Machine Heads Video: Is It Finally Time to Buy or Rent an Electric Compact Excavator?

We’re nearly five years into the electrified era of construction equipment. In a lot of ways, it’s been a rather quiet five years. Following a few years of introducing concept machine after concept machine, today, only a handful of manufacturers have actually brought an electric machine to market, though just about all of them have at least one or two in the works.

Just about all of the machines that have hit the market and are available to purchase today are compact, and about half of them are compact excavators. This is not a coincidence. The state of electric vehicle battery technology is such that it is much more economical to power a small piece of equipment than a large or even medium machine. Plus, compact machines are the hottest segment in the market right now and have been for some time. Skid steers and compact track loaders are a big reason for the huge spike in growth in this market, but so too are compact excavators.

Battery Power Makes Compact Excavators More Versatile

Volvo ECR18 excavator

Thanks to their ability to fit into tight spaces — working against walls, squeezing into backyards and even through doorways — along with the growing number of tools you can pair them with, compact excavators are well-suited to be a first investment in electric machinery because the switch to battery power augments what’s already great about these machines, allowing them to be used in more places, at more times of day.

But here in 2024, electric compact excavators are still not for everyone. They look like a conventional compact excavator, they have the same capabilities and power of a conventional compact excavator, but you should not think of them as conventional at all. With battery technology in its current state, costing what it costs, you should think of an electric compact excavator as a specialized tool for specific types of jobs.

For those of you that do those specific types of jobs, these machines could be a game changer. But for most applications, the cost premium attached to electric compact excavators combined with the math you’ll need to do around keeping these machines charged, means you’ll need to do some serious thinking around cost-benefit analysis if you’re eyeing an electric compact excavator.

So, let’s discuss what you need to know about electric compact excavators, some of the important models on the market, and whether you should rent or buy one of these machines. All but one of the specific machines we’ll look at today are in the 1- to 2-metric-ton range because manufacturers have identified that as the range where you get the most capacity and run time for the size of the battery pack required.

Demand for Electric Compact Excavators

United Rentals TBe excavator

There’s an understanding among the major equipment makers that not everyone will be running out to buy an electric machine anytime soon. As I noted at the top, electric excavators are aimed at meeting the needs of specific customers that want to do specific things. To give you an idea of what that looks like for these companies, Takeuchi introduced its TB20e exclusively to the rental market before starting to sell the machines to customers. Takeuchi saw demand for an electric excavator, but it mainly saw that demand from its rental partners and among municipalities.

After all, many customers and operators out there remain skeptical of electric excavators until they actually get to demo one. So much of the appeal to these machines comes down to how quiet they are and the responsiveness in the controls, which we’ll get into in a bit. Obviously the biggest point of skepticism comes from how long the batteries in these machines last during a work day. While most users should be able to get through a full workday with these machines, those that plan on using a compact electric excavator for heavier tasks will need to figure out how to charge these machines during the workday in order to ensure they don’t run out of juice before quitting time.

For instance, if you need to trench for seven hours straight or run a hammer for extended periods of time, an electric excavator is going to need a charge at some point during the day in order to keep going. Another point of skepticism is with regard to power and performance. Across the board, manufacturers say that these machines meet and in some cases even exceed the power and performance of their diesel counterparts. Every manufacturer we talked to said that is one of the first things customers mention after demoing an electric excavator: how surprised they are that it can do the work of a diesel machine.

Why Would You Want to Own an Electric Compact Excavator?

So, in the end, these are the real reasons you’d want to own or rent an electric excavator in 2024: zero emissions, low noise, no loss of performance, faster response times, and less maintenance cost. Let’s talk about these benefits. The first two — zero emissions and low noise — are selling more electric excavators than you might think.

The appeal to no emissions and low noise is that this combination allows you to work in more places at more times of the day. While a diesel machine might be too noisy to work in an upscale neighborhood early in the morning and not able to work indoors due to its emissions, electric excavators can work indoors and out and are quiet enough to work in neighborhoods or urban settings where you have to work as quietly as possible — early in the morning or late at night.

And when it comes to the lower maintenance cost benefit, it’s not just that an electric machine greatly reduces the amount of parts that can wear out or break on a diesel machine. It does do that — for instance there’s no fuel pump, transmission, etc. — all costly repairs. But another major consideration when it comes to lifetime cost on an electric excavator is how many hours you’ll put on it.

When an electric machine is not being actively operated, it’s basically not running at all. Let’s say that this amounts to a 20 percent savings in the number of hours you’re putting on the machine. If you’re putting 500 hours per year onto a machine, you’re gaining 300 hours back every three years. And at the end of those three years, a 1,500 hours machine looks a lot different on the resale market than a 1,200 hour machine.

The final differentiator with electric and diesel excavators is the responsiveness of an electric machine. Instead of having to hop in a diesel machine and stomp on the throttle or turning knob to get your RPMs up, in an electric excavator your thumb wheels and controls are proportionate to the amount of input you give them. If you move the stick harder, the machine responds instantly with that amount of effort.

In fact, a lot of customers say that an electric compact excavator seems like it actually has more power because it’s so responsive. Another benefit of the responsiveness is that a lot of operators leave the cab after a long shift feeling less fatigued. Doing the same amount of work requires less effort and, as we discussed before, there’s not constant vibration and noise from an engine. Because of this combination of benefits over their diesel counterparts, people are starting to look at electric excavators as a completely different tool built to go places and work at times of day that a conventional compact excavator can’t.

Because of that, these machines require an open mind, and maybe a willingness to adjust your workflow around them if the benefits are worth it to you. Before we move on to talking specific models, one thing I learned while talking with manufacturers is that, despite the trade-offs involved, electric machines are not a fad. They’re not going anywhere. Not only are a lot of governments, manufacturers and other businesses committed to cutting emissions, in order to implement autonomy in these machines, you have to first electrify them. And like electrification, autonomy is certainly not a fad either.

And with much of the population moving to urban centers, and those urban centers requiring quiet machines and increasingly less emission-emitting machines, electric machines will likely be required for urban work in the near future.

JCB 19C-1E Electric Compact Excavator

JCB was actually the first manufacturer to launch an electric excavator to the market in 2019 in the 19C-1E. This is a 2-ton class conventional tail swing machine and is identical to its diesel counterpart from a construction standpoint. Its chassis, boom, dipper, etc. are identical to the diesel counterpart with no loss of dig depth, or breakout force. The machine weighs in at 4,193 lbs, with a max dig depth of 9 ft, 2 in. JCB says the 19C-1E has a continuous runtime of five hours.

Before we go further, it’s important to note the word continuous there. You might see five hours of runtime and say, “That’s not even a full work day.” But no machine on a jobsite is working continuously for eight hours. When an electric machine is not moving, it’s not running. Any pause in the work very little if any battery is being drained. As a result, five or six hours of continuous runtime means you should be able to get the machine through an eight-hour work day with typical use. The exception to that rule would be if you’re pushing the machine hard during that day.

When you do need to charge it up, the JCB 19C-1E can be charged from a 110/120-volt plug, a 220/240-volt plug, and a 440-volt fast charger. The 110 takes 12 hours to reach full charge, the 220 takes eight hours, and the fast charger can charge up the machine in 2.5 hours. JCB says that if you’re a one-man operation, the 110v is probably all you’ll need to keep the 19C-1E charged. However, if the machine is being used for multi-shift work or long hours, JCB recommends having at least 220v charging available.

I mentioned earlier the appeal of being able to use one of these machines just about anywhere. One JCB customer has done just that, using the 19C-1E to do renovations inside a larger retail store. He used the machine to break out the floor and get into the pipework all while customers shop.

Electric construction equipment is on the rise. Learn all about the exciting products leading the charge.

Volvo ECR25, ECR18 and EC18 Electric Mini Diggers

Volvo Construction Equipment has three electric excavators on the market: the 2.5-ton, reduced tail swing ECR25, the 1.8-ton reduced tail swing ECR18, and the 1.8-ton conventional tail swing EC18. The ECR25 was the first electric excavator Volvo brought to market. At roughly 6,000 lbs it’s the exact same physical size as its diesel counterpart. Short and long arms are available on the ECR25. Max digging depth with the short arm is 8 ft, 9 in. while max dig depth on the long arm configuration is 9 ft, 9 in. Breakout force is 5,020 lbf, hydraulic flow is 15.3 gpm and the ECR25 does feature load-sensing hydraulics.

Each Volvo machine features a J1772 charging port, which is the standard electric vehicle charging port in North America — at least for now as many companies are adopting Tesla’s charging port. For the time being however, this means that a Volvo electric machine an be charged anywhere a typical electric car can be charged that’s not a Tesla. The 20 kWh battery in the ECR25 can be fully charged via a 240v charger in just 6 hours. With the 400v fast charger, it can reach 80 percent capacity in less than an hour.

Volvo introduced the ECR18 and EC18 last year. The ECR18 weighs in at about 4,000 lbs. Like the ECR25, short and long arm configurations are available on both the ECR18 and EC18. Both machines feature retractable undercarriages, allowing them to get through a 42-in. gate and then expand back out depending on the stability you need.

Volvo ECR25 excavator

The ECR18 max digging depth with the short arm is 8 feet, 4 inches, while with the long arm max digging depth increases to 8 ft, 11 in. The ECR18 has 2,900 lbf breakout force, and 7 gpm of hydraulic flow. With a 16 kWh battery, the ECR18 has a runtime of three to five hours continuous. The ECR18 can be fully charged in 10 hours with a 110v outlet, 5 hours via 240v, and one hour with the 400v rapid charger. The EC18 weighs in at 4,321 lbs. Max digging depth with the short arm configuration is 8 ft, 2 in., increasing to 8 ft, 10 in. with the long arm configuration. Breakout force is 2,900 lbf.

Because the EC18 is a conventional tailswing machine there is more room for a larger battery. So, Volvo placed the same 20 kWh battery that is in the larger ECR25 in the EC18. Because of the larger battery, the EC18 has a 6-hour continuous runtime. The EC18 can be fully charged in 12 hours with a 110v outlet, 6 hours with a 240v, and in about 1 hour, 15 minutes with a 400v rapid charger.

Takeuchi’s TB20e Electric Excavator

Takeuchi’s Battery-Powered TB20e Mini Excavator

We’ll round things out here with the Takeuchi TB20e. Released last year, this is a 1.9-ton machine weighing in at about 4,250 lbs. Takeuchi says max digging depth is 7 feet, 10 inches while max reach is 13 feet, 4 inches. The TB2e has hydraulic flow of 15 gpm. A major differentiator on the TB20e is that Takeuchi went the extra mile in making this machine feel more like a diesel machine by allowing you to ramp up the motor speed manually just as you would the throttle on a diesel machine.

That means that the TB20e might not have the quick response of a typical electric excavator by default, but it does mean you have more ability to customize the feel of the machine and it could makes the transition from diesel machine to electric much smoother for some operators.

The TB20e has an average continuous runtime of between 4 and 8 hours, depending on how hard you’re pushing the machine. Charging up the TB20e can take up to 10 hours if you’re using a 120v or 240v charger but can be done in as little as 4 hours with a 408v to 552v rapid charger. One huge advantage to the TB20e is that it can also run while tethered to power. You can plug the TB20e up to either a 120v or 240v outlet and run the machine.

The 120v option may give an operator just enough extra time that you need to finish a task or even move the excavator to location where it can be charged. While tethering to a 120v outlet will not keep up with battery discharge of the machine — meaning that the battery will eventually exhaust even with the machine plugged in — the 240v can keep up with discharge and even give you additional runtime.

Rent or Buy or an Electric Mini Ex?

Caterpillar 301.9 Electric Mini Excavator

So, given everything we’ve discussed — the strengths of electric excavators and several specific models, how do you know if one of these machines is right for you? And should you rent one or make the full investment of a purchase? I think the most basic approach to this question is considering whether any of the main benefits of an electric machine appeal to you. Would buying or renting an electric machine open up new revenue or allow you to do something you’re already doing much more efficiently?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then you need to start thinking about the degree to which the answer is yes. Electric compact excavators are not cheap. They carry a price premium over their diesel counterparts that ranges anywhere from around 35 to 200 percent. JCB says the 19C-1E ranges between 35 to 50 percent more expensive than its diesel counterpart. Further more, the company says that the machine provides a return on investment that can typically offset the cost of the machine in around five years. And each manufacturer I spoke to says that the batteries on these excavators should last around 10 years.

But if you’re considering a machine that is double the cost of a diesel machine, or more, you really need to consider usage time. At that premium, you’ll need to create new business to really be able to justify the price premium. One other thing to consider is that because of their price premium, electric compact excavators also cost more to rent than their diesel counterparts.

The decision could be a bit easier depending on where you live. Just as is the case with electric cars and trucks, there are state and local government incentives to be had on electric excavators, many of which can offset the difference in cost between electric excavator and diesel excavator entirely. California for example has very attractive incentives on these machines.

But as we explained before, you won’t really know if one of these machines is a fit until you see it in action, in person. See if your local dealer or rental house has an electric excavator and ask if they’ll give you a demo. Then maybe rent one for a job or two to see how much the benefits outweigh the extra cost and the need to setup a charging infrastructure on your jobsites.

Wayne Greyson is the Machine Heads editor for Compact Equipment.

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