Introduction to Mini Excavators
Weighing in at 2 to 6 tons, mini excavators are anything but “mini.” Also known as compact excavators, these machines are used for a wide range of applications ranging from forestry, utility work, ditch digging, and demolition to grading, brush cutting and landscaping.
Roughly the same size as a skid steer loader, compact excavators feature a heavy-duty arm mounted on a set of bulldozer-like tracks, enabling them to effectively tackle digging applications in smaller environments. This BuyerZone Mini Excavators Buyer's Guide provides all the essentials you need to know before buying or renting, including:
- Basic features
- How to choose the right size
- What features to look for
- How to choose a seller
- How much you can expect to pay
After you determine which one is best suited to your needs, we can provide free custom quotes from multiple mini excavator sellers in your area.
Mini Excavator Basics
A mini excavator consists of a cab, engine, dual bulldozer-like tracks or treads, a boom arm, and an attachment. But there's one of these components that deserves more of your attention than the others.
The cab is where the operator sits. It typically pivots 360 degrees on top of the tracks. The diesel engine provides propulsion power for the tracks and powers the hydraulic systems that do the digging. The steel or rubber tracks move the machine around the work site, even on loose or muddy ground. And the boom, the arm that holds the attachment, provides the digging power.
But it's the attachment that does all the actual work. Most excavators come with a standard bucket – a toothed scoop for digging into dirt or gravel – and support many other types of attachments, including brush mowers and mulchers.
One of the biggest challenges in buying or renting a mini excavator is deciding what size machine you need. Here are five sizing considerations to keep in mind.
Since one of the primary advantages of a mini excavator is its ability to fit within tight spaces, the most basic consideration is the physical size of the machine. Measure any narrow gates or other confined areas intended for operation and you'll have an upper limit on how large a machine you can accommodate.
A close second to machine size is how deep you need to dig. Mini excavators have rated "dig depths" – the limit of how deep they can dig – ranging from 5 feet to over 14 feet. Dig depths of 5 to 7 feet handle the vast majority of all utility, landscaping and basic residential construction. However, the most popular mini excavators have dig depths of around 10 feet.
You may also need to consider dump height, the measurement of how high the bucket can lift to deposit materials into a dump truck. Dump height is less critical than dig depth in most cases, but can be important in some applications. Dump heights commonly range from around 5 to 10 feet.
Overall weight can be important. Mini excavators range from just under 1 ton to over 10 tons (full-sized excavators weigh up to 50 tons). If minimizing the damage inflicted on costly turf and landscaping is important to your business, lighter machines provide reliable durability while effectively preserving environmental surroundings due to their lighter footprint.
Plus, smaller excavators can be towed behind a standard pickup truck without the need for a commercial driver's license, greatly simplifying transportation to and from work sites and reducing costs associated with the pickup and return of rental equipment.
Lastly, you'll need to know how wide a trench you want to dig. Bucket sizes range from 9 to 36 inches and often feature a 45-degree tilt in either direction for deluxe models. As a general rule, larger excavators are required to lift larger buckets. Due to their wide range of applications, 24-inch buckets are consistently the most popular.
Once you know which models meet your size requirements, compare some of these additional attributes that vary between excavators.
- Controls. Most new mini excavators feature "pilot hydraulic" controls. These ergonomic joysticks are a vast improvement over the old-style mechanical levers as they're easy to learn and use for extended periods of time.
- Ease of use. "Feel" is important and 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. Maintenance costs for mini excavators are the lowest of all comparably-sized equipment but they still need regular maintenance and cleaning. 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.
Mini excavators are extremely customizable. This enables sellers to fit you with a machine that will provide the optimum combination of productivity and safety by incorporating some or all of the following features.
Mini Excavator Features
Mini excavators offer virtually identical features and options to their larger cousins. The only real difference between mini and full-size excavators is scale. Here are some of the features you should evaluate.
Unlike other types of compact equipment, they are almost exclusively available with diesel engines. Electric mini excavators do exist, but they're very rare and tend to be on the lighter end of the scale, typically featuring shallow digging depths and low horsepower. Plus, though they include cords of 75 feet and longer, they still have to be plugged in. In contrast, a diesel rig should give you a day to a day and a half's use on a single tank.
- Horsepower. Are you digging in sand or similar loose soil? Or is your job site filled with rocks or hard debris? As with any piece of machinery that draws on the power of a combustion engine, the details of your job impact the amount of power required to complete each task successfully. Horsepower for most models will range between 10 to 50 hp, largely dependent upon the weight of the rig.
- Tracks. Both steel and rubber tracks are popular on mini excavators. Steel tracks are more durable and provide good traction on loose dirt. However, on pavement or landscaped areas, rubber tracks do a much better job at reducing surface damage. For example, a
rubber-tracked mini excavator can drive right over a curb without crushing it.
Bolt-on rubber pads that operators can affix to steel treads offer a reasonable compromise. This gives you the strength of steel tracks but lets you switch to the less-damaging rubber pads when needed.
- Attachments. Switching between multiple attachments provides more use out of your mini excavator. Different sizes and styles of buckets are used for different types of digging. Other common attachments include augers (for boring holes), thumbs (for pinching or gripping) and hydraulic hammers. Some mini excavators even use the same "quick attach" couplers as skid steer loaders, allowing you to share attachments between the two. (For more information on Skid Steer Loaders, read our Buyer's Guide.)
- Many compact excavators offer boom offset or swing booms, a popular feature that moves the entire digging arm left or right of center. This allows the excavator to dig a trench parallel to its own tracks, ideal for tight quarters next to existing walls or structures.
- Travel speed. Obviously not designed for drag racing, most models are capable of traveling 1 to 3 miles per hour. In addition, some come standard with preset 2-speed travel, enabling the operator to move under slower speeds while carrying a full bucket or heavy objects.
- Zero tail swing. Compact excavators with zero tail swing (sometimes called "compact radius" excavators) can rotate their cabs completely within the width of their tracks, preventing the operator from ever bumping anything with the "tail" or back part of the cab.
- Backfill blade. Many come standard with a backfill or bulldozer blade that attaches below the boom, making it easy to refill and level after you're done digging without having to change attachments.
- Enclosed cabs.As with skid steer loaders, enclosed cabs that shelter operators from the elements are becoming much more popular on mini excavators – especially for those operating in extreme climates – and commonly include heat and air conditioning.
- Anti-vandalism features. If you'll be leaving your excavator at job sites overnight, look for compact excavators that allow you to lock up the controls, quickly and easily preventing theft and vandalism.
Mini excavator sellers specialize in construction and landscaping projects, both large and small. But not every seller is equally suited to the scope and scale of every job.
Choosing a Mini Excavator Seller
When buying a mini excavator, you're creating an ongoing relationship with the equipment seller. The seller provides the support that keeps your machine running smoothly, so it's important they're reputable, stable, and can provide top-notch service.
Some important questions to ask when evaluating mini excavator sellers:
- How long have you been in business?
- What kind of parts inventory do you keep on site?
- How many technicians do you have? What is their training and experience like?
- Do you do on-site service if my excavator needs repairs?
- Do you have guaranteed response times?
- Do you provide loaners if my excavator needs to be taken in for service?
Also, you should try to visit the seller's facility. Simply seeing the parts warehouse and service areas can give you a good sense of their capabilities.
Get the scoop
Talking to other businesses in your area can be a great source of insight into sellers' strengths and weaknesses. Connect with your peers to find out where they turn for compact construction equipment, then get their opinions on the sellers you're considering.
You should also ask the seller for customer references, preferably from customers with applications similar to yours. When checking references, ask:
- How long have you been a customer? How many machines have you purchased from this particular seller?
- Did you get the right machines for your applications?
- How has the seller performed with respect to maintenance and repairs?
- Would you buy from this seller again?
- How could the seller improve their level of service or operation?
Lastly, trust your instincts. A pushy seller who seems more interested in selling you the “deal of the day” as opposed to understanding your needs and providing the best solution is one to avoid. Helpful, knowledgeable salespeople are a good indicator of a sellership that will be a worthwhile partner in the long run.
Mini Excavator Pricing
New mini excavators are not cheap. They range from $19,000 at the low end (around 2 tons) to anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000 for the largest models (6 to 8 tons). However, when you stack this next to a full-size excavator’s cost – $130,000 to $500,000 – the compact models look like a bargain in comparison. See what other BuyerZone users have paid for both new and used mini excavators.
A typical $20,000 model will provide dig depths of 4 to 6 feet and dump heights of 5 to 7 feet. It will weigh around 1,500 to 2,100 lbs and have a 10 to 12 hp engine.
The most common models can cost between $30,000 and $40,000 new. These usually weigh between 6,000 to 7,000 lbs, have dig depths of 10 feet, and are powered by engines that put out around 30 hp.
At the high end, an $80,000 model will dig up to 11 feet, reach over 18 feet, dump over 12 feet and weigh anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 lbs. Plus, these models often boast a commanding 40 or 50 hp engine.
You'll usually get one bucket with the excavator. Additional buckets and attachments are available at various price points:
- New standard buckets can cost between $600 and $1,000 new or $100 to $400 used, depending on the size and configuration of your machine and the functionality you’re looking for.
- Deluxe buckets featuring a range of tilt to allow for a high degree of accuracy can run between $3,300 and $4,500 new and anywhere from $800 to $2,000 used.
- Power attachments like thumbs can cost from $1,000 to $3,000.
- Hydraulic hammers can cost between $5,800 to $13,400
Used mini excavators
If you’re going to depend on the excavator for your day-to-day work, you should probably invest in a new machine. However, if you’re only going to use the excavator occasionally or for a short period of time, buying used can be a great way to save money.
Excavators are built with an 8,000- to 10,000-hour expected operating lifespan. So many used models are available with good operating lives left in them. Two- to three-year old models with a couple thousand hours on them can be about 25% cheaper than new models, while older mini excavators with just slightly more wear can be found for 50% or less when compared to new prices.
In addition to their reduced cost, used excavators have another big thing going for them: environmental compliance – or rather, an exemption from it. The EPA’s Tier 4 directive, regulating engines for non-road diesel engines, will attempt to curb pollution by forcing manufacturers to produce refined engine and fuel controls.
However, compliance is only mandatory for machinery manufactured after Jan. 1, 2013 and will not affect the continued operation of machines manufactured prior to this date. This leads some sellers to anticipate a rise in popularity related to older models due in part to the lower level of maintenance required.
When evaluating used machines, test drives are even more important than with new machines. Pay attention to the overall feel – in particular whether the tracks run freely in both directions and the arm responds well to controls. And don't let yourself be wowed by a fresh coat of paint. That can sometimes mean the seller is hiding other problems.
Inspect the undercarriage 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.).
Some sellers will offer a range of maintenance contracts with customized pricing based on individual needs. But if you're buying a new excavator, these generally aren't worth the cost. Many times, 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 a year can help prevent small defects from developing into larger problems.
Rentals. Mini excavators can be rented for between $150 to 500 per day, with discounted rates available for weekly or monthly rental contracts that can drop that rate considerably – often by as much as 60% to 70%. Plus, renting is a great way to sample the power one of these machines can provide without committing to a purchase. It can also be a smart course if you only need one sporadically or for a short-term job.
Working in tandem. A mini excavator and a skid steer loader (read Buyer's Guide) are a powerful combo that can often replace a full-sized backhoe loader. In addition to being more economical, having both machines lets you do two jobs at once. However, that does requires two operators -- and skilled operators can be much more difficult to find than cheap equipment.
The right tool for the job. If you're using a tool that requires hydraulic power -- like a thumb, auger, or other powered attachment -- make sure your excavator is supplying the correct amount of hydraulic pressure. Too much pressure and you risk damaging the tool -- too little and the performance will suffer.