Combining the attributes of a front-mounted loader and a rear-mounted excavator, backhoe-loaders – or simply backhoes – have been a staple in construction fleets since they were developed in the 1940s and 50s. And it’s no wonder: the versatile machine is capable of handling two of the most common tasks facing utility contractors – digging and moving the earth. And with a number of optional attachments, the backhoe is truly a do-it-all tool of construction equipment.
Backhoes have continued to evolve with a range of sizes and options available, so to help navigate the current backhoe market, we talked to Brian Hennings, product marketing manager, backhoes and tractor loaders, John Deere Construction and Forestry; Dustin Adams, product application specialist, Caterpillar; and Ed Brenton, product marketing manager for backhoe loaders at CASE Construction Equipment, to glean insights on backhoes and how they can help you on the jobsite.
How do you know if a backhoe is the right machine for you vs. a dedicated excavator and/or loader?
Hennings: We suggest that a customer prioritize its top needs and applications, now and for the foreseeable future. Generally speaking, backhoe customers value its optionality for self-transportation or trucking to the jobsite, durability, and versatility for truck loading and trenching, and all connected to one tractor, along with the many attachments for both ends of the machine. It’s truly the worksite’s Swiss army knife.
For other customers, they may value a smaller, compact machine size for transport on a 10,000-lb GVW trailer, or a condensed footprint to get in tighter, more confined areas. And there’s mix of customers that drive for fleet optimization and see greater value in a combination of machine forms.
Their local John Deere sales professional is a great resource to help guide customers match the right machine to best cover their needs.
Adams: Backhoe loaders are known for their versatility. It is a great utility machine that loads and excavates well. Backhoes excel when the job requires a machine that can complete several tasks. It isn’t limited to digging trenches and loading gravel. Loader Quick Couplers afford the ability to turn backhoes into sweepers, compactors, asphalt mills, snow pushes, etc., thus increasing machine utilization. Being able to achieve up to 25 mph, backhoe loaders can quickly cover long distances making them valuable on larger job sites or in areas where trailering equipment is not advantageous.
Brenton: Purchasing dedicated machines is a popular trend in some corners of the construction industry, but the utility market is one where backhoes will always have a major role. If you think of municipalities and utility partners, response time is often critical. A well prepped backhoe, with a hammer attached to the stick, and a bucket and plate compactor placed in the loader bucket (typically a 4-in-1), can be on-site, digging out and working to repair a broken water main before any other personnel and equipment get on site — all because it’s on four tires and capable of being roaded. Tracked machines don’t provide that same speed and all-in-one versatility — and typically have to be trailered to a site — so backhoes provide a significant advantage here.
What backhoe applications are most common among utility contractors?
Hennings: Generally, trenching and craning tasks account for a majority of utility backhoe use. To make the machine more productive and versatile, rear attachments are often used to get the job done including couplers to facilitate quick swapping out of different sized buckets to better match varying trench width needs as well as other attachments such as breakers or plate compacters.
And, what an operator excavates out of a trench eventually has to be replaced. The backhoe’s front loader can make quick work of backfilling regardless if the material is close at hand or if it requires a load-and-carry application.
What transmission type is better for utility contractors?
Brenton: Backhoes are often selected for their versatility and ability to work on varied terrain. We really wouldn’t put a machine with anything less than four-wheel drive into these applications, and we’ve recently taken additional steps with the transmission to further improve performance. A new feature on CASE S-Type and H-Type transmissions, Direct Drive, engages the engine and transmission directly for improved gradeability, faster roading speeds, improved fuel economy, and faster travel times around the jobsite and between jobs — critical when machines are regularly roaded. The PowerDrive transmission maintains the existing autoshift feature as today and now includes an automated activation of the direct drive feature in third and fourth gears based on torque demand and conditions on the jobsite.
What are the most important considerations for utility contractors when purchasing a backhoe?
Hennings: Power requirements are typically on top of the list, and its importance is often linked to off-road use, self-transport up and down hills, or its desired speed of truck-loading. Capabilities around reach, dig depth, and hydraulic configuration to support various attachments are also key considerations.
Adams: It all boils down to understanding the job application. What is expected of the machine? The customer should ensure the machine that is being purchased is the right machine for the application or many applications. Buying a machine with more capability (size, horsepower) or specific for a limited application than required, may lead to a trade off in the day-to-day performance. Bigger is not always better. Partnering with a manufacturer or dealer that can help you understand the full value and potential of the machine being purchased is crucial. Don’t underestimate the value in telematics and machine utilization.
Should a contractor buy the most powerful backhoe loader fully loaded?
Brenton: Absolutely not — the two biggest factors affecting backhoe selection in the utility market are dig depth and lifting capacity. If you’re regularly lifting and craning large concrete vaults, a larger, more powerful backhoe will be required. Wide track models can further improve lifting and material handling operations with greater stability.
If you perform no lifting or craning operations, and are solely focused on dig depth, then you may be able to buy a smaller or lower-horsepower backhoe with the stick length that meets your digging demands. Much has been discussed in recent years about the “efficient power” backhoe loaders, and we’ve gone to great lengths with our model, the 580N EP, to build in comparable power and performance as our higher-horsepower models (at a lower horsepower with a maintenance-free emissions solution).
The takeaway: always start with dig depth and lifting demands and go from there.
What are the latest technological advancements in backhoes?
Hennings: Deere’s latest technology includes JDLink, which is at the heart of our suite of telematics solutions. Together, with machine monitoring that provides real-time utilization data and alerts, this promotes uptime while lowering operating costs. Other tech advances include remote machine diagnostics, which allows a Deere service technician to read codes, update software and record performance data without a trip to the jobsite.
Adams: Caterpillar has introduced a new Hydraulic Infrastructure that enables Seat Mounted Controls on the new 440 & 450. The seat mounted controls allow the operator to quickly switch from Loader to Backhoe Operation without having to adjust rear controls, thus reducing operator motions and improving efficiency and ergonomics. The infrastructure also enables programmable features such as Operator Control Modes (Response & Modulation), Loader Kickout, Return to Dig, and Parallel Lift. We have seen advances in technology on other Cat products such as Small Wheel Loaders and Skid Steer Loaders, Compact Track Loaders and are now leveraging that technology on Backhoe Loaders.
What attachments are available that may be useful for a utility contractor?
Adams: There are many available attachments that can be helpful in a number of jobsite applications:
• IT Loader Coupler for change out loader attachments such as Buckets, Brooms, Pallet Forks, & Material Handling Arms
• Loader Brooms (Angle or Pick Up) to sweep/clean roadways and job sites
• Multi-Purpose (4-in-1) Buckets to clean up debris. The MP Bucket is a versatile tool that can be used as a Standard Bucket, Grapple, Dozer/Push Blade, and Box Blade for back dragging.
• Backhoe Quick Coupler to change Backhoe Attachments quickly and easily.
• Backhoe Thumb to pair with Bucket or Ripper Shank to pick and place material.
• Heavy Duty Backhoe Bucket for general digging.
• Backhoe Ripper Shank for prying material such as concrete, rocks, roots, etc.
• Hammer/Breaker for breaking material in to smaller, more manageable pieces.
Are there advantages to adding bells and whistles, even if a contractor may not need them?
Brenton: There are — and it’s not a sales tactic — but the reality is that a backhoe loader’s retained/resale value is affected strongly by the condition of the machine and the features/amenities available on it. Backhoes, particularly, are very popular among owner/operators who generally like a more fully featured machine — and are willing to pay up for the features they want when considering machines on the secondary market. You may not use a certain feature extensively, but it may have great value to the second owner, and therefore increase your return on investment.
Are contractors able to use attachments across multiple OEMs?
Brenton: Universal couplers are more common now on backhoe loaders from the major manufacturers, which allow you to easily switch between buckets and attachments sourced from other manufacturers. You shouldn’t feel attached to a single OEM based on your bucket collection. Discuss the breadth of attachments you own with your local supplier when considering a new machine, and they’ll ensure that your next machine is properly equipped to handle your attachments.
What are some recent safety features?
Hennings: Deere’s parking brake is spring-applied and hydraulically released, so it can’t be driven through and automatically engages when the engine is off. It’s independent of service brakes that’s controlled with an electric switch and standard on all L-Series backhoes.
The AutoShift option automatically shifts the transmission into the proper gear (2-5). So, the operator can concentrate more on the task at hand and enhancing ease of use.
The LED lighting option (vs. conventional halogen lighting) provides enhanced visibility when days run long or sunlight runs short.
Can you offer any tips for safe, efficient operation?
Adams: The customer should ensure preventative maintenance is being performed to avoid unnecessary component failures that could result in injury. Experiencing “machine down” situations will delay jobs encouraging operators to rush when the machine is back up and running, and rushing often leads to injury due to careless mistakes. Take advantage of machine features to operate at lower engine RPMs, while maintaining machine performance. This puts less stress on the machine and reduces jobsite noise levels, allowing for good communication between operators and outside teammates.