• February 10, 2020
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Excavators: The Ultimate Guide

Excavators: The Ultimate Guide

Whether you’re buying an excavator, selling an excavator, or are just really into heavy machinery and you want to know more—you’ve come to the right place. This guide will touch on almost everything you need to know about this machine; its purpose, what to look for when buying, how to sell an excavator, and much more. 

So without further ado, let’s get stuck into the basics of the excavator. 

Quick jump:

CHAPTER 1: Excavator Basics

excavator diagram
Diagram of a basic hydraulic excavator. Source: Machines4U



What is an Excavator?

An excavator is a heavy construction machine used primarily for excavation purposes in construction projects. They are easily identifiable by their large boom arm, dipper (or stick), with an attachment on the end, usually a bucket. 

While older models are cable-operated or mechanically operated, these days excavators are primarily hydraulic or hydraulic hybrids, with new next-generation excavators being released periodically. The latest next-generation excavators can be fitted with remote-control capabilities for use on dangerous worksites. 

Generally, excavators are made from hardened steels, while the pins are made from chromium molybdenum steels—this helps improve corrosion resistance and increase strength and durability. 

Not to be confused with a backhoe, an excavator is generally larger and has one large boom arm. Backhoes are a small, standard tractor with a loader bucket on the front and boom arm hoisted to the back for digging. The excavator backhoe is primarily used for smaller farming and construction projects, and while the mini excavator can do most of the jobs a backhoe can, it is still widely used on construction sites and farms to drill post and foundation holes, dig small trenches and carry heavy tools.  


What are Excavators Used for?

These machines are highly versatile and can take on many different kinds of jobs, such as digging trenches, digging foundations, demolition, clearing land, general grading, landscaping and more. Its ability to undertake a task depends on the attachments available and the size of the machine. 

For instance, in a world first, an excavator was fitted with a huge telescopic arm to create a heavy-duty digging and lifting machine. 


Excavator Technology

The tech inside an excavator has vastly improved over the years, as new innovations continue to provide higher efficiency, optimised safety, and easier operation. These innovations include remote monitoring, semi-automation, 3D data services, and support services. 

The latest technology in excavators includes the addition of remote-control capabilities, generally for mine-site excavators where the site is too dangerous for an operator. An example of this technology is Kobelco’s K-Drive. This technology is currently in development and will allow an operator to control the machine from a replica control cabin while seeing and controlling an excavator located anywhere around the world. 


CHAPTER 2: Choosing the Right Excavator

mini excavators in a lot
There are many different excavators to choose from. Source: Machines4U

If you’re looking to buy an excavator, there are a few key elements to know in order to get the right one for your particular job, project or business. 

Excavators come in a wide range of sizes, configurations and types, so finding the right one isn’t as straightforward as hazarding a guess. In fact, choosing the wrong excavator could be a costly mistake, so you want to be sure you’re getting the best machine for your needs the first time ‘round.   

The main things you want to keep in mind are:

  • The size or scope of the project
  • How much material you need to move
  • The type of jobs you need completed
  • The landscape or terrain of the site
  • How you will transport it to/from the site

Here are a few tips for selecting the right excavator to buy or hire for your project. 


Choosing the Right Type of Excavator

When you think of an excavator, you probably imagine the typical crawler excavator, with a large boom arm and tracks. While this may be one of the most common excavators out there, generally used in construction, there are many more built for specialised situations.

These different types of excavators are for specific projects and tasks. For instance, if you’re working on a sloped site, a spider excavator will help keep you upright while excavating. There are also long-reach excavators for those times where you need to dig from a safer distance. Or if you need to access tighter areas, the zero-swing excavator allows for 360-degree turns without the need for a bulky counterweight. 

So really, it’s a matter of knowing the task at hand and choosing an excavator that will provide the highest level of safety and efficiency for that task. 


Deciding on an Excavator Brand

Excavators are one of the most common construction machines in the world, so there is a lot of market for manufacturers. That’s resulted in plenty of choice for buyers, from lesser-known brands to the giants like Caterpillar, JCB, and Komatsu. So which are Australia’s favourite brands? And which are best for your project? 

Each manufacturer has their own pros and cons. Lesser-known brands are obviously going to be less expensive, however global brands are backed by service guarantees and other factors that may be important to you as a buyer. For instance, the availability of spare parts can be easy or limited depending on the brand. Some keep parts on the shelf, while other brands require parts to be ordered in from overseas, meaning you could be waiting weeks to get your machine back up and running. So you’ll want to go for brands that have good parts availability to help minimise potential downtime if something does go wrong. 

There’s also brand loyalty, where buyers have stuck with a brand for so long, they won’t even consider other manufacturers, even if they offer a similar product for a lower cost. It’s always good to do your own research into the brands you are considering for your next machine, to know exactly what you can expect from their design, manufacturing process and their service.  

Comparing brands is also a great way to get a full understanding of their main differences, what they offer and the value of the product. 


Buy the Right Size Excavator

Not only have you got to consider the right type of excavator, and decide on a brand, but you also need to consider the size of the machine. Get it right and you’ll enjoy high efficiency, get it wrong and it could cost more than just the machine. A good way to know the right size excavator for your needs is to ask yourself, how much material needs to be moved/dug/excavated/sifted, etc.? This will form the basis of what size bucket or attachment you will need, and work backwards to determine the excavator size and tonnage required for the job and timeframe.

There’s an excavator for almost any project. If you’re doing small residential works, mini or compact excavators are ideal for fitting through those tight-access spaces, and weigh a small 0-7 tonnes. 

While small-to-medium excavators, like the Caterpillar 336DL, generally weigh from 7-50 tonnes and are ideal for those jobs where more power is required. 

Large excavators are typically used in big construction projects, to dig foundations and move material from one spot to another. These machines typically weigh from 50-100 tonnes. 

Then you have the monster excavators, mainly used for mining. These machines are massive and require a lot of level ground to work on. An example of a mining excavator is Komatsu’s PC4000.


Tracked or Wheeled Excavators?

Another option to consider is whether a tracked or wheeled excavator will suit your needs. Tracked excavators are typically slower than wheeled, however they have much better traction than their wheeled counterparts that are mainly limited to hard surfaces. 

When you want high-production digging, the tracked excavator is the way to go. These machines are typically more stable thanks to their large footprint and heavy undercarriage. When versatility is required, especially on hard surfaces, the wheeled excavator is the ideal choice as these machines can do all the same jobs the tracked version can, but they can go where the tracked excavator can’t (that is, without ripping up the surface). 

And then you have costs to consider (if you really could use either one). Keep in mind, tracked excavators have a lot of moving parts—meaning a lot more can go wrong, break down or require more maintenance. While wheeled excavators have a lower operating cost. 


CHAPTER 3: Buying an Excavator

Large Cat 6015B excavator
Buyers checking out a mining excavator. Source: Machines4U

Where to Find Excavators For Sale

The process of purchasing an excavator can be quite straightforward, if you are aware of what to look for and what you need. Generally, you can find excavators for sale in dealerships, at auction, in trade magazines and on online marketplaces. The purchasing process is different for each of these options, so you’ll want to make sure you understand what’s expected of you as a buyer when it comes time to complete the transaction. 


Auction Purchases

If you’re buying at auction, you’ll want to organise your finances beforehand and even have pre-approval for a finance loan. Generally, you’ll find used and dismantling machines at auction, and rarely new machines. Keep in mind, once the hammer comes down, you’re buying the machine as is, and there are no refunds. You’ll be expected to pay within a certain timeframe, so make sure you’re not caught out by getting pre-approval for any finance required. 


Dealership Purchases

Heading into a dealership is a great way to see new machines in person and get some solid information from the dealer’s staff. A benefit of buying through a dealership that you can visit in person is the ability to see the machines up close, sit in the cab and give it a test drive. The only downside is having to travel to get to a dealership, and generally they will only have a few brands in their showroom, so you may have to visit a few dealerships to find the right excavator. Dealerships can also help set you up with finance deals if you purchase through their dealership. 


Trade Magazines

Trade magazines are the old tried-and-trusted form of finding new and used excavators for sale. The only problem is that it’s a snapshot in time, and it won’t necessarily show you all the excavators available. Otherwise, the fundamentals of this medium are the same as an online marketplace, but without the added convenience of more photos, videos, PDFs and the like. 


Online Marketplaces

Online marketplaces are built for buyers to easily find a range of excavators available. You can easily filter by brand, condition, tonnage, and location to find a machine that ticks all your boxes. The buying process on an online marketplace is similar to a trade magazine, but you also have the option to email the seller, or of course give them a call. Depending on the marketplace, you can also place a wanted ad request and let sellers come to you with options.  


Pros & Cons of New Vs Used Excavators 

Whether your old excavator has reached the end of its lifespan, or you are looking to expand your fleet, it can be tempting to rule out brand new excavators and opt for used. While most buyers would agree with you, and there are many more used listings than new (almost an 80-20 split on average according to our 18/19 Big Orange Report), there are some good arguments for buying new or buying used. 


Important Specs to Consider

Whether you’re purchasing new or used, there are some main specifications you’ll want to keep an eye out for to ensure you’re going to be purchasing the right machine. These primary specs can change depending on your requirements, but can include:

  • Net power, so you have an idea of how much force the excavator can exert
  • Equipment weight, to know how heavy it is for transport 
  • Digging depth, to know how deep the excavator can dig
  • Max reach along ground, to get an idea of its reach
  • Tail swing radius, to get an idea of how much space the excavator can work within


Used Excavators

The biggest reason buyers look for used excavators over new is the price point: used machines are much cheaper than new. Another added benefit to buying used is you are effectively recycling and reducing your carbon footprint. The main downside to buying used is the associated risk of having the machine not work properly, or encountering multiple issues, etc. This is why it’s important to inspect the machine and use a checklist to ensure you know what you’re buying. 


Buyer’s Checklist for a Used Excavator 

When buying a used excavator, there are a few things you should keep in mind when inspecting the machine (whether in person or online). Some of these points include:

  • Make sure you can see the machine running, check the engine for any odd clunking noises or smoke
  • Check the hydraulic operation
  • Check for any cracks or dents
  • Confirm the hours with the seller
  • Check the undercarriage
  • If you can, take it for a test drive

You’ll also want to make sure the excavator has an up-to-date compliance plate or certificate of compliance to ensure the machine isn’t a grey import and is legally for sale in Australia.


Used Excavator Prices

There are many different factors that will impact the price of a used excavator, the main being:

  • The brand
  • Its age
  • How many hours it’s clocked
  • Its overall condition
  • Its tonnage / size

For this reason it’s difficult to provide accurate prices, however according to Machines4U data, prices for used excavators can range from as little as $12,000 for a compact excavator, right up to and over $330,000 (even more for mining machines). 


New Excavators

When it comes to purchasing a new excavator, the main deterrent for most buyers is the cost. Obviously, a new excavator is going to cost a lot more than a used excavator of the same tonnage and brand. However, there are many finance options available these days that makes purchasing brand new machines much more affordable. It really depends on your own preferences and situation. 

Some benefits to buying a new machine include:

  • After-sales service & support
  • Easy parts, servicing & maintenance
  • Manufacturer or dealer warranty


CHAPTER 4: Selling Excavators

Cat 301.5 mini excavator at expo
Make sure you showcase the product and answer all your buyer’s questions. Source: Machines4U

Selling an excavator is more than just putting up an ad and hoping for the best. You’ve got to get your excavator ready for sale, as well as know how to properly market the machine and also handle the enquiries. In this section, you’ll learn more about the legalities, your obligations and most importantly, how to maximise interest in your excavator.


The Legalities of Selling Excavators

When selling a new or used piece of equipment, like an excavator, there are certain rules you need to keep in mind and abide by to protect yourself and your buyer/s. If you are a seller who:

  • Works for an auction house
  • Works in insolvency 
  • Work in a business that buys, sells, hires or leases equipment
  • Imports used plant from interstate or overseas to on-sell

Then you need to make sure your plant equipment is compliant with all safety regulations and do your duty of care in correctly representing the machine for sale. 


Your Obligations as a Machinery Seller

The main things you need to know when selling machinery, whether as part of a business or as a one-off private sale, include:

  • Ensure any dismantling or scrap plant machinery is clearly marked & identified to be in compliance with state legislation
  • Ensure you create & keep a record of sale
  • Correctly & accurately represent the machine i.e. use photos of the excavator in question, making sure to show & note any damage both in pictures & the description


How to Get More Interest in Your Excavator

filming John Deere excavator launch
Get in front of the camera to talk about the machines top 5 selling points. Source: Machines4U

When advertising your excavator for sale online, there are a few little tricks to maximising your engagement to get the most interest. Some of these tricks include:

  • Adding a video to your online listing (adding one can boost conversion by up to 85%)
  • Upload a product PDF/brochure to capture soft leads
  • Set a price (don’t use POA! Yes, even for brand new excavators)
  • Add clear photos of the excavator (not the ones from the brochure)
  • Add the top 3 selling points at the beginning of your listing’s description

If you’re using an online marketplace, it’s best to know how to stand out online to beat your competitors.


Take Photos of your Excavator

Buyers want to see clear photos of the actual excavator you want to sell. So make sure you do a full 360-degree walk-around and take photos of the:

  • Whole machine, from the front, sides & back
  • Boom arm
  • Bucket or attachments up close
  • Tracks or wheels
  • Undercarriage (if tracked)
  • Engine
  • Hydraulics 
  • Inside the cab
  • Seat
  • Controls
  • Display
  • View through the windscreen
  • Clocked hours (if applicable)
  • Compliance / serial plate

This is your basic checklist for photos to add to your listing. These are the things buyers want to see the most when seriously considering excavators for sale. Of course, if your excavator has any special features you want to display, you can always photograph this as well. 


Is the Price Right?

Setting the right price for your excavator can be difficult, especially if you’re not really sure what it is actually worth. There’s no ‘blue book’ for heavy equipment, so how can you tell if you’re pricing your used equipment correctly, or fairly? Checking a free online appraisal and valuation tool is a good start. 

Another way to get a rough idea on how to price your excavator is to look at similar listings online to gauge a price range. It will all depend on the state, make, model and year of your excavator. Then, set your price and tweak as time goes on. 


Handling Leads from a Marketplace

Marketplace leads are very different from your traditional print ad leads. Buyers online are much savvier, they’re finding answers to most of their questions before you even get a phone call. Most buyers research the brands, the tonnage, the excavator type—they refine and refine until they are ready to make that purchase decision. 

So when you get a lead from an online marketplace, usually they are much more qualified leads, so they require less ‘selling’ and more genuine answers to their questions. This is why it is so important to handle marketplace leads quickly, because you can bet your bottom dollar you’re not the only seller receiving an enquiry from that buyer.  


CHAPTER 5: Excavator Attachments 

Excavator attachments
There are plenty of excavator attachments for all kinds of projects. Source: Machines4U

Excavators are incredibly versatile machines, and that’s all thanks to the sheer number of attachments these machines can use. Those who work around or operate excavators will attest to their ability to tackle unique tasks thanks to the right attachment. While some attachments are more common than others, there are hundreds out there to choose from. Including attachments from different OEMs with slightly different designs.

Some of the most common attachments include:

  • Buckets
  • Screening buckets
  • Rock grabs
  • Augers
  • Rippers


Attaching & Detaching

Attachments used to be a very manual process to unattach, line up the next attachment, then reattach. Obviously doing this manually was not the most efficient process, and since time is money, there have been many improvements to excavator attachments over the years. 

For example, these days many excavators have a quick hitch, which allows for fast attach and detaching of attachments. Also known as a quick adaptor or quick coupler, a quick hitch can be used as an attachment front or permanent attachment for your machine. 

There are different types of quick hitches, including the half hitch, mechanical hitch, semi-automatic hitch and the automatic hitch. Most of these hitches can be controlled from the comfort of the cab, meaning optimised efficiency and better ROI. 


How to Minimise Risk of Accidental Detachments

While quick hitches have safety systems to prevent accidental detachments, it’s important to make sure the safety system is always used in case of a hydraulics or excavator control malfunction. 

To help prevent accidental detachment, in a semi-automatic quick hitch, every time an attachment is changed the safety system must first be removed to allow for disconnection. Once the replacement attachment is engaged, the safety system needs to be re-inserted. Of course, this may get tiresome for operators and they may not always follow this precaution, which leaves them open to risk. 

So always make sure you:

  • Fit any quick hitches with the safety system
  • Use quick hitches in accordance with OEM instructions
  • Ensure attachments and hitches are compatible with the excavator
  • Check the hydraulics provide the correct pressure to retain the attachments


Are Excavator Attachments Universal?

With so many to choose from, it can be difficult to know what will work with your excavator or which specialised attachment is best for your unique needs. There are innovations in excavator attachments periodically, such as this screening bucket.

The equipment weight, hitch size, pin size, pin layout and hydraulic requirements will also determine which attachments will be compatible with your machine.

Not all attachments work across all excavators. There may be some crossover between brands, excavator sizes and other factors, but the best way to know whether an attachment will suit your excavator is to talk to the seller or research the size of the attachment, and ask whether it will work with (or without) a quick hitch.


CHAPTER 6: Excavator Maintenance & Common Problems

PC200 excavator engine
Doing daily maintenance checks will ensure your excavator is in good nick. Source: Machines4U

Excavator Maintenance 

As with any piece of equipment, you want to be sure it is properly maintained for reduced downtime and therefore maximised returns. As a quick guide to maintaining your excavator, you’ll want to check:

  • The fluids, including coolant, hydraulic fluid & engine oil
  • The dust ejector in the air filters
  • The undercarriage and side compartments for any leaks
  • Tracks for any missing bolts or bent shoes
  • The coolers to make sure they are free of debris
  • The attachments for any wear and tear or broken teeth

You’ll also want to keep the undercarriage as clean as possible to ensure no debris gets stuck and damages the many moving parts. If you use your excavator under harsh conditions, you’ll want to check and service it on a regular basis.

Please note: These are general maintenance tips only. If you’re unsure, your machine’s manual should have everything you need. Otherwise, call your local dealer, service tech or the manufacturer for tips suited to your specific machine.


Common Excavator Problems

Sometimes, even with good maintenance routines, things just go wrong. Here’s a quick overview of common excavator problems and what is causing them. 

Please note: the below are general issues and solutions. If you’re having trouble working your excavator properly, make sure you call your dealer or local service technician for advice and repair. Do not attempt to repair the problem yourself if you aren’t a qualified technician. 


Why won’t my excavator move?

This could be caused by a few things. There could be a problem outside of the final drive or travel motor, such as a problem with the charge pump, being stuck in hi-speed mode, not enough pressure or flow in the hydraulics, a blockage in the motor case drain line, or the tracks are too tight. 


Why does it overheat?

Smaller excavators are especially susceptible to overheating issues. Some things to check when your excavator encounters overheating problems is to:

  • Check the load
  • Check the exhaust
  • Check the radiator cap
  • Clean the radiator


Why won’t it start?

There could be a few things at play that can cause this issue. Check the following:

  • If you have a voltmeter, check the voltage from the key to the starter
  • Check the directional joystick, it could be the directional cables
  • Check the wires around the starter
  • Check the ‘dead man’s switch’ is up as when it’s down the excavator will not start


Why is my excavator moving so slowly?

One of the most common causes of this issue is due to a problem with the hydraulic system. It’s best to get a service tech to come out and conduct an inspection on the hydraulics. Some causes include:

  • Corroded hydraulic seals
  • Old or damaged hydraulic drive
  • A malfunctioning hydraulic pump


CHAPTER 7: Operating Your Excavator

Servicing and maintaining an excavator

So now you know the right type, size and attachment to use with your excavator, here are a few pointers for operating your excavator. 

Do I need Tickets to Drive an Excavator?

Since the implementation of the Work Health & Safety Act 2011, an EPC certification is no longer required for the operation of an excavator. However, there are 29 separate classes of high-risk excavator-related work that will require a special licence. If you’re undertaking work in demolition and asbestos removal, you’ll require a high-risk work licence. 

So in short, no you don’t. However, unless you’re going to use an excavator for a DIY project on private property, you’ll need to be properly certified in order to operate an excavator in all other circumstances. 

In all circumstances, we recommend not getting into an excavator until you’ve received training and/or read the operator’s manual to make sure you are familiar with the cab and locations of the controls. 


Can I Drive My Excavator on the Road?

Different states and territories have their own legislation, so be sure to check the relevant local laws regarding driving your excavator on the road. 

According to the Roads and Maritime Services in NSW, excavators can go on-road as long as the operator has a class C driver’s licence and the excavator is travelling in its most compact form. Where there is overdimension, this requires a special permit and must comply with specific permit conditions. 

In Queensland, it is illegal to drive a ‘non-standard’ vehicle on any road. However, a limited access registration may be allowed for vehicles on worksites and designated areas. 


Excavator Safety

Before you even step onto your excavator, it’s important you conduct a pre-start inspection to help prevent accidents and avoid any unnecessary downtime. 

A quick inspection should include (but is not limited to):

  • Conducting a full walk around of the machine and the worksite to ensure there is enough room for the excavator to do its job
  • Check the boom, dipper arm & bucket for any cracks or dents (and check the hitch safety clip/pins while you’re there)
  • Make sure all the lights, controls and joysticks are working properly inside the cab
  • Be aware of the safe operating limits prior to starting the machine, if unsure consult the manual or your machinery dealer

There are also pinch and crush dangers when it comes to changing buckets and other attachments, especially for manually operated pins. So make sure yourself or your operators are well trained prior to switching out attachments on site. With manual hitches, it’s best to ensure the operator has assistance whenever a change required, so they do not leave the cab while the machine is running. The bigger the attachment, the more danger there is, so due diligence is always a necessity.


Loading & Unloading an Excavator

When handling heavy equipment, things can go wrong. So it’s important to ensure you’re always working safely and understand the correct procedures when loading and unloading an excavator for transport. 

Some of the most common hazards when preparing an excavator for transport can include:

  • Falling while driving on/off down ramps
  • The catapult effect
  • Tyres or tracks rolling over someone’s foot
  • Getting trapped between machines

Some things to remember when loading or unloading your excavator:

  • Perform a risk assessment & document the process
  • Make sure anyone handling the machine is properly & adequately trained 
  • Ensure all workers wear proper protective gear
  • Ensure the hauling capacity of the truck or trailer is adequate for the size & weight of your excavator
  • Keep the ramp & trailer clean & clear

These basics should help you research and purchase the right excavator, sell your excavator, and operate your excavator. There is a lot to consider when buying and selling heavy machinery, as well as safely using an excavator, and we hope this article has helped you through your journey! 

Is there something we missed in this guide? Please let us know in the comments below.

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