Backhoes deliver power and precise handling.
Versatility is a valuable commodity in the construction business.
Just like a football player who can run and pass from scrimmage, is a reliable pass-receiver and can return kicks, a machine that can handle multiple tasks on a job site is highly-prized.
Backhoe loaders are the small, multi-purpose running backs of the building industry. They are constructed with a front loader on one side, a backhoe on the other end and a cab in the middle with a swiveling seat to allow the operator to switch between applications.
Backhoes also deliver power and precise handling when operating in areas where using larger equipment is not practical.
Their very design gives them an ungainly look, but that is forgotten once they are in action and their productivity on display.
Contractors can purchase or rent one of the workhorse vehicles to perform a range of tasks, effectively saving them from having to obtain several specialty machines to do what is needed.
That, of course, leads to lower costs for builders and that, along with being able to put backhoe loaders in tandem with other equipment, makes them an inviting choice to use on a project.
Backhoes a Must for Many Contractors
Just like bigger machines found on a typical construction job, backhoe loaders can be seen doing trenching, excavating, demolition work, breaking up asphalt and paving and landscaping. They do these tasks so well because they can be equipped with different attachments, including various-sized buckets, augers, brooms, cold planers, forks, hammers, plows and vibratory plate compactors.
Depending on the load size, backhoes can handle most material-handling jobs, too.
Beyond the construction site, backhoes work extensively in many other applications, including forestry, agriculture, disaster response and railroad building and maintenance. Once working within those applications, they can then be used to do another subset of different jobs, as well.
In operation for more than 60 years, their utility is obvious the first time you see one in operation, said Brian Hennings, John Deere's product marketing manager for backhoes.
“Today, backhoe customers enjoy real value with these small machines,” he explained. “With their high lifting and hauling capability, you can do more with one machine on a job site and easily transport that piece from site-to-site.
“Depending on the job and application, some customers just can't get by without a backhoe, or multiple ones, on their jobs,” Hennings continued. “In utility work and roadside construction, where you need to get up and down the site easily and quickly, you can equip a backhoe with a hammer on the back and break up concrete or asphalt, then excavate that material and compact it with a plate compactor — all while using the same machine.”
John Deere offers seven different backhoe loader models, including the 310SL HL, the company's newest backhoe in its 14-ft.-depth lineup.
Hennings said John Deere's engineers took a lot from what they had learned from its large machines to add productivity to the line of backhoes and the newest model bridges the lineup between the smaller 210 models and the larger 410Ls.
“The hydraulics are the heart of the new machine as they provide operators with greater multi-functioning capability, so they can run it at a lower engine RPM load when using the rear structure to dig, as well as with greater horsepower than the 310SL,” he explained.
Additional features on the 310SL are that in lift mode, at the push of a button, an operator can get another 10 to 15 percent greater lift capacity in the rear structure. For roadway applications, such as lifting street plates or manhole covers, this one machine can do those tasks without having to re-position it for longer reach and capacity.
John Deere is among several companies that supply the U.S. market with backhoe loaders, a list that includes: JCB, Caterpillar, Case and Mecalac, a French-based producer of equipment dedicated to urban construction.
Backhoe-loader technology was pioneered by JCB in 1953, and it is now one of the world's top makers of the product.
The British multi-national manufacturer builds its machines for the U.S. market in Pooler, Ga., just outside Savannah. Seven different models are produced in its Georgia plant, including the industry's only compact model (the 3CX Compact) and the largest (the new 4CX-15 SUPER).
In addition to a 2-year/2,000-hour bucket-to-bucket warranty, JCB backhoe loaders have set high standards for five crucial attributes by which all backhoes are measured: productivity, versatility, comfort, safety and serviceability.
The best example of those key traits can be found on the 4CX-15 SUPER, the largest backhoe in the JCB range. Introduced last year, it is powered by a 109-hp engine, while producing impressive bucket breakout force and pushing power, as well as lifting capacity.
In addition, it is designed with four equal-sized tires, which provide high ground clearance and traction, and four-wheel steer capability for enhanced maneuverability. The machine also sports a host of performance, comfort, safety and efficiency enhancements that enable it to tackle loading operations.
Standard equipment on the JCB 4CX-15 SUPER includes JCB's lineup of automated features on its engine, transmission, suspension and boom lock (joystick controls only). LiveLink telematics also are on-board.
The JCB backhoe also features more productive and easier-to use parallel-lift loader arms.
An Emphasis on Operator Ease-of-Use
Engineers at each of the backhoe makers devise their vehicles to minimize operator fatigue and enable greater productivity. Spacious and comfortable cabs are the norm in the 2018 backhoe marketplace and ergonomically-designed controls are built to be within easy reach for an operator.
Mecalac North America was established in 2016 and, since then, the veteran French manufacturer has seen brisk sales of its various construction equipment models, including a line-up of six backhoe loaders.
Their engineers, too, have worked to optimize the comfort and ease for a backhoe operator.
“We always try to keep a low bonnet [hood] line and clean lines of site to the working attachments for the best possible visibility,” explained Mecalac's Adam Phillips. “Camera options are becoming more popular whether they are used for reversing to aid hazard awareness or forward-facing to aid fork engagement for pallet work.”
Ergonomics within the cab are designed to ensure the backhoe operator has everything he needs close at hand, Phillips added, and can achieve all tasks with the minimum effort. Servo excavator controls on the machines have grown in popularity over the years as they reduce stress on the operator.
“Other developments are the inclusion of forward, neutral and reverse switches on the loader lever to make loading cycle quicker and easier,” he continued. “The Mecalac steering column is adjustable for both reach and rake to ensure the operator can achieve his perfect driving position for maximum comfort whilst he's at work.”
In recent years, backhoe loaders, like other large and small excavators, have evolved to the point that their joystick excavator controls are smooth, easy to use and provide excellent feel to the hydraulic system.
“Beginning with our 310SL HL,” said John Deere's Brian Hennings, “we introduced the palm-on-top loader-control grip, so that additional features could be handled with one control, while keeping the operators' line-of-site in front of them. It has a 4-in-1 bucket with a thumb-roller control, meaning it has an easy-to-operate front loader clamshell until opened or closed.”
He also points with pride to John Deere's momentary four-wheel drive control, allowing an operator to use a push button to effortlessly kick the backhoe loader in and out of four-wheel drive or mechanical front-wheel drive on the front-wheel control. In addition, the 410SL HL is equipped with a clutch disconnect that can momentarily pause the transmission — a handy feature in truck-loading or stockpiling applications or stockpiling.
“We have always tried to get a deep understanding of what customers need and what their various applications are,” Hennings explained. “We take that information and use it to develop new ways to give our backhoe customers added versatility, productive and, above all, reliability. We realize that time is critical for our construction customers on a job site, regardless of the project.”
Special Machines for Special Uses
To upgrade their machines to handle a myriad of different applications and specialty uses, backhoe-makers are always reshaping their machines for improved productivity, said Ed Brenton, brand marketing manager of Case Construction Equipment.
“We have recently introduced several enhancements to our N-series line of backhoe loaders — improvements to the cab and drivetrain, as well as to the electrical and hydraulic systems — that make these already versatile machines even more robust and productive,” Brenton explained in a recent press release.
Several features that were once extra have been made standard on Case's machines, such as its fuel-economy package. That includes ECO mode switches for both the loader and backhoe functions, allowing for greater fuel savings, optimal power and greater performance, Brenton continued. N-Series backhoe loaders now sport an all-new Pilot Control hydraulic system for optimal precision and smoothness, offering the operator more control in applications where precision is critical.
Backhoe loaders can be configured in many ways to suit specialty applications. Options like sirens/PA systems, high-visibility paint, strobes, LED light bars, remote spotlights and advanced lighting packages improve visibility and effectiveness in most situations.
Brenton also said many railroad contractors use specially-equipped backhoes in their operations. Access to work areas is a major challenge in the industry and having a tool carrier that serves as a platform for numerous applications is critical. Plus, they are utilized to help place, move and shift railroad tracks.
“In railroad applications, backhoes are typically outfitted with a bucket for moving ballast, dirt and other materials, and a set of long forks for moving bundles of railroad ties and other supplies,” he added. “Some backhoes can be outfitted with universal couplers that allow the machine to handle attachments from other OEMs.”
Case's new Extendahoe option on the N-Series of backhoes allows them to reach farther away from the base of the machine, allowing more work to get done without moving the vehicle. In addition, it improves access at sites where the backhoe base can't get too close to the tracks. The Case 580 Super N, for instance, achieves more than 3 ft. of additional reach with the feature.
Contractors and operators always want to see more reach from their backhoe loaders or excavators, whatever the use, but that often causes other problems. Engineers at each manufacturer have been kept busy over the years finding solutions to these problems, resulting in greatly improved backhoe capability.
“The challenge of improving reach is that it could come at a compromise to stability,” said Adam Phillips at Mecalac. “To improve the stability of the machine it would require an increase in mass — whether this would be a larger excavator or the addition of counter weights, it could result in a machine that is greater than 10 tonnes.”
Cat Backhoes Both Resourceful, Productive
For digging, trenching, back-filling and material handling capability, the Caterpillar line of backhoe loaders is certainly strong.
To illustrate that, the Cat F2 series of backhoes are both highly resourceful and spacious. The five models in the line join the other new Cat backhoes available, the 416E and the 127-hp 450F, with a 17-ft.-dig-depth.
With two engine offerings and a range of power ratings, the Cat F2s feature powerful hydraulics and lifting performance. A hydro-mechanical tool with combined function auxiliary lines or a hydraulic thumb to increase the functionality of the machine also can be added.
Each model in the F2 series (415F2, 415F2 IL, 414F2, 416F2, 420F2 and 430F2) have a completely redesigned cab that offers improved visibility, better cooling, greater seat-turning area and ample storage space. Plus, improved sealing against the elements and an enhanced security keypad immobilizer are on board. Operators receive both the room to move and a clear field of vision while working.
The dual-lock backhoe coupler on the F2s is another key benefit. With this advanced machine, the operator doesn't need to get out of the cab to install a locking bar or pins when connecting buckets with the hydraulic coupler. Additionally, the secondary locking system automatically engages when a tool is attached. The coupler's secure grip on each work tool helps to lower both owning and operating costs.
Load-sensing hydraulics on the Cat line of backhoes maintain maximum power and precision operation in both its Standard and Economy Mode. The upgraded hydraulics provide more power faster, along with quicker hydraulic output — even at low engine speeds. The line runs at the appropriate speed for the given application. The variable flow system adroitly matches the pressure and flow output of the pump to the demands of each job, as opposed to fixed-displacement pump systems on some backhoes that constantly pump oil, wasting large amounts of fuel.
Will Backhoe Loaders Remain Popular?
Many contractors have begun using more specialized machines like mini-excavators and skid steers for jobs that used to belong to backhoe loaders. Although still a general-purpose tool, the important question seems to be: Will backhoes continue to play a significant role in most construction and forestry projects?
Adam Phillips of Mecalac firmly believes that they will.
“There are two things that a backhoe really has in its favor,” he said. “First, the ability to drive to the work site removes the need for a truck or trailer to haul it, which makes it perfect for owner-operators that serve the local community. As they also are compact, they can drive to small job sites that might be hard for other vehicles.
“Second, the versatility that a backhoe offers is still hard to match,” Phillips continued. “It can achieve almost everything required by most job sites. An excavator may be able to dig a trench a little quicker than a backhoe, but the loader bucket will do a basement dig far quicker and load the trucks in the process. Then, the backhoe's forks can handle palletized loads within a few minutes.”