Renting a mini-excavator -- A few lessons learned

By JimRental

OpenRental note: P. and K. Goyle (yes, those are pseudonyms) are undertaking a series of projects in their yard. This is the one of a series of blogs by Peter as they use a range of rental equipment to transform their yard into a stylish oasis.

Admit it -- running your own backhoe, or excavator, is something most of us have wanted to do ever since we were kids. It always just looked like it would be a ton of fun.

Well, it is fun. Beyond that, mini-excavators can be incredibly productive, able to dig and move dirt in hours that would take days to do with hand tools. Maybe your time has come!

For me, the opportunity came as in building a retaining wall made of juniper timbers. Basically, I needed to dig out a footing trench two feet deep by 25 feet long, plus, cut three trenches into the slope for deadmen, so the weight of the slope wouldn’t topple the wall over time. A “mini-excavator” was just the ticket.

About getting straight to work -- first, before you go dig up your yard, take some time to get comfortable with the controls. If you have mad video game controller skills, you’ll have no problems.

If you’re more like me, take extra time to experience exactly what all the levers do. I found the main trick was simply figuring out the right sequence of the bucket/top arm/bottom arm/rotation.

Try beginning at the simplest part of the job, and trust that you’ll get better and more efficient as you work through the first part of the day.

Soon, muscle memory takes hold, and the actions become more automatic. It’s then you can start to refine the movements for more exact grading. This also is a time to not get complacent or overly confident -- it would be easy to inadvertently hit a lever slightly out of sequence and do some damage. A slow and steady cadence is what’s needed. A day of this will really make you appreciate what the professionals can do with one of these – their precision with speed is amazing.

You’ll also want to plan for where you stack the excavated dirt. If you’re getting rid of the removed soil, ideally, it will go straight into a yard box. If so, make sure that yard box is conveniently placed within reach of your excavator. If not, you’ll have to waste time rolling the excavator back and forth to the box, or will need a with the front-end loader to move the dirt from the excavated piles to the yard box.

Most rental yards provide two buckets – one for digging, the other for finish/grading work. It’s obvious which is which, and they’re simple to change. There’s also a top “claw” for grabbing big rocks or chunks of concrete. It’s easy to use, though you do have to be careful not to apply too much pressure from the claw to concrete because it will then act as more of a crusher than a claw…and you’ll be back to using the bucket to clean up the now numerous pieces of smaller concrete.

There’s also a smaller “bulldozer” blade on the front of the excavator. But this an excavator after all, and not really designed pushing dirt around. A dingo compact utility loader or larger bobcat-type loaders are complementary tools to an excavator

A few lessons learned:

1.Call ahead for utilities. Even with a small excavator, it would be all too easy to slice unknowingly through a buried cable or pipe and not realize it until it’s too late. And if you have natural gas service, all the more important.

2.While it’s likely instructions will be offered at the yard, prompt the yard guy a bit for details, and video the intructions on your phone, If you show real interest, the rental guys often are kind of proud of their knowledge, and are happy to offer additional tips/tricks for getting the most from your rental.

3.Watch closely how things are loaded at the yard. Again, it’ll help you be more at ease with getting it off/on the trailer at your digging site.

4.Drive defensively during the tow. That’s a lot of weight to have to account for during any sudden stops.

5.Resist getting overconfident or too comfortable during the dig. It would be too easy to inadvertently do a lot of damage very quickly.

6.Dirt has a lot of volume. Carefully plan where you’ll put it.

7.The claw works great for grabbing bigger items like rocks and old concrete slabs.

8.Get in a lot of video game time before the rental.