Team up on Earthmoving Work with Compact Equipment

Nov. 1, 1999

Brian Williams has made a success of Taff’s Mini Excavation Inc. in Plymouth, MA, by following a deceptively simple motto: We go where no one else goes. Good thing for the homeowners he serves, like the two whose adjacent homes sit atop a 75-ft.-high bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Storm-driven rain and waves had eroded the edge of the bluff to within 6 ft. of the houses’ foundations, threatening to topple them. Stabilizing the receding slope meant installing erosion control blankets to temporarily protect the slope from erosion and hand-planting a thousand native shrubs to permanently hold the slope in place. But, first, fill had to be placed over the slope and then covered with topsoil.

The 6-ft.-wide working space between the houses and the edge of the slope ruled out the use of large equipment, such as a wheel loader. So Williams and his compact equipment were called in. Arriving with a skid-steer loader (1,350-lb.-rated operating capacity) and a 5-ton compact excavator, he went to work. Using the skid-steer loader, he carried trucked-in fill and topsoil from a landing to the narrow work site. There the excavator scooped up the dirt. Then, swinging the excavator’s boom out and over the slope, he cast the dirt by the bucketful across the slopes.

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By the time they completed the eight-day project, Williams and his team of compact machines had placed about 1,800 yd.3 of fill and 320 yd.3 of topsoil on the slopes.

While such a limited-access, limited-working-space job might stymie contractors with larger equipment, it’s business as usual for Williams. In fact, much of his business comes from larger excavating companies throughout the Boston area. They call him when their equipment is too big to do a job efficiently. Without advertising his services, Williams says, he can keep busy seven days a week.

Part of that demand reflects his commitment to respond to any call within 24 hours, if necessary. However, a large part of his success also reflects the ability the compact equipment gives him to live up to his motto.

The Thomas 173 HLS skid-steer loader has a 1,700-lb.-rated operating capacity, a 4,450-lb. breakout force, and a 106.8-in. dump height.

“I haven’t done an easy job yet,” he notes. “Usually things are very tight when I get called in. There’s no room for error.”

Williams began his one-man business in 1990 with a skid-steer loader. He added a compact excavator five years ago. “I saw it as a way to do work no one else around here could do,” he explains.

Much of his work involves residential projects, such as excavating small foundations, installing septic systems, and making emergency utility repairs where trees, shrubs, and tightly packed houses can hamper the movement and operation of larger equipment.

Sometimes a skid-steer loader is the only alternative to a strong back and a wheelbarrow for moving dirt and other construction materials from the street to the backyard, Williams says.

He estimates he uses his skid-steer loader about 20% of the time on a typical project, mainly for hauling and placing materials. The rest of the time, he’s operating his compact excavator. “With the 30-inch bucket and the backfill blade I can take care of any job I go to. Also, with my equipment, I don’t make just getting to the backyard a project in itself. People like that.”

Williams and his customers aren’t the only ones who appreciate the value of combining a skid-steer loader with a compact excavator. More and more contractors are adopting this concept.

The Thomas T35S mini-excavator features 6,812-plus lb. of bucket breakout force, an operating weight of 7,121 lb., and a digging depth of 134.8 in.

“The skid-steer loader and mini-excavator combination is rapidly becoming the entry-level choice-replacing the tractor-loader-backhoe,” says Robert Davis with Compact Technologies in Simsbury, CT, which manufactures SCAT TRAK skid-steer loaders and excavators. “In most close-quarter applications, mini-excavators and skid-steer loaders consistently outperform tractor-loader-backhoes. Contractors are choosing this combination because it can do more work and do it faster and at less cost than tractor-loader-backhoes.”

Melroe Company in Fargo, ND, which makes Bobcat skid-steer loaders and excavators, was the first to actively promote the compact combination in 1993 as a profitable alternative to tractor-loader-backhoes. For typical excavation projects, the skid-steer loader hauls away dirt and other materials and backfills, while the excavator digs and loads.

The concept capitalizes on the speed, agility, and multiple skills of these smaller machines to compensate for what they lack in brute force. Peter Mabee, product and marketing manager for Thomas Equipment Ltd. in Centreville, NB, Canada, sums up the case for a compact-equipment team this way: “Having two machines, which by their very nature are extremely versatile with the ability to handle a multitude of jobs, increases the versatility of the contractor, allowing him to offer additional job-site services, create new income sources, and become more efficient, more cost-effective, and more competitive.”

A Bobcat 753 skid-steer loader and 325 excavator work together in tight quarters. The loader features a 1,350-lb. rated operating capacity.

As for matching a skid-steer loader and a compact excavator in terms of size and power, the best choices depend on how you plan to use the machines, say the experts. For example, select a pair that will work best for the type of soil conditions in which you’ll use the machines. Kim Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Daewoo Heavy Industries America in Suwanee, GA, offers this suggestion: “Figure out the maximum requirement you’ll need, then go a little bigger. So if you need a 1,000-pound-capacity skid-steer loader, get a 1,300-pound machine.” More and more customers are finding new applications for their loaders and are demanding more productivity out of their machines, attachments, and operators. This rule of thumb can be applied to mini-excavators as well.

When it comes to making quick work of a wide range of tasks, it’s tough to beat a skid-steer loader. With their hydrostatic drives, the machines can turn completely around on a dime and keep work-cycle times low and productivity high. Thanks to an amazing array of quick-changing attachments, they can tackle just about any type of job on any construction site. The wide choice of attachments includes such tools as augers, tooth buckets, dozer blades, six-way grading blades, land planes, scarifiers, and trenchers.
The bobcat 325 excavator has a 5,760-lb. operating weight and a 98.9 in. digging depth.

Skid-steer loaders are designed to meet a variety of size and power needs. The smallest weighs around 2,500 lb., with a rated operating capacity (one-half the tipping load) of 600 lb. It will slip through an opening no more than 3 ft. wide without scraping a 6-ft.-high door opening. The largest ones weigh in around 10,000 lb. or more and boast rated operating capacities of at least 3,000 lb. In addition to much improved reliability and ease of servicing compared to machines of the past, today’s skid-steer loaders offer such features as electronic monitoring of engine and machine functions; high-flow hydraulics; enclosed, heated cabs; choice of hand or foot controls; longer wheelbases for smoother rides; and vertical lift paths for loading and unloading chores.

New Holland North America in New Holland, PA, makes the LS Series skid-steers that feature the Super Boom lift linkage. This design provides a vertical lift path that keeps the load in view at all times and provides forward reach at maximum lift height. “There are no rear towers to block an operator’s view,” notes Kirk Gillette, general manager of marketing for New Holland. “The long wheelbase and low center of gravity give a more stable, smoother ride. And because of this stability, they can operate at faster ground speeds so that more work can be accomplished in a shorter time.”

As with skid-steer loaders, the choices in size, power, and performance of compact excavators are many. They range from 1-ton machines that can dig nearly 8 ft. deep or more, to the 5-ton models with digging depths of at least 12 ft. and bucket breakout forces approaching 10,000 lb. At least two of the smallest excavators feature hydraulically expandable undercarriages. One manufacturer’s smallest excavator measures just less than 39 in. wide in its slimmest form to squeeze through a gate or other narrow opening. Once the excavator is at the job site, the undercarriage can be expanded up to 53 in. wide for more stability and improved excavating and lifting performance.

These are serious work machines that take full advantage of their small size. Many are as sophisticated as their much bigger counterparts on a construction site.

“The operation of mini-excavators mirrors their big brothers with smooth and precise hydraulic pilot controls,” says Mabee. “For operator preference and comfort, some offer a choice of control patterns, ISO [backhoe style] or SAE [excavator style], available at the flip of a lever. State-of-the-art design and performance features also include efficient, hydrostatic piston pump drives; regenerative dipper hydraulic circuits for faster arm speeds; and high bucket and boom breakout forces to help ensure maximum productivity.”

A JCB 803 mini-excavator and 165 Series Robot skid-steer loader join forces to tear out a factory’s concrete floor.

Depending on make and model, manufacturers’ offerings also include:

  • Heated, enclosed cabs.
  • Ergonomically designed controls for more operator comfort and less fatigue.
  • Two-speed transmissions to save travel time between workstations.
  • Half-pitch tracks for a more comfortable ride.
  • Rubber tracks for a smooth, quiet ride and for operating on concrete curbs and driveways, lawns, or other sensitive surfaces or steel tracks for better performance and reliability on rough, rocky ground.
  • A floating blade for more efficient cleanup work, especially on finished surfaces.
  • The ability to swing the house, curl the bucket, extend the arm, and raise the boom simultaneously.
  • The ability to use any excavating function while traveling on a straight course.
  • Fast, easy access for servicing.
  • Quick-changing attachments, including digging buckets, grading buckets, hydraulic buckets, augers, grapples, and hydraulic clamps or thumbs.
The New Holland LS Series skid-steer includes the Super Boom lift linkage to keep the load in view at all times.

Features and capabilities such as these, say proponents, make a skid-steer-loader/compact-excavator team a worthy choice when there’s little room to work and maneuver a tractor-loader-backhoe or other large excavating or grading equipment.

“In that situation, the two compact machines give you the flexibility to take care of just about anything you run across,” says Marcel Dunant with Southeastern Machinery in Savannah, GA. “You can perform the job faster with fewer people and less expense than a contractor with a tractor-loader-backhoe.”

“It would appear at first glance that the tractor-loader-backhoe with its likely 14-foot digging depth and larger bucket capacity would outperform both the mini-excavator and the skid-steer on the job site,” adds Mabee. “However, most excavating is done in the 7- to 8-foot range, which is well within the production capabilities of even the smaller mini-excavators. Also, the mini-excavators offer performance features that can’t be matched by tractor-loader-backhoes. When it comes to moving material, the skid-steer doesn’t have to take a back seat either. Because of its compact size, the skid-steer can get into tight areas that the tractor-loader-backhoe couldn’t get near. The skid-steer and mini-excavator can also be used in very confined areas where, traditionally, only hand labor could go, which reduces labor costs. Also, the higher productivity of the machines can reduce the time it takes to complete the job.”

Figures from Melroe compare one of its compact excavators with an average tractor-loader-backhoe:

Average Tractor-Loader-Backhoe*
Bobcat 331 Excavator
Machine Weight (lb.) 13,333 7,020 (6,313)
Dig Depth (2-ft. flat bottom) 14’3″ 10’1″ (4’2′)
Reach 18’2″ 15’11” (2’3″)
Loading Height 11’2″ 10’2″ (1′)
Loading Reach 7’4″ 7’10” (6″)
Breakout Force–dipper (lb.) 7,645 3,600 (4,045)
Breakout Force–bucket (lb.) 11,876 7,000 (4,876)
Lift Capacity–boom (lb.) 2,482-2,974 1,000-1,430 (1,482)-(1,544)

*Average of Case 580 Super L, Caterpillar 416C and John Deer 310E

To add perspective to this comparison, look at digging depth and reach. Even though the tractor-loader-backhoe has a 4-ft.-deeper digging depth, its advantage in reach is only slightly more than 2 ft. Remember, as Mabee points out, most excavation work usually goes no deeper than about 8 ft., which is well within the range of this excavator. The 14-ft. digging depth of the most popular tractor-loader-backhoes gives them the reach to do more work from one spot before having to reposition. That’s important with a tractor-loader-backhoe because of the time and effort required for repositioning. However, it is much less of a concern with a compact excavator, simply because it can be repositioned much faster and much more easily.

In terms of loading ability-a critical performance feature for both types of machines-the two are much more evenly matched. The tractor-loader-backhoe enjoys just a 1-ft. advantage in loading height, while the compact excavator has a 6-in.-greater loading reach.

Still, when it comes to sheer lifting power and ability to dig in heavy, tough soil conditions, the tractor-loader-backhoe can clearly outperform a smaller compact excavator.

Here’s a closer look at some of the advantages of a skid-steer-loader/compact-excavator team compared to a tractor-loader-backhoe:

Simultaneous operations. This is probably the most obvious advantage. The two compact machines can do different jobs, at the same site or different sites, simultaneously.

“It’s a totally different way of doing things,” observes Dunant. “The excavator operator can be digging while the skid-steer-loader [operator] loads the dump truck. The skid-steer-loader operator can then hop into the truck and go dump while the excavator continues to dig. When he gets back with the truck, the skid-steer-loader operator can start loading again. It’s a really fluid system.”

Don’t forget, the two compact machines can also do more than excavate or load material. The loader backhoe can do just one job at a time, usually only digging or loading. Of course, two machines require two operators; the tractor-loader-backhoe, just one. However, with a tractor-loader-backhoe job, such as digging a trench, a second person is often assigned to stand by and touch up with a shovel as needed. Faster job-cycle times. The skid-steer loader can maneuver much faster than a tractor-loader-backhoe. With its 360º cab rotation, the compact excavator lets you dig in any position around the machine without losing sight of the bucket or other tool and gives you unlimited spoil-dumping options.

The independent boom swing allows you to dig quickly and efficiently around obstacles and close to walls and other structures. You can even dig a square hole the width of your machine without repositioning. When you do reposition, there are no stabilizers to raise and lower.

Increased flotation. Even the largest compact excavators tread lightly, typically exerting less than 5 psi of pressure on the ground. That keeps you working when wet conditions would stop a loader backhoe. You can also equip skid-steer loaders with tracks so both machines can work on soft and muddy soils. Of course, tracks also eliminate the expense of flat tires. More versatility. As previously mentioned, there are many attachments available for skid-steer loaders. In addition, compact-excavator tools include buckets of various widths, augers, hydraulic breakers, plate compactors, thumbs, and grapples. These excavators also have a push blade for backfilling and grading a site. What’s more, this blade can be used to quickly and easily stabilize the machine when needed. Less site preparation. For a tractor-loader-backhoe, gaining access to a backyard digging job, such as excavating for a swimming pool, might require removing fences or bushes. Often that’s not necessary with the smaller machines. No additional transportation equipment. You can carry both a skid-steer loader and a compact excavator to and from your job site using the same equipment you use to haul a tractor-loader-backhoe.

  • More jobs. As the availability of flatter building sites diminishes, more homes are being built on sloping sites. Sometimes the only way to do the digging and grading work is with small tracked machines or by hand.
  • Performance features are fine. But the bottom line for most grading and excavating contractors is the bottom line. Can you make any money with a skid-steer-loader/compact-excavator combination?

    Some say the profit in smaller equipment lies in doing the jobs that backhoes can’t do. For example, it’s not unheard of for a compact excavator to command more dollars per hour from customers than would a backhoe.

    Dunant reports that some contractors at Hilton Head, SC, are making $60-$80 per hour with their skid-steer loaders. “That’s about the same as backhoe contractors,” he points out. “However, the cost to buy a backhoe could be about twice as high as a skid-steer loader.” What’s more, he adds, the fuel to run both a skid-steer loader and a compact excavator for a day costs less than to operate a typical backhoe for the same time.
    A SCAT TRAK 2300D skid-steer loader and 235 mini-excavator gang up on work at this residential site.

    The economics of compact equipment also hinge on purchase price. While that varies with make and model, the combined cost of a skid-steer-loader / compact-excavator package is typically no more and might even be a little less than that of an average tractor-loader-backhoe, according to Mabee. For example, he notes that the combined list price of one specific midsize skid-steer loader and one particular compact excavator with a 10-ft. digging depth is $56,100. A smaller skid-steer loader and a compact excavator with an 8.5-ft. digging depth might have a retail price tag of less than $40,000. A comparable tractor-loader-backhoe, Mabee says, would probably cost about $57,000-$65,000.

    Melroe has compared the cost of buying, owning, and repairing one of its skid-steer loaders and compact excavators (a Bobcat System) with a generic 14-ft. tractor-loader-backhoe’s costs. While the cost of ownership and repair for a Bobcat 763 loader and Bobcat 331 excavator combination ($18 and $16/hr., respectively) is higher than for that of an average 14-ft. tractor-loader-backhoe ($31/hr.), the flexibility afforded by the combined system can be an advantage in many situations.

    While contractor Claude Childers says specific figures may vary, he’s convinced that his compact-equipment combination is more profitable in his business than his tractor-loader-backhoe. He owns Childers & Company Inc., a Lee’s Summit, MO, excavating firm that specializes in close-quarters work for contractors, homeowners, and telecommunications companies. His equipment includes one of the smallest skid-steer loaders (600-lb.-rated operating capacity) and one of the smallest compact excavators (1 ton) on the market, as well as a larger (3.5-ton) compact excavator and a tractor-loader-backhoe.

    “Our tractor-loader-backhoe is our most expensive machine and sits more than the rest,” Childers admits. “In terms of maintenance and mortality costs, our trenchers and cable plows are high, our skid-steer loader is low, and our compact excavators are the lowest. If I could have just one machine the rest of my life, it would be a compact excavator.”

    His skid-steer loader and his smallest excavator both fit through a typical fence gate, he says. “We use them in backyards where no one else can get in with their equipment.”

    They also pay off in other applications. Last winter, for example, the two were used for a job at an industrial gas plant where the only other alternative to working inside of a maze of aboveground piping was a lot of hand digging. The skid-steer loader also may be paired with his larger excavator to repair utility cables buried beneath streets. There the small machines can maneuver without restricting traffic, Childers says.

    He also likes using the skid-steer loader to backfill behind a compact excavator. “One of the nice things about using the two machines together is that you can bring the whole trenching job along as you go. When we used the backhoe for trenching, we had to stop digging every time we wanted to backfill with it. By the end of the day everyone else on the project was going home, and we’d still have to backfill everything.”

    Despite the many strengths of a compact digging and excavating team, there are still jobs where only a tractor-loader-backhoe will do. That’s in the more open, high-production jobs that require little maneuvering and plenty of digging, where the increased power and larger capacities of tractor-loader-backhoes can be used to best advantage. In fact, for some contractors it’s not an either/or choice.

    “The skid-steer-loader/mini-excavator combination won’t totally replace the tractor-loader-backhoe,” says George Chaney, compact products marketing manager for JCB in White Marsh, MD, which makes lines of all three machines. “You’ll findcontractors who would never replace a full-size loader backhoe with the compact machines. However, they would definitely consider complementing their backhoe with a skid-steer loader and a mini-excavator.”

    Job Costs

    Example #1

    This example assumes that the two compact machines — a skid-steer loader and excavator — working together, can do in one day (8 hours) what it takes a single tractor-loader-backhoe two days (16 hours) to accomplish.

    TLB completes a job in 16 hours.

    Machine 16 hours @ $31/hour = $496

    Operator 16 hours @ $15/hr = $240

    Total Cost $736

    Compact equipment completes the same job in 8 hours

    Two machines 8 hours @ $34/hour = $272

    Two operators 8 hours @ $30/hour = $240

    Total Cost $512

    Total Costs

    TLB: $736 . . . . 16 hours

    Less total for compact equipment: $512 . . . . . 8 hours

    Savings with compact equipment $224 . . . . . 8 hours

    Example #2

    This example assumes that the compact equipment combination takes 1-1/4 days (10 hours) to do the same amount of work as a tractor loader backhoe does in 2 days (16 hours), you’re still ahead, saving 6 hours and $96 in operating costs.

    Compact equipment completes the same job in 10 hours

    Two machines 10 hours @ $34/hour = $340

    Two operators 10 hours @ $30/hour = $300

    Total Cost: $640

    Total Costs

    TLB :$736 . . . .
    16 hours

    Less total for compact equipment: $640 . . . . 10 hours

    Savings with compact equipment = $224 . . . . . 6 hours

    One who does just that is Paul Richards, a project superintendent for Interstate General Government Contractors in Savannah, GA. He’s winding up a yearlong project in which two compact equipment teams and a tractor-loader-backhoe were used to upgrade the entire potable water system for a 1,100-home family housing area at the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, SC, without disrupting the existing 50-year-old system. Two crews laid a total of 75,000 ft. of 4- to 12-in.-diameter pipe while working around numerous obstacles, including trees and shrubs, guy wire, storm drains, and every lateral serving the houses. Each crew started the project using a tractor-loader-backhoe with a 5,300-lb. loader lift and a 12-ft. dig depth. They excavated about 30,000 ft. of trenches before Richards tried two 4-ton compact excavators.

    “I was skeptical about using the mini-excavator at the start,” he recalls. “However, I could tell by the end of the first day how much quicker it was than the loader-backhoe.” In fact, he reports, his crews could dig about a third more feet of trenches in a day using their compact excavators than with the backhoes. One reason is the ability of the smaller machines to maneuver more quickly in tight spaces and to reposition faster. Also, the compact excavators eliminated much of the hand labor needed with the backhoes.

    Caterpillar’s skid-steer-loader has rated operating capacities of 1,350 lb.-plus.

    “The bigger the machine you use, the more finishing work you have to do by hand,” Richards says. “Anytime you eliminate handwork, you speed up the process. Because of the articulation in the boom and bucket of the mini-excavators, you can literally dig under yourself. That saved a lot of time when we had to cross under laterals or storm drains. With a backhoe, you can dig only so far under a crossing pipe from either side. You have to dig the rest out by hand. In some of the crossings, the crew with a backhoe would sometimes be 8 feet deep digging with a shovel.”

    A midsize skid-steer loader (1,350-lb.-rated operating capacity) was used primarily for backfilling the trenches. That work went faster than using a backhoe too, Richards notes. “It did a better job of cleaning up lawns and caused less damage to lawns than the backhoe. We kept the skid-steer loader very busy.”

    Once the compact excavators were brought in, Richards kept a backhoe for use where its extra power was needed, such as digging through 12-in.-thick asphalt; taking out a tree stump; and setting pipe, especially the larger pieces.

    “The backhoe had its place on the project,” he says. “We used it throughout the day. It’s still a good piece of equipment to have around.”

    Still, when it comes to digging and backfilling on a project such as this, he gives the nod to compact equipment.

    “Anytime you’re working in close quarters and your profits are tied into digging, skid-steer loaders and mini-excavators are probably the quickest way through the project,” Richards says. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the dirt with this equipment, and we’re pretty pleased with the things they will do for us.”

    The model 301.5 is the first and smallest of Cat’s four mini hydraulic excavators. It measures 38.6 in. wide.

    Dan Boman with Custom Power Excavating in Rosebud, MO, is another compact-equipment owner who’s pleased with the productivity of his machines. One time, he used his compact excavator with a four-wheel-drive tractor to dig septic systems. He preferred the performance of the tractor to that of the skid-steer loaders he had tried. Five years ago, he used a compact loader with rubber tracks (1,310-lb.-rated operating capacity) as a demonstrator when muddy soils stopped his tractor. A week later he bought the loader. He now uses it with his 5-ton compact excavator. “I use both machines together on a job all the time,” Boman says.

    When he’s not digging trenches or footings or leveling sites with his excavator, he puts the track loader to work grading and backfilling. On a septic installation, he uses the excavator about 70% of the time and the loader about 20% of the time. He does the rest of the job by hand.

    Says Boman, “I can make tighter curves and get into places where a tractor-loader-backhoe can’t. With tracks on both machines, I don’t have flat tires. The lower ground pressure of the machines means I don’t tear up wet ground as much as a rubber-tire backhoe, and I’m less concerned about damaging buried pipes.

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    “With the offset boom of my excavator I can dig curved lines for a septic system, and I can dig close to foundation walls. Using the blade on the excavator I can make a septic system job look really nice when I’m finished. I can do things more meticulously, and I don’t disturb the ground as much in wet conditions.

    “Both my loader and excavator are fast, agile, and responsive. Additionally, the raw power and stability of these machines leave many of my customers in awe.”

    Boman’s company has carved out a nice niche for itself using compact equipment. Judging by the growing use of compact-equipment teams, a lot of other grading and excavating contractors are finding similar success.