Backhoe-loaders have been a time-honored tradition on construction sites for many years. But with the introduction of specialized equipment for digging and a greater diversity of attachments for loading, is the "king of digging" in danger of being dethroned?
Not according to experts at several construction equipment manufacturers. They indicate that sales of backhoe-loaders held relatively stable through the economic downturn, and actually increased in 2003 and 2004, despite the popularity boom of compact excavators and the availability of a broader range of attachments for skid-steer loaders.
"Backhoe-loaders remain one of the most versatile and productive pieces of equipment a contractor can put to work on a jobsite," says Rusty Schaefer, marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment. "We see Case loader-backhoes at work in virtually every application where construction equipment is used, including residential and commercial construction, roadbuilding, landscaping, demolition and scrap and materials handling."
In fact, Schaefer indicates that the overall market for backhoe-loaders is up by about one-third over last year. "Some other types of equipment, such as compact excavators, have seen even faster growth," he admits, "but this does not detract from the popularity of backhoe-loaders."
Bob Tyler, product marketing manager, backhoes at John Deere, agrees, noting, "There has been some substitution of backhoe-loaders with other machines such as skid steers and compact excavators, the latter of which have increased sales dramatically."
"However, over the past two years, there appears to be only a light influence from this relative to lost backhoe sales. It might be that these other machines are creating a new market - perhaps replacing the shovel, rather than eating away at the existing backhoe market."
The key to their continued popularity can likely be attributed to the backhoe-loader's versatility. "It can dig, load and transport itself in virtually any jobsite application," says Jay Barth, JCB Inc. "Certainly there are machines, such as compact excavators, that may offer specialized digging capabilities. But none offer the digging, loading and transport flexibility of a backhoe-loader."
Versatility is key
That versatility is what keeps backhoe-loaders working eight to 10 hours a day at VH Grading and Excavating in Prescott Valley, AZ. Owner Brian Van Hook says the backhoe-loaders continue to work when other more specialized pieces of equipment sit idle.
"The skid steers can’t dig," he says. "The tracked compact excavators can't load. But the backhoe-loaders can do just about anything. They're the most versatile machines out there. We use them on practically every job we do."
VH Grading and Excavating focuses on residential construction, mainly forming house pads along with any associated underground work. Van Hook finds that backhoe-loaders are indispensable for working through the variety of soil conditions he encounters.
"Here in the Prescott Valley area, the terrain changes dramatically. In about 15 miles there are many different applications for the backhoe," he says. "We have everything from hillsides to rock to flat prairie ground. It's really very unique."
It's in severe conditions that backhoe-loaders prove their worth.
"Backhoe-loaders shine in extreme situations, such as steep side slope work or in uneven, rocky conditions," Tyler says. "On a side slope, the operator can lower the downhill stabilizer and rotate the backhoe boom uphill for extra stability when grading or removing material with the loader. An excavator may also be more limited when traversing more severe undulations if digging with rocks underfoot."