Mini Excavator Maintenance Guide

  • Written by Luis
parked John Deere 60G mini excavator

A mini excavator – and there are many high-quality brands such as John Deere, Komatsu, Bobcat, Kubota, Caterpillar, and Hitachi – is one of the most highly regarded pieces of machinery used across different industries.

Engineered for versatility and built to take a pounding, it can take on a variety of tasks without missing a beat. Like any equipment that needs a human operator to function, its lifespan and usefulness are determined by how it is used – and maintained.

A Guide to Keeping Your Mini Excavator Running at Peak Efficiency

Keeping your mini excavator in top working condition and following a manufacturer’s recommended safety checklist should be done in tandem. Ignoring one with have a negative effect on the other. You also must operate the machine safely. Regardless of the make or model you choose, a mini excavator is one of the most versatile pieces of construction equipment you can use. From clearing a lot for residential use to trenching at the site of a new office complex, a mini excavator is designed to get the job done.

Here are some safety and maintenance-related tasks to keep in mind when inspecting your machinery and using it at a job site.

Before you start work:

  • Check to make sure you or your company has a permit to operate the excavator onsite.
  • Check for excessive wear, damage, or cracks on the bucket. Rust is a sure sign that major components or accessories need to be replaced, sooner rather than later.
  • The bucket cylinder and linkage may over time show signs of excessive leaks, damage, or wear.
  • The stick will take a beating daily, so watch for cracks and other damage.
  • The boom cylinders also are susceptible to damage including cracks and leakage.
  • Check underneath the mini excavator for signs of leakage, cracks, or pieces of debris which may pose a risk to tires or rubber tracks.
  • Look for cracks to the car body.
  • Steps and handholds should not exhibit cracks, dents, or other signs of damage.
  • For batteries and hold downs, keep them free of dirt and other debris, and make sure bolts and nuts are properly tightened.
  • Check the air filter to make sure it is clean and free of restrictions.
  • Windshield wipers, though made of high-strength rubber, need to be inspected for cracks and splits.
  • Maintain windshield wiper fluid levels.
  • Maintain the engine coolant level.
  • Avoid operating the machinery in extreme temperature conditions.
  • Do not operate your mini excavator during inclement weather, such as high winds, rain, or when you hear thunder or see lightening.
  • Are all gauges and controls working as expected?
  • Check the radiator for blockage or leaks.
  • The hydraulic oil tank needs to be inspected for fluid levels, leakage, and damage.
  • The fuel tank, while protected, should be inspected for signs of wear, including cracks or leakage.
  • Charge the manufacturer-supplied fire extinguisher to ensure it is charged and damage-free.
  • Make sure the coverings for all lights are clean and not damaged; light bulbs need to be in working order.
  • Drain the fuel-water separator as recommended.
  • Overall, check the excavator for lose or missing nuts, bolts, guards, and bumpers.
  • Make sure mirrors adjust as needed and are crack-free.
  • For the engine compartment, it is recommended to inspect for signs of wear including leaks, cracks, or other damage on the swing gear oil level, engine oil, all belts and hoses, and make sure the compartment itself is free of all debris.

When You are Ready to Start Working

Now that you have followed any manufacturer recommended safety protocols, it is time to inspect the jobsite and remind yourself of other steps to take as necessary.

  • To properly operate the excavator, you must be inside the cab. Check for damage on the seat, seat belt and mounting, indicators and gauges, the horn, backup alarm, lights, and the overall interior.
  • Your mini excavator should only be operated by one person at a time.
  • Do not transport co-workers or anyone else in the bucket or when they may be hanging onto steps or side rails.
  • Check the ground carefully. You may be tasked with clearing the area of debris, but driving over or through rocks, construction materials, tree stumps, or other debris can compromise your mini excavator’s operating efficiency. Remember, heavy machinery is durable but not indestructible.
  • Test the steering wheel and brakes. If you cannot navigate the ground or stop as needed, then you will not be able to complete assigned work.
  • Know your excavator’s maximum load capacity and do not exceed it.
  • Mini excavator operators run the risk of being hit by flying debris or handling dangerous objects, so be sure to wear the rights clothes, safety goggles, gloves, and boots.
  • Do not drive the excavator close to others on the jobsite, including co-workers or bystanders.
  • Make sure the work path is clear of other workers, bystanders, animals, or anything else that would get in the way.
  • Whenever possible, drive along a flat route on the jobsite and know where you are going between your start and end locations.
  • If the ground is slippery or steep, use the boom to help move up and down. When moving up a steep slope, make sure to extend the arm and boom; if needed, you can then pull the machine up by lowering the bucket and retracting the arm. The bucket can be lowered to the ground if you are driving down a slope, as this will provide more stability until you reach level ground.
  • If you are tasked with digging a trench, first place dirt under the tracks to ensure you are on a level surface. This will reduce the change of cave-ins.
  • Watch out for unexpected inclines, slopes, holes, or pits that may be hazardous.
  • The excavator should only be operated by one person – the driver in the cab.
  • Do not leave the machine running while inspecting it.
  • Do not attempt to make repairs while the excavator is running.
  • Do not attempt to remove or install accessories while the excavator is running.
  • Do not drive the excavator if you are in any way impaired or feeling ill.
  • Be on the lookout for downed power lines, or utility markers that indicate the presence of buried utilities.
  • Make sure you have enough clearance if navigating under power lines, bridges, tree limbs, or other structures.
  • The excavator’s boom and bucket should be extended when moving up or down uneven ground; this ensures you can quickly grab the ground if the machine starts to tip.
  • The blade can be used for extra support when navigating on uneven ground Be careful when rotating above the track when the arm is completely extended.
  • Avoid tip overs by operating the excavator on firm ground, and from a horizontal position.
  • Dirt or construction debris that is extracted while digging should be deposited at a location away from the dig site.
  • Become familiar with the machine’s operator manual and, if possible, keep a copy in the cab.
  • Drive slowly when navigating uneven terrain, or near co-workers, bystanders, or any obstructions.
  • Never dig underneath the excavator. This will surely increase the odds of a cave-in or the machinery tipping over.
  • If you are backfilling a cave-in, make sure the excavator’s tracks are positioned at a 90-degree angle to the target area, with the propel motors to the rear of the machine.
  • Avoid dropping or throwing loose materials when loading trucks by keeping the excavator bucket or cab stationary.
  • Do not clean the excavator’s bucket by hitting it against another object or the ground.
  • When you are finished for the day, make sure the excavator is off, the cab door is locked, the arm and boom are secure, and the keys are in a safe location.

Ultimately, mini excavator safety is the responsibility of the person operating and maintaining it. We can sum up safety and maintenance by reminding you of seven key points to keep in mind:

  • The most reliable safety feature of a mini excavator is the person operating it. If that is you, then you are responsible for understanding all facets of how the machine operates from an end-user perspective. You may not know how to build the engine, but you should at least know how to change the oil.
  • Always rely on your local utility company to survey property before you begin work. A trained professional will come out and place different coloured markers around the job site to indicate the presence of buried gas, electric, cable television, and water and sewer lines. It can be a matter of life and death to know the location of buried utility lines.
  • Remember to never undercut – the habit of using the bucket to dig the ground in the area where the excavator’s tracks will be moving. This could result in a cave-in or increase the chance of a tip-over.
  • Follow all the manufacturer’s recommended safety and maintenance procedures. Taking the time to top of oil and fuel levels will ensure the excavator can run efficiently when needed.
  • Exercise job-site safety. No one should be in the direct path of a moving excavator, or when its boom or bucket are in operation. Also remember that no one should be in a trench if you plan on digging any further.
  • Do not overwork your excavator by exceeding its maximum load capacity.

Finally, always know where overhead power lines are located before starting work. If the excavator meets an overhead or downed power line, the safest thing to do is stay in the cab and call for help from the local utility company and police or fire department.

Be Proactive When Taking Care of Your Excavator

If you regularly use heavy machinery – and, yes, a mini excavator still qualifies! – then you know that downtime means lost revenue. Downtime between the end of a job and the beginning of the next is one thing, but being unable to take on new work because of mini excavator maintenance issues is a whole other ball game. We cannot overstate the importance of maintaining your excavator after the work day is done, but you would be surprised how many “professionals” neglect the criticality of proactive maintenance. If you or a fellow construction professional has experienced downtime because someone ignored a manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule, then you need to pay attention to the small details more often. A simple, yet effective proactive maintenance strategy comes down to three things:

  • Understand what your business needs are, and align them with machine capabilities.
  • Pay attention to daily workload and follow your manufacturer’s maintenance schedule.
  • Know your equipment, and understand its maintenance needs.

You obviously know your business better than anyone else, but ensuring it grows and generates profit also means understanding your business needs and what equipment will help meet your objectives. To do this, ask yourself common sense but sometimes overlooked questions: What kind of work will my company be doing? Will we focus on average homeowner-level projects, or go for large-scale jobs like office building construction? What sort of ground conditions will we have to navigate?

heavy duty mechanic pulls out a filter on a John Deere mini excavator

Will we be mostly digging into the ground, or also breaking concrete and moving heavy debris? The answers will help you decide what kind of mini excavator to buy or lease, and what sort of accessories are needed for each job. Major brands like John Deere, Bobcat, Komatsu, and many others have their own recommended maintenance schedules. Be proactive, and follow them as best you can. Maintenance plays a key role depending on your daily workload, and how gruelling it is on your machinery. Working on a jobsite where you will be driving on or moving debris like broken concrete, steel I-beams, or spilled chemicals will chew up your tires and rubber tracks. Tires will typically last 600 to 800 hours, while rubber tracks are often good for up to 1600 hours. Between jobs, check for tire punctures or cracks in rubber, and keep the excavator’s undercarriage clean. A successful proactive maintenance plan also means you know your equipment inside and out. Besides understanding how to use the boom or drive forward or back, you also must be aware of today’s requirements for emissions-compliant engines, what type of lubricants to use, when diesel particulate filters need to be swapped out, and so on. The more you know, the more you can keep your mini excavator in top working condition. Each day, you should be aware of the following: fluid levels, the condition of the air filter, pivot pins, tire air pressure, and tension levels for your rubber tracks. It also is a good idea to keep a log of daily safety and maintenance checks, as this is sometimes required for warranty work from the manufacturer.

Follow a Regular Maintenance Routine

heavy duty mechanic performing track maintenance on a John Deere mini excavator

Eventually, caring for your excavator will become routine if it is not already. Each week, you, your operator, or the company mechanic should check the following:

  • Battery cables, for connection issues and electrolyte levels.
  • Tube lines and hydraulic hoses for signs of cracks and wear.
  • Belts in the engine compartment and elsewhere.
  • The parking brake, foot pedals, wheel nuts, steering levers and joysticks, and hand controls.
  • Oil levels for final drive transmission.
  • The swing circle and pinion, for whether either need to be greased.

Here is a recommended service interval

  • 10 hours – check and add fluids (hydraulic, radiator, and engine).
  • 50 hours – examine the tracks for proper tension levels and adjust if necessary.
  • 250 hours – how is the battery holding up? It may need to be cleaned.
  • 500 hours – filter and engine oil will need to be changed.
  • 1,000 hours – Change the swing reduction gear case.
  • 2,000 hours – change the radiator coolant.
  • 5,000 hours – change the hydraulic oil, even if it does not appear dirty or cloudy.
Arrow pointing to common issues inside the engine of a mini excavator

Common Excavator Maintenance Issues

To ensure your mini excavator works when needed, and as efficiently as possible, it is recommended you educate yourself about common performance issues. Some may be caused by operator error, unintentional neglect, or just through constant use. But know this: Your mini excavator needs as much care as a larger model.

  1. Hydraulic oil needs to be vigilantly changed, per your manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule, often in the 2000 to 4000-hour timeframe. When checked, it may appear clean, but will eventually break down – meaning a loss of viscosity and the ability to keep contaminants suspended. What happens next? The hydraulic oil can no longer protect moving parts in the excavator; it can no longer absorb moisture, and rust could build up. Always make sure to change the hydraulic oil before it appears cloudy.
  2. Paper work. No one likes to fill out maintenance records. Whether you still work with paper forms, enter data in a computer spreadsheet, or use a mobile phone application, it is still a tedious, time-consuming chore. Keeping track of records and bill of sale for oil changes, filter replacement, and other minor repairs is invaluable from a historical perspective. You can use that information to evaluate the long-term performance of your excavator, and benchmark it against new equipment when you are in the market for your next mini excavator. Keeping track of maintenance cycles is vital when working with a dealer, or the manufacturer for warranty repairs.
  3. Grease. There are many components throughout your mini excavator that should be greased daily, especially if the machinery is used by multiple operators. Again, refer to manufacturer specifications about what kind of grease and the quantity to use for each component, such as: Pins, bushings, and turntable bearing. One to three shots of grease are usually enough, but never use more than what is recommended.
  4. Track tension. You have heard horror stories of companies having to go through expensive repairs or wholesale excavator replacement because someone neglected rubber or steel tracks, so try to avoid that with proper care. Rubber tracks especially need to be adjusted based on different ground conditions and applications; a loose track could result in accelerated wear; a track that is too tight may cause the rubber to completely tear. In either case, you are looking at replacing the tracks or, worse, other components that broke down as a result of additional wear.
  5. Propel drive gearbox. Exposed to the elements, this component will pick up its share of dirt and debris, and needs to be treated with the utmost care. Clean the fill and drain plugs regularly, and remember to change the oil every 1,000 hours, or at whatever interval the manufacturer recommends, usually one-half to one quart. The propel drive gearbox in your excavator is small, easily forgotten – but expensive to replace.

Over time, you will become more familiar with how your excavator operates and may even identify other maintenance issues that need regular attention. Each piece of machinery is different and needs to be care for as such.

Maintenance Tips for your Excavator Undercarriage

view of the tracks on a mini excavator

Take a look underneath your excavator. Notice how many moving parts it contains? Each part or component needs to be properly maintained for your excavator to function as expected, and to last as long as manufacturer projections. Here are several tips to follow that will help you get the most life out of your excavator by maintaining the undercarriage.

  1. Keep it clean. Everyone knows that keeping the exterior of your car or truck clean wards off rust, thereby extending the life of your vehicle. The same applies to your excavator’s interior, as well as the undercarriage. It is a good idea to clean the undercarriage each day or whenever possible. This should only be attempted while the vehicle is not running, and can be accomplished with shovels and pressure washers. Be sure to remove dirt, rocks, tree roots, or other jobsite debris that may affect excavator performance.
  2. We talked about general maintenance tips earlier, but you also should pay special attention to the excavator undercarriage. You need to look at the underbody for signs of wear, excessive damage, or even missing components. Of special interest are the following: rock guards, track bolts, the driver motor, drive sprockets, the main idlers and rollers, track tension, track shoes, and track chains. When in doubt, always refer to the manufacturer’s operation and maintenance guide for direction.
  3. Every type of job and industry has best practices to follow, and operating a John Deere mini excavator or a model from Komatsu, Hitachi, Bobcat, Kubota, or Caterpillar are no different. To help reduce wear on the undercarriage, follow these tips: When in motion, opt for wider turns; minimize time working on slopes; minimize track spinning by making wider, less aggressive turns; try not to drive on harsh environments, such as those where there are large concrete debris or dangerous chemicals have been spilled; choose the correct shoe width for your excavator as different widths are available based on the application; and pick the right grouser per shoe.
  4. Always maintain the proper tension on your rubber or steel tracks. Per your manufacturer recommendation, incorrect track tension can result in unnecessary wear and lead to expensive replacement costs. Also keep in mind that track tension will have to be adjusted depending on the ground conditions.
  5. More and more excavators are being used on soft or sensitive surfaces, especially for indoor job sites. As a result, it makes sense to use rubber tracks over their steel counterparts. Unlike steel, rubber tracks offer greater flotation, meaning the operator can traverse and work on softer surfaces without fear of causing excessive damage. Rubber tracks are good on soft or finished surfaces like grass, asphalt, or concrete.
  6. Follow digging procedures as specified by the manufacturer. The undercarriage and its vital components interact with the job site more than other part of the excavator, so be careful where you dig.

Following industry or job-specific best practices are recommended no matter what you do for a living, but the information outlined above will help you maintain the life of your excavator and spend less on maintenance over time.

several parked mini excavators on a job site with the caption "operating costs"

Money Matters: Managing Your Excavator Operating Expenses

A mini excavator, whether purchased new or used, presents a considerable expense, especially for a small business owner. If bought used from a reputable dealer, you may pay only a few thousand dollars. Prices for a new mini excavator differ based on the manufacturer, the size of the machine, its dig depth, horsepower, and accessories, but normally fall in the $30,000 to $40,000 range. Some may cost $20,000, while others can approach $90,000.

Maintaining your mini excavator is only one part of extending the usefulness and lifetime of your equipment. To get the most out of your machinery, other factors come into play and each must be considered equally.

  1. The cost of ownership. As we mentioned, the price for a new mini excavator can vary, but you must predict the cost of the machine to understand its true value. Besides the purchase price, you also will pay for: Tires (these normally are separate from the selling price of the excavator), taxes on the purchase price, interest paid if you finance the purchase, annual insurance, and residual value.
  2. Consider the operating expenses of the machinery. Beyond the cost of ownership, you also must factor in perhaps the most expensive component of operating the excavator, and that is the operator himself (or herself!). As an example, your employee makes $33 an hour and spends 750 hours each year digging or moving earth; that equals $24,750 a year in wages and benefits. Next, estimate the cost of fuel at $4 a gallon and your machinery burns through about 3.2 gallons per hour, or $12.80 an hour in fuel; when you multiply that by 750 hours, you are looking at $9,600 a year in fuel costs. Finally, if you factor in a certified project manager working a few hours each week on different job sites, plus the cost of tires, repairs, and other maintenance items, your total operating expenses for the year could be more than $40,000. Keep in mind that these numbers will vary based on your circumstances.

To make money, you must spend money, so you must carefully look at all the factors that affect profitability. A veteran operator may be able to finish a job quicker than a junior employee, but will likely have a higher hourly rate. A used excavator on its second or third owner may not have cost as much to buy, but you could end up spending a considerable portion of your budget on repairs and maintenance compared to a new machine. Your circumstances may be different, but for the sake of argument, the total of operating expenses may break down by the following: wages and benefits (50 percent), fuel (20 percent), and everything else the remaining 30 percent.

In the end, these are difficult decisions to make. The bottom line: Take care of your excavator and follow all manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedules.

The Best Tips for Buying a New Excavator

In most cases, a new excavator will always function better than a comparable pre-owned machine. It has zero miles on its tires or tracks, zero hours on its engine, and comes with a much better manufacturer warranty. If you are interested in buying a new mini excavator, here are some practical tips that will help inform your final decision.

  1. Choose the right size mini excavator for your job or performance requirements. Mini, of course, is a relative term, as these machines can weight anywhere from a few tons to seven tons. Small and very mobile, a mini excavator is a good choice for a site with tight space or where you must manoeuvre quickly and often. The other upside is “mini” models use less fuel and will do the least damage to a road, sidewalk, or greenspace.
  2. Get the right accessories. Though a mini excavator is small, it is just as capable as a standard or large size model in many regards. If you are going to be digging or clearing out property, there are many buckets to choose from, not to mention ones designed especially for ditch cleaning, grading, and heavy-duty applications. Need to break up concrete? A $90,000 excavator can do the job, but a mini model equipped with the right hammer for demolition can do its share in bringing down buildings or smashing concrete.
  3. Pay attention to operator comfort. In some respects, heavy-duty, human-operated machinery offer the driver as much comfort as the newest cars or trucks. Because the operator is the biggest percentage of operating expenses, why not keep him comfortable? The more comfort, the more job can be finished on time. When comparing new mini excavators, look for ergonomic chairs, a cab with plenty of leg room, easy access to all controls, heating and air conditioning, and a large windshield and windows for good field-of-view. Today’s newest models also offer optional navigation systems plus USB charging ports.
  4. Transportation requirements. This should be obvious, but the larger the machinery, the larger the trailer you need to transport it to and from a job site. Large trailers are more expensive to own and operate, and may require special permits to drive on certain roads.
  5. Choose the right track. Depending on the job, you will have to choose between rubber and steel tracks. A mini excavator equipped with steel tracks is better suited for rocky ground conditions, or those with challenging terrain, high level of debris, and varying weather. Rubber tracks are better on softer ground such as dirt or grass, they are less expensive to purchase, and make less noise across all surfaces.

Finally, when deciding between a new versus used mini excavator, also consider secondary or optional features. Some may not be available on an older model excavator, while a new model gives you access to:

  • Anti-vandalism and anti-theft features. With a new model mini excavator, you will have the option to lock access panels and doors inside an outside, meaning the machinery itself is safe and cannot be moved easily. This is critical if the machine has to be left on the job overnight. Optional alarm systems are available for even more security and peace of mind.
  • Enhanced and newer power modes, for more efficient operation of the boom and various attachments. Newer power distribution systems mean you can provide additional horsepower to your tracks when needed.
  • Improved hydraulic controls mean the operator has more precise control of the excavator from within the cab.
  • Enhanced and newer power modes, for more efficient operation of the boom and various attachments. Newer power distribution systems mean you can provide additional horsepower to your tracks when needed.
  • Improved hydraulic controls mean the operator has more precise control of the excavator from within the cab.

Other Considerations Before Making a Purchase

inside a mini excavators' operator cabin

Buying any piece of large machinery is a big step. It represents a considerable investment in time, money, and resources. Balancing new versus used is never easy, and reputable dealers of pre-owned excavators have their reputation on the line and will not sell machinery that does not work. No matter what you decide, here are some additional thoughts:

  • Make sure dealer allows you to start the unit. How does the engine sound? Did it start right away, or was there a lag due to time needed to engage the battery?
  • Is there evidence of leakage? How about smoke from the engine or exhaust? It is normal for a small amount of water vapour to drip from the air conditioner, and some engines give off small puffs of smoke initially, but make sure these kinds of discharges fall within the manufacturer-specified range. If there are fluid leaks, are they coming from a vital system?
  • What is the condition of oil and other fluids? In all cases, fluids should be fresh or clear. Dirty or cloudy fluids, especially hydraulic oils, are a warning sign that you need to buy elsewhere.
  • Take a look at the engine while it is running, and inspect the wiring. The engine compartment should be clean and free of rust, debris, or other items that would affect performance. Do the belts and hoses appear to be in good shape? Also pay attention for anything wrapped in electrical or duct tape. Neither are a good sign.
  • If possible, ask the dealer if you or your operator can take the excavator for a brief test drive. You want to see how the features and equipment work. Excessive movement of the boom, especially by hand, is another red flag.

This may sound strange, but ask the dealer or person you may buy from if they can provide contact information for a few previous customers. It never hurts to talk to someone, to get feedback on their buying experience, and in using the same model day in and day out.

What About a Warranty?

Each manufacturer provides a different warranty for their mini excavators and may sell optional extended warranties or maintenance plans. Unlike automotive manufacturers, which offer a warranty based on years of ownership or a certain number of miles (whichever comes first), John Deere, Komatsu, Bobcat, Kubota, Caterpillar, Hitachi, and many others, warranty mini excavators based on hours in use.

John Deere, for instance, offers a 10,000 hour “no fear” coverage plan. Bobcat’s standard warranty is 12 months and unlimited hours, with 6 months replacement on parts bought from a licensed dealer, and three to five years on some engine emission components. The Kubota warranty is for 24 months or 2,000 hours, whichever comes first. Caterpillar’s standard warranty ranges from 12 to 24 months, or 2,000 to 3,000 miles depending on the product. Hitachi also offers a 10,000 hour “no fear” plan. Komatsu offers a standard warranty that covers the first three years or 2,000 miles of ownership.

Reviewing warranty and extended care options are important before making a purchase decision. Each manufacturer offers similar standard coverage, but the final decision often is based on your experience with a brand, recommendations from a trusted source, and how much you can afford to spend. It is critical that you make a decision based on your needs, and do not allow a dealer to influence your decision based solely on a what-if scenario.

Properly maintaining your mini excavator is the key to years of care-free work. The more you know about your machinery, the better in the long-run.

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