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Choosing the Right Excavator for the Job: A Look at Some of the Most Common Excavator Types and Their Ideal Use Cases

Excavators are among the most important pieces of earthmoving equipment at any job site. Before you rent or buy a piece of heavy equipment, you need to know the difference between the various types of excavators on the market today.

Modern excavators from manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Bobcat, and Kubota are typically distinguished by their size, which translates into mobility, power, and digging capacity. Here are some of the most common types of excavators in use today.

Crawler Excavators

The crawler excavator (sometimes simply called a “standard excavator”) gets its name from the two crawler tracks it uses instead of wheels.

Crawler treads make this excavator slower than its wheeled counterparts, but it also makes the unit ideal for uneven or unstable terrain. Excavator operators who have to work in steep, muddy environments can rely on the stability of a crawler excavator.

Wheeled Excavators

Wheeled excavators are basically identical to standard excavators, but they have wheels instead of tracks or tread.

On the plus side, a wheeled excavator is faster and more maneuverable than track excavators in its size class. The tradeoff is that a wheeled excavator performs best on smooth surfaces, such as asphalt.

An excavator operator working in stable conditions can take advantage of the maneuverability of this unit. Just keep in mind that it will struggle on uneven or soft terrain.

Suction Excavators

Suction excavators (sometimes called vacuum excavators) are significantly more precise than other forms of earthmoving equipment.

A suction excavator is equipped with a suction pipe roughly 30 cm in diameter and often works in tandem with a high-pressure water jet. It’s designed to literally suck up soil and debris at speeds as high as 200 mph.

This design means the suction excavator is ideal for fragile or precise cleanup jobs since the narrow pipe won’t disturb the surrounding terrain or other pipes. However, it’s not ideal for larger projects since the narrow pipe limits the amount of earth that can be moved.

Long-Reach Excavators

Long-reach excavators use a hydraulic system to extend the boom arm to longer distances. Most units can stretch their arm to 40 or even 100 feet, which can be ideal for working in hard-to-reach areas, such as demolition projects over a lake.

However, these units’ longer arms make them difficult to use in tighter spaces, and they can have a smaller bucket capacity compared to other machines.

Hydraulic Shovels

The hydraulic shovel is the most powerful excavator out there. Built as mining shovels, these machines are designed for heavy lifting projects, including rocks and boulders. You simply won’t find more power in a piece of earthmoving equipment, but some operators may find that hydraulic shovels can be overkill for many job sites.

Dragline Excavators

Dragline excavators are known for their superior digging depth, which can often reach 215 feet or more.

Modern dragline excavators rely on a hoist rope system and a dragline to raise and lower the bucket and drag it toward the driver. This setup can make the dragline excavator perfect for deep pile driving, harbor construction, or other deep or underwater operation.

The downside is that the dragline excavator is much larger than other types of equipment, and its specific mechanism may not be suited for the average construction site. Plus, they have a high cost of ownership, with CNBC reporting some that cost as much as $120 million.

Skid Steers

Small projects and residential work often call for the use of a skid steer. These are smaller units with a front bucket that faces away from the excavator operator (as opposed to standard excavators, where the bucket faces the driver’s seat).

These skid steers are great for scooping small piles of earth and debris, which is why they’re so well suited to residential and suburban work.

However, like any wheeled excavator, skid steers don’t perform well on uneven terrain, and their low operating weight can make them even less stable than larger units.

Mini Excavators

Mini excavators are simply smaller versions of the standard excavator. They also use crawler tracks instead of wheels, and their bucket arm configuration is the same as their larger counterparts.

Like skid steers, their small size makes them great for smaller residential projects, as well as landscaping uses. Their reliance on crawler tracks gives them additional stability on uneven surfaces, which makes them a bit more versatile than a backhoe, and offers lower operating costs.

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