Operator training is key, but here’s a review of the step-by-step basics.
Excavators and their smaller siblings, mini excavators, are powerful earthmoving machines used for a variety of digging and backfilling tasks. Whether you’re renting a 2-ton mini excavator for a landscaping project or plan to put the 25-ton excavator on your jobsite to work, you may want to refresh yourself on how to operate an excavator. This guide outlines the basics.
Remember: OSHA requires that operators be trained and certified before using an excavator. Blended learning programs that combine an online course and in-person evaluation are an easy way to meet OSHA requirements.
Before using an excavator, you’ll need to understand the excavator controls and how to operate them. The following controls are standard on most excavators:
- Safety lock lever: Prevents the machine from operating when in the up position.
- Ignition switch: Starts or stops the machine when the key is inserted and turned.
- Throttle: Controls the engine speed, or RPMs.
- Display: Indicates fuel level, oil pressure, temperature gauge, warning lights and other engine information.
- Right joystick: Controls the up and down motion of the boom. Also used to curl the bucket in (close) or out (dump).
- Left joystick: Controls the up and down motion of the stick (dipper attached to the boom). Tipped right or left, it swings the excavator cab and boom 360 degrees in either direction.
- Track pedals: Hand and foot pedals that control the tracks that move the machine. Either can be used, but beginners are encouraged to start with the hand pedals.
- Foot pedals (on some models): Left pedal controls hydraulic attachments like a thumb or auger. Right pedal swings the arm (boom and stick) right or left without rotating the cab.
- Front blade control (on mini excavators only): Raises or lowers a dozer blade in front of the tracks for stability. Can be used for backfilling and grading.
Excavator controls are configured to either ISO or SAE standards. The ISO standard is the most common worldwide, while SAE is prevalent in the U.S. The main difference is which hand controls the boom and stick. ISO machines use right controls for the boom and left controls for the stick. This pattern is reversed for SAE excavators.
Many manufacturers offer dual modes to accommodate operator preferences. Typically, the mode is changed by pushing a button or turning a lever. To illustrate, here’s how to change the control pattern on a John Deere excavator:
- Find and unlock the pattern control changer under the seat.
- Remove the bolt and turn the lever to the preferred control.
- Secure the bolt and lock the box.
Steps can vary by model, so consult the operator’s manual.
Using an excavator: Step by step instructions
No matter the size of the machine, the steps to using an excavator are similar across models. For example, the basics of how to operate a JCB excavator are the same as those for a John Deere, Hitachi and Takeuchi digger. Unsure how to operate a mini excavator? Again, the steps are similar. Let’s take a closer look.
Before you start
Before you climb into an excavator, follow these steps for safe operation:
- Maintain three points of contact when entering the cab.
- Secure your seatbelt and adjust the seat to a comfortable position.
- Close the door. While excavators can operate with the door open, a closed door is safer for the operator and cuts down on dust inside the cab.
- Put the safety lock lever in the down position before turning on the machine.
Driving an excavator
To drive the excavator, follow these steps:
- Turn the key in the ignition.
- Position the boom up, stick down, with the bucket flat. For narrow jobsites, tuck the stick and bucket in with the boom low in front.
- If you’re operating a mini excavator, retract the dozer blade.
- Adjust the throttle to the desired speed.
- Use the track pedals to drive the excavator. Press both pedals forward to move ahead; apply pressure to the back of both pedals to reverse. Push the right pedal to turn right and on the left to turn left.
Digging with an excavator
To dig with an excavator, follow these steps:
- Remove the pressure on the track pedals so the excavator stops moving.
- If using a mini excavator, lower the blade to add stability on uneven surfaces.
- Center the boom in front of the tracks and extend the stick straight out.
- Open the bucket so the teeth are angled to penetrate the dirt.
- Lower the boom to the ground and close the bucket to scoop the dirt.
- Lift the stick and swing the boom.
- Dump the bucket.
Backfilling with an excavator
To backfill with an excavator, follow these steps:
- Extend the stick and the boom out as far out from the excavator as possible.
- Position the bucket to scoop dirt without digging a new hole.
- Curl the bucket while moving the stick and boom to dump materials at the desired location.
- Position the bucket flat and use the side to push any remaining dirt into the hole.
- To move material close to the excavator, start with the stick down and the bucket open. Lower the bucket to the ground and use the stick to push the material toward the machine.
- On a mini excavator, drop the blade to push or level dirt in the desired location.
Parking an excavator
To park an excavator, follow these steps:
- Put the excavator in transport mode with the boom up, stick down and bucket flat.
- Drive to a secured area with the cab squared over the tracks.
- Put the safety lock lever in the up position and secure the parking brake.
- Position the throttle to idle for a few minutes to let the engine cool.
- Turn the machine off.
Excavators are highly versatile digging machines available in a range of sizes to tackle tasks from backyard landscaping to large-scale construction projects. Learning how to operate an excavator properly and safely will greatly improve your experience and results.