Hire or buy an excavator

How useful is an excavator for a landscaping business? The answer is that, potentially, it could take your firm to the next level. But, researching whether to hire or buy an excavator for your business is essential, says Caroline Scott

Mini excavators can prove transformative for landscapers. But, should they make a investment in one and train up employees to operate them or should they hire on a job by job basis?

Excavators can certainly be used for a wide range of tasks such as breaking down walls, removing paving, digging up turf, digging out ponds, removing tree stumps and levelling out ground, to name but a few. For this work, a landscaper would typically be looking at a mini or micro excavator. Dealers will undoubtedly offer finance packages, but these involve interest payments and credit checks,

Alternatively, there is a buoyant hire market, and excavators can also be hired with operators if preferred. All of these options have their pros and cons. But before thoughts turn to acquisition or hire, safety comes first.

Risks of using an excavator

Make no mistake, even a so-called ‘micro’ excavator can be dangerous. As an employer, a landscaper will also have a duty of care to ensure that anyone using an excavator is competent. At worst and should an accident happen, then they would be to blame and not the operator.

So they should be enormously careful about who uses an excavator – including on a sub-contracted basis – that the individual is competent.

Accidents that can occur include:

  • Tipping over – can happen with machine is wrongly positioned
  • Damage to utilities such as damaging drains or cables
  • Injury to operator and others in vicinity, whether other employees or passers-by
  • Accidents when towing or falling from a truck.

An operator should complete at least an introductory training course together with a thorough handover from any company they buy or hire from.

There are numerous courses available for those without previous experience of using an excavator. Typically, a complete novice would be looking at a three-day course and the cost would probably be just shy of £1,000 – although there is variation depending on the provider. Landscapers should ensure it is an approved course however, such as by Lantra Awards.

Should you hire or buy an excavator?

If the landscaper does a lot of heavier projects  on a daily basis then it may be worthwhile to buy. But if for occasional use then hiring would be more cost effective. Ownership also brings additional costs in terms of insurance and safety checks, such as LOLER inspections by a ‘competent person’. However, in the case of hiring, these responsibilities are taken on by the hire company.

Buyers also should be aware that excavators – and indeed many other types of plant – can be a key target for thieves and they should look to manage this risk as best as possible, whether by installing trackers and immobiliser and in where it is kept when idle. A hire company will bring the excavator to the site and collect it at the end of the rental period.

This can mean less flexibility, but can also remove risk for the landscaper. Hiring companies will also generally offer an insurance option, where the equipment is protected for an additional fee. While there are both national hire chains and independents, one obvious disadvantage with hiring is that there can be a shortage of supply, particularly if it a job that comes in at short notice.

Landscapers also have the option of hiring an excavator with an operator. This may suit some work, but the landscaper may also feel there are restrictions, in that the operator may need close supervision if it is a major project and the costs can be around £250 a day or more.

What to look for in an excavator

In terms of purchasing, Glen Hampson, construction division manager at Kubota UK, says that most landscapers want excavators that are “compact, lightweight and easy to manoeuvre, even for beginners.”

As such, he says the most popular model from Kubota that is chosen by landscapers is the KX016-4. “It has the power to get almost any job done, from smaller DIY jobs all the way to major projects.

“Landscapers enjoy the KX016 because it combines its high power with unmatched versatility, offering a dig depth of up to 2.25m and a maximum reach of 3.73m. It also has a comfortable cabin and its wide cabin door makes quick access even easier. The machine’s user-friendly digital panel gives operators all the information they might need at a glance.”

According to Kubota, its excavators are “designed with the first-time user in mind, just as they offer advanced power and capabilities for seasoned operators. We design our controls to be easy to use and just as easy to learn. New operators can pick up the basics on how to use our machines in as little as half an hour.”

Hampson adds: “For novice users, speak to your plant hire firm and they will do a comprehensive handover with a rundown of how to use the machine. In addition, Kubota works with our dealer network to ensure they’re on hand to help with any questions.”

How much to buy an excavator?

At the time of going to press, dealer Midlands Equipment had the model for sale for £16,495 +VAT or on finance at £65.00 per week for 60 payments.

Another option is an electric mini excavator, which has zero emissions and low noise levels, although as with other vehicles, these have a higher price tag. JCB was the pioneer in this sector and has recently launched a fully glazed cab on its  19C-1E model which is an industry first. This means it can be used in colder and wetter weather and windows de-mist once the heater is on. The excavator’s battery capacity allows a full day’s shift to be worked. The excavator is priced at a tad over £41,500, while there are HP options at £258.99 a week or £211.40 for a three year lease option.

An electric JCB may well have its attractions, but alternatively, there is an active second hand market, where various makes of excavators can be found for under £10,000, although landscapers may well want to consider buying from a dealer where there is a warranty scheme and a solid reputation for service, rather than an online seller.

Where can I hire an excavator?

Meanwhile, for those who need an excavator on a less frequent basis, the question of whether to hire or buy an excavator may lean towards hiring. Travis Perkins has branches across the UK and Aaron Watson, health, safety and environmental improvement specialist for group hire says: “The past 16 months have been incredibly busy for us, landscaping has boomed, along with DIY, largely as a result of the pandemic. People are at home more often, and want to improve their homes by having work done.”

He comments: “Plant equipment can be dangerous if it is not operated safely, and recently there has been a rise in plant tip incidents right across the industry, some of these incidents can be very serious and on occasion lives have unfortunately been lost.”

He continues: “The equipment is designed with safety in mind, but operators must be familiar with the controls and safety features to be able to operate safely when using plant equipment. Notably, large companies will tend to ensure their staff have formal training, but that is not always the case with SMEs or individuals.”

There is no specific legal requirement to hold a certificate to drive an excavator, digger or dumper on private worksites and access roads. However, operators must be competent and trained in the use of excavators, all manuals and information supplied must be read and understood.

“Our plant equipment will always be delivered to the job site by our professional drivers who are highly knowledgeable about the equipment and its use. We do this so we can provide a comprehensive handover to the customer.” In 2020, Travis Perkins implemented a Plant Safety Handover Process, whereby they send the customer a plant safety video at the point of order and also show customers the video on the driver device at the point of delivery.

He adds: “There can be vast capital outlay involved in buying quality new equipment and then there is also the cost of servicing, maintenance and insurance. We take that worry away from them as they know it will be in good condition, no more than three years old and backed by excellent customer service.”

The choice to hire or buy an excavator must be carefully weighed up but for landscapers, there is no doubt that an excavator can certainly help power up their business.

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