What is a Compact Excavator?

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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2019
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A compact excavator is a small version of a standard excavator that is specially outfitted to take advantage of its size and agility. These machines have less power than a standard excavator but improved maneuverability. They are useful for small jobs wherein more precision is required or for use in tiny spaces in which the larger machines can’t reach. Newer versions the compact excavator feature additional tool options; these are either permanently attached to the back of the device or are an exchangeable piece.

In many cases, a standard excavator has a fixed work arm and cab. This allows the machine to put significantly higher force into its work than a machine in which these points are mobile. In exchange, the common excavator is very limited in its maneuverability. When an excavator pulls material out of a work area, it has a very limited choice of drop areas unless it moves after every scoop.

The compact excavator trades in the power of the big machine for greater maneuverability. These machines are made up of three parts: the cab, the undercarriage and the work arm. Each of these areas is specifically set to maximize the versatility of the tool.


The cab is the part of the compact excavator the worker sits in when operating the machine. The seat is offset toward the back of the machine to provide a counterbalance to the work arm. The cab is proportionately much lower to the ground than the one found on a traditional excavator, allowing the machine to work under lower ceilings.

The undercarriage is the part under the cab. This portion holds the hydraulic system that operates the work arm and the engine that moves the machine. It also has a swivel point that gives the cab and work arm the ability to rotate independently of the tread system. Operators can use this rotation to deposit material is a wider range of areas without moving the machine.

The last section is the work arm. The bucket on the end of the arm moves material in or out of a workspace. This is usually a backfill bucket, meaning the digging end of the bucket faces the driver. The work arm has a swing independent to that of the cab. It can pivot to the left or right, typically with a full 180-degree movement. This is particularly useful in small areas where the cab is unable to rotate.

Newer versions of the compact excavator have enhanced features over older models. These machines will have secondary equipment on the back, such as an auger or lifter. This portion typically requires the driver to swivel around and usually causes the cab to be centered more on top of the wheels. More advanced versions have secondary arms that can be exchanged with the conventional bucket. These give the small machine more versatility and make it more appealing to small-scale construction companies.


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