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How to Use Excavator Controls (Joystick Patterns & Operation Explained)

How to Use Excavator Controls (Joystick Patterns & Operation Explained)

It’s important to know which joystick patterns control the boom, bucket, dipper, and swing when operating an excavator. There are two different operator control patterns, ISO and SAE. This post explains the difference between the two and shares essential excavator safety tips.

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ISO vs. SAE: Excavator Joystick Control Patterns

No matter what size excavator you’re using, the controls will operate the same. There are two main excavator control patterns ISO, established by the International Organization for Standardization, and SAE, established by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

ISO is the more common pattern and is often referred to as “CAT controls” (because it’s what CAT machines often use) or “excavator controls.” SAE is a US standard and is often referred to as “John Deere Controls” (because it’s what John Deere machines often use) or as “backhoe controls.”

On newer excavator models, there may be a lever to swap the control pattern, depending on your machine. This may be located under the floorboard in the cab or behind a panel.

The difference between the two is that ISO controls use the right-hand lever to control the boom and bucket and the left-hand lever for the dipper (stick) and swing, but SAE controls use the right-hand lever for the dipper (stick) and bucket and the left-hand lever for the boom and swing. Your machine likely has a card that shows the pattern it uses.

Here are the patterns:

Diagram of ISO vs SAE excavator controls

ISO Controls

The most common setup for operator controls, the ISO pattern is as follows:

  • Left-hand lever (dipper and swing):
    • Toward you: Bring dipper (stick) toward you
    • Away from you: Extend dipper (stick) away from you
    • Left: Swing left
    • Right: Swing right
  • Right-hand lever (boom and bucket):
    • Toward you: Raise the boom
    • Away from you: Lower the boom
    • Left: Curl bucket in (to close)
    • Right: Curl bucket out (to dump materials)

SAE Controls

The SAE pattern is different from ISO, using the left-hand joystick for the boom and swing, and the right-hand joystick for the dipper and bucket. Both control standards use the left-hand joystick for swing. The SAE pattern is as follows:

  • Left-hand lever (boom and swing):
    • Toward you: Raise the boom
    • Away from you: Lower the boom
    • Left: Swing left
    • Right: Swing right
  • Right-hand lever (dipper and bucket):
    • Toward you: Bring dipper toward you
    • Away from you: Extend dipper away from you
    • Left: Curl bucket in (to close)
    • Right: Curl bucket out (to dump materials)

How to Operate an Excavator

Before you enter the excavator, make sure the door is secure and locked to the side of the machine so you can use the handle to climb in safely and so the wind doesn’t blow it shut against you. Maintain three points of contact as you climb in. Once you are in the cab, follow these steps:

  1. Always put your seat belt on first.
  2. Release the door lock and close the door.
  3. Make sure you’re familiar with the controls before you start to operate the excavator.

Basic excavator controls

Driving and Parking

Before moving the excavator, follow these steps:

  1. Turn the key to start the excavator.
  2. Check the display for error codes and ensure it has fuel.
  3. Engage the safety lock lever (the controls won’t work while it’s locked).

There are two track pedals, one for each track. These have hand controls and foot pedals, so you can also use your feet to push. Pushing forward moves the track forward while pulling back moves it back. Therefore, you will push forward on both controls to move the excavator forward. Pull back on both to move back. Use a combination of pedals to steer and maneuver the excavator. You may find it easier to drive the excavator if your cab is squared up to the tracks so the orientation is clear.

To park the excavator, lower the bucket to the ground, put the safety lock lever down, and turn the power off using the key.

Digging and Trenching

For the most stability while digging, line up in a straight line. The following tips will help you learn how to use the excavator bucket to dig:

  1. Extend the dipper/stick and bucket all the way out, then lower it till you’re about a foot off the ground.
  2. Point the bucket teeth down, lower it to pierce the ground, and then curl the bucket in to dig and fill the bucket.
  3. Raise the bucket five to six feet off the ground, then swing left (or right) to dump.
  4. Repeat the action.

As you get more experienced, you can use both levers at the same time to scrape a thin layer off the surface of the ground.


To backfill, reverse the digging instructions. The main difference is that you don’t need to raise the bucket so high. To fill the hole more quickly, you can scrape and swing at the same time. You may be able to flatten the bucket and use the back or the side of it to push the material into the hole as you swing back or sideways. Don’t do this with a lot of material or heavy substances.


You can use an excavator to change the grade/slope of a piece of land, either for building on a construction site or to help water flow a certain way. You can do this with either the excavator bucket or a grading attachment, following the steps below:

  1. Point the bucket straight down and rake the ground with the bucket to loosen the dirt.
  2. Pull the bucket straight back along the ground to scrape and gather the material to the area you want to raise. Use the bottom of the bucket to spread it evenly.
  3. Keep the bucket at a consistent angle to achieve a uniform grade.

Are Backhoe and Excavator Controls the Same?

Many modern excavators and backhoes have the option to run on both SAE or ISO controls. Historically, however, backhoes typically ran on SAE and excavators ran on ISO. Nowadays, backhoes and excavators may use the same joystick control pattern, but the overall controls to operate the machine are different. Controls also differ by manufacturer and machine. In addition, because a backhoe has a front loader and wheels, the pedals and controls to drive it are different from an excavator with tracks.

Excavator Safety Tips

Whether you plan to operate a mini-excavator or another type of excavator, you should follow best safety practices to prevent accidents.

Excavator safety tips

1. Conduct a Pre-Operation Safety Check

Conduct a pre-operation safety check before operating an excavator to ensure that everything is in working order and the machine is safe to use for you and those around you on the site. These safety checks also prolong the life of your machine and prevent minor issues from getting worse.

Your safety inspection should include the following:

  • Check the surrounding area for hazards.
  • Walk around the machine and ensure all parts are free from damage.
    • Check under the machine for damage or leaks.
    • Check the tracks for tension and loose/missing parts.
    • Check the boom and bucket.
  • Check fuel, fluid levels, and filters.
  • Test the lights and controls.

2. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Always keep an eye on what’s around you on the jobsite, and watch out for other equipment and people. Stay aware of overhead and underground utility lines when driving or digging. For the best visibility, keep the bucket horizontal and 1 to 2 feet off the ground. When there are overhead hazards, you may wish to lower the dipper and curl the bucket all the way in. However, know that this reduces your front visibility.

3. Maintain Your Equipment

Always consult the operator manual to know how to best operate and maintain your equipment. It will familiarize you with the parts of your excavator, safety features and controls, and other important information. Be cautious using older construction equipment if you don’t know how well it has been maintained.

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Rent an Excavator from BigRentz

Renting an excavator for your landscaping or construction project can help cut costs and make your job easier. If you rent an excavator from BigRentz, you will get a machine that has been well-maintained and can be delivered to your site. No matter what size excavator you need — from 20,000 lb to 139,000 lb — BigRentz has the heavy-duty equipment to meet your project requirements.


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