Compact Equipment Lends a Big Hand for Contractors Working in Tight Spaces

John Deere

It’s easy to take notice of the big equipment on a construction site. Large excavators stretch their arms and dump heaps of dirt, wheel loaders zip around as bulldozers push spoils out of their way without a care in the world. While those machines are certainly impressive, bigger isn’t always better in utility construction work. With jobsites getting smaller, contractors must rely on equipment that can access tight spaces but still have the power to get the job done.

“Over the years, utility construction and maintenance have faced increased challenges from narrower lot lines, traffic congestion and cost pressures,” says Sam Norwood, Manager of CWP Sales and Marketing for John Deere Construction & Forestry. “Compact equipment is designed to meet many of these challenges. The compact size of skid steers, compact track loaders (CTLs) and compact excavators facilitates work in tight conditions. These machines can work on small jobsites and get between houses and buildings where traditional equipment cannot.”

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Small, but Mighty

When work calls for a smaller machine, skid steers and CTLs are ready to roll. Equipped with the right attachment, these machines are able to knock off virtually any task on a contractor’s lengthy to-do list.

“Both styles of machine are compact, self-contained, easy to transport and relatively easy to train new operators,” says Warren Anderson, Brand Marketing Manager for Case Construction Equipment. “Both provide an excellent platform for attachment use and are compatible with dozens of attachments that simplify everything from trench digging to finish grading to return the jobsite back to its original condition. They offer a relative lower total cost of ownership over a lifetime when compared to larger machines. And navigating around existing buildings and structures is made easy by the compact design.”

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Can’t decide between a skid steer and CTL? Norwood points out four factors to consider when determining which machine to purchase or rent:

  1. Application: Skid steers work best when operated on hard surfaces or hard ground. In contrast, CTLs operate better on slopes and softer ground. Due to the increased weight of the undercarriage, a CTL will often be able to lift more than a skid steer of the same size.
  2. Operating Cost: The weight of CTLs and the cost of replacement tracks make a CTL more expensive to operate than a skid steer. CTLs will also burn more fuel per hour due to the horsepower needed to move the heavier loader and to turn the loader on tracks instead of tires. In addition, replacement tracks cost more than replacement tires. Because tracks wear faster on hard surfaces, the savings from using a skid steer will be greater in a pavement application than in a dirt application.
  3. Transport Speed: Most skid steers and CTLs top out at 6 to 7 mph. However, most machines can be equipped with a two-speed option to bring the top speed up to 12 mph on skid steers and about 9 mph on CTLs. A 30-percent difference in top speed can increase productivity in some applications.
  4. Acquisition Cost: A CTL of similar frame size will cost about $8,000 more than a skid steer.

Both skid steers and CTLs are notorious for their abilities to take on a large variety of attachments. Trenchers and pallet forks are just two of the most commonly used attachments in utility work.

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“Trenchers are at the top of the list and work well with both styles of machine,” explains Anderson. “They work specifically well with CTLs because the tracked platform provides a nice and smooth ride, which makes it easier to keep the attachment steady and even. Forks are also a must-have for all CTL and skid steer owners. They’re the most commonly used attachment after the bucket and are ideal for helping to load and unload trucks and to move materials around the jobsite.”

On top of those two, rakes, augers, grapple buckets and hammers/breakers are just some of the other options utility contractors rely on in their work.

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CatDigging Duties

There’s no doubt about it: The excavator is certainly a utility contractor’s go-to machine. Equipped with the right bucket and enough power, an excavator can slice through the ground, scoop the soil and make way for new utilities to be installed. However, size matters in certain jobsites. Congested areas call for a smaller machine that still packs a punch in digging duties. A compact excavator is just what the job orders.

“It’s all about access; compact excavators can get in places that larger excavators can’t,” says Katie Pullen, Brand Marketing Manager for Case Construction Equipment. “They are generally equipped with rubber tracks and have a lower ground pressure than larger excavators, so if you’re traveling over a finished area with existing utilities underfoot, a compact excavator will create far less impact than a full-size excavator with steel tracks. Also, when you get into digging around structures — or, in some cases, inside structures — a compact excavator gives you that flexibility that larger excavators don’t have.”  

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Just like larger models, the quest to purchase or rent a compact excavator begins with sizing up the machine and jobs it’s meant to do. The first step is to take a look at its dig depth and go from there.

“With any excavator, the first consideration is maximum dig depth and lift capacity compared to the needs of your application,” says Norwood. “Choose an excavator that has a maximum dig depth that is 20 percent more than your actual trenching needs to allow for trenching at depth without repositioning the machine too often. When reviewing lift capacity, check out the excavator’s lift capacity over both the front and the side as these may differ significantly by manufacturer and model.”

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Focusing on features that allow for easier and more comfortable operation is also important when selecting a machine. Like the old saying goes, a comfortable operator is a productive one.

“The layout and placement of control systems including travel levers, joystick controls and displays within the operator station directly contributes to the operator experience and influences job satisfaction,” says Jennifer Hooper, Market Development Engineer for Caterpillar. “The customization of the machine to meet your requirements is key. The ability to change from an ISO to SAE operating pattern, easily adjust wrist rests and seat position and utilize intuitive 100-percent pilot joystick controls all contribute to overall comfort and ease of operation.”

An excavator is also great for work beyond digging, thanks to the addition of attachments that expand the machine’s capabilities. Norwood suggests looking for a compact excavator with a standard quick-coupler to make exchanging implements quick and easy. “You may also want to consider a hydraulic quick-coupler than allows the operator to switch buckets and attachments without leaving the cab,” he adds.

Aside from buckets, thumbs and hammers/breakers are two of the most popular attachments among utility contractors.

“Thumbs are common and make it much easier for the operator to grab and place materials as they are working — we generally recommend that compact excavator owners add a thumb,” says Pullen. “Another powerful attachment is a hydraulic hammer. While full-size excavators can handle much larger hammers, a compact excavator matched with a hammer can access more places and help bust through conditions that may otherwise require bringing in a jackhammer — it can go more places than a full-size machine.”  

And attachments aren’t the only way to customize an excavator. Depending on manufacturer, there are many features contractors can add to make the machine just right for their operations.

“There are many options for customization of compact excavators,” says Hooper. “It may be as simple as increasing lights on the machine for evening work, to installing guards for added protection in heavy-duty applications or adding secondary auxiliary lines to accommodate certain work tool attachments.”


Trenchin’ It

Just like the compact excavator fills in for its larger counterpart, the walk-behind trencher fits in where bigger ride-on units can’t access or simply aren’t required. With the housing market on the upswing, these compact units are ideal for smaller utility installations in tight spaces.

“The length of trench, width of cut and size of jobsite are all things to consider when deciding between a walk-behind trencher and a larger unit,” says Andrew Schuermann, Product Manager of Trenchers and Compact Utility Equipment for Ditch Witch. “For example, if an operator needs to dig a residential trench between two homes that is 4 in. wide by 30 in. deep, a walk-behind trencher is the preferred machine to quickly and efficiently get the job done. The walk-behind trencher is an excellent, cost-effective option for installing short electric, gas, water, communications and/or irrigation lines.”

When looking to purchase or rent a walk-behind trencher, it’s important to size the machine to the applications a contractor is expected to tackle. This will ensure a contractor has the most suitable (and productive) trencher to complete a task.

“Contractors should have a pretty good idea of the applications in which the trencher should be used and make their decision based on those factors,” says Joshua Beddow, Marketing Manager at The Toro Co. “Contractors will want to make sure that the machine they select offers the proper trenching depth, maneuverability and overall power to fit their specific needs. Specifically for walk-behind trenchers, stability and overall safety is important for operators. Trenching projects don’t always take place on even ground, so it’s important to select a machine with a low center of gravity and a wide footprint, which increases stability on hills or otherwise uneven terrain.”

Other important considerations to make when selecting a trencher include the machine’s horsepower, boom and chain options, as well as support after the sale.

“Utility contractors and operators should also consider the company behind the product, and the dealer network that provides support for the equipment when it is time to service the machine,” explains Schuermann. “Service and support should become a main consideration when buying or renting any machine, as maintenance and service are key to extending the life of a walk-behind trencher and keeping the unit operating efficiently.”

Speaking of maintenance, routine upkeep is needed to ensure the machine stays performing at its peak level. Beddow points out that the most commonly affected parts are the trencher chain and trencher bar. He also offers these maintenance tips to extend their lives:

  • Retain proper chain tension. When a chain is tensioned too loosely or too tightly, the trencher will not perform to full potential, prematurely wearing parts due to unnecessary stress.
  • Check chain wear. Chains wear at each pivot point at each link. To properly check chain wear, the chain needs to be removed from the trencher and boom and laid out straight on a hard, level surface. Wear should not exceed 3 percent from when the chain is fully collapsed to fully extended.
  • Examine tooth condition. Trencher teeth come in three basic styles: “cupped” for breaking up loose soil, “rock” used in loose rock and “bullet” for use with solid rock. Many of these tooth styles include carbide inserts on their sides, tops or faces. When this carbide is worn flat or worn away, the tooth needs to be replaced.
  • Grease all moving parts.  Greasing all moving parts is one of the most important preventative maintenance measures you can take with a trencher. Fleet managers and technicians will want to pay particularly special attention to the nose roller, trencher head and all parts of the drive mechanism.
  • Visually inspect the drive sprocket of the trencher on a periodic basis. When the drive sprocket becomes worn, its drive points will not properly engage with the chain. At that point, it’s worth investing in a new one.  

Bigger equipment may take center stage on a busy jobsite, but smaller machines also play an important role in utility construction applications. Skid steers, CTLs, compact excavators and walk-behind trenchers can all pull their weight and provide the right-sized solution for tight areas.

Pam Kleineke is Managing Editor of Utility Contractor