What Do Excavating Contractors Do? Excavation Work Explained!

If you’re tired of bussing tables at a restaurant or working as a pilot car driver for oversized vehicles, turning to the building and construction industry may open a new door to a six-figure salary. For instance, do you long for your childhood dump truckers? That’s a great business idea! Yes, you can upgrade the trucks to their grown-up brothers by building a business as an excavating contractor!

Ideally, excavating contractors dig and move dirt with dump trucks and other heavy machinery for a living. Working as an excavating contractor entails preparing construction sites by clearing the lot and digging the foundation trenches. Their work doesn’t come with all the glamour, and it rarely makes it to the news. But without a doubt, the work of an excavation contractor is vital and priceless.

How else would we end up with all these skyscrapers if there wasn’t someone to dig the ground for robust foundations to be poured? Through the work of an excavating contractor, we can sleep tight in our homes and work comfortably in offices, knowing that the building won’t collapse.

Of course, excavating equipment isn’t cheap. You may need to drastically cut expenses to save over $10,000 in a year to start an excavating business. You’ll need to get a loan to afford your first bulldozer or dump truck.

Even if you don’t want to be an excavation contractor yourself, you may need the services of one. Say you want to build wealth to the tune of seven figures investing in some of the best income-producing assets like building income-generating real estate or venturing into a mining project. Each requires the services of an excavation contractor. Or maybe, you live in one of the states with free land and want to hire the services of an excavating contractor to start developing your plot. Knowing what excavating contractors do is vital.

So, what do excavating contractors do?

Short Answer: Excavating contractors prepare sites for buildings or road construction by clearing, digging, and moving dirt. They use powerful, expensive excavation equipment like backhoes, bulldozers, compactors, and dump trucks to achieve this. The heavy equipment is used to break the ground, haul away excess dirt, and do other soil-related tasks like trenching, grading, shoring, shielding, and soil compaction.

Common activities include digging building foundations, drilling shafts, running trenchers for pipes, excavating ditches for water or gas lines, grading roads, and digging out sewers or ponds. It’s also common to find excavating contractors clearing snow in winter. Excavation activities performed in commercial and residential construction work may be entirely new work, additions, alterations, or repairs.

An excavation contractor may be an individual or a company. Companies that do excavation work will usually have site managers and supervisors. Individual contractors have employees who do the actual excavation as the boss focuses on the overall business management and marketing activities.

When building your dream home or investing in real estate, you’ll need the services of an excavating contractor. Whether you want to be an excavating contractor yourself or just need to hire an excavating contractor, it is essential to know what they do.

This article walks you through everything you need to know about excavating contractors.

What is Excavation in Construction Work?

Before any construction work starts, the site must be prepared by digging the foundation, moving dirt, grading, and leveling the landscape. The work is done based on the posted architectural and engineering specifications by and architectural firm and a building inspector. It’s where the excavation work comes in.

The real excavation work entails heavy, powerful machinery like backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks to clear, dig, and move the dirt to create space for construction work to begin.

Common excavation work includes:

  • Digging trenches for foundations
  • Backfilling around new foundations
  • Fine grading roads, flow work, parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks
  • Excavating trenches for sewer lines, water pipes, and other utility lines
  • Landscaping
  • Creating terraced drainage on agricultural land
  • Building earthen dams and shoring to prevent movement

Excavating contractors also perform exploratory work. It entails searching for underground utility lines or important artifacts on building sites. If the site has important historical artifacts, it’s the work of an excavating contractor to dig them out before construction begins.

In the case of utility lines like water pipes, gas, or electrical lines, the excavating contractor must know how to dig carefully around them to avoid damages.

To guarantee the integrity of the building, all the excavating work must be done to the precise standards and measurements provided by the surveying crew. Thus, an excavating contractor should be able to use a level and transit equipment to match the grade provided by the surveyor.

Why You Need An Excavation Company

The internet is filled with DIY videos, but excavation during construction isn’t something you can easily do alone. Here are a few reasons why you need to hire an excavation company:

1. Getting Permits Sanctioned  

Before a project even begins, you need to obtain the required permits in order to proceed with new construction. As someone new to construction, you might not be aware of the legal nitty-gritty of the business. Excavation companies with years of experience in the field know their way around the system and can obtain the right permits.

A good excavation company not only knows the permits that are required for each type of construction job, but knows the precise process to go about obtaining them for you.

2. Project Management  

Excavating a construction site is not as simple as simply grabbing a shovel and digging into the ground. It requires calculation, sourcing supplies, and a thorough understanding of the process. Simply put, it’s clearly an expert’s job.

Excavations also aren’t a one-man job. You’ll need an entire team for most big jobs. If you set out to manage the budget, legalities, suppliers and to do the work all by yourself, you’ll not only waste your money and time, but could risk a successful outcome.

3. Better Safety

People with zero excavation experience not only run the risk of sabotaging the project, but could also end up hurting themselves. The heavy, complex equipment, sharp-edged tools, and long hours of digging through the ground are all potential dangers. 

Experienced excavation contractors have proper safety gear and know their way around the equipment. Even in a crisis, they’ll know how each situation should be dealt with. That’s why it’s best to leave the work to the experts.

What Do Excavation Companies Do?

Excavating companies work as subcontractors in large projects. They usually come in after the surveying work is complete and the boundaries of the project are determined. Then they work under the direction of a general contractor to prepare the site for construction work.

Excavation companies have the heavy machinery required to break the ground and dig out foundations, grade roads, excavate ditches & trenches for utility lines, sewers, terraced drainage, and compaction equipment to perform compaction tests and compact the soil.

Below we discuss what the excavation business is and what excavation companies do.

Excavating as a Business

Constructing hotels, malls, stores, individual houses, multi-unit houses, roads, or any other types of residential and commercial projects is a complicated process that entails a lot of work. General building contractors usually oversee the contracts.

The new business owner or homeowner contracts with a general building contractor, who then hires other subcontractors and suppliers. To break the ground, move dirt, and prepare the site for construction work to begin, general contractors contract with excavating contractors. That means excavating contractors work as subcontractors in a large project under the direction of general contractors.

There isn’t an organizational structure for an excavating business. An excavating contractor can be a self-employed individual with a handful of machinery and employees or a well-structured company with a board of directors, project managers and supervisors, and other employees.

Generally, individual contractors create their own project bids and usually work on contracts at the local level. But large excavating companies will have dedicated sales and marketing teams that bid on large projects state-wise. They may also work with a handful of other subcontractors.

Most individuals who become individual excavating contractors or start their own excavating companies usually have a lot of hands-on experience and knowledge about the excavating business. These are usually people who have worked for excavating companies for several years.

It’s not a must to have a degree in construction management to become an excavating contractor. For students who want to join the excavation business, combining hands-on training with academic papers can be a gamechanger.

State rules and regulations also come to play in the excavation business. Different states and municipalities will have their own licensing standards. For instance, you will need proof of commercial liability insurance and obtain surety bonds for specific projects to work as an excavating contractor.

In some states, requirements may include testing to see whether you are fit for the job. Depending on the financial scope of your excavation business and the equipment you have, states limit the scope of projects you can bid for.

Subcontracting With a Contractor

As explained above, excavating contractors don’t oversee the whole project. Their work is just part of a large project. The home or business owner contracts a general contractor to oversee the whole project. The general contractor then subcontracts with an excavating contractor.

For instance, the homeowner may contract an excavating contractor to dig a swimming pool or the sewer line. They will then move in with bulldozers and dump trucks to dig, grade, trench the site, and haul dirt around. In this case, the excavating contractor will work under the direction of a general contractor and get paid when they complete part of their project.

Your takeaway: An excavating contractor subcontracts with a general building contractor and works under their directions. They don’t oversee the whole project.

Work Site Preparation

A typical construction site involves lots of digging to clear the site and prepare it for construction work to begin. It’s what an excavation contractor does when they first get to a construction site. It usually happens after the surveying experts have established the house and lot boundaries. The excavation contractor then clears the site, breaks the soil, and digs the foundation by removing the soil to the required depth.

The excavator uses level and transit equipment to smooth the landscape to match the standards provided by the surveying crew. They also use compaction equipment to compress the soil and perform compaction tests to ensure a solid foundation. After that, the foundation contractor comes in to pour the footer and stem wall. Once those have been poured, the excavation contractor comes back again to backfill around the foundation.

But the work of excavation contractors isn’t limited to residential and commercial building projects. The heavy equipment is not only for digging out foundations but also for excavating and grading roads, drive & walkways, and utility & sewer lines. You’ll also find excavators working on drainage and landscaping projects or hauling away snow in winter.

Earth Moving

Before or after the construction work, dirt and debris will be lying all over the place. An excavating contractor is your remedy for any tasks that require moving dirt or earth and hauling it away.

On landscaping or road projects, excavating contractors move the earth from high ground to low grounds to level out the construction site. Moving dirt is also required when building or grading roads, excavating ditches for water or utility lines, ponds, sewers, building earthen dams, creating terraced drainage, and excavating trenchers to install flexible pipes.

Since excavating contractors work with bulldozers and dump trucks, moving earth and dirt is part and parcel of their work.

Operate Heavy Machinery

Excavating contractors own or lease a fleet of heavy and expensive machinery that requires meticulous skills and experience to operate. They’ll be operating backhoes, bulldozers, compactors, skid steers, trenchers, dump truckers, and large front-end loaders.

Most excavating contractors are people who have years of experience working in the construction industry. As such, they are experienced and skilled heavy machinery operators.

You won’t find many colleges or schools that train heavy equipment operations. Again, it may be expensive to hire fully skilled machine operators right away. To slash the cost, individual or small excavating businesses hire a few trained personnel and then bring in new operators to be trained on the job.

Seepage Pit Installation

Seeping pits are an important part of drainage installation. A seepage pit is installed deep inside the ground, where the dirty water from your septic tank is collected and treated with the help of anaerobic bacteria before releasing it to the nearest water table. 

Seepage pits are mandatory in many parts of the country. If you fail to install the pits properly, the dirty water could leak into your property, flooding your lawn. Only an experienced excavation contractor should handle this job and give you a leak-proof drainage system. 

Underground Oil Tank Scans

There was a time when people relied on underground petroleum tanks to keep the heating systems in their houses running. Steel tanks corrode over time, however, and the rusted material paves the way for leaks and holes. If petroleum leaks out of the tank, it can harm your property and your health. 

Although they don’t use underground steel tanks anymore, most of the country still has old, abandoned lands with oil tanks that are embedded in the soil. Before building on a new property, it’s best to check for these steel oil tanks during the excavation phase.

What is Hydro Excavation?

Hydro excavation equipment is a combination of an air vacuum and high-pressure water. It injects water to break up and cut through dirt and soil. The air vacuum transfers the soil to a debris tank.


What to do with Excavation Dirt?

The way to dispose of excavation dirt will depend on the type, such as contaminated, clean, rocky, clay, and more. Here are some options to get rid of excavated dirt:

  • Hire a waste clearance service – A yard waste disposal service will protect the environment, maintain safety, and manage hazardous and hard-to-dispose dirt.
  • Advertise on local classifieds – Advertise locally on Craigslist for free dirt or Craigslist alternatives like OfferUp. Otherwise, someone may charge you to haul it away as an under-the-table job that pays cash.
  • Repurpose – Reuse the dirt in other projects or areas

What Do Excavating Contractors Do Summary

It would be difficult for any construction work to go on without the services of excavating contractors. Any type of construction work requires an excavating contractor to clear the site, dig out the foundations and haul excess dirt away to prepare construction sites before the actual construction work begins.

Recall that excavating contractors don’t oversee the whole project but subcontract with general building contractors as part of a large project. Now that you know what excavating contractors do, you can go ahead and hire one with confidence.

Do you want to be an excavating contractor? You can become one right away because no degree is required to be an excavator!  Just gain industry knowledge and experience. You may need to work for an excavating contractor for a few years to achieve that. In fact, most people who run excavating businesses were once workers in the building and construction industry.

Once you have hands-on experience, head to your state’s building and construction department to learn the licensing rules and regulations, they have for excavating contractors. Then figure out how to get a few pieces of excavating equipment to start your business.