Most construction worker brains are wired such that when they see a previously unencountered problem, they automatically think: “I wonder if there’s an attachment for that?” If nothing comes to mind, the next thought is: “I wonder if I could build one?” Before you spark up the welder, understand that the world of attachments is a candy store of possibilities. Manufacturers and OEMs have devised just about every and any kind of attachment you could imagine.
“From what we experience at Takeuchi, hydraulic thumbs, hydraulic hammers, augers, mechanical or hydraulic pin grabber couplers and grapples are the most popular attachments for compact excavators,” says Lee Padgett, product manager. The simple truth is not many machines can take on as many different jobs as the compact excavator with the right attachment. It has better reach — down, up, sideways, forwards and backwards — than any other machine. So, let’s take a look at the implement offerings for compact excavators, starting with the most basic.
Common Mini Excavator Attachments
The hydraulic thumb (pictured above) is a perfect complement to an excavator bucket, says Kristin Stout, product application specialist at Caterpillar. This simple device can double the number of things you do with an excavator. With a thumb you can pick up logs, boulders and construction debris, turning what is ordinarily a digging machine into an efficient loader, precisely placing materials in difficult spots.
Augers dig holes for footings, concrete piers and posts and tree and shrub plantings. Different bit options help in difficult soils and auger diameters for compact excavators range from 4 to 36 in.
Hammers are essential for demolition. They bring down concrete and masonry structures and then size the pieces suitable for loading into trucks or use as fill material. If you discover a big boulder in the middle of a land-clearing operation, your only choices are to buy or rent a hammer or call in another contractor to remove it. Consider a premium model with auto-shutoff and blank fire protections if you plan to use your hammer on a regular basis. Different bits, moils, cones, chisels and spades can bust apart just about any material, says Stout.
Vibratory plate compactor attachments are the ideal solution for soil compaction on jobs where a hand-held jumping jack compactor is too small but a vibratory drum roller is too big. These also keep your people safely out of the trenches.
Grapples are also great choices. When an operator faces mounds of tree and or rubble with a lot of embedded rebar or iron, a grapple can wrangle this debris better than any other tool, leaving only small material behind for the loader to sweep up.
Rental Options and Couplers for Mini Excavators
Most of your big OEM dealers and rental houses offer these and other attachments for temporary use. The biggest enabler for rental is making sure the machine has a coupler to allow for easy change as the job changes, says Stout. “A coupler allows quick change to any attachment without the hassle of wrestling multiple tools to swap attachments,” she says.
“A manual pin-puller is a very economical way to add a coupler on a machine,” Stout says. “Parts of the United States tend to use a pin-lock style coupler which also provides a lot of versatility, whereas a manual pin-grabber is also another option and matches the pin-on bucket for the machine. However, all three require exiting the cab to change the tool. This is where the hydraulic pin-grabber coupler has the advantage because it allows simple operation from inside the cab to swap tools as fast as you need.”
The addition of brackets can be a time saving convenience when considering excavator attachments for rent or purchase. “Brackets on the attachment can be removed and changed out to allow the same tool to be used on machines with different coupler interfaces as well as different sized machines,” says Stout. “Some of these include pin-on or pin-grabber coupler, pin-lock coupler, pin-puller coupler, S-Type coupler and CW coupler.”
Specialty Attachments for Compact Excavators
Typically, when you think of a cold planer attachment, you think of a skid steer loader but having this option on a compact excavator gives you the ability to use the boom and stick to get into some areas that you wouldn’t be able to fit an entire machine, says Stout. An operator can also utilize the stick steer and cruise control features on their compact excavator for easy operation with this attachment.
Rippers, normally associated with bulldozers, are another unique attachment that you don’t think of often but are actually pretty common, says Stout. They are built to cut through dense dirt, loosen rocky soil and break below the frost layer prior to grading and compaction.
Mulchers and flail mowers can turn trees and vegetation into mulch and on a compact excavator work in hard-to-reach areas such as ditches, fence rows and slopes.
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Beyond the Basic Bucket
In addition to the standard toothed bucket that comes with every compact excavator, there are specialty buckets to help you finesse different aspects of the jobsite, says Stout. These include:
- Ditch cleaning buckets for cleaning wide trenches and irrigation channels, slope cutting, grading and finish work in construction, landscaping and road maintenance.
- Grading buckets also assist with grading, trenching and slope cutting. A tilting grading bucket can tilt 45 degrees to either side making it an excellent choice for leveling and grading on uneven ground, says Padgett,
- Nordic style grading buckets work well with a tilt-rotate system. Tapered rear corners on these buckets get into tight areas and corners.
Tom Jackson is a freelance writer for Compact Equipment. He has been writing about construction equipment for more than 20 years and now edits an online column, Heavy Equipment Insights, on construction technology and sustainability at Substack.com
Tiltrotators A Game-Changing Interface Between Machine and Attachment
The emergence of tiltrotators into the North American market less than a decade ago jump started a significant revolution in what contractors can do with compact excavators.
“With a tiltrotator you reduce your machine movements. You don’t have to reposition the machine as often,” says Karl Serneberg, vice president of sales and marketing at Steelwrist. This saves time and results in less disruption of the ground conditions. This is particularly valuable in landscaping jobs where the excavator moves around a lot or any job with multiple steps such as earthmoving, material placement and finish grading. For highly contoured sites, the 3D grading capabilities of a tiltrotator can replace the work of several machines. “Typically, these are small contractors who are getting paid by the job,” says Serneberg. “If it only takes them four days to do the job with a tiltrotator instead of five without a tiltrotator, they can make more on their investment.”
“A tiltrotator is a fantastic product for picking and placing stone, rocks and hardscapes,” says Jeremy Lindsay, manager of sales and marketing at Rototilt. “We sell a lot of tiltrotators to people who are building golf courses, trails and recreational landscaping. There are a lot of people who use them for infrastructure utility work in smaller, more confined spaces in cities instead of trying to haul in a 20-ton excavator.”