Backhoes Still Capitalizing on Multifunction Design

July 25, 2014

Despite taking a serious hit in sales during the economic downturn in recent years, and despite having its job-site presence challenged by the likes of mini-excavators, large skid steer loaders, and compact wheel loaders, the backhoe loader continues to endure as a versatile performer that can take on demanding trenching, loading, and lifting tasks; handle serious attachments, front and rear; and very often get between assignments with no transport assistance.

“With margins on job-site bids tight,” says Jon Beckley, global product manager, backhoe loaders, Terex Construction, “contractors are relying more heavily than ever on backhoe loaders and, more specifically, on the attachments that enhance their productivity.”

Cost of Ownership

Size ClassAverage PriceHourly Rate*
14' - <15'$71,385$36.07
15' - <16'$82,295$42.80
16' - <17'$92,931$45.94
17' & deeper$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.

The range of full-size backhoe loaders, with digging depths of 14 feet or more (as compared with compact models with lesser digging depths), provides buyers with a spread of machine capabilities and purchase prices that allow tailoring these machines to the user’s budget and typical job-site tasks.

According to Katie Pullen, brand marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment, the size mix of backhoe loaders sold in 2013 was in line with that of the past several years, with the bulk of models still in the less-than-15-foot (digging depth) class, but with “a consistent presence of larger machines in the market.” In 2013, says Pullen, approximately 15 percent of all backhoes sold had digging depths of 15 feet or more.

“Models in the 15-foot class are grabbing market share where the added size, performance, and hydraulic capabilities of these models provide a suitable argument for replacing mid-sized excavators,” says Pullen. “The backhoe does less damage to the ground, is more maneuverable, easier to transport, and provides the lifting capacity of about a 7-ton excavator.”

Louann Hausner, backhoe loaders & tractor loaders marketing manager, John Deere Construction & Forestry, is of similar opinion: “Customers who are looking for two machines in one with a focus on transportability gravitate to backhoe loaders with dig depths of 15 feet or greater. With a backhoe this size, users have the benefits of a wheel loader and an excavator in one solution.”

But this said, Pullen notes that it would be remiss not to acknowledge that features increasing hydraulic capability in 14-foot machines, such as Case’s PowerLift, might allow lift capacities that equal or exceed 15-foot machines, perhaps prompting some users of larger models to consider the economics of moving down in size.  

At the upper extreme, backhoe loaders exceeding 17 feet in digging depth have a relatively small share of the market (estimated currently at perhaps 300 units annually in North America), but this category—represented by such models as the John Deere 710K, Cat 450F, Coyote C28-4LB, and the JCB 3CX-17 Super and 4CX-17 Super—seems to have dedicated buyers who need the generous dimensions and power these units deliver.

“Customers buying these larger backhoes might be working on underground utilities or using them as cranes to move heavy objects around the work site,” says Rafael Nunez, JCB’s backhoe loaders product manager. “Our 17-foot machines often are purchased by customers looking to replace a 12-ton excavator, but needing the mobility and versatility they can get from a backhoe.”

Advantages of size

In general, larger backhoe loaders, those with digging depths of 15 feet or more, provide expanded capabilities that appeal to a certain segment of the market.

“Larger backhoes often are purchased by heavy-construction and highway contractors, who might choose them for a variety of reasons, including greater dig depths, heavier lifting capability, or the ability to handle larger tools—such as hydraulic hammers,” says Kevin Hershberger, Caterpillar’s senior market professional for backhoe loaders.

According to Andy Capps, utility product manager, Volvo Construction Equipment, users who need the versatility that the backhoe loader provides, but who also require front-bucket lifting power equivalent to that of a comparably sized wheel loader, might opt for larger backhoe loaders. These machines typically differ from their smaller counterparts, he says, by incorporating heavier structures and heavier axles, as well as more capable hydraulic systems.

Generally, but not universally, larger backhoe loaders are equipped with variable-displacement, load-sensing, piston-type pumps in their implement hydraulic systems, providing a higher level of hydraulic efficiency and fuel efficiency than gear-pump systems that might be used on smaller models. Some manufacturers, however, opt to use variable-displacement hydraulic systems on their complete range of models.

“Larger backhoe loaders with more power are conducive for contractors looking to be more productive,” says John Deere’s Hausner. “Larger machines allow for a variety of attachments, such as hammers and thumbs on the back, and in the front, hydraulic multipurpose buckets, grapple buckets, brooms, and forks are growing in popularity.”

Also on the list of more frequently used attachments at the backhoe end are augers and hydraulic plate compactors, the latter offering the prospect of not having to bring a separate trench compactor to the job site.

According to Volvo Construction Equipment’s Capps, perhaps 35 percent of backhoe loaders leaving the factory are equipped with a rear coupler, and many are equipped with extendible dipper sticks. He notes also that use of a front coupler is increasing as owners seek to get maximum utilization from their machines.

Case’s Pullen does caution, however, that while extendible dipper sticks provide added digging depth and reach, users should be aware that lifting capacities will be considerably reduced when the stick is extended. Counterweights might be available for the front of the machine to counteract the loss of capacity, she says, but operators should be well versed about the capacity differences between the standard and extendible sticks.

Attachment use

For buyers investigating available backhoe loaders with an eye toward increased attachment use, features that should be considered include the availability of couplers (both front and rear), the availability of auxiliary hydraulics (both front and rear), and the availability of parallel lift for the front linkage to simplify fork operations. Some manufacturers offer tool-carrier versions that typically have a hydraulically activated coupler at the front and parallel lift linkage.

Terex’s Beckley reminds buyers that the key to productivity when using powered attachments is to make sure the machine’s auxiliary hydraulic flow is matched to the attachment and is capable of handling both single- and double-acting hydraulic cylinders. He also notes that buyers should keep in mind that couplers might reduce digging forces, resulting in increased cycle times.

Backhoe versus excavator

As Case’s Pullen noted, the size, performance, and hydraulic capacity of larger backhoe loaders might in some instances provide a viable alternative to a comparably sized excavator. This is a question of importance to some buyers, and it should be considered carefully.

“When comparing a large backhoe loader and an excavator,” says John Deere’s Hausner, “keep two things in mind—versatility and transportability. Both machines have their benefits, but the backhoe loader can act as an excavator and a wheel loader in one. The backhoe’s transportability means operators can drive the machine between sites, on roads, at speeds to 25 mph—important in urban settings. Roading saves time and resources, compared with having to trailer an excavator.”

JCB’s Nunez says that factors that might tend to nudge the buyer toward purchasing the excavator include the requirement for the machine to dig 100 percent of the time and to have the ability to swing 360 degrees. On the other hand, he says, factors favoring the backhoe loader include its “multifunctionality,” which allows one machine to serve as both a capable trencher and capable loader, potentially eliminating the need for two machines and two operators—with the attendant increase in owning and operating costs. Then, too, he says, is the backhoe loader’s ability to relocate at 25 mph, versus the excavator’s 3 to 5 mph.

Says Caterpillar’s Hershberger, “The debate about what machine works best in a particulate application occurs repeatedly in the construction world. Items to consider include the type of work most frequently encountered, trade-offs regarding tracks versus tires, typical underfoot conditions, and the work tools required.

“For example, loading stockpiled material into trucks, moderate travel distances on or between job sites, the need to handle palletized material, or the need to operate hydraulic brooms would move the buyer towards a backhoe. On the other hand, demolition work, production-trenching requirements, and the need to swing 180 degrees might favor the excavator. A thoughtful assessment of current business needs and consideration of future growth opportunities can help buyers process this decision.”