Still King Of The Hole

Versatility and performance continue to make backhoe-loaders a viable choice.

Backhoe-loaders have been a time-honored tradition in a contractor’s fleet 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.

“Loader-backhoes 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 loader-backhoes 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 loader-backhoes.”

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 last two years, there appears to be only a light influence from this relative to lost backhoe sales. It may 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 keeps them on the job.

That versatility is what keeps backhoe-loaders working 8 to 10 hours a day at VH Grading and Excavating in Prescott Valley, AZ. Owner Brian Van Hook says his fleet of about 14 backhoe-loaders (mostly John Deere units intermixed with a few Caterpillar models) continue to work when other more specialized pieces of equipment sit idle.

“We own some skid steers, but they can’t dig,” he says. “We also own some tracked compact excavators, but they 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.”

A backhoe-loader’s power and ability to dig through difficult and/or rocky situations is also what appeals most to Keith Burnette. When Burnette and his three business partners started a natural gas and power line installation company in Denver, NC, in February, their first equipment purchase was a JCB 214 four-wheel-drive backhoe-loader. Today, they have three backhoe-loaders and anticipate adding four more in the next four to five months when they add five more crews.

“Backhoes are pretty much a necessity,” Burnette states. “They are our primary pieces of equipment. We’re getting ready to run 11 miles of steel, and backhoes will do it all. For the money, we get a lot of power. They’re good for heavy lifting and production work.”

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 vs. 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 lbs. compared to 8,100 lbs. with the John Deere 310G backhoe-loader or 10,210 lbs. with the 310SG. Similar differences can be found in lifting capacity — 3,525 lbs. for the 332 skid steer vs. 5,800 lbs. 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 lbs. — 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 ft. That’s considerably deeper than its compact excavators that range from 7 to 12 ft. And New Holland backhoe-loaders have maximum dig depths from 14 to just under 19 ft., compared to its compact excavators, which can dig from just over 10 to about 12 ft.

“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° in tight locations vs. 180° for a backhoe. And a skid steer has the advantage over a backhoe because it can turn tighter in confined spaces.

Burnette balances the power of the backhoe-loader with the close-quarter ability of his six compact excavators, which are used for short jobs and shallow digging.

And while backhoes are the foundation of his fleet, Billy Ray Thomas admits he has considered adding a small dozer. Currently, he uses two Case 580M+ Series 2 loader-backhoes for his septic tank installation business in Fremont, NC.

“We couldn’t do our business without loader-backhoes,” he says. “They’re all we rely on. Their biggest benefit is maneuverability when digging. But a small dozer would be beneficial for building mound systems.”

So which is right for you?

What it really boils down to is evaluating the jobsite.

“If you 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 you’re going to be using a loader all day, then you might be better off with a compact loader. If you’re going to be digging trench all day, then a compact excavator may be the better choice. But if you’re going to do some of each, then this is where the backhoe shines — it’s more of a ‘jack of all trades’.”

“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 loader-backhoe vs. an alternative,” adds Schaefer.

“You would be hard pressed to locate another machine that could do as many jobs, at as low a cost, as a backhoe-loader,” concludes Barth. “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.”