Choosing the Right Size Rental Excavator for Your Project

An excavator is a staple piece of machinery on many construction sites because it is so versatile. From small tasks like planting trees to large-scale demolition and trenching, an excavator can help you get the job done efficiently. As diverse as excavators' applications are, it makes sense that these machines come in multiple sizes. 

The smallest excavators are just large enough for precision excavation jobs, while the largest are massive industrial workhorses that can quickly move substantial amounts of earth and materials. If the excavator you need is somewhere between those two extremes, you may be wondering how to choose the right size machine. To answer that question, you need to understand the different size options available and the factors that go into choosing the right one for you.

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Size Specifications for Excavators

Before we look at different sizes of excavators, it's helpful to consider exactly what we mean by size. When we compare excavator sizes, we may be addressing a few aspects of these machines, including:

  • Weight: The main way you'll see sizes denoted is in terms of weight or operating weight. An excavator's operating weight is the total weight of the excavator when it is filled with fuel and contains a driver. Operating weight can vary dramatically from smaller to larger excavator models. It's an important specification to be aware of since it can impact transport, the machine's effect on the terrain and what the model is capable of.
  • Dimensions: Another way to understand size is the dimensional measurements of a piece of equipment — in other words, how much physical space it takes up in length, width and height. This is an important factor in determining if an excavator can comfortably fit in storage, transport or on a job site.
  • Tail-swing: Another feature that can have an impact on the space an excavator takes up is its tail-swing design. On excavators with a conventional tail-swing, the house will extend beyond the tracks as it rotates. On reduced or zero tail-swing models, the house won't extend beyond the tracks or will only extend just a bit and, therefore, is a good choice for tight spaces. 

Other factors, such as attachment configurations, can also impact the size and capacity of an excavator. All these factors are important to consider to choose the right excavator and accessories for your application. 

What Are the Different Sizes of Excavators?

Each excavator model will have its own specifications, but we can group excavator models into four general size categories — mini, small, medium and large. Each size class offers its own features and advantages.

1. Mini Excavators

Mini excavators are the smallest option on the market. In 2016, mini excavators emerged as the most significant segment of the excavator market. Some of the very smallest minis can fit through a doorway. Cat® mini excavators weigh between 1 metric ton and 10 metric tons. Some of the most popular mini excavators on the heavy equipment market weigh in the range of 3 metric tons to 4 metric tons

Mini excavators are ideal when you need something compact and lightweight to get around a job site. Of course, mini excavators are limited in their capacity and performance compared to larger models, so they won't be able to handle every job. 

For jobs that don't require a larger excavator, a mini excavator may be preferable since they are lighter. This means they are easier to transport, offer better fuel economy and will be gentler on terrain, leaving less pronounced track marks. Mini excavators are also a better choice for navigating around tight spaces, making them valuable pieces of machinery for job sites in residential or urban areas. Furthermore, mini excavators offer better precision for digging where there are utility lines or pipes in close proximity that must be left intact.

Some jobs mini excavators are used for include:

  • Indoor jobs
  • Sewer line repairs
  • Small demo projects
  • Snowplowing
  • Landscaping
  • Hot tub, pool and pond installation
  • Material handling
  • Stump removal
  • Underground excavation

2. Small Excavators

Small excavators, also called compact excavators, are still on the miniature side compared to standard excavators, but they're larger than mini excavators. Excavator models on the larger end of the small category may be referred to as midi excavators. 

Every manufacturer has its own designations when it comes to size classes. What Caterpillar considers small excavators are those that weigh less than 32 metric tons. Some people prefer this excavator size to minis since it still offers many of the same benefits while providing a bit more power and capacity. 

One of the main differences is in the amount of engine horsepower in mini and small excavators. Whereas the smallest mini excavators offer a similar amount of horsepower as a residential riding mower, small excavators can range in horsepower up to 130 in the case of small Cat excavator models. The amount of horsepower an excavator offers will directly impact how fast it can travel, backfill and dig. Small excavators can also offer more reach than mini models.

Small excavators work well for the same jobs as minis, such as landscaping and pool installations, but they are a better choice when the job calls for more power, reach and bucket capacity.

3. Medium Excavators

Some excavators fall in the main category of standard, medium or mid-sized. These are some of the most versatile excavator models on the market. They are still quite mobile on a job site while offering more serious power, reach and dig depth, making them work for a broader range of applications. They also have the hydraulics needed for many work tool attachments, which adds to their versatility.

Cat medium excavator models range in operating weight from just under 22 metric tons to about 38 metric tons. This larger size means medium excavators are best suited for larger job sites. However, some standard models still offer a relatively small footprint and the option for low or even zero tail-swing. 

The heavier weight means these excavators may tear up the terrain a bit if they're used on soft soil or finished sites. On the heavier end of the standard category, excavators can be more challenging to store and transport, so some construction companies may prefer smaller mid-sized excavators.

Whereas mini and compact excavators are popular in smaller projects, medium excavators are more popular in the construction industry. Especially considering all the attachments you can use, standard excavators are invaluable tools for a wide range of heavy-duty applications, including:

  • Utility work
  • Trench digging
  • Demolition
  • Debris removal
  • Road and bridge construction
  • Building construction

4. Large Excavators

The largest excavators can weigh over 90 metric tons. These industrial workhorses are not as nimble as smaller models, but what they lack in mobility, they make up for in heavy-duty performance. Cat large excavators deliver on power, speed and fuel-efficiency.

Large excavators are not without their potential downsides. Their size and weight mean that transporting large excavators calls for an oversized trailer or truck. These excavators will also do more damage to the ground, which is why you won't find them operating in finished sites. Their large size means you won't find them in urban or residential areas, either. Larger excavators tend to have a larger tail-swing since they need more counterweight for staying balanced, so they're not a good choice for tight maneuverability.

The complications that come with a larger piece of machinery are worth it if you need something to help with large-scale excavation projects. Large excavators are best suited to industrial or commercial applications. Some examples of the tough jobs these massive machines can tackle include:

  • Large-scale demolition
  • Truck loading
  • Commercial construction projects
  • Digging foundations for commercial buildings
  • Large-scale earthmoving
  • Mine digging
  • Pipeline installation

What Size Excavator Do I Need?

An important part of excavator size comparison is understanding your own excavation needs and parameters. There are several important factors you should consider to help you rent the right excavator for a particular job. Let's look at each of these factors so you can make an informed decision. Remember that within each size category, you'll likely find multiple models to choose from, so you can further pinpoint your ideal machine.

1. Job Site Constraints

First, you should consider the job site where you'll be working, particularly in regard to the terrain and space constraints. Knowing these factors will help you determine what size and level of finesse you need from an excavator. If you're working on soft terrain or finished surfaces like sidewalks and parking lots, you should opt for lighter excavator models that won't inflict damage. 

You should also choose from smaller models if your job site is small or involves obstructions or hazards you need to avoid, such as trees, or nearby buildings. Moving around these obstacles requires an excavator with adequate mobility and low or no tail-swing. If there are underground pipes and utility lines you need to avoid, a smaller bucket with more precision is best.

If your work will take place in a larger, more open area where compactness, gentleness and maneuverability aren't primary concerns, you're free to choose from larger models that may be better suited to the job. A larger excavator will allow you to traverse the large site more quickly and handle large-scale jobs more efficiently.

2. Storage and Transportation Requirements

Other factors to consider are the storage and transportation requirements that vary from size to size. If you don't have much storage space or you need easily mobile machinery you can move from site to site, you should look at mini and compact excavators. 

The easiest excavators to transport are those small enough to haul with a Class 1 or Class 2 truck. In many states, the driver doesn't even need a commercial driver's license (CDL) to drive one of these trucks. Hauling a larger excavator is a more involved process that typically requires a large flatbed trailer and oversized load arrangements.

In terms of storage space, the smallest mini excavator will only take up about 2 1/2 feet in width and 5 feet in height, making these machines something you could fit in a shed or other small storage facility. In stark contrast, the largest excavators require large storage spaces with ceilings or coverings over 12 feet high.

Smaller excavators are clearly easier to store and transport, but that doesn't mean they're always the best choice. Larger excavators are a better choice or a necessity in some instances if the project calls for more power and capacity. It's also worth noting that storage and transportation concerns are far less important when you're renting equipment short term. 

3. Necessary Capabilities

One of the most important considerations is the tasks you need your excavator to handle on the job. What does your excavator need to be capable of in terms of digging, loading, lifting and other tasks? As you compare excavators, consider the following specifications, which will differ from one model to the next:

  • Digging depth: How deep do you need your excavator to go when you're digging? Dig depth is a key spec you can easily check when looking at any excavator model. Dig depth is generally tied to the size of the excavator, with smaller excavators being sufficient for digging small holes for landscaping and other light-duty applications, and larger excavators being capable of digging much deeper holes for a variety of applications.
  • Reach: You should also consider an excavator's reach. The boom reach tells you how far out an excavator can dig while it's sitting still. More reach means better accessibility, which is needed in some situations. However, it can also mean a slower dig cycle. The excavators with the most reach are known as long-reach excavators and feature an extended boom and arm. 
  • Lift capacity: If you're using your excavator for material handling, earthmoving or loading and unloading materials, you should pay attention to the lift and load capacity. Lift is important to determine whether the excavator is able to deposit materials into the back of a dump truck or wherever you need to deposit them. 
  • Load capacity: The load capacity tells you how much material you can move at once, which can have a major impact on the time it takes you to complete a job. The amount of material comes down to both volume and weight. The weight you can lift largely depends on the counterweight system, which keeps the excavator stable when it's lifting a load. Keep in mind you may be able to attach different buckets that can hold more if needed, as long as your excavator supports these attachments. 
  • Attachment configurations: Excavators are made even more versatile when you equip them with various attachments. The size and model of the excavator and its hydraulic capabilities will dictate which attachments you can use. In addition to buckets, other types of attachments include augers, hammers, rippers and more.

4. Budget

Another practical concern you have to factor in is your budget. Generally, the larger the excavator, the higher the price. The operating costs will be higher, as well. That means renting a larger excavator is a more serious investment than a smaller one, so if it's overkill for your needs, you won't get the return on investment (ROI) you otherwise would with a slightly more affordable option that can still get the job done. 

Budget tends to be more of a concern when you're purchasing an excavator. In these instances, in addition to the initial purchase price, you have to factor in ongoing storage, maintenance and transportation costs. This is one reason renting is a smart move when you have a job that calls for a large excavator.

Other Features to Consider When Choosing an Excavator

Size isn't the only thing that distinguishes one excavator from another. There are a whole host of features that set certain manufacturers apart from each other and that distinguish individual models. For instance, some excavator models are designed to be ergonomic so they're more comfortable and easy to operate for the driver. Features like adjustable joystick controls can make operation feel more effortless and intuitive.

Another thing to consider is the undercarriage style. Most excavators run on tracks, with some smaller models featuring rubber tracks and larger ones equipped with steel tracks. It's critical that a crawler excavator's tracks be durable and well suited to the application. You can also find some wheeled excavators on the market, which are more road-friendly options. 

Why Size Requirements Make Renting a Valuable Option

When you're considering different excavators, the question of whether you should buy or rent is critical. Both of these options are worth consideration in some instances, but you'll find that renting allows you to pinpoint the exact excavator you need for a particular job, whereas buying forces you to go for versatility with a machine that may be less than ideal on some jobs. 

When you're buying, you must choose an excavator that is versatile enough to work for all the applications, or at least most of the applications you plan to use it for. If you purchase an excavator that is too big or too small for many of your jobs, it will end up collecting dust and racking up storage and maintenance bills without helping you get a good return on your investment. Purchasing is the right choice when you're confident you'll be able to use an excavator time and time again for a variety of jobs. 

Large enough companies may choose to purchase two or more sizes of excavators for their fleet. This would be the right move if you will regularly need a mini or compact excavator for certain tasks and will also frequently need a standard or even large excavator for other tasks. In many cases, though, the right choice is to buy the one excavator model you know you'll use a lot and rent smaller or larger models if you run into jobs that call for something your excavator can't deliver on. 

Renting is ideal when you need a certain excavator model temporarily. Even if you know you'll need that same size again in the future, renting is still more cost-effective if your need is infrequent. Renting saves you from making a large upfront investment in addition to the responsibilities and costs associated with storage, transportation and maintenance. Plus, renting gives you an opportunity to try out equipment before you decide whether you want to make a purchase.

Excavator Rentals From The Cat® Rental Store

When you need an excavator to help you get the job done right and on time, The Cat Rental Store is here to help. The Cat Rental Store is a worldwide network with more than 1,300 locations and the most extensive inventory of Cat excavator rentals you'll find.

When you partner with The Cat Rental Store, you'll gain access to a dealer's wide inventory of heavy equipment, including excavator rentals, and the work tool attachments to help you get the most out of your equipment. Our dealers' excavators come with the features you need and are well maintained. Rent whatever you need from the people who do whatever it takes today.

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