In the 1950s, the construction industry began employing small machines instead of human backs or dragging out large machines for relatively small tasks. It was the result of the work of inventive blacksmiths like Ed Malzahn, an Oklahoman who early in that decade built a ditch-digging device he called a Ditch Witch. About the same time, a couple of Minnesota blacksmiths crafted what they called the Keller self-propelled loader. The small three-wheeled machine pretty quickly evolved into what they rebranded a Bobcat skid steer. These significant inventions spurred miniaturization of serious construction machinery. Backhoes — themselves a downsizing of massive crane diggers — were supplanted on some job sites by mini-excavators. In time, earth-moving tasks like digging, auguring, leveling and loading were given over to compact wheel loaders and skid steer and track loaders configured with specialized attachments. Not satisfied with such resizing, manufacturers further shrank the machines by creating “mini” versions of the tools in walk-behind or stand-on models.
Today, do-it-yourself property owners, landscapers, farm operators, contractors, municipal and factory management rely upon small motorized equipment to do jobs they used to hire others to do or accomplished less efficiently using larger machinery. It is a true revolution. If you are thinking about buying or renting a mini or compact machine, you are a part of it.
Buyers of compact and mini equipment certainly are not all alike. They are homeowners doing weekend work, or a small concrete contractor, or a multinational company with fleets of equipment. In each case, a buyer shops for the machine that will most efficiently complete a job. Following are some considerations in evaluating the equipment:
1) Machine size and configuration
Having decided to go small, the decision-making doesn’t end there. If the task is lifting, the question is, how high? If trenching is the job, how wide or deep or long will the ditch be? And if you’ll be trenching all day, do you want to sit or stand? Do you need a trencher or, perhaps, an excavator? Do tight quarters require an articulated machine? If the ground is soft, a track loader might be the answer. Pushing snow? A wheeled skid steer does it better. A variety of jobs in mind? Think attachments. Decisions, decisions….
2) Manufacturer support and warranty
Manufacturing of compact machinery does not require the same capitalization as building machines as big as a house. Consequently, smaller companies can do it. Buyers should think about how much support a manufacturer or dealer can provide in the event a small or mini machine suffers catastrophic failure. A “good deal” can be a bad deal if an engine blows, an undercarriage repeatedly fails, a hydraulic system chronically leaks. Safeguards against such misfortune are a supportive dealer and an ironclad manufacturer warranty.
3) New or used
What’s the new machine going to cost? That’s the bottom line. A used track loader will cost less than the same model bought new. What a buyer should consider is whether a machine is for production work or will be utilized in a supporting role. The latter is perfect for second-hand machinery. The rest of the story is about support. New machines come with warranties. Yet a machine from a rental fleet will have extensive maintenance records — which can be the next best thing to a warranty. Shop prudently and wisely.
Periodic or one-time tasks — think fence-building or site preparation — may warrant acquiring a piece of equipment for a weekend or a week, just long enough to compete the job. No sense owning a machine that sits idle for long periods. But productivity is the bottom line for rented equipment, too, so go to the rental lot knowing how to get the most for your money.
1) Get a little more machine than you need
This is where good management shows itself. Scenario: A pipeline needs running from a water main to a new shop a half mile away. A 50-hp ride-on trencher will dig a ditch deep and wide enough to accommodate the line. Rental cost: $1,240 for a week. But wait: A 5-ton mini-excavator with a narrow bucket only costs $30 more per week. Why not get the excavator and complete some other loading and digging tasks? Why not indeed.
2) Trust, but verify the deal
Independent rental companies and OEM dealerships stay in business by satisfying customers. Still, as a former president once said, “Trust, but verify.” Researching a firm or dealer is a good idea. Go online. Talk to people who have rented equipment. Ask questions. Does the firm back up its equipment? What happens if a chain breaks? Which loader brand is deemed most reliable? In the end, low rental rates aren’t everything.
Compactness can conceal. When mechanisms and systems are neatly fitted into small spaces, even cursory examination can be frustrating. Nevertheless, buyers should seek out telltale signs of abuse or poor maintenance. Here are some things to focus on:
1) Hydraulic systems
Compact machines perform big-time tasks because of their hydraulic systems. The oil is a multiplier that gives skid steers, mini-excavators and other small machines outsize performance. So, ensuring that the hydraulic system is functioning without leaking is important. Chronic leaks are identifiable by oil residue on the frame. Operating the machine can reveal seals without integrity as well as weakness in a pump.
2) Major moving parts
A trencher without a smoothly operating bar and chain is a problem. The same is true for a compact excavator that rotates haltingly on its base or a small articulated loader with a rumbling hinge joint. Components that are central to a machine’s operation must be fully functional for a piece of equipment to be of value. Lesser components — say a balky cab door or worn-out quick-attach unit — can be replaced. The major parts are something else.
When everything rides on something, the “something” must be flawlessly reliable. That is the case with track undercarriages. If a piece of equipment can’t move, it is just a piece of iron. So, tracks and their auxiliary pieces — tensioners, sprockets, suspension system (if any) — should be in generally good condition. Excessive wear of one or more components suggests overall poor maintenance. Look for a machine with a sound undercarriage.
4) Straight and true arms
Compact excavators nimbly slice, dig and load dirt on the strength of their hinged booms. Trenchers create neat narrow ditches employing rotating chains riding an extended bar. Track loaders do their versatile work with attachments at the end of their lift arms. All of these appendages are subject to stresses. Visually and in live operation determine if arms or booms are bent or cracked or otherwise significantly misaligned. That is a red flag.
5) Electrical system
Unless a machine is relatively old, an electrical system is apt to be sound. Indications of an unsound system include wiring with frayed covering or exposed core wires, battery posts that are corroded, loose and fired electrical fittings, wires that dangle instead of being affixed to the frame and so on. These poorly maintained components could be an indication of an unreliable electrical system, which reduces the value of a machine.
Mini and compact machinery are not cheap because they are well-made and contain modern electronics, which never are inexpensive. But the machines are wonderful labor-savers and highly productive pieces of equipment. They are worth the cost, in other words. Here are some examples of pricing:
Rent / Lease
An online survey indicates…
1) Sit or stand?
At the nexus of mini and compact machines is a quandary: Which configuration will work best for your situation? A large stand-on trencher might be sufficient for tasks, but the sit-down operator’s platform on a compact trencher can increase productivity. What to buy? If your choice really is between a large ride-on machine and a sit-down model, going with the larger machine nearly always is the better choice. It offers the prospect of more versatility and productivity, plus can mean higher resale value if you ever trade up.
2) How much versatility?
Purchasers of a compact or mini machine of some kind usually have a primary job in mind. An even better mindset is to consider the bigger picture. You want the track loader to clean up job sites and perform other support work. But if you get a skid steer, which sometimes performs better in snow, you could put it to use in the off-season clearing parking lots. Similar calculations can be made about mini-excavators, wheel loaders, dumper trucks and other compact machines. What might be their secondary application?
3) How much auto is enough?
Software and related technology incorporated into today’s mini and compact equipment offer precise automatic controls that eliminate human approximation. Think bucket grade and tilt controls on loaders and excavators. Depth controls. Return-to-grade controls. Hydrostatic settings. It’s revolutionary but also can be pricey. However, does your work really require grading to be within millimeters of accuracy? Can you select and shift gears manually and still do a first-class job? Don’t pay for luxury for the fun of it.
4) Dealer support
Compact and mini equipment does serious work and deserves serious support systems. Sometimes it needs more support than bigger pieces of equipment because its smaller engines and lighter dimensioned tools are overstressed compared to a larger piece of equipment performing the same task. What kind of OEM engine and components warranty backs that mini-excavator? How responsive and trained is the local dealership that will maintain the machine? Buy with service and support in mind.
5) Beware of brand loyalty
Loyalty to a manufacturer isn’t like loyalty to a professional athletic franchise. In the working world, there is no special camaraderie on “game days.” Dealers are happy to have you on their “team,” but the relationship is openly built on dollars and cents, not transitory sporting glory. So, shop for value. Explore a range of manufacturers. If the characteristic handling of a certain brand’s products appeals to you, for example, set aside the preference and at least try another. There is a world of good products out there.
The Minnesota firm ASV introduced Posi-Track rubber track systems in 1990. This year, it merged with Japanese equipment manufacturer Yanmar. The two divisions produce track loaders, skid steers, excavators, track carriers and wheel loaders.
Bobcat invented the skid steer in 1958. Now a division of South Korea’s Doosan, the combined company produces a full range of compact machinery including skid steers, track loaders, mini- and wheeled excavators, and telehandlers.
This Michigan company offers a family of niche products: four stand-on mini-skid steers, the largest a 20-hp gas-powered model with 380-lb. lift capacity. Boxers can be quick-attached to bucket, trencher, auger, fork, excavator, sweeper and blade tools.
This Wisconsin company built the first fully integrated backhoe-loader in 1957 — and has built a half million of them. Today, CNH Industrial’s product line also includes skid steers, track loaders, mini-excavators, and compact dozers and wheel loaders.
This storied Illinois equipment firm builds an array of small construction machinery including backhoes, track loaders, small dozers, and mini-excavators. The compact excavator line alone includes 12 models ranging from 13 to 70 hp.
Another Illinois manufacturer, Deere Construction offers a full line-up of compact equipment. Its products include compact excavators, track loaders, skid steers and wheel loaders. The wheel loader line has five models, from 60 to 100 hp.
7) Ditch Witch
This pioneering Oklahoma company was built on its trenching machines, which today includes seven walk-behind models, six ride-on units, a stand-on model and three quad-track versions. It also manufactures a full line of directional drilling equipment.
This Japanese firm opened its doors in 1910 as an electric motor repair shop. Today, it exclusively builds hydraulic excavators — a product focus that it boasts about in advertisements. Among its excavators are six compact models ranging from 15 to 53 hp.
A British firm, JCB has been a manufacturer of innovative construction equipment since 1945. It built backhoes early on and today is a leading manufacturer of compact track loaders, skid steers, mini-excavators, telehandlers and wheel loaders.
Launched in 1890 as a cast iron manufacturer, the Japanese company has become a global equipment manufacturer. Its compact equipment lines for construction include small tractors, mini-excavators, track loaders, skid steers and wheel loaders.
A 60-year-old Chinese company, LiuGong manufactures both massive mining and construction machinery and smaller models. Its compact equipment includes wheel loaders, skid steers, track loaders and mini-excavators, the smallest a 24-hp model.
This French company bought Gehl in 2008, which bought Mustang Manufacturing in 1997. The three brands of compact equipment include track loaders and skid steers, articulated loaders, compact excavators and compact telehandlers.
13) New Holland
In the late 19th century in Pennsylvania, New Holland was founded. It was an early manufacturer of backhoe-loaders. In 2019, it builds farm equipment and popular models of compact loaders, skid steers, wheel loaders and excavators.
This Japanese firm claims to have built the first mini-excavator in 1971. Its excavator lineup today includes 11 models ranging from 11 to 114 hp. The manufacturer also produces respected track loaders, skid steers and wheel loaders.
This specialty manufacturer is headquartered in Illinois and produces several models of a crawler carrier, which is a tracked version of a small truck with a flatbed or box bed. Its compact version is a 155-hp unit with 12,000-lb. carrying capacity.
This Minnesota manufacturer of turf, landscape, and snow equipment also owns, among other brands, Ditch Witch. Its Dingo line of walk-behind and stand-on utility loaders includes a 49-hp telescoping arm model that can lift more than 1,500 lbs.
A 71-year-old Iowa firm, Vermeer has roots in farm equipment such as balers and rakes. However, it also fabricates a popular line of directional drills for utility work and stand-on, remote control and ride-on trenchers, plus four mini-skid steers.
This Swedish company manufactures a wide range of machinery including trucks. Some better-known products are for the construction industry, including compact wheel loaders, skid steers, track loaders and 10 mini-excavators, including a wheeled one.
19) Wacker Neuson
A German firm dating to 1848, Wacker Neuson offers contractors an assortment of machines, including skid steers, track loaders, small excavators, wheel loaders and telescopic wheel loaders. It also makes a line of compact wheeled dumpers.
Mini and compact construction equipment have transformed business strategies for small and major contractors alike. The small machines have introduced new paradigms of productivity for large fleets. Individuals and small businesses also benefit because they can self-perform what they used to hire out. The continued evolution of these miniaturized pieces of equipment — now including robotic functions — will continue to spur new applications. And proliferation of the equipment means buyers have many second-hand machines to choose from.