Cover Story/Productivity Guide: Backhoes (15-foot and greater dig depth)

If you took an impromptu, completely unscientific poll of what most people in the construction industry have to say about the backhoe loader, you would probably hear one word quite a bit: versatility. The multi-dimensional ability of the backhoe has long been a bread-and-butter staple for the construction industry. Since the 1950s, the backhoe has been digging, breaking, compacting or hammering at construction sites around the world. The wide range of tasks that can be performed by these machines means they are often the first piece of equipment an operator will handle in his career.

This versatility translates into a quality that appeals to one of the most important factors in a contractor’s business – the bottom line. The multi-tasking ability of the backhoe means not as many machines will be needed to complete a particular job. As a result, there will be fewer machines to maintain and keep fueled on a day-to-day basis.

“The backhoe historically has been a cost effective tool when you look at what it can do,” says Jay Barth, product marketing manager for JCB. “You can excavate with it, both with the front loader and the backhoe. It’s an excellent trenching tool. It’s relatively maneuverable. It’s transportable, either under its own power or you can easily haul it on a truck. It’s tough to find a machine that can beat it.”

Backhoes with maximum dig depths of 15 feet or more are the largest machines in the backhoe family. Their ability to get down deeper and work faster than their smaller cousins is a plus for heavy-duty jobs.

“The main thing is they have more reach than smaller backhoes,” says Bob Tyler, product marketing manager, John Deere. He adds that reach is the single most important spec for any size backhoe. “It’s instinctive to always look at the dig depth number,” he explains. “But many contractors aren’t looking so much at how deep the machine can dig as much as how far away from the tractor can the boom can reach.” A long reach has advantages for many applications, from moving spoil piles farther away from the hole to how far away you can crane a load.

Backhoes mix the working muscle of a loader with the functionality of a dedicated digging machine that can work in a variety of conditions. Added to those features is the mobility provided by its rubber tires, which allow it to move quickly around jobsites, use roadways to relocate to jobs short distances away and make adjustments necessary when trenching or digging. This means it is not uncommon to see a backhoe loader on just about any jobsite, from demolition to asphalt paving.

“These machines are best suited to excavating in rough, unleveled terrain where reach of the backhoe becomes an issue,” says Lowell Stout, product manager for Terex. “They are used in trenching applications where pipe and utility lines are being installed in long runs and speed of production is important. With more weight and power than the 14-foot machines, they perform better when digging in frozen earth and rocky soil conditions.”

Added to the benefit of mobility is the power of four-wheel drive. “Four-wheel drive combined with limited slip front differential means these machines can be used in really muddy conditions,” says Tyler. “Excavators can be used, but sometimes when the mud is up to the tracks they are not as effective moving around. But backhoes not only give you four-wheel drive capability to handle varied conditions, but you have the loader and the backhoe to help dig you out of muddy conditions.”

Attachments galore
Another reason for the backhoe’s versatility comes from the fact there are a myriad of attachments available for the machine. In addition to the standard bucket, the loader portion of the backhoe on the front end can be equipped with a number of different attachments such as multi-purpose buckets, pallet forks, brooms or snow blades. Other attachments, such as hammers, vibratory compactors, thumbs, post hole diggers or brooms are some of the most popular fitted to the backhoe boom.

“Attachments have accelerated the evolution of an already versatile machine,” says Barth. “Things like hydraulic breakers, augers, compactor plates and asphalt cold planers are natural fits with these machines. Backhoes have a lot of hydraulic capability, which allows them to run a wide array of powerful attachments and really increases their performance on a jobsite.”

That’s not to say the backhoe is a definitive replacement for an excavator or wheel loader. But many of the machine’s abilities can come in handy for those looking to keep costs down and operations streamlined.

“If all you’re going to do all day is dig a trench with the back end of a backhoe, you may be better off buying a small excavator,” Tyler says. “If all you’re doing is loading trucks with the front end, then you may be better off with a wheel loader,” said Tyler. “If you’re going to be doing a little bit of both, however, then the backhoe is the ideal solution. You just saved yourself from not only buying two machines, but paying two operators.”

Creature Comforts
Many contractors think a comfortable operator is a more productive one. That is why manufacturers take the comfort of the operator’s station seriously when designing the machine. For instance, today’s operator stations significantly reduce the rocking motion that used to wear an operator down after a long day on the job.

One aspect of the cab that’s getting particular attention is the seat. According to product managers, seats today are almost the equivalent of sitting in an easy chair. And now cabs have good sight lines and easy-effort joystick controls. Manufacturers realize that operator comfort is a big factor in their marketing. “If the operators aren’t comfortable using it (the backhoe), you probably aren’t going to sell very many of them,” says Jeff Aubrey, product manager for Komatsu.

An apple a day
While cost can be one of the main factors in a contractor’s initial purchase decision, it doesn’t stop there. The best way to keep costs down in the long term is to maintain the machine properly.

“Maximize the life of the machine by following the owner’s manual’s outline of daily and scheduled maintenance,” says Jim Hughes, brand marketing manager for Case. “If you don’t take care of your machine when you are supposed to, you won’t get nearly the life out of the machine that you expect.”

Also make sure the right attachment is on at the right time. One of the biggest sources of wear and tear on a backhoe comes from using attachments for jobs they were not intended. “For example, don’t use the backhoe bucket to break up concrete or to compact soil when a hammer or compactor will do the job better,” advises Hughes. “Make sure the machine is equipped to fit your needs not only for jobs that you do today, but also jobs you may do in the future. Having a well-equipped machine not only maximizes your productivity – meaning more money in your pocket – it also assures you that you will get maximum resale value on your machine at trade-in time.”

“Maximizing backhoe life has a lot to do with following a daily maintenance schedule and servicing the machine,” says Eric Winkler, product manager, New Holland. “If a control panel light goes on you want to make sure you look into it as soon as possible.”

One of the easiest ways to extend the life of the machine is by performing preventive maintenance to spot potential problems. “You can identify problems early during walk-around inspections,” said Kevin Hershberger, product manager for Caterpillar. “Paying attention to changes in system temperatures, machine sounds or fluid spills can help maximize life and minimize the cost of repairs.”


Case 590 Super M

  • Easy-to-use, adjustable joystick controls
  • Push-button control of the transmission disconnect, electro-hydraulic diff-lock and powershift down-shift on the same lever

Caterpillar 430D, 430D IT, 430E, 430E IT, 446D
Features include:

  • Cat 3054 engine (Cat 3114 DIT on 446D)
  • Best-in-class bucket rotation on 430D
  • Standard pilot-operated joystick controls

JCB 3C, 3CX 15ft, 3CX 17ft, 4CX 15ft, 4CX 17ft

  • Quiet cab
  • Full-featured suspension seats
  • Large capacity buckets with parallel-lift system

John Deere 410G, 710G

  • Closed center, pressure-compensating, load-sensing hydraulics
  • High-torque, 92 net horsepower PowerTech diesel engine on 410G
  • Tinted glass on 710G to reduce glare

Komatsu WB156-5, WB156PS-5

  • 360-degree visibility
  • Generous leg room
  • Excavator-type control panel

New Holland B110, B115

  • Narrow operator station for excellent visibility and reduced operator fatigue
  • Lockable engine side panels
  • Easy-to-read gauges on control panel

Terex TX870B, TX970B

  • Wide stabilizer spread
  • Full powershift gearbox with four speeds forward, two speeds reverse
  • Outboard planetary final drives for easier servicing