King Of Digging

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."

Consider the specs

Operating performance is one of the greatest differentiators between backhoe-loaders and comparable equipment such as compact excavators and skid steers.

If you compare the loader function of a backhoe-loader versus a comparably sized skid steer, the backhoe-loader will have more breakout force and lifting capacity. For example, the loader boom breakout force of the John Deere 332 skid steer (the company's largest model) is 6,650 pounds compared to 8,100 pounds with the John Deere 310G backhoe-loader or 10,210 pounds with the 310SG. Similar differences can be found in lifting capacity - 3,525 pounds for the 332 skid steer versus 5,800 pounds for the 310G.

Compact four-wheel-drive loaders fare better than a skid steer when compared to a backhoe-loader's performance. For example, a 65-hp John Deere 304H has a loader breakout force of 10,199 pounds-more than the 310G, but comparable to the 310SG.

At the other end, a backhoe-loader also beats a skid steer with a mounted backhoe.

"A backhoe-loader is considerably more efficient in trenching than a skid-steer loader," says Jim Zak, Caterpillar. "It also has far better visibility into the trench, and has a safer operating environment under the ROPS of the backhoe-loader structure as opposed to a perch-mounted skid-steer loader backhoe."

And when compared to a compact excavator, a backhoe-loader will typically have larger bucket capacities and greater digging depths. For example, Case loader-backhoes have maximum dig depths that range from 14 to 16 feet. That's considerably deeper than its compact excavators that range from seven to 12 feet. And New Holland backhoe-loaders have maximum dig depths from 14 to just under 19 feet, compared to its compact excavators, which can dig from just over 10 to about 12 feet.

"Of course, if the primary task at hand is trenching or digging, especially doing close work along foundations, an excavator is a tremendous tool," says Schaefer.

Eric Winkler, marketing manager at New Holland Construction, adds, "When a project calls for digging or trenching in very tight quarters and close to foundations, an excavator is an ideal choice. A backhoe attachment can also be an affordable and convenient option for a contractor who uses a skid-steer loader to dig the occasional trench. But it can’t touch the overall performance versatility of a backhoe-loader."

There are certain situations, such as foundation work, where other pieces of equipment might be the preferable choice. That’s because a compact excavator can rotate its boom 360 degrees in tight locations versus 180 degrees for a backhoe. And a skid steer has the advantage over a backhoe because it can turn tighter in confined spaces.

So which is right for your customers?

What it really boils down to is evaluating your customers' jobsites.

"If your customers have limited space, a skid-steer loader or compact excavator combination may be appropriate. If space is not much of a concern, then the higher specs of the backhoe may be the way to go," says Tyler. "Or if your customers are going to be using a loader all day, then they might be better off with a compact loader. If they're going to be digging trench all day, then a compact excavator may be the better choice."

But if they're going to do some of each, then this is where the backhoe shines - it's more of a 'jack of all trades'."

Schaefer adds, "The size, number and variety of tasks to be done and the distance between those tasks are key indicators in the decision to use a backhoe-loader versus an alternative."

Barth agrees, adding, "You would be hard pressed to locate another machine that could do as many jobs, at as low a cost, as a backhoe-loader. On a building site, it can level aggregate for a parking lot, unload palletized materials from trucks, dig footings for a building, dig trenches for sewer water lines and electrical services, then drive down the road when the job is completed."