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What Is a Plate Compactor?

By B. Turner
Updated May 17, 2024
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A plate compactor is a piece of construction equipment used to smooth and level the earth. It consists of a heavy steel plate mounted to the base of a machine, and bears some resemblance to a push-style or riding lawn mower. The plate compactor uses either a vibrating or pounding action to flatten the land beneath the plate in preparation for paving, landscaping or other work. These machines can be purchased for home or business use, though most casual users prefer to rent one for a day from a home improvement or hardware store. In some regions, this device is known as a wacker plate, based on a well-known British manufacturing company that produces this type of equipment.

Builders and landscapers can choose from several types of plate compactor models, which differ in size, power, and operating mechanism. Tamper models are designed to lift and lower the plate to pound the earth with extreme force, while vibrating units simply vibrate the plate to force air pockets out of the soil, resulting in compaction. Walk-behind units resemble a lawn mower, and are useful for small spaces. Larger units offer greater power and force, but are much more expensive and difficult to operate. In general, the larger the plate compactor, the greater pressure it is able to produce.

These machines are useful in a variety of outdoor projects. They are used to compact earth prior to paving, or simply as part of a landscaping project. A plate compactor is also recommended for compacting loose stone, gravel, or sand during road or driveway paving. Homeowners who lay loose pavers can use this machine to tamp the stones firmly in place once they have been installed. Compactors are even used to smooth small patches of fresh asphalt, or to tighten up dirt in a utility trench.

The primary advantage to using a plate compactor is that it increases the durability and performance of a project. These machines force the soil to compact and tighten, pushing out air pockets. This eliminates the risk of future shifting and settling, which can lead to cracks, damage, or failure. It also results in a much smoother and more even surface for landscaping and other projects.

A plate compactor is an economical and easy-to-use alternative to other types of compacting and tamping equipment. For example, large smooth rollers are often used to smooth asphalt on freshly-paved roads, but these machines are too large for most home projects. Spiked rollers may be used to break up tough soil and remove air pockets for large-scale utility or landscaping projects, but are too large and dangerous for the types of jobs where a plate compactor is typically used.

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