So many jobs start with digging - from construction and utility work to paving and landscaping - that all kinds of businesses rely on full-sized excavators for their day-to-day operations. Independent contractors with one excavator as well as large construction firms with a fleet of several agree that they're one of the most useful pieces of construction equipment you can buy.
All manufacturers define their segments slightly differently, but there are three general classes of excavators to consider. Standard full-sized excavators range from about 20,000 lbs and 75 HP to 80,000 lbs and 220 HP, or from around 10 to 40 metric tons.
Many manufacturers also offer high-end machines that top 150,000 lbs and 400 HP, but these huge machines are far beyond most buyers' needs. At the opposite end of the size spectrum, mini excavators provide great digging power in small packages - down to 3,000 lbs and 15 HP, and at much lower initial and operating costs. Read our Mini Excavator Buyer's Guide for more details.
This BuyerZone Excavators Buyer's Guide provides all the essentials you need to know before buying a full-sized excavator:
- How to choose the right size
- What features to look for
- How to choose a seller
- How much you can expect to pay
Once you determine what best fits your needs, we can provide you with free custom quotes from multiple excavator sellers in your area.
As you begin the process of comparing excavators, the first step is to familiarize yourself with the specific features and attachments available. The great thing about an excavator is the extensive range of options you have, enabling you to select the tool or tools that will make any job easier, safer, and more successful overall.
Excavator Features & Attachments
An excavator consists of a cab, an engine, dual bulldozer-like tracks or treads, a boom arm, and an attachment.
- The cab, where the operator sits, can pivot 360° on top of the tracks. Cabs also function as enclosed roll over protective structures (EROPS).
- The diesel engine provides propulsion power for the tracks and powers the hydraulic systems that run the arm and attachments. New machines must meet the EPA's Tier III emissions standards, but older machines are exempt from those requirements.
- The undercarriage includes steel tracks to move the machine around, along with the sprockets and rollers that guide and propel the tracks.
- The boom extends from the body of the vehicle and connects at an elbow to the stick that holds the shovel or other attachment.
- The attachment does the actual work. Most excavators come with a standard bucket - a toothed scoop for digging into dirt or gravel - but can support many other types of attachments.
Buckets and other attachments
Switching between multiple attachments lets you get much more use out of your excavator. Different sizes and styles of buckets are used for different types of digging:
- Heavy duty and severe duty buckets for rock
- General purpose buckets for less demanding work
- Specialized pavement removal buckets
- Tilt buckets that allow you to control the side-to-side angle of the bucket for grading or digging slopes
- Sorting buckets help to quickly separate large rocks from loose material
Other common attachments include augers for boring holes and thumbs for pinching or gripping, as well as hydraulic hammers, rakes, rippers, and mulchers. Most excavators are used for one or two dedicated tasks, but the flexibility is there for more niche applications.
Some excavators use "quick attach" couplers that make it much easier to switch between attachments. If you intend to swap attachments frequently, a quick attach coupler can save a lot of time at the job site.
- Monitoring systems. Computerized monitoring and control systems can help you get the most out of your excavator. They can be programmed to provide the optimal hydraulic flow for different attachments or types of work, which improves performance and reduces fuel costs. Diagnostic systems track fuel usage, operating costs, and maintenance needs, helping to find and fix problems before they cause real damage.
- Power boost modes. Each manufacturer's power boost system works differently, but essentially these modes allow you to balance the power available to the boom, bucket, and tracks to best match the type of work you're doing. Some detect the type of work being done and automatically transfer power; others require manual selection of a work mode.
- Backfill blade. Smaller excavators may come standard with a backfill or bulldozer blade that attaches below the boom. This makes it easy to refill and level after you're done digging, without having to change attachments.
- Climate-controlled cabs. Cabs with heat and air-conditioning go a long way toward keeping operators comfortable and productive.
- Anti-vandalism features. If you'll be leaving your excavator at job sites overnight, look for one that allows you to lock the controls to prevent vandals from damaging the machine or your work.
Now that you know what the machines are capable of, it's time to apply that knowledge to your job. Your next step is to consider the requirements associated with your facility and the terrain in which you'll operate the excavator in.
One of the challenges in buying an excavator is deciding what size machine you need. Here are three sizing considerations to keep in mind:
- How deep and far do you need to dig? Excavators have rated "dig depths" - the limit of how deep they can dig - from around 18 to 26 feet. "Reach" is the horizontal distance the bucket can work. Both are important, so be sure to evaluate your typical jobs so you know the depths and reach that you'll need out of your excavator.
- How much should it weigh? Full-sized excavators can weigh from 10 to 50 tons or more. (Mini excavators range from under two tons to over six tons.) If minimizing damage to landscaping is important to your business, lighter machines are beneficial. Smaller excavators can also be towed behind a standard pickup truck without the need for a commercial driver's license.
- How high do you need to dump? Dump height measures how high the bucket can lift to deposit materials into a dump truck. It's less critical than dig depth in most cases, but it can be important in some applications. Dump heights commonly range from around 15 to 20 feet.
A related but less critical consideration is the physical size of the machine. Measure any narrow gates or other confined areas you want to be able to drive the excavator through, and you'll have an upper limit on how large a machine you can buy.
The best approach for the long term is to buy an excavator that meets your needs without too much excess capacity. In addition to costing more up front, larger machines cost more to operate even when they're doing the same work.
Once you know which models meet your size requirements, you'll want to compare additional attributes that can vary from one excavator to another.
- Controls. Most new excavators feature "pilot hydraulic" controls. These ergonomic joysticks are a vast improvement over the old-style mechanical levers: they're easy to learn and comfortable to use for extended periods of time. There are two common control styles for excavators - and many machines will let you switch between the two. Make sure the model you choose offers the control pattern your operators are familiar with.
- Ergonomics. An operator who is comfortable throughout a long shift is going to be more efficient and productive. Make sure the seat is adjustable in multiple ways, controls are easy to reach, and entering and exiting the cab are easy. In addition, check visibility, both for work (in the trench) and for travel (around the tracks, front, and back).
- Ease of use. "Feel" is important, but it is impossible to judge from sales pitches or brochures. You should definitely take the machines you're considering for a "test dig." If possible, let the primary operator try out different models for comfort, responsiveness, and visibility.
- Maintenance. Check how easy it is to access the engine and hydraulic systems. Also, ask for a demonstration of how to perform routine preventative maintenance such as filter changes, fluid top-offs, and lubrication.
Choosing a Seller
One important aspect of an excavator purchase is independent of the machine itself: choosing a sellership that will stand behind your excavator and make sure you get the most out of your investment.
Specifically, make sure the seller you choose can provide excellent service and maintenance. The more responsive and competent the service department is, the fewer breakdowns you'll have and the less downtime you'll experience when you do have a problem.
Here are some questions to ask to make sure you get a good sense of the seller's expertise:
- How long have you been in business?
- Do you have a significant amount of parts inventory for this excavator?
- How many technicians do you have? What is their training and experience like?
- Do you do on-site service if my excavator needs repairs?
- Will you handle scheduled maintenance if I need it?
- Do you have guaranteed response times?
Definitely visit the seller's facility - don't be content ordering over the phone or on the Web. Simply seeing the parts warehouse and service areas can give you a good sense of the seller's capabilities.
If you're new to buying excavators, take every advantage of demo opportunities. Having an excavator delivered to your site for a demo will give you the best sense of how it handles and if it's suitable for your applications. Buyers who have more experience with different brands may not need a full demo, but they should still take the time to try out new models.
Get referencesWord of mouth is an important measure of the overall quality of a construction equipment seller, so talking to other businesses in your area can be very useful. Talk to your contacts and get their opinions on the sellers you're evaluating.
You can also ask the seller for customer references, preferably customers with applications similar to yours. When checking references, you can ask questions such as:
- How long have you been a customer of theirs? How many machines have you purchased from them?
- Did you get the right machines for your applications?
- Has the seller done a good job with maintenance and repairs?
- Would you buy from this seller again?
- What could the seller improve about the operation?
Lastly, trust your instincts. A pushy seller who seems more interested in selling you the "deal of the day" than in understanding your needs and providing the best solution for you is one you should avoid. Helpful and knowledgeable salespeople are a good indicator of a sellership that will be a worthwhile partner in the long run.
Excavators are one of the most expensive pieces of construction equipment you can buy. So it's critical to have a solid understanding of the price ranges for new and used machines. These cost estimates are compiled from current BuyerZone customers and our leading national sellers throughout the United States.
Excavators are one of the most expensive pieces of construction equipment you can buy. New full-sized excavators can cost $100,000 to $500,000 and more. Those costs send many buyers looking for used machines, but even used excavators can cause sticker shock.
The most common sizes, around 15 to 20 metric tons (33,000 to 44,000 pounds), typically range from $120,000 to $200,000 new; 10- to 15-ton machines can be from around $90,000 to $150,000; and 30- to 40-ton excavators may go for $250,000 to $350,000.
You'll usually get one bucket included with your purchase, so make sure you get one that matches your primary application. New buckets in additional sizes can cost between $700 and $5,000, depending on the size and intended use. Powered attachments like thumbs and hydraulic hammers can cost $5,000 to $10,000.
Considering the substantial cost of new excavators, buying used machines can be a smart way to save money. Life spans of up to 8,000 or 10,000 hours are typical, and many used models are available with plenty of reliable operating life ahead of them.
That doesn't mean a used excavator will be cheap, though. Two- to three-year-old models with 1,000 hours of use on them can cost about 25% less than new models, but even that discount would only bring a 20-ton excavator down from $250,000 to $187,500.
Be careful of heavily discounted excavators. While older excavators with more wear can be found for as much as 50% off new prices, the reliability and expected life spans of these models really start to suffer. A $30,000 excavator may offer short-term savings but won't provide the performance you expect in the long run.
When evaluating used machines, demos are even more important than they are with new machines. Pay attention to the overall feel: do the tracks run freely in both directions? Do the boom and stick respond well to the controls? Are rotation and travel smooth and consistent?
Don't be impressed by a fresh coat of paint - while that can mean the seller is paying attention to detail, it can also sometimes mean they are hiding other problems. Look for fresh welds and other signs of repair.
Inspect the undercarriage and bushings for excessive wear, rust, and shoddy repair work. Look at the hydraulic seals for signs of leaks or other problems, and check the engine for signs of neglect (cracking hoses, worn belts, etc.).
Renting is a great way to gauge the power of an excavator without committing to a purchase. It can also be a smart course if you only need to use one sporadically. Excavator rental prices can range from 20,000 to 40,000 lbs can be $3,000 to $5,000 per month, while machines from 40,000 to 75,000 lbs are typically $5,000 to $8,000 per month.
Most sellers will offer a range of maintenance contracts and/or extended warranties to choose from. If you're buying a new excavator, these generally aren't worth the cost: you can do the basic preventative maintenance yourself, and the manufacturer's warranty will cover the rare mechanical breakdown.
If you're buying a used excavator, the extra protection of a maintenance contract can be a better value. Just having expert technicians inspect and lubricate the machine once or twice per year can help prevent small defects from developing into larger problems.