Really, there?s nothing wrong with shovels and mattocks. If you have to move earth, then good old-fashioned manual labor is one sure-fire way to get it done. On the other hand, if you move a lot of earth, or if ? like many contractors ? your company already has three workers handling the work of four, perhaps you?ve considered mechanizing your digging.

The mini-excavators on the market today pack a lot of power and versatility into small packages. The contractor may go in one of two directions in terms of the mini-excavators: 1) dedicated, stand-alone equipment or 2) multi-task compact loaders with 30 or more attachments, including a backhoe. Both schools have merit, and the availability of these tools is significant to the green industry.
?Compact excavators,? says Tom Connor, excavator product representative for Bobcat, ?are an integral, labor-saving element of many landscapers? machinery fleet. The excavator can be used for excavation (sidewalks, paving stones, ponds, etc.); moving and placing of spoil for a desired topography; placement of landscape material (boulders, timbers, rock, etc.); compaction requirements and also for final grading.?

Getting tight with your customers
Influencing the demand for small excavators is the postage stamp-sized sites that landscape contractors are being called to. Property holdings are becoming smaller and smaller in this country, so neighbors are closer to each other than ever before. Contractors have more confined spaces in which to work, spaces that eliminate the possibility of full-sized equipment. Therefore, units that can fit through gates and between structures with relative ease are just what the professional ordered.

Associate marketing manager for the Toro Company, Brad Paine says, ?The most important thing that contractors can do today that they couldn?t do five to ten years ago is fit very powerful equipment into confined areas. Previously, contractors had to remove fences and damage turf or dig by hand to get this type of work done. As neighborhoods become tighter, and more and more people want to make improvements to their existing features, the need for compact equipment will continue to grow.?

Focusing on this kind of need, manufacturers? marketing materials often contain illustrations of their machines slipping unscathed through a garden gate ? an allegorical camel through the eye of a needle.

In cities, where folks may garden and landscape on rooftops and other out-of-the-way corners, the benefits of smaller units are obvious. Alan Porter, president of Kanga Loaders, points out that landscape professionals today have the opportunity to design and build in indoor terrariums and atop penthouses. The light weight of this equipment, he says, means it can be lifted in service elevators and can squeeze through the most confined areas.

Another benefit of small excavators and compact loaders with multiple attachments is the way this equipment can stretch your manpower. A three-person crew suddenly becomes a two-person crew with one of these units, enabling the company to redistribute its workforce and thereby accomplish more tasks at once.

Dedicated or versatile?
On one side of the coin, a contractor may choose a dedicated mini-excavator like those produced by Takeuchi or Kubota. If an operator will be moving earth all day long, a dedicated unit will be advantageous. If, however, the clientele dictate smaller excavation projects mingled with other needs ? preparing seed beds or digging post holes, for instance ? the versatility of machines like the Toro Dingo, the Kanga Loader and the PowerHouse ASV RC-30 make them capable of handling a long list of common landscaping tasks. Trenchers, augers, tillers and snow blowers are examples of the attachments such machines can accommodate.
Brett Johnson, owner of Vertical Earth (a retaining wall company) and Johnson Landscapes, both in Cumming, Georgia, has a Takeuchi TB145 and a Scat Trak 545 in his fleet.

?We bought our first mini-excavator to do footings for the retaining wall company,? he explains, ?but then we also started using it in the landscaping company for installing trees. Now we?re doing a lot of creek projects ? creek rehabilitations and that type of thing.?
Concerning his preference for the stand-alone models, he adds, ?It?s a stronger piece of equipment, and it?s versatile in that you?re able to do a lot more work with it. Granted, you can?t put all the attachments on it like you can a Dingo, but with our company, we have 15 pieces of larger equipment like skid steers that we can move between crews.?

Having the mini-excavators on hand has contributed significantly to both companies? productivity. On the landscaping side, Johnson reports that he?s now able to install 80-100 trees per day on large commercial sites. With the retaining wall company, crews can go places where they couldn?t go before.

?You can get into wetter areas with the tracks,? he says, ?because you get a lot less ground pressure as opposed to a skid steer. We?ve done irrigation projects where we?ve had to cross lakes, stream beds and creeks ? places where you wouldn?t be able to get a trencher or a skid steer across.?

By contrast, Eric Hart says Sykesville, Maryland-based Hart-scapes Landscaping couldn?t ac-complish as much with a dedicated piece of equipment. The design/ build company, which lists pond-building among its common chores, owns a Power Trac 422 and two Power Trac 1460s.

?You can take one machine to the job,? says Hart. ?You can go there with five attachments and do a day?s work. When we install a pond, we need something to dig the hole with and something else to carry rock and line the pond.?

Furthermore, Hartscapes uses its Power Tracs to push snow and to trench for irrigation systems and for a local electrical contractor. Other attachments the company uses in its operations include the stump grinder and the auger.

Hart points out two other reasons he likes the units with attachments:

  1. Some insurance costs are saved because a single machine does so many different tasks;
  2. ?You can run over the same area 20 times, and all it?ll do is mat the grass down. It doesn?t tear the grass.?

Mike Hennessey, president of Hennessey Landscape Services in Plaistow, New Hampshire, alludes to how a compact loader like the Kanga used by his company can make a contractor as full service as possible.

?With a loader like this,? Hennessey explains, ?the contractor can do irrigation by using a trencher or a vibratory plow. Then he can go back, put his bucket on and move material like plants and bark mulch. He can put a set of nursery tongs on and move trees. He can put an auger on to dig holes to plant the trees. He?s gone from being an irrigation guy to being a landscaper to even putting a cement bowl on and being a masonry contractor.?

Going shopping
As one might guess, the path to owning a small excavator will often include rentals. Renting can help companies decide which type of machine is best suited for what they do and has the added advantage of building relationships with local dealers.
?Renting is a low-risk way to try out all the different types of equipment,? says Paine. ?Then, when the contractor finds that he?s renting once a week, he should start thinking about purchasing. This is certainly true if he?s renting twice a week.?
Once you can justify the purchase of a mini-excavator, you face the task of determining which one fits best with your company?s operations. Dan Rafferty, product sales manager for Takeuchi US, believes that the two most important criteria when buying an excavator are digging depth and weight. The latter is important when figuring out how the equipment will be transported, he says, because anything over 10,000 pounds will usually require a CDL license and a larger truck.
Rafferty offers these additional tips for coming home from the dealership with the best machine:

  • Size the machine to the job it will handle. ?If 95 percent of what you?re doing can be handled by a 135 with an 11-foot digging depth,? he says, ?why go with anything bigger? You don?t bring a five-pound sledge hammer if you?re trying to drive a finish nail.?
  • Make sure it has a smooth operation. ?You need to be able to stop it where you want to stop it. It shouldn?t be a guessing game.?
  • Ensure that you can set your controls the way you want them ? standard controls vs. non-standard controls.
    Look at bucket break-out force. Can a loaded bucket tear its way out of the type of soil you?ll be working in?
  • Check out the bucket capacity.
  • Ask, ?How serviceable is this equipment?? If you can fix most problems yourself, that will be worth more to you than having to locate a dealer who can take care of it for you.
  • Compare and contrast warranty rates, and make an informed judgment about reliability. You?ll want the excavator to keep making you money for as long as possible.
  • Operator comfort is a more important feature than some folks would allow (even though operators have known it all along). Says Rafferty, ?On a machine that?s uncomfortable, you?ll want to spend 15 or 20 minutes stretching your arms and legs to keep the blood flowing. It makes a difference that, at the end of the day, you?re still as productive as at the start of the day.?
    Speaking of comfort, the contractor who anticipates long days in the saddle can take it a step higher if he?s willing to pay for the extras that some manufacturers offer.

?Owner-operators may tend to have the machine with more amenities such as an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning, AM/FM radio or keyless entry,? explains Connor.

Connor adds that another consideration when purchasing a mini-excavator is the dealer?s access to attachable tools: ?A contractor should investigate the availability of rental attachments from his or her dealer. Some attachments may be needed on specific jobs, but contractors won?t be able to justify owning them all due to low utilization.?

Paine seconds the idea that the dealer relationship should factor into the buying decisions. ?Contractors need to look for a dealer that they can work with, somebody that?s going to be there,? he says. ?Regardless of the equipment, at some point they?re going to need service. They?re going to need support from the dealer.?

Technology is one thing that gets smaller as science gets bigger. Landscape contractors who?ve noticed that the yards they work in are getting narrower all the time shouldn?t worry. Somewhere out there is a machine that will fit where you need to go and one that will do exactly what you need it to do. Of course, if there is a place that a mini-excavator or small loader with a backhoe attachment can?t squeeze through, you?ve always got shovels.

January 2003