October 21, 2021

What is an Excavator? Use Cases and Types of Excavators

tracked excavator digging excavating ground on jobsite

An excavator is an extremely useful piece of machinery. You will find one on nearly every construction jobsite, regardless of the type of work. Part of the reason why 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.

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 treads make them better suited for rough or uneven terrain. As the standard, crawler excavators can be found in many different types of construction sites. However, they’re most commonly used in mining operations, trench digging, and landscape grading.

Mini Excavators

In recent years, mini excavators have become popular on jobsites. 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 job sites 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.

Long Reach Excavators

As the name suggests, long reach excavators feature a long, extendable boom and arm. 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 places difficult or dangerous for operators. 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.

Dragline Excavators

Unlike other kinds of excavators, dragline excavators utilize a hoist rope and dragline system to maneuver the bucket, instead of the usual arm and boom. 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 piledriving 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 miles per hour. 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.

Skid Steers

The main difference between skid steers and other types of excavators is that the boom and bucket of the machine faces away from the driver. Usually, skid steers are utilized in residential work, site clearing, and debris removal. This is because they’re smaller and more compact, making them good at maneuvering through narrow or tight spaces. They have wheels instead of tracks, making them faster but unable to ride over rough terrain.

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 - some jobs might have specific needs, like suctioning or long horizontal reach.
  • Size/Capacity - choosing the right size excavator in vital to getting the job done efficiently.
  • Environment - excavators vary on their ability to move through rough terrain or in tight spaces, so considering what your jobsite will look like is necessary.

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

Excavator Attachments and Parts

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

Parts and Components

  • Tracks - usually made from steel of reinforced rubber, these move the excavator across the terrain. Wheeled varieties of excavators, naturally, would have a set of wheels in place of tracks.
  • Track Frame - comprises most of the machine’s undercarriage. 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 - the place that the operator sits. It contains all of the controls to use the excavator, and it protects the operator from outside hazards.
  • Counterweight - keeps the excavator from tipping over by balancing out the weight of the arm. Their size varies depending on the weight of the arm and overall size of the machine.
  • Engine - the source of power for the excavator. Almost all excavators run on diesel fuel. The engine not only allows the machine to drive, but it powers the hydraulics that move the arm.
  • Boom - 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 - the lower part of the excavator’s arm. A hydraulic cylinder operates the stick, pulling it towards the boom to create digging movement.
  • Bucket - connected to the stick, the bucket is 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 - the most common attachment on excavators. All buckets have toothed edges that assist in scooping and digging. Even 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 - 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 1000 lbs 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 tracking hardware for all of your equipment and tools.

Replacing Parts

Like any other piece of heavy machinery, parts of your excavator 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.

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