Although this mature category may have lost some ground to skid steers and mini excavators, manufacturers are keeping backhoe loaders vital by making attachments easier to change and use
The market for backhoe loaders is a mixed bag depending on whom you talk to, as some manufacturers are seeing a skid steer/compact track loader and mini excavator combination erode a bit of the machine’s role.
Backhoe OEMs, however, are still strongly committed to the category, refining couplers for attachment use, tweaking transmissions for added speed and efficiency, and continuing to add cab amenities.
In the marketplace, building construction seems to stand out.
Seven Ways to Get More from Your Backhoe Loader
Many contractors call the 4-in-1 bucket a multipurpose or 7-in-1 bucket, highlighting its seven main functions: digging; loading; dozing; scraping; spreading and leveling; grabbing; and lifting.
“Managers have discovered the key to staying busy year-round is to reduce the amount of work they subcontract and keep as much business as they can for their own crews,” says Jon Beckley, Terex global product manager for backhoe loaders. “One way to do this is by investing in attachments, giving their equipment the ability to do more.”
Beckley offers the following operating tips for the bucket’s seven functions.
1 When digging with the clamshell closed, fill the 7-in-1 bucket by crowding back while pushing the loader into the pile of material. In tougher material, the bucket can be rocked forward and backward to assist filling. Pressing the transmission de-clutch button on the loader control lever makes more engine power available to the hydraulic circuit to increase the loader’s performance. Also, the bucket can be filled by opening the clamshell and pulling the material back from the stockpile, then closing the clamshell while the loader is on the move or stationary.
2 For dumping, or loading, with the 7-in-1 bucket, operators can use two methods: forward dump in the normal way, or bottom dump for extra clearance. The clamshell can be used to push and evenly distribute the load across the truck body.
3 For dozing, Beckley advises operators to place the 7-in-1 bucket on the ground with the clamshell fully open. Tilting the cutting edge regulates the depth of the cut—forward for a deeper cut, and backward for a lesser degree of cut.
4 To use the bucket for scraping tasks, operators can place the bucket on the ground and open the clamshell until the indicator is set to the desired depth of cut. When moving forward, the moldboard cutting edge penetrates the ground until the clamshell cutting edge makes contact and acts as a depth gauge. The moldboard is designed to give a “boiling action” effect to assist in filling the bucket.
5 To spread material, the clamshell is progressively opened on the move. And for leveling, the bucket is placed on the ground with the clamshell fully opened, the backhoe loader then operates in both forward and reverse directions to give a level finish.
6 For grabbing and handling a wide variety of materials, the 7-in-1 bucket is opened and then lowered over the object. The clamshell is then closed and its clamping action grips the object in the bucket. And, for picking up the last of the material using the 7-in-1 bucket, Beckley adds, operators need to close the clamshell and crowd the bucket back simultaneously. Selecting the float position on the loader control lever keeps the bucket on the ground to help pick up all the material and leave a clean finish.
7 Finally, during lifting and lowering tasks, the flip-over pallet forks on the bucket are leveled manually with the control lever. Beckley says an object-handling kit, including the lifting eye feature, is required when lifting objects with the 7-in-1 bucket.
“The market has remained strong coming out of the trough that we saw a few years ago—we’ve definitely seen not only the residential building increasing, but also the commercial building, which is a strong opportunity for backhoes,” says Louann Hausner, backhoe product marketing manager for John Deere.
“The backhoe market remains consistent, with 14-foot models well established with the greatest demand, although we do see some fluctuation from time to time,” says Katie Pullen, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment. “As the power, lifting and hydraulic capabilities of models in this size class continue to improve, you may see some contractors who previously operated larger models consider working with a 14-foot model that provides a lower purchase price and lower fuel prices.
“Models in the 15-foot class are grabbing market share where added performance and hydraulic capabilities of those models now provide a suitable argument for replacing mid-sized excavators,” Pullen says. “The backhoe does significantly less damage to the ground, maneuvers more easily, is easier to transport, and still gets the lifting capacity of a 7- to 8-ton excavator.”
Cost of Ownership
Size Class (ft.) Average Price Hourly Rate* 12 - <13 $70,024 $35.61 14 - <15 $71,384 $36.07 15 - <16 $82,295 $42.80 16 - <17 $92,931 $45.94 17 and more $127,116 $63.25
*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.98 per gallon; mechanic’s wage at $51.24 per hour; and money costs at 1.75 percent.
Taking a longer-term view, though, the category may be losing some ground.
“I would say the market is flat trending toward down,” says New Holland brand marketing manager Paul Wade. “If you look out five to 10 years ago, the market was booming. Skid steers and mini excavators have taken some of the steam out of that market, especially for utility companies and municipalities where their jobs are not close. If they’re not close and they can’t road the machines over, it’s just easier for them to get a skid steer or CTL, put them on a trailer, and trailer them over.”
At the same time, Wade stresses that it’s wrong to count backhoes out.
“The big misconception is that skid steers and the mini excavator have taken its place and people in general feel the backhoe’s outdated,” Wade said. “It’s bigger, so you need a little more wide open space, but in reality, the turning radius is pretty tight. It’s still a very versatile machine, especially with all the attachments and the ease of changing attachments with the hydraulic coupler.”
Backhoe makers seem to know that the current, and next, frontier for the category is making the machines even more versatile.
“We’re seeing that attachments, such as a multipurpose bucket that enables operators to utilize the bucket not only for loading applications, but also for grading applications, are becoming very popular,” says Hausner. “With our K Series, we introduced a new loader control for that multipurpose bucket, taking what previously required two handles into one, making operation very easy and convenient for the operator.”
Couplers are also getting increased attention.
“What I’ve seen lately is the need for hydraulic thumbs and hydraulic couplers, especially off the rear of the machine,” Wade says. “If you’re adding different attachments, just having that hydraulic coupler makes it easier—you don’t have to get out of the machine or have somebody out there to put on the attachment—you can just do it from the seat.”
Wade says thumbs and hammers are the attachments trending, along with tampers to clean up after digging a trench.
“The thumb allows you to pick up stuff and set it aside, or load it into a truck so you’re not dropping anything, and the tamper is nice because you can put the ground back in the shape it was beforehand,” he says.
Jim Blower, JCB’s product sales manager, concurs. “Thumb attachments are pretty hot. We launched one late last year; people have been putting aftermarket thumbs on the machines so they can easily move materials around the job site,” Blower says. “Quick couplers seem to be a lot more common than they were a few years ago because people are realizing they can put different size buckets on, or a breaker, or a plate compactor, and the same on the front, with forks and sweepers.”
The ability to road the machine more efficiently has also gained manufacturers’ attention.
“We’re seeing backhoes used in more applications with customers really needing to be able to get them to different locations very quickly,” Hausner says. “One of the things we’ve brought with our latest models was having a five-speed powershift transmission, enabling our 310SK and 410K models to travel at that fifth speed, up to 25 mph. Transportability is key.”
Blower stresses that managers need to evaluate what the machine is going to be used for most, including attachment use, before they buy. “Look at what you want the machine to do the majority of the time and spec the machine for it,” Blower says.
“Also, more and more customers are looking at the costs of running the machine rather than a spec like ‘How much are the bucket breakout forces?’ Look at the overall package, and ask ‘How much will it cost me to run this year? How much will I spend on fuel?’” he continues. “The object is to see how much money you can make with it at the end of the day.”