The small spaces

The small spaces

Features - Excavators

Here’s what to consider when shopping for compact excavators and mini-track loaders.


Good things really do come in small packages. At least that’s true for landscape equipment like compact excavators and mini-track loaders. Sure, you need the big rigs for jobs that require heavy-duty lifting or earth-moving. But compact excavators and mini-track loaders fit where the big equipment won’t – and they have plenty of other advantages. “We use our compact excavator every day,” says Michael Ely, co-owner of Backyard Escape near Atlanta. “It’s a versatile little unit that handles a lot of different tasks well for us.”

While Ely typically rents a 75,000-pound excavator for his biggest jobs, such as large swimming pools, he owns a couple of smaller units that work on many sites. There’s no question that one of the biggest benefits is the multi-tasking abilities of these small machines. “We purchased various attachments including a trencher, stump grinder, tiller, cultivator and auger for digging post holes. It saves us a lot of time and labor by hand,” Ely says. The variety of attachments makes the unit more cost-effective than a single dedicated piece of equipment.

Ely finds the connections on these units are easy to swap out, consisting of two quick disconnect levers. Changing attachments requires only a minute or two, which is a necessity in the field. Quick disconnects are one of the must-have features to consider when shopping for a machine, he says.

Photos courtesy of Bobcat

The excavator is lightweight and can be trailered to each site. “It weighs less than 3,000 pounds, so it’s light over septic systems or areas where we don’t want turf destroyed completely,” Ely says. The compact footprint on this machine, at around 3 feet wide, makes it a boon because it fits through 4-foot-wide gates. It’s also maneuverable in tight spaces, and the vertical lift loader arm can handle 1,000 pounds, Ely says.

The mini-track loader Ely owns is a somewhat larger unit that’s about 6 feet wide and three times as heavy as the other machine. “It won’t fit through backyard gates like the compact excavator, but we use it a lot for grading a lawn, spreading gravel for a driveway, or moving dirt,” he says. It’s used about three days a week, so it’s still a workhorse.

It’s no coincidence that both of the compact construction machines he owns have tracks. “These have better traction in all conditions than wheels, which tend to spin and get stuck in rain,” he says. “Mud is going to happen, and you’ve got to deal with it.” They’re also solid on other surfaces such as sand and gravel.

Ely says maintenance is non-negotiable. “If you don’t do it, these machines will not last long. There are lots of moving parts that need weekly, if not daily attention,” he says. For example, on Mondays, his crews attend to the grease points, check the hydraulics and ensure the tracks are tight so they don’t come off. He says some operators choose to do everything daily, and that’s not a bad idea. “Every maintenance task helps prolong its life,” he says.

Need for speed: Quick disconnects are one of the must-have features to consider when selecting compact equipment, Ely says.

He also takes his machines to the dealer where he purchased them for a full maintenance once-over every 1,000 hours. That service typically includes changing air filters, an oil change and fluid top-offs. It runs about $500.

Ely says working with a reputable dealer on a long-term basis is important. “I rent and buy from mine, and building that relationship through the years has been helpful. They won’t sell me something just to sell it,” he says. When it came to deciding what units to purchase, he rented first to learn the capabilities of each machine and talked to other contractors.

With the amount of time both of his compact machines spend in the field, Ely says they earn their keep. If he adds an additional landscape crew, he plans to add a second compact excavator because it’s the most versatile piece of construction equipment he owns. “I love this equipment,” he says. “If it’s leaving the shop, it’s making me money.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.