine will have to be unloaded some distance from the site.
Speed of changing the buckets and attachments, however, is relevant. Every minute spent trying to change attachments is time lost on the job. It is wise to ask for a demonstration so you can check the procedure involved. Similarly, you should find out about the other tools available — grabs can be handy for loading waste, stump grinders may expand your business opportunities and you may find uses for breakers and tampers.
Performance and productivity are strongly linked to operator comfort. The cab is usually the first thing that any long-term excavator user will inspect. And they will expect a warm cab in winter but a well-ventilated one in summer. They also expect a comfortable, adjustable seat and to have all the controls and pedals in easy reach. Radio communication can be an advantage to enable the driver to maintain contact with colleagues elsewhere on the site.
The reputation of the manufacturer, back-up and support of the dealer are all important with high-investment pieces of kit. Check that spare parts are readily available and that the machine is as simple as possible in terms of daily and pre-start checks. Consider service intervals and who will carry out servicing.
If you are considering outright purchase of an excavator you have the choice of new or second-hand. This is likely to be determined by the perceived regularity of use and the immediacy of the jobs to be done but a new machine will be largely free of costly repairs in its early years — although inspections and servicing remain a priority. Finance packages are always worth investigating.