Support equipment are the unsung heroes of the grading and excavation world. If excavators and backhoes are the superheroes on a job site’s stage, support equipment would be the sidekicks, the high-tech inventors, and even the intelligent butler. They’re the ones that may not get the hot spots at excavation conferences, but without support equipment, any job would grind to a stop faster than you could say “to the Batmobile!” 

“Support equipment” may be a broad term, but that is only because each job is unique so the list of potential support equipment lengthens with every new type of job site. The term support equipment encompasses a wide array of items—both machinery add-ons and typical hardware equipment—and personnel skills that align with primary equipment like excavators to get a job done onsite. Support equipment keeps primary equipment maintained, inspected, and operational onsite, and they also keep personnel safe, help improve their efficiency, and keep them compliant with essential regulations. 

"The specific requirements of the job will largely dictate the type of equipment on the 'must-have' list," says Torsten Erbel, senior director of product management at Multiquip, a manufacturer and supplier of industrial equipment, which is headquartered in Cyprus, CA. “Of course the most important 'must-have' is a site survey and observation which will include support from other authorities such as soil engineers, water, gas, and electric utilities for any underground lines."  

This equipment is essential to make sure primary heavy machinery like excavators, backhoes, and bulldozers can live up to their full potential, as well as stay operational during a job. Some equipment is used apart from heavy machinery, but every piece of support equipment is another cog in the engine that keeps a job running smoothly. 

Support equipment can include equipment used before any earth is moved to plan the specifics of the job, safety equipment, maintenance/inspection equipment, and site cleanup equipment to complete the job. 

The first type of support equipment any manager will need to consider is equipment that assists with the planning and preparations of the job, both onsite and before any equipment is brought to a location, says James Zerr, southwest district manager of trench safety at United 

Rentals, a heavy equipment rental company headquartered in Stamford, CT. Any job requires an expert to make decisions about what methods to use, how to protect the integrity of the soil so the intended slope lasts for the long term, and how to protect workers onsite, so software or analog equipment is necessary to help that staff member create and share those plans.   

“They need to have a competent person involved to make the decision either before or during the excavation on what shielding, shoring or sloping methods need to be used,” says Zerr. 

This planning includes ordering the required equipment, such as for shoring up any areas of concern, he says. The support equipment would vary based on the type of job required, but for deeper excavations, shoring equipment helps protect workers and equipment from unintentional soil cave-ins that could harm someone and break municipal pipes, stall heavy machinery, and bury smaller pieces of equipment like ladders. 

Having the right processes for ordering equipment, scheduling rentals, and paying those companies may seem dull, but inventory management and supply chain management are critical first steps to any successful job. Without careful tracking and evaluation of your current resources, you could end up with mistakes that cost you time, money, and trust. 

“The proper selection of equipment has a huge productivity impact. Maximum digging is obtained by correct bucket selection, equipment capacity, digging arm reach, and capacity. Modern equipment has many options these days that improve productivity, such as coordinated laser attachments,” says Zerr. 

One of the most important aspects of this pre-planning process is safety, he adds. Picking the right equipment for shoring, for example, will make it possible to bring only the equipment needed—not too little, which would be a safety risk, and not too much, which would be inefficient and a waste of money. 

Shoring and shielding equipment, therefore, become essential support equipment that assists by keeping soil that is not meant to be removed stable and in place. It’s support equipment that is, well, literally support equipment.  

"Using shoring and shielding equipment should allow the company to reduce its footprint in the work area. It should also allow them to reduce the compaction time as well as flowable fill amounts needed in some areas of the country," he says. "When estimating, knowing the sizes of pipe that will be installed as well as what the method the competent person may use to shore up the site will give them better ideas on how to increase productivity and reduce costs. This information will also help make the work site safer for all employees." 

While not all jobs require it, shoring equipment is an especially important piece of support equipment because it protects your workers, reduces the amount of soil you have to excavate (saving time, and thus saving money), and reduces the footprint of soil you have to work with, Zerr says. This can be especially important in areas with limited space, such as cities, or in areas where disturbing soil could be especially dangerous.  

Shoring and shielding equipment aren’t one-size-fits-all devices. Each job will require evaluation to figure out which type of shoring or shielding equipment will best fit the situation. This may even require you to rent a specific type of shoring equipment for your job, but figuring out whether your fleet's owned equipment can handle the job can be a life-or-death decision.   

“Contractors need to work with a shoring professional to determine the most versatile piece of equipment based on the type of excavations your company does,” he says. “No excavation is the same, so owning one type of shoring will not cover all situations. Renting equipment to complement what you own can help keep your upfront costs down and your overall profitability high while at the same time increasing the safety and productivity of your work sites.”  

Shoring equipment includes hydraulic shoring and pneumatic shoring (which has several sub-types). Shielding equipment includes trench boxes, sloping, benching, and combinations of the previous methods of shielding.  

Hydraulic shoring is the process of using a pre-made aluminum or steel strut and/or wale system to hold back soil, according to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration technical manual regarding shoring and soil evaluation. Equipment needs could include vertical rolls, hydraulic cylinders, plywood, upright sheeting, and wales.  

“Hydraulic shoring provides a critical safety advantage over timber shoring because workers do not have to enter the trench to install or remove hydraulic shoring. Other advantages of most hydraulic systems are that they are light enough to be installed by one worker, are gauge-regulated to ensure even distribution of pressure along the trench line, can have their trench faces ‘preloaded’ to use the soil's natural cohesion to prevent movement, and can be adapted easily to various trench depths and widths,” according to OSHA. 

Pneumatic shoring includes systems such as screw jacks, single-cylinder hydraulic shores, and underpinning, OSHA stated. Screw jack systems require manual adjustment of the struts. This can be dangerous to the worker tasked with this adjustment, OSHA states. 

“This creates a hazard because the worker is required to be in the trench to adjust the strut. Also, uniform 'preloading' cannot be achieved with screw jacks, and their weight creates handling difficulties," according to OSHA.  

Single-cylinder hydraulic shoring is usually used as an assisting system to timber shoring within water-based job sites, OSHA states. It is also used in shallow trenches for face stability.  

Underpinning is a process to reinforce the foundation of an area being shored up. It involves stabilizing adjacent structures, foundations, and intrusions that could affect the excavation and cause issues like heaving/squeezing when the force of the pressure on the surrounding soil is strong enough to enact downward pressure that causes the foundation of a hole to rise in a dome-like shape. It can cause cracks in the nearby soil and eventually may lead to a collapse of the walls of the area being excavated (if not properly reinforced) and/or could cause cracks that cause nearby buildings or other structures to become damaged or to fall and be destroyed completely.  

One piece of support equipment that can aid with safety checks for shoring is a pocket penetrometer, which determines the unconfined compressive strength of the surrounding soil, according to OSHA.  

Within the scope of shielding, trench boxes are important to consider because they protect workers from potential cave-ins of soil, OSHA states. Trench boxes are typically placed and then the edges are backfilled to provide the trench box from moving laterally. They’re made up of sidewalls and struts and can be stacked for more space vertically.  

While setting up a job site, soil engineers will need equipment to take soil samples and survey various soil layers. This could include a scale and an oven to dry the soil via a method that compares the weight of the soil before and after drying to determine moisture content. This could also include a Pycnometer and a scale for a specific gravity test. A cylindrical core cutter is typically also used for a soil dry density test. 

Other equipment that could be required before any heavy machinery could be turned on includes stakes, Dumpsters, and marking equipment for utility lines. 

“Soil Engineers are first on the job to obtain soil samples and survey the various soil layers,” says Erbel. "Utility companies are working hand in hand with soil engineers before any digging is done. Once the site is surveyed, it is staked out for excavation. Decisions are made if the soil is stored onsite or trucked away. This will decide if trucks are ordered or if other equipment such as front-end loaders are used to haul soil. For trench excavation, shoring or trench boxes are arranged and placed onsite.” 

Safety equipment will also include essential items like hardhats, eye protection, and gloves, as well as more specialized equipment like manhole shields, trench bridges, telescoping walkways, hydraulic excavation braces, and slide rail shoring. 

Support equipment like the right types of buckets and loaders for your job can make a significant difference. Buckets for a front-end loader range immensely—including grapples, buckets with and without tooth bars, tree spades, skeleton rock buckets, jaws, litter buckets, and multipurpose buckets. Excavators, backhoe loaders, skid-steers, and other equipment have similarly diverse bucket and loader options, and the type of attachment you choose is as important as picking an attachment that is the right weight for your machine and has the right features for the job you want to accomplish.  

Once the excavation portion of a job is complete and any backfill has been completed, a compactor is an essential piece of support equipment to complete some jobs. This can also be accomplished in some cases with a steamroller or a bulldozer.  

Getting the right support equipment for your specific job will make it easier to be as efficient as possible while completing a contract, Erbel says.  

Zerr says support equipment can increase a contractor’s efficiency, especially when considering using the right shoring and shielding equipment, by reducing one’s footprint and not adding unnecessary steps, such as digging too much and then having to worry about storing that dirt, as well as backfilling and compaction afterward. 

"Using shoring and shielding equipment should allow the company to reduce its footprint in the work area. It should also allow them to reduce the compaction time as well as flowable fill amounts needed in some areas of the country," he says. 

Taking the time to figure out which support equipment you need before any soil is moved is critical. If you can properly estimate which equipment you need, you can save not only time, but you can save money because you won't find yourself having to order equipment to fix mistakes in the middle of a dig. 

Zerr says estimating properly will give you the ability to make your list of needed equipment and needed skills, so you can buy, rent, use the tools and toolsets within your team, or contract out skills as needed. This will also give you a sense of any hazards so you can prevent issues before they even arise. 

“When estimating, knowing the sizes of pipe that will be installed as well as what the method the competent person may use to shore up the site will give them better ideas on how to increase productivity and reduce costs,” he says. “This information will also help make the work site safer for all employees.” 

Erbel says proper estimation of your support equipment needs will help you determine whether it makes sense to use a multifunctional machine or whether two machines are needed.  

Sometimes it’s helpful to have two machines onsite, even ones with similar functions, because they can help manage your job site efficiently by significantly speeding up the time to completion.  

"At times, it is more efficient to have multiple machines on a site, if the site and projects allow," he says. "Soil screens and water trucks may be necessary. On some projects, the soil has to be imported. In that case, equipment is needed to blend and mix the soil. This could mean extra front-end loaders, screens, conveyors. If work is one on a rocky site, rock drill equipment may be necessary, as well as crushing equipment.” 

One way to maximize efficiency is to specialize in the scope of the jobs your company accepts and to brand your company within that frame of reference, Erbel says. If you do the same type of jobs day in and day out, the type of support equipment you’ll need is unlikely to vary too much. 

"If the company specializes in certain excavation jobs, it eases the selection of support equipment," he says. "If jobs are constantly changing in scope, the company may be best served to work with a local rental company to supplement equipment needs. This will avoid investing in products, that, after the job finishes, have little to no utilization." 

That being said, every contractor will need to purchase or rent support equipment at some point. When doing so, Zerr says, it’s important to work with an expert within the subspecialty you’re interested in. For shoring, for example, he says it’s essential to work with a shoring professional to evaluate the needs of the job site and whether the current equipment you have already purchased will be satisfactory. Some equipment mistakes will just cost time and money, but for shielding/shoring, mistakes could cost the health and safety of your team. 

“Contractors need to work with a shoring professional to determine the most versatile piece of equipment based on the type of excavations your company does,” he says. “No excavation is the same, so owning one type of shoring will not cover all situations, so renting equipment to complement what you own can help keep your upfront costs down and your overall profitability high, while at the same time, increasing the safety and productivity of your work sites.”