New innovations in batch mixers make small projects quicker and easier.

Cell phones and digital cameras seem to halve in size every year. And concrete mixers are following that trend now as well, as a new breed of mixers with capacities of a yard or less make their way to jobsites nationwide.

Tow--behind mixers will always have their place, but contractors on their way to pour a sidewalk or a small slab can now travel lighter, use less material and – with features including poly drums – be cleaned up and on their way home after simply smacking the flexible drum a few times with a rubber mallet to dislodge the residue.

The trend may have originated in Europe, where small batch mixers have been in vogue for years, according to Nick Taylor of Belle Group Inc. Belle Group offers a full line of small mortar and concrete mixers. In Europe, the micro mixers come with capacities as small as 2.5 cu. ft. Stateside, Belle Group’s Mini 130 and Mini 150 feature a capacity of 3 cu. ft., electrical or gas power and a poly drum for easy cleanup.

“Here in the states, we will have other products featuring an even smaller mixing capacity,” Taylor says. “In Europe, smaller mixers have been the thing because they don’t have the wide--open spaces we have here. And that might become more of a factor in the United States as well.”

Also driving the trend toward smaller concrete mixers is the contractor that might have only an occasional need, according to Taylor and other experts.

“Tow--behind mixers are becoming awkward and cumbersome,” Taylor says. “These home improvement shows on TV are broadening people’s minds. But contractors are also seeing that this is a neat thing. They don’t need a big truck.”

“Someone can rent one of our 3--cu.--ft. mixers for about $35 to $50 a day,” says Warren Faler, product manager for mixers at Stow, a division of Multiquip. Stow offers the PortoMix, a 3--cu.--ft. mixer with a 3/4--hp electric motor. “Or a contractor can buy one and use it maybe once a week and it pays for itself in a hurry.”

But the president of one mixer manufacturer discounts the current trend.

“We do see a bit more of a demand for smaller mixers,” M--B--W Company president Frank Multer says. M--B--W’s niche is mortar and plaster mixers, but the company also offers a line of trailered concrete mixers ranging in capacity from the 6 to 12 cu. ft.

“With minimum charges and the higher price of cement, it is understandable that contractors want to avoid waste. But as the price of concrete comes back down, we expect that component of the market will disappear.”

Concrete or mortar mixer?

Multer wonders to what extent the diminutive mixers are simply mortar or plaster mixers under a different name. Mixers can be used generically in the field for a number of different things. Mortar mixers may have been used for small--batch concrete patch jobs.

“These tools are universal and are used by everybody,” Multer says.

Bruce Klassen of Crown Construction Equipment, another manufacturer of mortar mixers and tow--behind concrete mixers in the 6-- to 9--cu.--ft. range, agrees with Multer.

“I am sure they use pea gravel in our mortar mixer,” Klassen says. “They could be using it for tons of things.”

“I have seen mortar and concrete mixers used for everything from fertilizer to grinding coffee beans,” Faler says.

But what separates the current breed of diminutive concrete mixers from their mortar--mixing brethren seems to be the accessories that allow for rapid--fire use in the field. The stand is perhaps the most important feature, allowing the small mixers to be used as wheelbarrows and facilitating the pour.

Stow’s PortoMix includes pneumatic wheels and a mixer stand that allows it to discharge materials from a variety of positions.

“It is our stand that makes our Mini 130 and Mini 150 into serious production machines,” Taylor says of the Belle Group product line. “We will not sell our mixers without the stand. It is the stand that allows you to use the mixer as a wheelbarrow to the pour site while you mix your next batch.”

Tools or toys?

But stand or no stand, do the smaller mixers have what it takes to survive hard use on the jobsite?

“With both concrete and mortar mixers, over the last three decades, the product has been lightened and cheapened to the point that it has affected the lifespan of the machine,” Multer says. “This is a very price--sensitive market.”

According to Faler, there may be some truth to Multer’s remarks about the durability of a segment of the small mixer category.

“People are looking to cut costs, especially with the price of steel,” Faler says. “We see some mixers come out of China -– and you use them once and throw them away.”

But Faler says his own product line – with enclosed gearboxes and UL--CSA--approved, grounded motors –- can handle life on the job.

Other purveyors of the pint--sized products point to overbuilt construction and thoughtful design, claiming they also have the right stuff. Ingersoll--Rand’s CM Series of mixers features reinforced steel frames, Honda engines and speed taper roller bearings.

Taylor of Belle Group stresses that the line’s double--insulated motors make them extremely durable vs. competitors given that water is used in mixing and clean--up.