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Kevin Forestell
December 8, 2021

The Excavator: Everything You Need To Know

This article was last updated on October 31, 2022

Excavators are an essential piece of heavy equipment for most construction projects. Often referred to as diggers, excavators are used for all kinds of jobs like material handling, landscaping, demolition, mining projects, trenching, river dredging, and construction.

Komatsu excavator loading dirt into an articulated dump truck

The Makeup Of An Excavator

The chassis of an excavator is made up of a boom, dipper, and bucket. These pieces connect to a cab that sits on a rotating house. Most excavator cabs can rotate a full 360 degrees for increased visibility. Excavators are available with either tracks or wheels depending on the manufacturer and the nature of the project. 

Excavators are available in a variety of sizes and classes and can weigh up to 180,000 lbs. There are many other attachments for excavators that can take the place of the digging bucket to diversify the machine. By swapping out the bucket for an auger, drill, ripper, or rake, excavators can be used for many different jobs.

Choosing the Right Excavator for The Job

The best way to choose what excavator rental is needed for your project is to assess what exactly you need the machine to do. Identifying the right size of excavator, what attachments are needed, and how long you need the equipment will inform your decision to rent an excavator or buy one. It can be more efficient for a job to rent the right size of equipment for what is needed instead of trying to make one piece fit for a variety of jobs.

Excavators are often used for earthmoving projects or projects where lots of digging is required. That being said, the variety of attachments and excavator rental sizes available make these excavation machines useful in excavation projects of all sizes.

Typically, excavator sizes and classes are broken down into the following categories: mini, medium, large, demolition, long-reach, and wheeled. There are also specialty excavators made specifically for mining. Which size of digger you choose to buy or rent is often determined by the excavator's operating weight.

From a landscaping project to the construction of a completely new high-rise skyscraper, you can expect to see an excavator on almost any construction project, especially in the early stages. The variation in size allows them to be used in big construction projects and small backyard renovations. In addition to the different sizes of excavators, there are also several different types of excavators.

What Are The Different Types of Excavators?

The Cable vs. Hydraulic Excavator

The difference between the cable and hydraulic excavator comes from how the parts of the machine move. Cable excavators use a series of steel wires and cables to move the main parts and replaced steam shovels in the early 1900s.

An orange cable excavator on a job site

Hydraulic excavators work by allowing the operator to use levers to control the movement of the hydraulic system to push and move the cylinders that control the boom and bucket of an excavator.

Find the average excavator rental rates in your area

The 6 Kinds of Excavators

There are seven key types of excavators available on the market: Crawler Excavators, Dragline Excavators, Suction Excavators, Long-Reach Excavators, Mini Excavators, and Wheeled Excavators.

1. Crawler Excavators:

The most commonly recognized excavator used for mining, trench digging, and landscape grading is the crawler excavator. Crawler excavators get their name because of the way they travel on a job site with their tracks. They are incredibly powerful machines with hydraulic power. Because of the tracks, they are better suited for rough and uneven terrain.

Orange Doosan excavator dumping dirt on a job site with trees in the background

2. Dragline Excavators:

Dragline excavators are a larger kind of excavator that uses a hoist rope and dragline system to clear dirt and soil for underwater projects, pile driving, or road excavations. Because of their weight and awkward shape, they're normally hauled in separate pieces to a job site before being assembled. These excavators are used for larger job sites and projects.

3. Suction Excavators:

Suction excavators use water jets and a high-pressure vacuum to clear dirt, soil, and debris. Operated out of a wheeled vehicle, the suction excavator is used for underground applications, debris cleanup, and other delicate excavation projects.

4. Long-Reach Excavators:

With arms that extend up to 100 feet with attachments, the excavator is good for heavy-duty digging, industrial demo projects, and reaching further than most other excavators.

Hitachi long-reach excavator digging dirt from a flooded area with another excavator in the back

5. Mini Excavator:

A compact, smaller version of a crawler excavator, mini excavators are useful in narrow job sites, job sites with obstacles, and jobs with delicate terrain like landscaping. Mini excavators have zero tail-wing capability and are ideal for small jobs. Mini excavators are also popular for home and DIY landscape projects.

John Deere and Kubota mini excavators working on a driveway in front of a house

When picking between renting an excavator vs a mini excavator, the size of the project and load size are usually the most important factors.

6. Wheeled Excavator:

The wheeled excavator is the same as a regular excavator but is fitted on wheels instead of tracks. Wheeled excavators are more popular in Europe and are typically used for working in urban areas since their wheels are kinder to finished roads and pavement than the traditional metal track. However, wheeled excavators are becoming more popular for their use in city projects.

John Deere wheeled excavator demolishing a brick wall

Read more about the differences between tracked and wheeled excavators.

Popular Attachments for Excavators

There are many different mini excavator attachments out there. Renting a specialized attachment can make your machine function more efficiently and work smoother for specific jobs. While there are 10 more popular types of excavator attachments - both for mini excavators and standard machines - you can pretty much rent the attachment that works best for the job you're doing.

The traditional excavator is fitted with a bucket that digs toward the cab and machine. However, this type of digging arm can have a thumb attachment instead which makes it easier to lift and move materials. There are also several types of buckets that can be attached to an excavator.

A rock bucket and a V bucket are two bucket types that can be attached to an excavator. A rock bucket looks similar to a digging bucket but with longer sharper teeth and a narrow V-shaped edge for cutting. The reinforced structural parts of a rock bucket give it the ability to break through hard rock while still maintaining structural integrity. The V bucket simplifies the task of digging trenches and is useful for laying utility cables and pipes. 

Excavators can also be fitted with an auger attachment for digging holes, hammers for breaking up hard concrete and rock, rippers, compactors, rakes, and many other different kinds of tools. All of these attachments help to make the excavator a true multipurpose equipment type.

Manufacturers of Excavators

There are many different manufacturers to consider when looking to buy or rent an excavator. Most companies make different sizes and models of excavators to accommodate projects of all sizes and natures.

A variety of excavators are available for rent through DOZR. There are options to search for excavators ranging from 18 tons to 80 tons as well as high-reach excavators, long-reach excavators, and wheeled excavators for rent. The following is a look at some more popular brands of excavator manufacturers.

Caterpillar


Caterpillar – also called CAT – was founded in 1925 when C. L. Best Tractor Company joined with Holt Manufacturing Company – the same Holt family responsible for the continual-track system. Caterpillar is one of the most recognized brands of heavy equipment and machinery and is one of the largest heavy equipment manufacturing companies in the world. Caterpillar introduced a series of excavators – called the 200 series – in 1972.

A yard of caterpillar equipment including 3 different sized excavators, a backhoe, and three articulating dump trucks

Now, caterpillar excavators feature fuel-efficient engines and the latest safety tech and are designed with productivity in mind. CAT excavators are some of the best-performing earthmoving machines on the market, making them very popular equipment rentals. Their largest excavator is the 395 - Tier 4 model weighing in at 207,300 lbs, just over 100 tons, with a dig depth of 32 feet.

Volvo

It was 1832 in Eskilstuna, Sweden when 27-year-old Johan Theofron Munktell prepared the foundations for the company Volvo Construction Equipment. Today, Volvo excavators continue to push the boundaries of earthmoving and digging equipment. In 2019, Volvo CE announced the goal of launching a range of electric compact excavators and wheel loaders by mid-2020. 

Volvo's line of excavators includes larger crawler excavators, medium crawler excavators, medium-wheeled excavators, and compact, or short-swing, excavators. Volvo is most well-known for its wheeled excavators. Volvo's largest excavator is the EC950F weighing in close to 210,000 lbs or 105 tons with a maximum dig depth of just under 30 feet.

Komatsu

Komatsu was established in 1917 in Japan and established in North America later on in 1970. Their introduction to the American market for hydraulic excavators happened with their H-Series in the 1960s, a little before they truly established themselves in America. 

Manufacturing all sizes of excavation machinery, Komatsu excavators are for all kinds of projects. With mid-size excavators, large excavators, and surface mining excavators, you're sure to find a Komatsu excavator that will be right for the job. The largest Komatsu excavator is the PC1250LC-11 with an operating weight of 270,000 lbs, a reach of up to 56 feet, and a dig depth of 38 feet.

John Deere

John Deere established his company – named after himself – in 1837. In 1969 the first John Deere excavator, the JD690, was introduced. Now, they make over 20 different kinds of excavators ranging in size, weight, and horsepower.  

John Deere's largest excavator, the 870 P-Tier, allows for almost 37 feet of dig depth and weighs over 188,000 lbs. John Deere also manufactures compact excavators, another name for mini-excavators, mid-size excavators, and other large excavators.

Hitachi

Established in the early 1900s in Japan, Hitachi didn't start manufacturing construction equipment until the 1950s. Since then, Hitachi has become an innovator in heavy machinery and their excavators are no exception. Currently, Hitachi has 37 excavators on the market.

Hitachi excavators include all sizes of excavators ranging from their smallest non-mini excavator model, the ZX160LC-6, to their biggest excavator, the ZX890LC-6. These models have operating weights and dig depths of 39,000 lbs and 21 feet, and 186,511 lbs and 31 feet, respectively. Hitachi also manufactures mining excavators and mini excavators.

Hyundai

Hyundai 220LC excavator moving dirt

Founded in South Korea in 1985, Hyundai built their first excavators in 1988, a 21-ton excavator and a 29-ton excavator. Now, the portfolio of Hyundai excavators includes 16 current models and 28 previous models. The smallest Hyundai excavator model currently, outside of their compact excavators, is the HX130A LCR with an operating weight of just under 15 tons. Their largest excavator is the HX900L with an operating weight of 103 tons.

Doosan

Creating its construction division in 1977, Doosan has been producing excavators since 1978. However, it wasn't until 1994 that Doosan excavators came to America. Doosan currently manufactures crawler excavators, wheeled excavators, and mini excavators. Between the crawler excavators and wheeled excavators, they have 18 products.

The smallest crawler Doosan makes is the DX140LC-7 with an operating weight of 16 tonnes (32,187 lbs) and a dig depth of just over 19 feet. The biggest Doosan excavator is the DX800LC-7 with an operating weight of 90 tonnes and a dig depth of over 27 feet.

Potential Hazards & Safety Protocols for Excavators

Operating any kind of heavy equipment could pose a safety hazard. It is important to always be careful and to only operate heavy equipment and digging machinery like excavators after receiving proper training. Being consistent and following safety protocols can help keep all excavation operations safe. Here are some ways to stay safe while operating an excavator:

  • Never dig under structures like sidewalks without proper support systems

  • Wear a hardhat, safety vest, ear protection, and protection 

  • Never dig underneath an excavator

  • Maintain the cab by cleaning up garbage and maintaining clear windows

  • Avoid making sharp turns or sudden movements while operating an excavator

  • Always lower the bucket when parked and park on a level surface

  • Do not travel diagonally on slopes but directly up

  • Map out an excavator route that is as flat as possible

  • Never exceed the maximum weight capacity of an equipment piece

  • Lower the bucket closer to the ground when driving for visibility purposes

  • Check all blind spots before moving equipment

  • Make sure to report any safety hazards and have any needed repairs performed immediately

  • Always wear a seatbelt

  • Check site plans and call local utility companies before beginning to dig 

The most important point to remember for any operation of heavy equipment is to only do so if training has been provided and it is safe to do so. There are also some tips and tricks online for special projects like operating an excavator on a slope. Always request training before agreeing to operate a piece of new machinery.

The History of the Excavator

The first machine to resemble an excavator was the steam shovel. An ancient dinosaur next to the modern excavator, this piece of equipment was a game-changer when it was invented by William Otis who in 1839 received a patent for the design. It was originally fitted on railway tracks to allow mobility.

The machine could move up to 300 cubic yards a day compared to the 12 cubic yards that could be moved by a man. This machine was used to build the Panama Canal and dig the foundations of early skyscrapers. The machine was used and updated into the 1920s as tracked and wheeled equipment became more popular. In 1931 the last railroad shovel was shipped.

Much like with the bulldozer and other pieces of equipment, various pieces had to come together to create the excavator. Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co. was a British business that had developed the hydraulic system that would be used in the modern excavator.

Designed to use water instead of hydraulic fluid, this system was invented in 1882. The first hydraulic shovel was patented by Kilgore Machine Co in Minnesota in 1897 and used the technology developed by Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co. 

None of these excavators could rotate the full 360 degrees that exist now with the modern excavator. This didn’t happen until the 1960s when a French company called Poclain invented an excavator with cylinders and a hydraulic pump. The TY45 made history as the first fully revolving hydraulic excavator.

The Excavator: FAQ


Can excavators be used for land clearing?

Excavators are one of the best land-clearing equipment rental options. They're great for clearing trees and moving heavy loads and their tracks make them great for uneven terrain. If you're looking to rent land-clearing equipment, excavators are a great choice.

What is the difference between an excavator vs a backhoe?

Excavators are larger machines that are used primarily for heavy-duty jobs like trenching, demolition, mining, and land clearing because they have longer arms and can dig deeper than a backhoe. Excavators also provide more digging functionality because they can turn on their cab a full 360 degrees.

Backhoes are smaller excavating machines that offer more versatility but are typically seen on smaller construction projects like residential, snow removal, or loading jobs because of their limited dig depth potential. Whether you pick between a backhoe vs an excavator is dependent on the size of the job.

How deep can an excavator dig?

The depth capacity of an excavator will depend on the size of the equipment. Some specific kinds of excavators – like a long-reach model – make it easier to dig deeper than possible with a regular excavator. Typically, the heavier the operating weight of the excavator the deeper it can dig but it's always worth reviewing the specifications of the equipment before use.

What is the proper digging position for an excavator?

The proper position for digging with an excavator will differ depending on the terrain, the size of the equipment, the location of the dig site, and the nature of the job. 

The best way to set up a dig for success is to take the time to plan before starting. Organizing where the scoop pile will go and where to stage other needed materials will keep the dig safe once it is started. Reading site plans to identify underground hazards like wires or pipes will ensure the productivity and efficiency of a job. Take time to paint lines before digging to align the first dig.

All of these steps help to create a safe working environment which is the first step to proper digging with an excavator.

Can I rent an excavator?

Yes, excavators can be rented for use. You can search DOZR Marketplace for excavators of all sizes to find an excavator rental near you. Rentals are available by the day, week, or month depending on your project length and needs. 

The cost to rent an excavator changes depending on the length of the rental and who the supplier is. You can view all prices and compare them in the DOZR search results. 

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Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.
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