When they first hit the market in the mid-1970s, compact excavators were perceived as "cute" machines. Although popular in Japan and Europe, these mini dirt diggers didn't garner much respect in North America early on. Then contractors began to see their potential for working in tight spaces. Now, with the availability of more attachments -and features that enhance those attachments -compact excavators are gaining tremendous market share. In fact, acceptance has increased to the point where some contractors prefer a compact excavator over the king of dirt diggers, the backhoe-loader.
"Contractors realize how versatile and powerful a compact excavator is," says Keith Rohrbacker, product manager at Kubota Tractor Corp. "They see how much work they can get done, and how much money they can make. People have stopped laughing and have started using them."
With this in mind, read on for why you might want to make compact excavators a bigger part of your rental inventory.
According to Mike Ross at Takeuchi Mfg., compact excavators are one of the top three growth areas for the construction industry the past five years running.
"The fact that they're growing in popularity isn't even a question," adds Kendall Aldridge, national sales manager at IHI Compact Excavator Sales. "There are a lot of different applications for them -everything from concrete and basement foundation contractors to utility companies and grave diggers."
More attachments equal increased utilization
As their popularity has grown, compact excavators have continued to evolve. "Manufacturers are making these smaller excavators with the same functions and features of the larger 30,000- to 40,000-lb. excavators," says Aldridge.
A "given" from many manufacturers is auxiliary hydraulics as standard equipment. Auxiliary hydraulics make it possible to use hydraulically powered attachments such as thumbs, breakers, augers, swivel buckets and brush mowers, all of which are gaining in popularity.
Several companies, such as Kubota and Takeuchi, are also making auxiliary hydraulics easier to use by moving control from the feet to the hands to free up floor space and improve efficiency and productivity. Komatsu is boosting flow rates -by as much as 40 percent -to further accommodate attachment usage and overall ease of operation. These manufacturers also offer quick couplers to simplify the transition between different attachments.
This evolution in attachment capabilities is enabling compact excavators to take advantage of an ever-growing list of available attachments. Manufacturers have moved beyond the basic bucket to breakers, thumbs, grapples, even ditch mowers, trenchers and underground borers.
"Attachments offer more variety," says Bob Lessner, product manager at Komatsu America Corp. "Productivity is increased because contractors now have faster, more efficient options to complete tedious tasks. Costs also go down because one machine with numerous attachments can complete the work that was previously performed by numerous machines. Attachments can also reduce tedious hand labor, since attachments like breakers are much more efficient than laborers with jackhammers/sledgehammers, etc."
Rohrbacker agrees. "If you can rent a narrow bucket or hydraulic hammer, you don't have to purchase a special machine. Attachments have certainly increased this machine's versatility. A compact excavator can do so many more things on the jobsite. Even basic tasks are improved with the use of different attachments, most of which are easy to maintain. Once you have that versatility with increased productivity and reliability, coupled with low maintenance, you've increased the value of the whole package."
While manufacturers are offering more unique attachments, buckets remain the most commonly used item. In response, manufacturers are offering a greater selection of bucket types and sizes.
"Buckets are still a standard item," says Aldridge. "Every machine we sell comes with one. But now we sell a lot of different sizes."
An alternative to bigger diggers
One of the reasons for the compact excavator's rise in popularity has been its ability to fit into small places, and to dig and dump without having to move.
"Property lines are getting so close," says Rohrbacker. A recent trip to Oregon illustrates that fact. "For new home construction, they only need 5 ft. between the fence and the side of the house... A compact excavator can work in tight spaces where a backhoe-loader can't. While each still has its place in the construction industry, the compact excavator is very often replacing larger, conventional machines."
John Walker, vice president of CEDS Construction Co. Inc., a licensed utility contractor in Cumming, GA, prefers to use compact excavators even though he maintains about eight backhoe-loaders for larger projects, such as gas main installations in residential subdivisions and business parks.
"The compact excavator has helped us improve productivity and reduce costs," he says. "In the past, when we installed gas services to single-family residences, a typical crew consisted of a line truck, a trencher and a backhoe-loader. Now a lot of our work has shifted to multi-family projects. In these cases, we just use a line truck and a compact excavator."
Walker uses the compact excavator in place of the backhoe-loader because it has a smaller footprint for getting in and out of tight places. Plus, since the small excavator runs on tracks, it can move in more difficult terrain without getting bogged down.
"These machines have really gained tremendous popularity in our region," he adds. "Where we used to see everyone with backhoes, now we see them with compact excavators."
Eddie Flack, president of Kilowatt Electric Co. in Pompano Beach, FL, also appreciates the easy transport of a compact excavator. He moves his six Komatsu compact excavators with a flatbed truck and 12,000-lb. trailer.
"We needed a smaller, more compact machine to move around residential neighborhoods," he says. "With today's housing, lots are getting smaller and homes are getting larger so we just didn't have the room to maneuver a large backhoe-loader.
"These machines are just so versatile," he continues. "We use them on small and large jobs, trenching anywhere from 20 to 300 ft."
Flack uses an 18-in.-wide bucket, and occasionally attaches a breaker when he encounters hard rock areas. His machines are also zero tailswing models that further enhance his ability to work in tight spaces.
"Zero tailswing models are handy in heavily populated areas because [the operator] can dig and work without worrying about hitting a tree or someone's house," says Aldridge. "But we choose to offer both zero tailswing and conventional machines because a conventional-style machine is a bit less costly and still works great in more open areas. It's really about application."
Replacing dedicated machines
Some operators are also using compact excavators in place of dedicated trenching equipment.
"If soil is clean and soft, a trencher works well, and time and expense for chain maintenance is quite low," Rohrbacker points out. "But not too many guys are blessed with those conditions. They have rocks, tree roots and old debris to cut through. With a narrow bucket, they can just dig through it all."
Jeff Morgan at Snapping Shoals Electric Utility in Covington, GA, appreciates the trenching capabilities of Kubota's new line of compact excavators equipped with optional hydraulic angle blades. He relates that they have been able to reduce downtime with fewer breakdowns and increase productivity by getting jobs done faster.
"With as many jobs as we do, if we had stayed with trenchers, we would have had to sub the work out," he says.
Snapping Shoals digs and backfills 40,000 ft. of trench each month. Before purchasing the new compact excavators, it relied on trenching machines. Due to the rocky soil conditions, the trenchers routinely broke down and cost the company in repairs and downtime. "All total, the lost time averages seven-plus hours per breakdown," says Morgan. If teeth need replacing, that takes another six.
Backfilling with the angle blade has also improved productivity because it allows for backfilling while traveling in one direction, rather than repositioning the machine. A simple movement of the dozer blade lever raises and lowers the blade, as well as adjusts the angle of operation.
"This adds up to huge time savings," says Rohrbacker. "Some customers have told us it cuts backfilling time by two-thirds."
For CEDS Construction, compact excavators have eliminated the need for a trencher altogether. "With land prices going up, home builders are trying to squeeze as many houses as possible onto an acre of land so houses are getting closer to the road," says Walker. "Where we used to have 150 ft. of gas service line from the street to the house, we now may only have 70 ft. With the compact excavator, we can dig it out just as quickly as a trencher, backfill and go on to the next job."
But the compact excavator's versatility doesn't stop there. Walker says he will also occasionally place a boring motor on the excavator's backfill blade. The boring motor is powered by the auxiliary hydraulics to bore underneath sidewalks or roads. This eliminates the need to bring in more expensive dedicated boring equipment.
It's obvious that contractors are taking compact excavators seriously these days. And with these machines being used for so many different things, rental businesses have a unique opportunity to tailor a compact excavator rental exactly to their customer's needs. With the right combination of attachments and some creative direction from you, your customers can make the most out of your compact excavator fleet.