dot vector graphic

What is an Excavator? A Guide to Types of Excavators and Attachments

October 21, 2021

Excavator digging a trench

An excavator is an extremely useful piece of machinery. Part of the reason excavators are so popular is because they come in a wide variety of types, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. 

That variety can also make it difficult to choose which type of excavator is right for you. Here is a brief overview to help you decide.

Excavator Types

Crawler Excavators

Also known as standard excavators or track excavators, crawlers run on two treads instead of wheels. Although they are slower than wheeled excavators, their tracks make them better suited for rough or uneven terrain. As the standard, crawler excavators can be found on most construction sites. They’re most commonly used in mining operations, trench digging and landscape grading.

Mini Excavators

Also known as compact excavators, they’re considerably smaller than other kinds of machinery. It is because of this that most mini excavators have reduced — or, in some cases, zero — tail-swing. This makes them optimal for jobsites that require delicate work or have many obstacles that need to be avoided. Part of their popularity can be attributed to their ability to work indoors. However, their small size limits the load capacity and digging depth.

Long-Reach Excavators

As the name suggests, long-reach excavators feature a long, extendable boom and stick. The two together can range from 40 to 100 feet in length. With a wider reach, these excavators are well-suited to reach long distances and hard-to-reach places. Unfortunately, their long reach also makes them difficult to use in small spaces or tight corners. They’re commonly found at heavy-duty digging sites and demolition projects — particularly dangerous projects where they allow people to work far from danger.

Dragline Excavators

Unlike other kinds of excavators, dragline excavators use a hoist rope and dragline system to maneuver the bucket instead of the usual boom and stick. They’re larger than other types of excavators, and because of that they are usually assembled on-site. Their size also makes them especially good at deep digging, with a maximum digging depth of 65 meters. The dragline system makes it especially useful when working underwater, like at dock jobsites. Other common uses for dragline excavators include deep pile driving and road excavations.

Suction Excavators

Suction excavators, also called vacuum excavators, are best known for their suction capabilities. They are fitted with a suction pipe and a water jet to create a suction power of 200 mph. Suction excavators have very specific purposes, but they’re extremely useful in those cases. Its pipe is usually around 30 centimeters in diameter, making it ideal for underground work, delicate terrain or precise operations. On larger operations, however, they are not particularly useful.

Hydraulic Shovels

Hydraulic shovels are considered the most powerful type of excavator. They’re very large and have powerful engines, making them useful for lifting or moving heavy objects. They can usually be found at mining operations or heavy digging projects. Their large size makes them a hindrance on smaller jobsites.

Choosing The Right Excavator For Your Job

Several factors should be considered when choosing an excavator, since finding the best fit for your project will maximize its use.‍

Type of Work 

Jobs have specific needs, like suctioning or long horizontal reach.

Size and Capacity

Choose the right size excavator to get the job done efficiently.

Jobsite Conditions 

Excavators vary in their ability to move through rough terrain or in tight spaces, so consider your jobsite’s condition.

Picking the right excavator for the job can be a serious challenge. Ask a construction equipment expert at your local EquipmentShare branch. Our staff can help you with all of your construction equipment needs.

Excavators Versus Backhoes

Backhoes do some of the same work as an excavator, but there are some key differences. 

A backhoe looks like a tractor with an excavator arm on the back and a loader on the front. Backhoes are versatile machines, but their digging ability can be limited compared to excavators because of their generally smaller size and inability to rotate their arm 360 degrees.

Excavator Attachments and Parts

The anatomy of excavators all follow the same general structure, but each type of excavator will have different specifications.

Parts and Components

  • Tracks: Usually made from steel or reinforced rubber, these move the excavator across the terrain. Wheeled varieties of excavators have a set of wheels in place of tracks.
  • Track frame: This is where the mechanisms that move and rotate the tracks are housed and where the undercarriage is connected to the rest of the excavator. Wheeled excavators would have a similar frame that houses the mechanisms that move and turn the wheels.
  • Cab: It contains all of the controls to use the excavator, and it protects the operator from outside hazards.
  • Counterweight: It keeps the excavator from tipping over by balancing out the weight of the arm. Sizes vary depending on the weight of the arm and overall size of the machine.
  • Engine: It’s the power source for the excavator. Most excavators run on diesel fuel. The engine not only allows the machine to drive, but it powers the hydraulics that move the arm.
  • Boom: It’s the upper part of the excavator’s arm. It is connected to the cabin and usually is only capable of vertical movement. Knuckle booms, although less common, have the ability to swing left and right to a certain degree.
  • Stick: It’s the lower part of the excavator’s arm. A hydraulic cylinder operates the stick, pulling it toward the boom to create digging movement.
  • Bucket: It’s connected to the stick, fixed on a joint that allows it to scoop. Buckets are certainly the standard, but they are not the only thing that can be attached to the end of the stick.


  • ‍Buckets: They’re the most common excavator attachment. All buckets have toothed edges that assist in scooping and digging. Buckets come in a variety of sizes to suit different needs.‍
  • Clamps: Some materials might be too large to safely move with just a bucket. Clamps allow the excavator to grip larger objects, such as boulders or tree stumps.‍
  • Augers: Used primarily for drilling into terrain, these attachments consist of a helical blade and hydraulic circuits. Similar to buckets, they come in a variety of specifications depending on the size of the hole and the material that needs to be drilled through.‍
  • Breakers: These are larger versions of jackhammers that attach to excavators. They’re primarily used for breaking down strong materials like stone and concrete. Some breakers can provide up to 1,000 pounds of impact energy.‍
  • Couplers: As the name suggests, they are attachments that allow operators to quickly attach and detach tools and attachments. Couplers limit how much you can modify your excavator, but they make it possible to switch attachments without an entire crew.

Attachments are important parts of your machine, and theft is common. If you want to keep track of everything in your fleet and maximize your efficiency, check out our T3 telematics hardware for all of your equipment and tools.

Replacement Parts

Your excavator’s parts will deteriorate and eventually will need to be replaced. Some common parts you can expect to replace include:

  • Air filters.
  • Belts.
  • Batteries.
  • Seals.
  • Hoses.
  • Hydraulic filters.
  • Oil filters.

Not sure where to find replacement parts? EquipmentShare’s excavator parts shop has a large catalog of replacement parts from dozens of manufacturers, whether you need to replace a filter or an entire window.

If you’re looking for a professional opinion or have equipment that you need help with, get in contact with one of our equipment service centers. Get started on an EquipmentShare rental.

Rent an Excavator Now

About EquipmentShare

Founded in 2015 and headquartered in Columbia, Mo., EquipmentShare is a nationwide construction technology and equipment solutions provider dedicated to transforming the construction industry through innovative tools, platforms and data-driven insights. By empowering contractors, builders and equipment owners with its proprietary technology, T3, EquipmentShare aims to drive productivity, efficiency and collaboration across the construction sector. With a comprehensive suite of solutions that includes a fleet management platform, telematics devices and a best-in-class equipment rental marketplace, EquipmentShare continues to lead the industry in building the future of construction.