July 9

Excavator Sizes: Big, Small, and Everything Between

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Is there a construction machine more popular than excavators? These mechanical marvels are used for quarrying, earthmoving, landscaping, and as utility or farming applications. Excavators consist of two parts: a cab and a boom and stick. The latter makes up the “arm” of the excavator, which sits atop a rotating platform. And this platform is above an undercarriage that features tracks or wheels. Excavators are often equipped with a bucket, though there are more than 100 different attachments available. With so many different variables, there are bound to be different excavator sizes.

Modern hydraulic excavators evolved from steam shovels, which have existed since 1796. In time, cable replaced steam as a main source of power. Then hydraulic power replaced cables. The first all-hydraulic excavator came in 1897 as the Direct Acting Excavator, built by the Kilgore Machine Company.

During the twentieth century, size potential and size options grew for these machines. A half-century ago, the manufacturer Takeuchi introduced the compact excavator. Critics at the time called the mechanism a “toy”, but now most excavator manufacturers make models much smaller than the Takeuchi original. Today, the smallest excavators are about one metric ton. Examples include the Bobcat E10, Caterpillar 300.9D, Gehl M08, Takeuchi TB210R, and Yanmar SV08-1B. Examples of the biggest excavators are the Volvo 950F and the Caterpillar 395. These weigh 95 metric tons.

Every construction company should know, choosing the right size excavator will help you maximize its use for the lowest cost.

Excavator applications by class size

Micro Excavators

Micro excavators is a new term used to describe the smallest group of compact excavators and isn’t really a true class. However, the class size of this category is growing, so it may eventually become an official class size. Micro excavators get used in very tight areas, such as in-between houses, sitting only a few feet apart. A number of these machines, up to two tons in weight, are powered by electricity and do not emit diesel exhaust gas. This allows for indoor and sensitive area work. Micro excavators perform the work that people can do but faster, safer, and much more cost-effective. They can cut into the earth, fill wheel barrows, reach higher, and hammer demolition faster. These machines are safer than using hand tools, and alleviate potential work strain and body fatigue for people.

Compact Excavators

Compact excavators weigh between 6 metric tons to 10 metric tons depending on who you ask. They are small enough to be transported via float without any permits. These excavators are great for working in tight spaces, such as indoors and in backyards. Some come equipped with a retractable undercarriage that narrows the machine’s profile when in travel mode (used when passing through gates and doors). Then the undercarriage expands again when in excavation mode. Some excavators in this category use dual power options for indoor and outdoor use. They are great for landscaping and farming applications. More specifically, they can position decorative stones, dig, backfill, load trucks, move pallets, remove small trees, and more.

Mid-Sized Excavators

Mid-sized excavators weigh between 7 and 10 metric tons, and are thus sometimes categorized with compact excavators. These offer more power and reach than the previous class size and can easily feed high-walled trucks. They are used frequently in utilities and landscaping, and are often found in municipal fleets. Several of these models are designed with little overhang at the rear of the machine. These low-tail swing or even zero-tail swing models get used in tight working spaces, because they don’t take up as much space on the jobsite. In residential construction, they can fit in-between the houses. When performing roadwork or utility work in traffic, they can fit more easily into a single lane of traffic.

Small Full Sized Excavators

Small, full-sized excavators are between 10 and 20 metric tons. These vehicles perform many functions from the previous class, but on a larger scale. In utility applications, they dig trenches for pipework instead of cable and operate in streets removing old pipe. When used in fields, the excavators often help install new pipe for a build project instead of on residential and commercial properties. They are often used for grading, excavating the foundations of buildings, and in earthmoving applications. More than prior categories, they are production machines. This means they are designed to drive productivity on the jobsite by moving dirt and other material quickly.

Medium Full Sized Excavators

Medium, full-sized excavators fall into the 20 to 40 metric ton weight range. These are used in a lot of construction, earthmoving, and infrastructure applications. Sometimes a lot of earth (such as rocks) needs to be moved, if a company is building a large commercial development or a government is building a new highway. That’s when these machines will frequently be on the jobsite. Besides earthmoving, you can find them in quarries, since these excavators can fill a full-sized dump truck in four passes. This class size excavator tends to be the most technologically advanced of all class sizes. On these machines you will find technologies, such as grade control, machine control, and other forms of automation, including a return to dig and automatic power selection.

Large Full Sized Excavators

The large full-sized excavators are above 40 metric tons. They perform a lot of the same jobs as the medium, full-sized class, but on a larger scale. People use them to work on larger earthmoving projects and larger infrastructure projects like energy infrastructure. These excavators also work in larger quarries and mines (although the largest mines use mining shovels, which appear similar to excavators, but due to certain designs are classified as a different type of machine). They need to be partly disassembled and transported using several floats, so they tend to work at the same location for years, such as a quarry or on a megaproject. The large excavators are often too big to be used on many projects in urban areas.

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How much does an excavator weigh?

Excavators are classified using their (approximate) weight in metric tons. If you want to know how much a metric ton is in pounds, you just need to multiply by 2,200. For example, a two-metric-ton mini excavator weighs approximately 4,400 pounds. A six-metric-ton machine weighs about 13,200 pounds. And a 10-metric-ton machine weighs 22,000 pounds.

Since class sizes are approximations, this conversion will only offer an estimated weight. Even the owner’s manual or a product brochure will give a weight range, since the precise weight of the machine will change depending on what features are included with the machine.

The only way to know the excavator weight is to weigh it. Although, knowing the approximate weight of your machine is usually good enough. Just be sure to err on the heavier side when transporting equipment to ensure you don’t exceed the trailer’s weight restrictions.

How manufacturers classify their excavators

Here is how five of the top international excavator manufacturers divide their machines by class size. The following chart shows what they call each class size, the weight range in pounds, and the class size in metric tons (mt) of the largest machine in that class.

Case Construction Equipment

  • mini (3,910 -11,310 pounds) (5.1 mt)
  • midi (16,200 – 18,800 pounds) (8.5 mt)
  • large (29,130 – 178,570 pounds) (80.9 mt)

John Deere

  • compact (3,800 – 13,500 pounds) (6.0 mt)
  • mid-size (16,500 – 90,000 pounds) (40.8 mt)
  • large (103,500 – 188,750 pounds) (85.6 mt)

Volvo Construction Equipment

  • compact (3,750 – 20,940 pounds) (9.5 mt)
  • medium (28,880 – 61,440 pounds) (27.9 mt)
  • large (57,340 – 209,020 pounds) (94.8 mt)

Caterpillar

  • mini (2,060 – 22,450 pounds) (10.2 mt)
  • small (28,660 – 42,340 pounds) (19.2 mt)
  • medium (48,280 – 77,000 pounds) (34.9 mt)
  • large (80,500 – 207,300 pounds) (94.0 mt)

LBX Company

  • compact (17,400 – 18,900 pounds (8.6 mt)
  • small (29,100 – 38,400 pounds) (17.4 mt)
  • medium (48,900 – 82,400 pounds) (37.4 mt)
  • large (88,200 – 158,300 pounds) (71.8 mt)

Picking the right size excavator

Understanding excavator sizes is important, because you may end up short if you choose one that is too small. This will result in a machine that lacks reach, dig depth or power, needed to complete tasks on the job site. If you choose one that is too large, you could end up wasting money through increased capital, fuel, and maintenance costs.

The first step to choosing the right size of excavator is to analyze what you plan to do with it. Excavating? Landscaping? Truck loading? Utilities? Demolition? Then determine the minimum capacities you need. How high does it need to reach? Or how deep does it need to dig? How much weight does it need to carry? How much hydraulic flow does it need to power the attachment? The ideal excavator will be the smallest machine necessary to complete the minimum requirements for all planned work.

Next, consider options that help you get the desired performance levels from an excavator. For example, some excavators can be equipped with a longer boom. This allows smaller machines to dig deeper and reach higher. Other excavators come with a minimum tail swing or zero tail swing model (referring to how much the rear of the machine extends past the tracks). This feature allows for larger, more powerful excavators to work in confined spaces

Thirdly, determine what resources you have to support the machine. Do you have a trailer for transporting the machine? Have your operators operated a machine of this size before? Do your technicians have the tools and experience needed to work the machine?

Lastly, decide the near-future needs of your company. If you provide earthmoving and excavation services, for example, and want to start bidding on larger projects, then you may want to invest in a larger machine. If you are expanding services, such as adding landscaping work to your excavation company, you will probably need to purchase a small excavator.

Other types of excavators

Besides class size, excavators are divided into other categories either by design or function.

Wheeled Excavators

Wheeled excavators are an example of a category of excavator distinguished by design; they come equipped with wheels instead of tracks. Wheeled excavators are available in sizes from five metric tons to 26 metric tons.

Wheels allow the excavators to travel at speeds between 12 mph and 22 mph. A tracked excavator travels at about five miles per hour.

Purchasers of wheeled excavators usually need these machines for short times across multiple jobsites (or locations) in a relatively small area. This is why they are favored by municipalities and counties, who have a lot of property that requires regular yearly maintenance. Municipalities and counties can deploy them anywhere within their borders to address right-of-way (ROW) maintenance: ditch cleaning and contouring, and roadside grading without needing a truck and trailer.

A manufacturer called Gradall has taken this concept even further by creating a machine that fixes the upper structure of an excavator, including the articulating joint, to a Kenworth chassis. This machine is capable of speeds of up to 60 mph.

Long/High Reach Excavators

Another category of excavator is the long-reach / high-reach excavator. Sometimes, end-users need excavators with a lot of reach either to reach down or to reach up. Long-reach excavators usually work below grade often in excavation of light materials. High-reach demolition excavators are probably the most popular application for high-reach excavator models. In urban areas, explosives aren’t an option, so many contractors turn to high-reach excavators for demolition of tall structures in tight areas. They equip them with pulverizers that nibble the steel and concrete into small pieces which fall to the ground. The cabs on high-reach excavators tilt up to 30 degrees so operators have a better view of the work area.

Dragline Excavators

The final excavator category is distinguished by both design and purpose; it is the dragline excavator.

The dragline excavator uses a fixed boom compared to the boom on a conventional excavator, which has a rotating pin allowing it to bend. The bending function is similar to how a person bends their arm at the elbow. Instead, the machine moves the bucket via a hoist rope that raises and lowers the bucket and a dragline that pulls the bucket along the boom.

These excavators are large or larger than the biggest excavators. They get used on civil engineering, deep excavation, under water excavation, and surface mining applications.

Conclusion

Excavators sizes is only one piece to the puzzle. Excavators also differ in application and configuration, and the lines that separate one size class from another aren’t always agreed upon even by the manufacturers. When talking to someone about excavator class size, make sure both of you are using the same language to describe the equipment. Be sure to have an idea of what type of machine you need and have a plan for using the excavator. With all that in mind, you can begin your search with Municibid.


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