Small Talk

Landscape design-and-build projects continue to be in demand. Homeowners realize the benefits of a landscaped home. A Gallup Survey reported that 62 percent of all homeowners in the United States felt that investments in lawn and landscaping were as good, or better, than other home improvements. Proper and well-maintained landscaping and lawns add 15 percent to a home's value, according to buyers. Given the nature of landscape installation, contractors find themselves working in confined situations and need equipment that is strong, yet compact. That's where compact excavators come in.

With their ability to maneuver through confined and weight-sensitive work sites, compact excavators provide an appealing alternative to manual labor. According to Shaun Fritchey, compact solutions specialist for Vermeer Manufacturing Co., compact excavators are designed for high output in confined work sites, and are ideal for landscape applications, as they provide increased versatility with little ground disturbance.

“Compact excavators are able to dig, lift and load materials in the trench, where other pieces of equipment may not be as flexible,” Fritchey says. “Most commonly, compact excavators are used in landscape applications to dig landscaping ponds, as well as carry pipe and bury pipe in the ground.”

Attachments are frequently used with compact excavators to aid in production within landscape applications. For example, the auger attachment is commonly used for drilling cylindrical holes for installation of trees, fencing and lighting. The bucket attachment can be used for backfilling an open trench and carrying material in and around the job site. When choosing an attachment, be sure to factor in hydraulic flow and pressure, as some attachments require greater capacity that may affect machine size.


Compact excavators generally range up to 11,000 pounds across industry markets, and weight should be one of the biggest considerations when you're choosing this equipment. A slight increase or decrease in physical size can affect applications for compact excavators. A few hundred pounds can make a difference in how you'll need to transport a machine, for one thing. Also with weight, the maximum digging depth and dump height can range several feet, horsepower can triple or quadruple, and breakout force can vary significantly across various compact excavator machines.

There are three general types of excavator models on the market: conventional, minimal-tail-swing and zero-tail-swing. The conventional models tend to be narrower and are generally lighter, whereas the zero-tail-swing models are usually heavier. Conventional models hold their rotating upper structure over the width of the machine's tracks, while the zero-tail-swing has less machine hanging over the tracks. This model is commonly used for working in between houses or along building foundations. A zero-tail-swing unit with an additional bolt-on counterweight and a small portion of the rotating upper structure that extends outside of the tracks is classified as minimal-tail-swing unit.

Breakout force is another factor that you should consider when choosing a compact excavator. This measurement indicates how well a machine can dig into a pile of dirt or into the ground and how much force can be exerted on a specific area. Although breakout force will aid in proper machine selection, don't use it as the sole specification for selection because a machine with a high breakout force does not necessarily indicate that it's equipped with the bucket size you need or the hydraulic power you require. “A machine may have a bigger breakout force to penetrate the pile of material or break the ground surface, but it may not have enough hydraulic power to pull the bucket through the material or ground,” Fritchey says.


With all of the units offered by manufacturers, customers can likely find one that matches their needed depth, weight and swing radius. A challenge may arise if you need a digging depth that does not fit within other specifications, such as weight. For example, you may need a model that has a digging depth of 10 feet, but want to keep the unit's weight under 4,000 pounds. That's when you have to decide which needs are more critical.

Fritchey advises to assess the type of landscape work that you're doing when deciding between compact excavator models and features. Evaluate all of your options to make sure that the machine you're considering has the proper specifications in order of importance to you. To figure out which model and size best fits your needs, your decision should be based on digging depth and weight class; the correct weight for equipment transporting the excavator; hydraulic flow to run auxiliary attachments with the correct pressure; and physical work area constraints (how much space is needed for swinging). Cabs are also an available option if operating conditions require them.

Do yourself a favor and take the time to try out each compact excavator model prior to purchase to see if the machine meets your needs, because each model is unique and different.


If you're wondering whether it is more worthwhile (read: cost-effective) to purchase or rent a compact excavator, there are several factors that you have to consider. “Customers need to look at their workload peak and equipment utilization rate,” says Jon Kuyers, compact solutions manager for Vermeer Manufacturing Co. “If a customer is using a machine six to eight times a month, it may be more cost-effective to purchase a unit than to rent it, as renting costs may outweigh purchase or financing costs.”

When purchasing a mini-excavator, you not only have many machine options, but you also have several financing plans from which to choose. Standard limited warranties are provided with mini-excavator unit purchase, and extended warranties are also available for an additional cost.

Owning a machine also means the opportunity to create a lasting relationship with a local dealer. After purchasing a machine, customers have the satisfaction of knowing that they can contact the dealer for training and any parts and service needs that may arise.


Attachments allow a compact excavator to perform a variety of tasks, which may at times suggest that the machine has the potential of replacing a variety of equipment. Nevertheless, be cautious, especially when comparing use and production of a compact excavator to other machines, such as a trencher. While a machine dedicated to trenching may perform faster, you have to factor in the versatility of a compact excavator. If you can use it for more jobs, it's the practical choice. If, however, you are using it strictly for trenching, you may instead opt for the dedicated trencher.

Liz Duff is a technical writer for Vermeer Manufacturing Co. (Pella, Iowa).

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