A Complete Guide to Buying and Renting a Compact Excavator in 2024

Cat excavator

Compact excavators continue to roll off rental and dealer lots at an accelerated pace.

“These machines are just easy to haul around without the need for larger truck hauling capacity,” explains Bill Holton, Kubota product manager for construction equipment. “Compact excavators can also easily fit in tighter residential spaces yet are still able to perform the work needed on the jobsite to efficiently get the job done on general construction and landscape projects.”

Advancements in technology have enhanced the performance of compact excavators, boosting sales and bridging the gap with their larger counterparts. Today’s models can be upfitted with an awesome array of features that range from rearview cameras and grade control to multiangle dozer blades and increasingly powerful engines and auxiliary hydraulic systems. This means mini excavators can perform many of the same tasks as larger excavators but in more confined spaces. Also, out of all earthmoving equipment, this sector is primed for battery power.

“Electric is certainly a growing factor in the compact excavator market, largely because that’s where batteries can currently keep up the best,” says Darren Ashton, product manager for compact equipment at Volvo Construction Equipment. “Electric machines allow you to work in places where diesel may not be welcome because of fumes and noise, so we’re seeing them turn heads in segments like indoor demolition, agriculture, food production and any type of work in residential areas or during off-hours.”

Clearly, compact excavators are extremely versatile. These mini diggers are also tool carriers, wielding attachments off the boom — buckets, breakers, grapples, augers, brush cutters and beyond.

Economically, compact excavators offer significant savings. Their initial purchase price is lower, and they are more fuel-efficient, reducing operational costs. Eco modes, anti-idle systems, Tier 4 and 5 engines and electric models are all helping mini excavators retain a greener halo of efficiency. All of these factors and more are driving compact excavator sales to new heights in America.

“The North American compact excavator market was comprised of over 80,0000 units sold in 2023, an increase of approximately 2 percent over 2022,” says David Caldwell, national product manager for Takeuchi-US. “For 2024, that growth rate should continue or even exceed 2 percent. This anticipated growth is due to many factors, including government initiatives and investments in infrastructure. Compact excavators are essential for these projects due to their versatility, ability to work in a wide range of applications and the broad range of available sizes and capabilities.”

Compact Excavator Brands, Specs and Prices

Takeuchi TB240 excavator

The compact excavator market is busy in 2024. Today there are more than 20 brands of mini diggers being sold in the U.S. market, and just one of these brands (let’s pick Bobcat as an example) “offers 13 different compact excavators in its lineup, and those machines range in class size from 1 to 8 metric tons — with zero, reduced and conventional tail swing options,” explains Kyle Emanuel, product information specialist at Bobcat Co. The sheer number of brands and models on dealer lots is an impressive indicator of the demand for this category of equipment. The competition is fierce and includes Bobcat, Case Construction Equipment, Caterpillar, Develon, Hitachi, Hyundai, Kato, JCB, John Deere, Kobelco, Komatsu, Kubota, Liugong, New Holland, Sany, Takeuchi, Volvo CE, Wacker Neuson and Yanmar. What’s cool is that 13 of those companies participated in this article.

For some basic definers, compact excavators have dig depths between 5 and 20+ ft, cabs or ROPS operating stations, various tail swing configurations (conventional, reduced and zero), the ability to use attachments (from breakers to buckets) and diesel engines ranging from 13 to 70+ hp (with electric options also now on the market). Most capitalize on rubber track undercarriages (hybrid and steel are options on bigger units) that are great for navigating terrain with high flotation and a light footprint, fitting into cramped worksites to A) give precise and powerful dig performance, B) wield attachments like thumbs, grapples and brush cutters or C) offer great reach and dexterity in applications from digging foundations to augering for trees.

“From the 17 P-Tier with its variable-width undercarriage and foldable blade for passing through tight entry ways to the 60 P-Tier with its standard climate-controlled cab, we have a variety of compact models designed to fit almost any customer’s needs,” says Justin Steger, product marketing manager with John Deere excavators. “With operating weights ranging from 1.7 to 6 metric tons, our lineup of compact excavators delivers superior quality and reliable performance.”

Mini excavators are making big waves on jobsites all over North America. Click here for the latest news on these machines and the companies that make them.

Specs and project figures are important data to narrow down a search. Most applications for compact excavators are project-based, so what are the dig depth, lift height and lift capacity parameters of the job? What are the installation specs of the product — drainage pipe, tree transplants, boulders? Also determine the amount of material you are going to be moving and the time frame you need to move it in. Then, match those measurements to a machine by determining the capability of the machine. Popular mini ex specs include operating weight, dig depth, bucket breakout/digging force, maximum reach and hydraulic flow and pressure.

“Customers should do their homework,” advises Greg Worley, global market professional for 1- to 10-ton mini excavators at Caterpillar. “Look at transport requirements, weight/width requirements, dig depth requirements and how much you need to lift. Purchase what you need and take into account if you think your business is going to expand its work in the future.”

Let’s do some spec examples. Cat currently offers 15 models of Next Gen mini excavators. The micro 300.9D, with its “extending” undercarriage and backfill blade, sports a 2,061-lb operating weight, 5.6-ft max dig depth, 6.6-ft max dump height, 10-ft max reach and a 13-hp diesel engine. Cat’s large 310 mini excavator boasts a 22,451-lb operating weight, 17.1-ft dig depth, 19.1-ft max dump height, 25.5-ft max reach and a 69.5-hp diesel engine. Each model has different key specifications to consider when it comes to operating weight, dig depth, lift capacity and attachments. There is quite a range from which to choose.

CASE CX60C Mini Excavator lifting pipe

“For many years, 3- to 4-metric-ton excavators have been the meat and potatoes in the industry,” says Diego Butzke, product manager for excavators at Case Construction Equipment. “Those units are generally the right size for many applications, easy to tow around and great balance for the buck. However, there’s been strong demand for excavators one or two sizes up, in the 4- to 5- and 5- to 6-metric-ton classes. This is due to larger projects that are unfolding over the last couple of years requiring more performance from these machines. There’s also been a good influx of demand for smaller mini excavators, the 1- to 3-metric-ton units.”

Buyers and renters should also understand the physical machine dimensions of the machine. If a contractor is working in backyards with tight access, height, width, reach and swing will need to be calculated and perhaps a zero tail swing model will be required (more on that later). Price, of course, will be a factor. Compact or mini excavators can range from micro machines costing $20,000 to large 8 tonners costing $90,000, with most models in that 3- to 4-metric-ton class costing between $30,000 to $40,000.

“So many factors come to mind besides the price when it is time to purchasing an excavator,” says Holton. “What is the application that the unit will be used in? Will the machine in question have sufficient lift or dig capacity and reach? Does the owner need to trailer the unit, or will he be paying for trucking to and from the jobsites? Follow that with any warranty or insurance packages offered by the manufacturer and dealer.”

The cost of renting a compact excavator will depend on the size of the unit and the length of the rental, but renters can expect $250 to $400 per day, $900 to $1,250 a week and between $2,000 and $2,500 a month.

“Renting a machine you’re considering as a potential purchase can be very valuable,” agrees Zac Evans, product manager for excavators and carriers at Yanmar Compact Equipment North America. “It will let you get an appropriate amount of seat-time in your intended application, so you can make that purchase with a higher degree of confidence or pivot to a more appropriate machine.”

In fact, both indie rental houses and big chains are where the majority of compact excavators are ending up these days.

“The rental channel continues to grow with rental making up to about 65 percent of the market,” explains Lee Tice, JCB product manager. “It’s pretty inexpensive for a homeowner or landowner to rent a mini excavator for a weekend. They can tow a smaller size mini excavator home with a half-ton truck and take it back on Monday morning. Or, if a contractor suddenly finds himself needing one, he can send a crew member to pick it up.”

Attachments and Auxiliary Hydraulics

Bobcat E40 excavator

Compact excavators do way more than just dig today. These excavators can just as easily grapple concrete as brush cut vegetation using the same hydraulic oil used to travel, spin and dig. The most advanced units even offer load sensing hydraulics.

“Our updated EZ26 includes a load sensing hydraulic system that regulates the flow rate according to demand,” explains John Dotto, product application and training specialist for Wacker Neuson. “This provides consistent and precise control regardless of the load. The machine adjusts to the load and the joystick movements are always kept the same for the operator, resulting in a smooth operating experience.”

When discussing power to the attachment specifically on a mini ex, the term auxiliary hydraulic power is used, and it is measured in gallons per minute (gpm) and pressure (psi). For instance, Bobcat’s ultra-mini E10 excavator sports a max auxiliary standard flow of 5.3 gpm and max auxiliary pressure of 2,756 psi, while Bobcat’s big E88 offers a max aux standard flow of 25.1 gpm and max aux pressure of 3,045 psi.

“We have over 100 Bobcat attachments for our mini excavators,” says Emanuel. “Mini excavators are designed for attachment versatility, enabling operators to switch between a wide array of attachments, including buckets, augers and breakers.”

Each attachment purchase or rental will require its own selection process, and I highly suggest you visit our archives at compactequip.com where we’ve done deep dives on almost every category. On the subject of research, also be sure to ask the host machine maker about cool attachment modes that might enhance implement performance.

John Deere excavator boom hydraulics

“We continue to build on the capability of our compact excavators to efficiently run a wide selection of attachments,” says Kei Matsumoto, product manager of compact excavators for Hitachi Construction Machinery Americas. “On the ZX30U-5N to ZX35U-5N, the operator can match the flow rate of the auxiliary hydraulic circuit to the requirements of the attachment being used with either a low or high setting. The ZX50U-5N to ZX60USB-5N excavators now feature a multistage flow rate changer that allows the operator to select five different hydraulic flow settings for increased productivity and efficiency.”

Excavator attachment selection will also depend on the coupler system used on the boom for attaching and detaching. Different mounting systems are used by different manufacturers. That means the end-user needs to work with the equipment dealer to ensure the appropriate mounting style is installed for the attachments needed. There are many options.

A standard attachment coupler system will require a person to manually secure and unsecure pins when exchanging attachments. A quick-coupler will enable fast, reliable and safe switchovers between attachments without leaving the cab. A coupler with multi-pin centers and multi-pin diameters allows the coupler to pick up all attachments in the same weight class even though they might have different pin diameters. Tilt couplers allow the attachment to be tilted without moving the machine, so that slope work on trails, golf courses and other projects are more easily accomplished. Tiltrotator coupler systems allow an excavator’s attachment to twirl 360 degrees or tilt to odd angles for exacting excavation and implement work.

“Tiltrotators are finally starting to take hold in North America,” says Peter Bigwood, general manager at Mecalac North America. “Long a popular option in Europe, and almost standard equipment in Scandinavia, these versatile devices practically turn excavators into an extension of an operator’s hand. They provide greater functionality across a wide variety of applications such as construction, landscaping and utilities and create the opportunity to do fine work that was previously only possible to do by hand.”

Mecalac Tiltrotator

Overall, there are a lot of implement options for compact excavators, including thumbs, augers, trenchers, grapples, rippers, plate compactors and mowers. The category of buckets alone will have loads of options from ditching and grading buckets to cemetery and skeleton buckets. Two other cool attachment trends for compact excavators I see are grade control and diverter valves. Grade or machine control systems are usually installed through aftermarket OEMs like Trimble or Topcon, but two mini ex manufacturers (Cat’s Ease of Use system and Bobcat’s Depth Check system) offer very cool entry-level machine control options. Grade control systems help operators dig precisely, measuring the position of the bucket and boom and controlling certain parameters set by the operator (depth, slope and elevation control) or even using a 3D model to dig and sculpt. Applications such as trenching for footings, grading ditches or digging out basements might require a consistent grade, sustained slope or precise design.

“Grade Control is becoming more of a need as it becomes a challenge to hire and retain skilled laborers,” says Worley. “This technology makes jobs more accurate and more efficient, saving time, fuel and money in the long run.”

John Deere 35P mini excavator with a compaction plate

Another trend over the last few years has been selector valves. “We have definitely seen increasing popularity in selector valves for auxiliary hydraulics on compact excavators,” notes Steger. “In addition, John Deere offers selector valves as standard equipment, mounted to the arm of the machine on the 26 P-Tier to 60 P-Tier models. This allows any machine with a hydraulic thumb to also use other auxiliary hydraulic powered attachments without the need to connect and disconnect auxiliary hydraulic hoses. It is quick and easy since the operator just needs to turn the valve to select where to route the hydraulic fluid — attachment or thumb.”

Maintenance Considerations

By Kei Matsumoto, Product Manager for Hitachi Construction Machinery Americas

When purchasing a compact excavator, it’s crucial to consider maintenance factors. These machines are often perceived as more challenging to maintain due to all the components being packaged in a small space. This makes it essential to consider access to key components and extended service intervals to help ensure ease of maintenance when comparing compact excavators. Hinged access doors that provide unobstructed access to critical service points, even in confined spaces, can make maintenance much easier. Grouped maintenance points featuring spin-on filters and ground-level, at-a-glance gauges enable quicker inspections and filter replacement. The design of the cooling package influences maintenance convenience. It’s important to ensure easy access to the oil cooler and radiator for clean out. A configuration with a side-by-side oil cooler and radiator core, accessible behind a wide-open access door, simplifies debris removal. For proper operation, excavator pins and bushings require regular greasing. The design of these crucial joints can extend the intervals between greasing sessions, thereby increasing uptime and reducing maintenance needs.

Mini Excavator Cabs and Maintenance

JCB 35Z1 excavator

The operator station of a compact excavator has come a long way, and today they are especially customizable — for long days and short rents. Do you want an enclosed cab with heat and air or is an open-air rollover protection system (ROPS) just fine?

“The fact that a comfortable operator is more productive has led many manufacturers, including Takeuchi, to introduce more comfort features on their compact excavators, including larger cabins with more features such as heat, AC, AM/FM/Bluetooth radio, multi-function color monitors, touch controls, jog dials, USB ports and 12V outlets,” explains Caldwell.

First, that seat. An air-suspended seat with lumbar support and limitless adaptability will immediately enhance comfort and probably production. Owners and operators can get that seat heated too. The overall size of the cab is important, including the door opening, shoulder room and foot and floor space. Check for ample storage. Work the ergonomic controls, adjustable wrist rests, adjustable windows, windshields and automotive-style climate controls. Ensure that switching from pilot controls to traditional backhoe configurations (ISO to SAE) is simple. This writer is old and prefers backhoe pattern. Also, a radio with Bluetooth technology can enhance an operator’s groove.

From the cab, explore how the machine sounds and travels. Does the unit have a solid construction that absorbs vibration? How loud is it? Does it have an auto idle or eco mode feature to automatically rev down, lower noise and save fuel costs? How does it travel? Mini excavators can move pretty slowly, so some manufacturers offer innovative travel tech. Ask about them.

“Another thing that an operator will notice about a Mecalac MCR crawler-skid excavator is its speed,” says Bigwood. “Each machine in the series is capable of travel speeds up to 6.2 mph, which is twice that of a mini excavator and close to many compact track loaders on the market. Given that approximately 15 percent of an excavator’s time is spent traveling around the jobsite, going from point A to B in half the time means more productivity.”

LCD touchscreen digital displays are now the command centers for the most high-tech excavators. Through these sophisticated control panels, operators and mechanics can access machine maintenance vitals, service manuals and security and language protocols. Operators can access the pattern changer or hydraulic quick-coupler with the push of a digital button. Attachment automation features are also available, often via these digital displays. Adjustable auxiliary attachment flow or continuous flow can be dialed in precisely from these command centers. Mini ex operators might be even able to set kick outs or walls, ceilings and dig depth via automation tech in the cab. Ask about them.

“Bobcat offers its Depth Check system, which provides operators with real-time depth and grade measurements, allowing for precise digging and grading without the need for manual measurements,” says Emanuel.

Not exactly in the cab, but telematics is another feature that excavator owners are adding for a monthly fee or often getting for free for the first couple of years of ownership. Telematics is an umbrella term for a variety of technologies and services that monitor a unit, collecting and sharing digital data on everything from systems analysis (think maintenance) to location (think theft). A telematics monitoring device would be installed on the unit or multiple units, and vested parties would be able to monitor those machines via smart devices like a computer, phone or tablet.

“SmartAssist Remote, Yanmar’s telematics system, comes standard with all new mini excavators for the first five years, which is another differentiator for our brand,” notes Evans. “The system offers both theft protection through GPS tracking and diagnostics. The machine’s owner can view the operational status of the equipment in real time along with daily reports.”

Easy maintenance overall is important. When buying or renting, buyers should prioritize a maintenance walk-around. How easy is it to properly grease, check fluids, inspect filters, access the battery and clean the undercarriage? Ask about flip-up cabs, ground-level access and all the extra toughness built into the model.

“JCB offers heavy-duty king posts, 500-hour bronze graphite impregnated bushings, full width cast rear doors, top mounted boom rams and hydraulic hose protection to extend life and boost uptime,” notes Tice. “Our flat glass panels on the enclosed cabs are less expensive to replace. Multiple points of access such as tilting cabs and rear engine doors make quick work of daily inspections and scheduled service.”

Tail Swings, Backfill Blades, Tracks and Tires

John Deere 30P excavator

Compact excavators are designed to work in tight quarters — next to a house or busy lane of traffic. With this in mind, manufacturers offer three main tail swing configurations. On conventional tail swing machines, the rear of the machine extends over the track width. Minimal or reduced tail swing usually means, under the same condition, the counterweight might extend a few inches outside the width of the lower track pads. Lastly, there are zero tail swing machines, which means the rear of the machine never protrudes past the tracks of the machine at any point. This function allows an operator to get close to a structure or in tight areas.

“The most popular compact excavator model Case currently offers is our CX37C,” says Butzke. “The CX37C provides excellent value and performance in a compact footprint. An adjustable boom and its zero tail swing design allow for work in confined applications, and standard features such as auxiliary hydraulics and backfill blade help owners get the most out of their investment.”

Attached to the undercarriage frame, a backfill blade is an important part of the compact excavator’s arsenal. The blade is used to backfill spoils into a trench, grade material, add stability while digging and help prop up a unit for undercarriage work. There are some unique backfill blade options out there. Blades can come in simple push configurations or angle versions. Blades on the smallest micro units will have the ability to fold in with a retractable undercarriage. There are also four-way and six-way angle blades.

DEVELON DX62R compact excavator

“An angle blade helps not having to reposition the machine a lot,” explains Jacob Sherman, product and dealer marketing manager at Develon (formerly Doosan). “It’s definitely got its advantages. If you’re doing a lot of backfilling, it’s positive ROI. If you’re not, say you have a track loader backfilling, maybe it’s not overly critical.”

Those blades attach to the compact excavator’s undercarriage, which can be broken down into many components and systems. A sprocket is a profiled wheel with teeth that meshes with the compact excavator’s tracks. Idler wheels are at the front of the track frame that guides the rubber track. Rollers are metal wheels that are mounted to the top and bottom of the track frame, which support and guide the rubber track between the sprocket and the front idler. Some brands boast cool systems: “The Volvo EC37 and ECR40 units that we just launched have an elongated undercarriage for more stability, and this reduces the dreaded rocking chair effect for operators,” says Ashton.

There is also a variety of tracks. Owners and operators can choose between aftermarket tracks or OEM tracks, the latter coming from the mini excavator manufacturer. There is usually a budget-friendly alternative aimed at less abrasive applications, and there are always higher-grade options. Discussion points might include rubber quality, resistance to punctures, cable corrosion, detracking, tread life, vibration and the “carcass.”

Camso tracks

There are also pattern choices, which vary by name and design, but popular patterns include: turf (light footprint); slick surface (traction on snow/wet surfaces); zig-zag (mud); all-terrain (from rocks to mud to lawns); and the C-pattern (a standard OEM tread). There will also be straight rubber tracks (most popular), steel tracks (for bigger diggers in aggressive applications) and hybrids which are a mix of steel and rubber usually with detachable pads. Instead of tracks, wheeled models are also becoming available in America, but they are usually on the larger end of the compact realm, aimed at applications that require roading.

“Wheeled excavators have long been popular in Europe, and we’re now seeing them become more popular in North America,” says Caldwell. “Wheeled models are great for urban areas because they can move quickly from jobsite to jobsite.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes you can’t have it all… unless you rent. From finding the right dealer to scoring the perfect rental machine, we have you covered!

Diesel Engines and Electric Variants

For the most part, off-highway diesel engines power compact excavators, ranging from around 13 to 70+ hp. All newly sold excavator engines will meet EPA’s newest standards for off-highway diesel engines known as Tier 4 Final. Some small excavator units rely on emissions-reducing exhaust filters known as diesel particulate filters or DPFs, which require periodic cleaning called regeneration. Bigger units require SCR technology, which stands for selective catalytic reduction. It’s a Tier 4 Final system aimed at cleaning up emissions too, and it requires the use of an extra liquid (diesel exhaust fluid or DEF) at about 2 percent the ratio of fuel. NOTE: Most compact excavators won’t require DEF. In fact, “An engine that is under 25 hp typically has the benefit of no additional exhaust aftertreatment systems needed to meet regulatory requirements,” notes Evans.

Electric-powered variants are starting to creep into the American market as well, boasting big upfront price tags but also low fuel costs, little maintenance and zero emissions.

“The most unique excavator in JCB’s lineup is the JCB 19C-1E battery-electric excavator,” says Tice. “It is a 1.9-ton excavator powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries and offers the same performance as a diesel equivalent with no compromises in lifting capacity or breakout force. You can recharge it at home or in the shop with regular 120V or 240V current. A 480V fast charger is also available that can recharge in as little as two hours.”

Volvo Construction electric excavators

The primary reason contractors buy or rent a battery-powered excavator today is that the quiet operation and zero emissions performance enables them to work in places where a diesel machine might not be allowed. Like JCB, Volvo Construction Equipment has produced electric mini excavators for a couple of years now, offering three electric models ranging from 16 to 20 kWh.

“Takeuchi has more sustainable excavator options with the battery powered TB20e and the hybrid TB216H,” says Caldwell. “The TB216H’s performance is identical whether using the diesel engine or the electric motor. The TB20e is a zero-emissions and low-noise-level compact excavator with the same performance features and capabilities as diesel-powered machines in the same class. Both models are ideal for use in areas that have both noise and emissions restrictions.”

The ARA Show 2024 wacker neuson electric excavator

Many other brands are beginning to market electric units in America. Wacker Neuson showcased a 1.7-metric-ton battery-powered excavator, the EZ17e, in its ARA Show booth in February. At the Consumer Electronics Show, John Deere showed off its mid-sized 145 X-Tier electric excavator prototype powered by Kreisel battery tech (a company Deere acquired and is expanding). Bobcat has a partnership with Green Machine (an equipment electrification expert) to make and sell electric mini excavators.

“Electrification is the hot topic of the industry right now,” says Dotto. “As battery technology continues to evolve, we will see more small electric excavators enter the market.”

Go Operate Some Mini Excavators

Kubota U55-5 excavator

To complement all of this great information, demos will be required. “You will have to visit your local dealer or the nearest independent rental company that has compact excavators and operate them,” confirms Matsumoto. “So you can feel the smooth hydraulics and attachment operation. This cannot be described in text. You need to experience the machine yourself.”

Keith Gribbins is publisher of Compact Equipment.

Breaker Attachment Selection

By David Caldwell, National Product Manager for Takeuchi-US

Takeuchi hammer attachment

Selecting the right hammer attachment for a compact excavator starts by considering your application, which will dictate the appropriate hammer size and impact power. From there, you must ensure that your excavator has the capacity, hydraulic flow and pressure required for the hammer to perform properly. The best way to match gpm and psi is to compare the spec sheet for both the carrier and the attachment to ensure compatibility. Some more powerful breakers will require high-flow hydraulics, but other models will not. For example, Takeuchi offers hammers that require as little as 4 gpm up to 40 gpm.

Hammers can be powered by hydraulic oil or nitrogen gas, which is the more traditional of the two options. However, oil-fired models eliminate the need for occasional recharging as the hammer will maintain its power throughout its life cycle, giving these models a distinct advantage. An integrated, membrane-type accumulator eliminates nitrogen leakage and the need to recharge for lower operating costs and consistent impact energy. Hammers also come with different bodies and housings. Those with single-body, suppressed-sound designs offer excellent noise and vibration insulation, as well as protection from dust and debris.

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