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June 2007

Selecting the Right Compact Excavator

Bobcat 425 excavator

A Bobcat 425 zero tail swing compact excavator is an ideal machine for structural builders. The machine's narrow width and zero tail swing feature enable it to work easily next to buildings.

The increasing popularity of compact excavators in recent years has brought with it a vast selection of models. Today, equipment manufacturers make enough different models that utility contractors can choose one tailor-fitted to their needs. So with all of these choices, how do you find the machine that’s right for you?

Ask the Right Questions
First, there are some important questions utility contractors should ask themselves, says Tom Connor, excavator product specialist for Bobcat Company.

One of the easiest questions to answer is whether you need a compact excavator. If you frequently rent a compact excavator or subcontract work performed by compact excavators, then you likely can justify adding one to your equipment fleet. “Generally, utility contractors will find more uses than anticipated for the machine once it’s in their possession,” Connor says.

Once you’ve determined the need for a compact excavator, Connor says you must ask whether the desired unit can perform the required tasks. Can it access required worksites in regards to its width and weight? Can it achieve the expected performance in regards to lift capacity and digging power and depth?

“A utility contractor should evaluate the anticipated tasks and select a machine that has the capabilities to perform those tasks with room for growth,” Connor says. “It is also important to investigate attachment availability in order to assure maximum utilization of the machine. Does the machine have an easy-to-use attachment mounting system? Is the machine designed and able to accommodate a hydraulic clamp? Does the manufacturer offer attachments and does the dealer stock them?”

Size, Power and Performance
For most utility contractors, size of the machine will be of great concern. Because many of them install cable, phone and electrical lines in confined residential areas, they need machines that can access the hard-to-reach jobsites. “A contractor needs to evaluate the anticipated worksite limitations, primarily width,” Connor says. “In general, midsize to smaller models appeal to the utility industry.”

To help contractors access confined areas, some manufacturers offer compact excavator models with retractable undercarriages. Connor says this feature on the Bobcat® 316 and 323 compact excavators has made them especially popular among utility contractors who work in established neighborhoods. He says the feature allows the operator to retract the undercarriage, pass through a gate or fence, and then expand the undercarriage when actually working.

Knowing contractors don’t want to sacrifice performance for size, equipment manufacturers are packing their smaller excavator models with more power. For example, some of the smaller Bobcat compact excavator models, including the 323 and 325, feature bucket breakout forces of 3,751 foot-pounds and 4,766 foot-pounds, respectively. And for added digging depth, contractors can choose compact excavators with long-arm or extendable arm options.

“For example, if lifting 1,000-pound spools will be a frequent, reoccurring task for the excavator, then one needs to select a machine that will easily accomplish this,” Connor says. “If minimum cover is 8 feet for instance, then at an absolute minimum, you should be looking at a machine capable of digging 10 to 12 feet to achieve decent production.”

Tail and House Swing Options
When compact excavators first hit the U.S. construction market in the mid-1980s there was only one kind of tail swing — conventional. But today, there are also excavators with zero tail swing (ZTS) and zero house swing (ZHS), which give operators more unrestricted rotation and provide flexibility when working close to objects or against a wall. The Bobcat ZTS feature significantly reduces the chance of the excavator’s tail inadvertently contacting surrounding objects, and the Bobcat ZHS feature all but eliminates the chance of hitting the right and left front corners as well, Connor says. If you always work close to objects or against walls, then Connor says you should consider ZTS and ZHS models.

Generally, a ZTS or ZHS compact excavator of a given size will be wider than its conventional-tail-swing counterpart. If a utility contractor anticipates routine work where they must pass narrow property lines, gates or fences, a conventional-tail-swing excavator may be a better fit for his equipment fleet. For instance, Connor says the typical width of a conventional-tail-swing, 3 – 4 metric ton compact excavator will be about 60 inches, whereas ZTS and ZHS excavators with similar performance will have a width of about 70 inches.

All the Features You Want
In addition to ZTS and ZHS, other popular compact excavator features include independent boom swing, slew function and easy-to-use attachment mounting systems. Independent boom swing enables the machine to dig parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing structure. This feature allows the operator to dig on either side of an obstacle without repositioning. A compact excavator’s slew function gives the operator the ability to rotate and place spoil in the most appropriate location, minimizing the need to relocate the spoil.

Connor says each manufacturer offers its own type of attachment mounting system. Many Bobcat compact excavators come standard with the X-Change® attachment mounting system, which enables operators to quickly and easily switch between attachments with the use of a pin. Bobcat also offers an optional Hydraulic X-Change® system, which retracts and extends hydraulic pins by flipping a switch inside the cab for even faster attachment swapping. When attachment changes are simple, like they are with the Hydraulic X-Change system, Connor says operators are more likely to use the proper sized bucket and best type of attachment for the job. He says this can mean improved fuel savings, faster job completion and less wear on your machine. Common compact excavator attachments include trenching buckets, grading buckets, plate compactors, hydraulic breakers and augers.

Select manufacturers have incorporated several features in their compact excavators so that customers can protect their investment. For example, Connor says a majority of Bobcat compact excavators are equipped with an automatic shutdown that monitors the machine’s engine and hydraulic functions. It alerts the operator and actually shuts the machine down, lessening the chance of catastrophic damage to the engine or hydraulic components. Some excavators also come with onboard diagnostics to efficiently troubleshoot problems in the field and prevent them before they occur, thus reducing downtime.

Every contractor knows that the more comfortable their operators are, the more productive they’ll be. “Compact excavator comfort is important to more and more buyers,” Connor says. “This trend drives manufacturers to increase operator space, enhance entering and exiting of the machine and provide features such as an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning.” To also increase productivity, he says most Bobcat compact excavators feature two-speed travel systems, which enable operators to travel more quickly around jobsites.

Safety and Maintenance
After deciding on the compact excavator’s size, power and features, Connor says many utility contractors will compare machine safety features and ease of maintenance.

Manufacturers have incorporated several safety features in their compact excavators to protect operators. For example, Connor says Bobcat compact excavators have a control console lock system that requires the operator to lower the left hand console in order to use the work group or travel system. This avoids unintentional activation of the machine’s boom, arm, bucket, slew and travel systems. Another safety feature is a pedal lock, which prevents inadvertent operation of the boom swing function. Utility contractors should also check if the compact excavator comes with Tip Over Protective Structure/Roll Over Protective Structure (TOPS/ROPS)-rated cabs and/or canopies and retractable seat belts, Connor says.

Safety features aren’t as effective if your operators don’t know how to operate them and the machine properly. That’s why you should make sure the manufacturer provides all of the tools and instructions needed for safe and proper operation. In addition to the owner’s manual, Bobcat Company provides a weatherproof operator handbook, an Excavator Operator Training Course and an Excavator Service Training Course.

No utility contractor wants a compact excavator that makes it difficult to perform routine maintenance. When comparing compact excavator models, Connors suggests that you investigate to see if routine maintenance items can be easily accessed. He says you should look for a compact excavator that has a swing open tailgate because it’ll provide better access to engine and pump components. Also check to see if the machine has centralized grease points for the slew bearing, pinion gear and swing boom.

Demo the Equipment
Above all, the best way for you to compare compact excavator models is to operate them.

Not all compact excavators are created equal, Connor says. Machines may appear to operate close to the same speed when sitting in a parking lot, but they might have completely different characteristics when placed under load. He says you shouldn’t rely on simple dry runs to determine your purchase. You should try your targeted excavators in real life situations, such as loading trucks or trenching, because you may find some machines’ production and speed increase by as much as 30 percent over others — simply due to the balance between the hydraulic system and engine horsepower. Connor says these differences are not evident until you work the machine in real jobsite situations.

“Ask the dealer for the ability to demo the machine,” Connor says. “Examine the machine’s operator comfort and visibility, ease of routine maintenance, accessibility to components if service is needed, and of course, performance.”