What heavy equipment is used in Dirt World construction?
You may be missing out if you’re reading this from behind a desk—or worse, in a cubicle. Blue-collar life calls for sacrifice, but the passion that fuels this life runs deep. Frosty mornings and long, dusty days are a part of it. But so are pale sunrises flecked with stars, strong friendships, and the satisfaction of the work at hand. In the Dirt World, every day is a chance to scratch your initials onto the world. All it takes to begin is desire.
Whether you’re already hooked on the 5 a.m. rumble of diesel engines or toying with the idea of a career in the trades, this brief introduction to the types of machines used in construction is an excellent place to start learning more about the Dirt World.
Skid steers are a favorite of construction hounds. Invented by a couple of brothers who wanted to clean out their turkey barn, you can find a skid steer on a construction site, farm, landscaping gig, or in the driveway of heavy equipment lovers like this guy and his “Earth Moover.”
The skid steer is a small, extremely versatile piece of compact equipment that can be found on all sizes of construction sites. While it comes standard with a bucket, the bucket can be quickly replaced with any one of dozens of attachments. Whatever you need it to do, this machine probably has an attachment for it, including demolition, snow, and debris removal, grading and backfilling, mowing, and landscaping.
Skid steers are so named because they skid when they turn. Instead of steering by angling the wheels, skid steers are turned by speeding up the left or right side of the vehicle, causing the wheels on the other side to drag across the ground. This allows the operator to make tight radius turns, making the machine extremely maneuverable. One downside: this skidding motion can also tear up the ground.
Operators can encounter different controls among skid steer makes and models, including dual-lever foot controls and H-pattern and ISO-pattern joystick controls.
Compact track loader
Some look at a compact track loader as a skid steer on tracks, but the drive systems are entirely different. But the specifics here won’t mean everyone uses the same terms on the field. Skid steer, track skid steer, compact track loader, or CTL are often interchangeable terms among those with boots on the ground. Confusing the matter is that most skid steer makers also make CTLs.
These are currently the most popular machines sold in North America. People love their ability to maneuver on muddy job sites, something that doesn’t work so well for a skid steer.
A CTL can also turn on a dime like a skid steer, but it’s heavier than a skid steer, and the tracks give it a smoother ride. If debating whether a CTL or skid steer is best for a job, look at your working conditions and surface type. Because of their tires, skid steers are great on harder surfaces such as concrete and asphalt, while the CTL’s tracks give them advantages in muck and mire.
The mini excavator is a small, compact excavator ideal for precision digging or demolition in small spaces. This machine is also called a mini, compact excavator, mini ex, mini hoe, or mini digger.
The cab and house (where the machine guts are located) rotate 360 degrees. Most models also feature swing boom, allowing the boom and stick to be positioned independently of the house to enable offset digging, a feature not available on its larger cousins. More basic models have a canopy instead of an enclosed cab.
Minis come standard with a bucket and can also accept various attachments – including thumbs, hammers/breakers, and augers – depending on what’s needed for the job at hand. A great feature of smaller models is the retractable undercarriage, which allows the machine to fit through narrow gates and doorways and expand when you want to work. Most manufacturers agree that the weight for these little guys tops out at around 18,000 to 20,000 lbs.
Common projects ideally suited for the work of a mini excavator include landscaping, footings, stump removal, interior demolition, and utility installation.
Often, mini excavators are used instead of full-sized excavators because they are smaller, lighter, and easier to transport between projects (you can haul smaller models around on a trailer behind a pickup). If a mini excavator is sufficient for the job at hand, it can be more economical than using a full-sized machine. Most minis are mounted on tracks, although wheel models are available.
The excavator is the gold standard in construction and a highly versatile piece of equipment. These machines (which can also be called track hoes and hoes) come in a wide range of sizes and, depending on the manufacturer, have an operating weight of around 30,000 lbs up to more than 200,000 lbs. An excavator’s primary function is to dig, but they are also the hydraulic powerhouse for a wide range of job tasks.
Like the mini, a standard excavator cab/house (upper structure) rotates 360 degrees while the undercarriage remains stationary. The operator controls a boom, arm, and bucket or attachment using two joysticks. This machine is a true multitasker. In addition to a standard bucket, a coupler at the end of the arm allows users to quickly switch from a bucket to one of the dozens of attachments (breaker, auger, grapple, tiltrotator, etc.) to accomplish much more than digging.
Most excavators are tracked or crawler, units. Wheeled excavators are usually seen on city streets, where users prize their ability to quickly travel between jobs without damaging pavement.
Dozer is short for bulldozer—a powerful earthmover standard on construction and mining sites. Dozers come in a wide range of sizes, from smaller units that can create precision contours on a site to massive machines used primarily in mines.
A dozer’s crawler undercarriage helps give it the traction needed to tackle rough underfoot conditions. (Wheeled dozers are less common and usually used in mining). Dozers use a large, contoured blade to push dirt or other material, clearing, shaping, and grading a site. Operators positioned above and behind the blade always want a clear view of the blade’s left and right cutting edges. In more heavy-duty applications, a dozer may feature a ripper; a claw-like attachment positioned behind the machine that digs into hard materials, making the material easier to move with the dozer blade in a subsequent pass.
Because they can move so much material at once, larger dozers are used for road building, site clearing, and removing rubble and debris from demolition sites. Smaller dozers are great for finish grading and spreading materials.
We’ve also been told they look great on shirts.
A wheel loader (also called a front-end loader) is exactly what it sounds like: it uses a front-mounted bucket to scoop, move and dump materials. Mounted on four tires, it can easily maneuver through job sites, quarries, and mines.
As with several machine types, wheel loaders come in a wide range of sizes, going from compact models used by landscapers to massive units found in mines.
Many small wheel loaders have an articulated joint between the cab/frame and the front bucket, allowing them to make tighter turns. Large wheel loaders, especially those used in mines and quarries, tend to be single-purpose bucket loading machines. Compact and smaller wheel loaders are more versatile, using a variety of attachments, including forks, grapples, and snowplows.
Here’s how one wheel loader manufacturer breaks down its wheel loader sizing: Compact (up to 121 HP, 1-2.5 cubic yards); small (168-188 HP, 2.5-6.5 cubic yards); medium (225-393 HP, 3.75-19 cubic yards); large (373-1,739 HP, 6.5-57 cubic yards).
A motor grader is also referred to as a road grader, grader, or simply a blade. The center-positioned blade on this machine creates flat or sloped surfaces, making it ideal for grading and paving jobs. Especially helpful in road building, contractors call on these machines when they need to move large windrows, clean out ditches, and backfill. While capable of deep cuts, a grader shines in finish grading because the blade can be adjusted for precise results. (Initial scraping or rough grading is usually performed by bulldozers and scrapers.) It can also remove snow with ease.
Graders have an extended profile, with the tractor/cab and two axles in the rear, an articulation joint, an adjustable blade (also called a moldboard) in the center, and a front axle. Because of a grader’s more complex controls and the precise work these machines perform, grader operators are considered to be at the top of the operator food chain. And they've always got a few tricks to help them do more with their machines.
Grader manufacturers offer different types of controls, including a steering wheel/lever combination, left-and right-hand lever banks, and joysticks. The operator can adjust the grader blade in a multitude of ways. Operators can lean the front two tires left or right to position the grader properly.
Scrapers excel in mass excavation jobs that require moving materials relatively short distances. Another advantage: during unloading, the material is evenly spread out, eliminating the piles that trucks, excavators, and loaders usually create. Most scrapers have an open bowl design with a cutting edge that scrapes the earth (hence the name), filling the bowl. Elevating (also called paddlewheel) scrapers use steel paddles to load the bowl.
Scrapers are either single or twin-engine units. A single-engine unit is paired with a dozer, which provides the pushing oomph to get the material loaded. Twin-engine units have the weight and traction to self-load. Two twin-engine units can also be used in a push-pull configuration, with the lead scraper loaded as the rear scraper pushes it. The rear scraper is then loaded as it’s being pulled by the lead unit.
In addition to road building and construction, these machines are also used in mines and landfills.
Backhoe is short for “tractor loader backhoe,” an excellent description of its three primary parts. A loader bucket in the front of the machine gives the machine wheel loader capabilities, providing a way to load dirt or materials quickly. In the rear is the backhoe, which resembles the working end of an excavator with a boom/stick/bucket. It, too, excels at digging.
The tractor in the middle is where the operator sits, either facing forward to operate the loader or – with a quick seat reposition – facing the backhoe. This “two-machines-in-one” feature makes it popular among smaller contractors, governmental agencies, and others, but its demand has taken a hit with the advance of mini excavators, compact track loaders, and skid steers.
Both ends of a backhoe can take a variety of attachments. Forks and sweeper attachments are standard on the front end, and almost any type of excavator attachment can be used on the backhoe, including breakers and compaction wheels. Because the machine is a rubber-tired unit, operators extend stabilizers before using the rear backhoe.
Rollers can appear as simple, one-job machines, but they control a critical element of many construction jobs: compaction. Rollers are used to compact soil or asphalt, necessary to increase the density of a material, thereby providing a solid foundation. Depending on the model and material under compaction, rollers use weight, impact, vibration, and manipulation forces to reduce voids quickly.
Most rollers are designed specifically for either soil or asphalt. Single-drum vibratory and sheepsfoot (also called padfoot) rollers are used just in soil compaction. Pneumatic rollers, which use rubber tires to knead the surface, can be used on soil and asphalt. And double-drum (also called tandem) vibratory and combination single-drum/pneumatic rollers are seen on asphalt jobs.
Articulated trucks (also called artics, articulated haulers, articulated dump trucks, and ADTs) feature an articulated joint between the cab and the body, allowing both sections to move independently. A specialized all-wheel-drive system gives these machines an amazing ability to haul fully loaded in rough, muddy conditions. Most of the units seen on U.S. jobs are in the 30-40 ton range.
Loaded by an excavator or a loader, articulated trucks can be seen on mass excavation, site development, and road-building projects, to name a few.
The center-mounted front cab section sits on the front axle, followed by the articulation joint, with the dump body typically carried by two back axles. Cabs are usually roomy enough to feature a “trainer” seat.
Because of what these machines are asked to do – go through deep ruts, travel down steep slopes, etc. – operating them calls for more skill than driving a truck down the road. And although manufacturers have paid a lot of attention to suspensions, these job conditions mean that operators are bound to get jostled throughout the workday.
Also called mining trucks, rigid-frame trucks start at around 36-metric-tons payload capacity and go up to an incredible 370-metric-tons-plus. These are absolute beasts that can repeatedly move tremendous amounts of large, rocky materials throughout a mine site.
Unlike their articulated truck brothers, their sturdy straight frames require well-maintained haul roads to travel on, so while they excel in mining operations, their construction use is limited. Still, articulated trucks currently top out at 60 U.S. tons, so rigid-frames definitely win in the payload column.
Rigid framed trucks are often sent directly from the manufacturer to the mine in pieces. Often, they’ll be assembled and used in one location until they wear out.
Want to learn more about where heavy equipment comes from? Meet Trace Hall, the CAT dealer who hooked the BuildWitt team up with a full-sized excavator to try for fun.
Be safe around heavy equipment
Even compact machines have enough hydraulic power to flatten you permanently. Don’t go on a jobsite or approach construction equipment without permission from the foreman, and never without your PPE and high-vis clothing. Always use three points of contact when climbing on a machine. Safety isn't optional in the Dirt World. Take a look at some of the safety courses in BuildWitt Training to get a glimpse of how seriously we take safety around here.
More aboutHow to Run a Successful Training Program (Without a Training Manager) How to Help Your Construction Business Grow More Efficiently What Is an Articulated Truck and What Does It Do?
Meet the Expert
Marilee Brewer's philosophy on heavy civil construction is that everything—even the Bingham Canyon Mine and the Willis Tower—starts with ideas put into words. An avid writer and researcher, Marilee brings inspiration, storytelling, and human candor to Dirt World information. Her writing focuses on providing content that enhances user experience, improves engagement, and ultimately increases revenue. A trained Linguist and social media storyteller, ask her for story and social media writing tips.