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When To Choose a Compact Excavator Over a Skid Steer

Tue November 14, 2023 - National Edition
Darren Ashton, Volvo Construction Equipment

A compact excavator is a great option because of how many different attachments it can support.
A compact excavator is a great option because of how many different attachments it can support.

The skid steer loader has been referred to as the Swiss army knife of construction equipment — just swap out the attachment and you can have a compact backhoe, an auger boring machine, a snowplow or a pallet mover. The industry's effort to standardize attachment interfaces between manufacturers made this possible.

There has been a similar standardization across compact excavators in recent years, which has created some exciting possibilities. Some might even go as far as to say that compact excavators are the new Swiss army knives.

Both are certainly useful machines, but here are four good reasons why a compact excavator might be a better choice for your fleet than a skid steer.

Attachment Versatility

If you're reading this, you might be looking for a small machine to use in multiple ways. A compact excavator is a great option because of how many different attachments it can support. Here are some of the mainstays it can handle:

  • General-purpose buckets: for diverse earthmoving work
  • Tilt buckets: for landscaping finish work
  • Grapple buckets: for picking up loose materials such as scrap, waste and brush
  • Thumbs: for picking up and placing objects like large rocks
  • Moil-style hammer tools: for breaking up non-abrasive materials (soft rock, clay, brick, wood, drywall, etc.)
  • Chisel-style hammer tools: for hard rock excavation and breaking concrete or asphalt
  • Blunt hammer tools: for breaking blasted rock in crusher applications

In addition to using these trusted standbys, compact excavators can also power through work with breakers, augers, brush cutters, mulchers, pallet forks, plate compactors and rippers.

Maximum Compatibility

Most equipment manufacturers offer attachment brackets for their excavators, not all of which are compatible with other manufacturers' attachments.

One of the best options for a mixed fleet is to go with a pin grabber-style quick coupler, because it works across a variety of attachments and brands. Tiltrotators also have changed the game over the years by making any attachment more flexible and versatile.

Compatibility isn't all in the interface, however. The machine itself must be adequately equipped. When evaluating a compact excavator purchase, I suggest choosing a machine that has, at minimum, single-acting and double-acting hydraulics to ensure that a variety of attachments are compatible.

Float and angle blades also are becoming more common on compact excavators, and with more intuitive controls, leveling and shaping ground is easier than ever.

Simplified Service

Compact excavators are very easy to service because everything is in one compartment under a wide-opening engine hood that is at ground level — no lying on the ground or hunching over required. Filters are grouped to make servicing straightforward, and some OEMs' in-cab screens provide maintenance interval reminders to keep uptime at the forefront.

With skid steers, reaching the frequently checked items can be difficult since they only have one access point without lifting the cab. For the more complex parts, lifting the cab can be difficult for one person — and this area gets quite dirty.

Another maintenance-related feature that some mini excavator models have is an auto engine shutdown and/or auto idle feature, which lowers fuel costs and noise and greatly reduces maintenance costs while protecting resale value (hours accumulated).

Options to Be Creative

I've seen customers use compact excavators in some pretty unique ways. Much of that is because they have higher reach and better visibility than skid steers and a 360-degree swing radius and more blade options than before.

By thinking beyond the typical buckets and hammers, you may discover some significant competitive advantages on the job site. This is where tiltrotators, tilt buckets and grading buckets come in. Placing rocks, drainage grading and "creative ideas" can be performed with the right tools.

Bottom line: if you do a variety of work and are willing to think outside the box, you should consider a compact excavator as a primary machine for your job site.

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