The backhoe was conceived 72 years ago by a Massachusetts company. It created a smaller version of the mechanical steam shovel’s bucket and boom arrangement and attached it to the back of a farm tractor. A second section of the boom (dipper stick) hydraulically pivots at the end of the fixed section so the bucket can scoop up material. Hydraulically operated horizontal stabilizers on each side of the machine create a firm platform for digging. A hydraulic loader commonly is mounted on the tractor’s front end, giving the machine digging and loading versatility.
Within a half-dozen years of its invention, a British equipment manufacturer, JCB, introduced a backhoe model of its own and grew to dominate the overseas market. Case Manufacturing also was an early player and remains a major producer of backhoes in the United States under the Case CE brand. Other leading manufacturers include John Deere, Caterpillar, Mecalac and Kubota. Full-size tractor-based models still are widely used, but compact models have become popular as well. Some of the compact backhoe loaders are purpose-built, others are backhoe attachments suitable for mounting on a variety of small machines.
A dozen or more manufacturers produce full-size and compact backhoe loaders for the North American market. In evaluating them, the primary consideration should be matching a machine to your situation. Some criteria to consider:
How will you employ the backhoe?
If you are a general contractor, you know what model you need. For everyone else, the question is, how will you put the machine to work? Do you need a full-sized model with the horsepower and hydraulic flow to undertake a serious excavation task? Will you be loading enough material that the size of the front-end loader is important for productivity? Is compactness important because of tight operating quarters? Shop for a machine that will best suit your work.
Weigh features and capacities of individual machines.
If you envision moving a lot of dirt in difficult conditions where traction and breaking force are paramount, you may need a heavy-framed articulated (center-pivot) machine with 4WD and top-of-the-line capacities. Planning to spend hours in the machine several days a week? A climate-controlled, spring-suspended cab with controls configured to your touch should be part of the buying equation. More of a weekend, odd-jobs backhoe user? A quick-attach unit with a medium-sized bucket mated to a compact tractor could be just the ticket. You have choices.
Weigh brand and dealership considerations.
Some manufacturers of heavy equipment are iconic — the aforementioned Case, JCB, Caterpillar and John Deere for example, as well as several other well-known manufacturers. Confidence in their branded equipment is well-placed. On the other hand, numerous lesser-known manufacturers build functional and dependable backhoes, sometimes at a lower price. Once you know what you are looking for in a backhoe, shop brands. If machine quality, dealership reputation and warranties all align with your expectations, the color and nameplate of a backhoe are secondary, unless resale value factors into your decision.
Renting or leasing a backhoe is popular because it opens the way for one-time use and evaluation. If an initial work experience is positive, subsequent purchasing of the machine can be done with more confidence. On the other hand, if the backhoe does not function as you hoped, you are only out the rental fee. Some things to consider:
Get the right size and configuration.
Dealers typically stock the more popular sizes of backhoe loaders — both full-size and compact. How you intend to use the rented or leased machine dictates which unit is best for you. You waste money if you sign a rental agreement for a larger backhoe than you actually need. For example, if the soil to be dug is loamy and a trench to be opened is narrow, a full-size machine with bucket to match makes little sense.
Factor in operator skill level.
The levers and readouts on today’s backhoes are easier to comprehend and utilize than years ago, but they still require manual dexterity and some understanding of the machine’s purpose. If the rented backhoe is to be operated by a professional, talk with the person about preferred cab controls and other features. If a non-professional will operate the machine, realistically evaluate the person’s ability to do so. A backhoe will only function efficiently if the operator is up to the task.
As with any other investment, examine the condition of the backhoe loader before signing papers. A visual check and mechanical test of the machine is in order.
If you are not a backhoe expert, lean on one.
Backhoes aren’t incredibly complex, but they are mechanical-hydraulic hybrids with lots of moving parts. Unusual denting is a clue about how the machine was operated. Leaks are hints of poor maintenance. If you are not a mechanic or operator yourself, let someone more knowledgeable than you evaluate the machine.
How does it look?
Backhoes experience the usual stresses associated with excavation and loading tasks. Booms strain to reach and scrape and push. The frame is jolted and twisted as the machine crosses rough terrain and moves heavy material. Look for cracks, welds and other visual indications that a backhoe has been banged around abusively.
Examine the hydraulics.
The load-lifting of backhoe loaders are mostly a function of hydraulic oil and pumps. An intact hydraulic system is critical to performance of the dipper stick and front-end loader, as well as any attachments. If the inspected backhoe has leaking hoses or cylinders or balky pumps, you may face more upfront expense than you want.
Run the engine and move the boom.
After checking fluid levels in the backhoe, start it and listen for suspicious rattles that can indicate loose parts, internal or external. Check the diesel exhaust smoke — too black for too long can mean compression problems. Move the machine and get a feel for its gears. Swing the boom to check for excessively loose fittings. Do controls work? They should.
Kick the tires, metaphorically speaking.
Backhoe loaders have a lot riding on them. Starting off on good tires is a plus. Check each tire for excessive wear and each wheel for cracks. Look for sidewall cuts — on the inside of each tire, too. Ask if the tires are pneumatic, foam-filled or solid. Each can be OK, but if you’ve a preference, find out what the backhoe is rolling on.
Industry reporting firms have shown a steady decline in backhoe sales over the past decade, even during periods when sales of equipment in other categories are up. This is largely attributed to contractors finding the combination of a compact excavator and skid steer to be a favorable alternative to a backhoe purchase. Obviously, for an owner-operator, owning two machines is not an option, so backhoes are still the true utility piece of equipment for these types of businesses. The backhoe will typically offer a larger lifting capacity and height as well as a faster travel speed. Thus, small firms and utility contractors make up a significant a significant portion of backhoe sales.
Prices for new models depend on brand, power and capacity, optional features and general market demand, which varies by region. For example, in the southeast region of the United States, a significant number of tractor loader backhoes are sold without a cab, which profoundly affects the price. Looking at prices from dealer to dealer or region to region is a simple apple-to-apples comparison and is worth the trouble. Hereafter are some categories of pricing:
For used machines, comparing backhoe loader value is more difficult because of additional variables including the year of manufacture, number of engine hours and general condition. Hereafter are some general pricing guidelines for conventionally outfitted second-hand backhoes with 2,000-4,500 operating hours:
Rent / Lease
Prices are determined by local demand and the volume of rental competition in an area, plus seasonal demand based on where you are planning to use the backhoe — with coastal areas of the United States generally charging more. An online survey suggests the rental price for a backhoe loader ranges widely — from $200 to $500 a day, $675 to $1,500 a week, and $1,300 to $3,000 a month. Some rental companies give corporate and fleet customers a lower rate. Equipment rental sources include independent and national rental houses as well as heavy equipment dealerships.
Some Financing Options
Any conversation about a heavy equipment purchase includes how to finance the investment. Leasing a machine with an option to buy lowers upfront costs for customers wanting ownership of a backhoe loader. Some dealers and manufacturers offer sales deals with 0 percent financing for up to 36 months. If owning a backhoe outright is your choice, companies have structured programs to make it happen.
Everyone knows horsepower determines how quickly and powerfully a piece of machinery can perform. It naturally follows that bigger backhoe loaders have more horsepower and, thus, are more capable of digging deeper, lifting heavier loads, and moving more dirt. This buying equation was made more complicated with the addition of tiered emission control formulas. A 70-hp backhoe, for example, can do work similar to an 80-hp backhoe but without the more stringent and expensive emission after-treatment requirements for the larger engine. Shop wisely. Don’t buy more horses than you need.
Hydraulic flow / pressure
The volume and pressure of hydraulic fluid pumped through a backhoe’s main and auxiliary system regulates what the machine can accomplish. Flow is measured in gallons per minute (gpm). The rate of flow determines breakout force — how hard the bucket-end of a dipper can be pushed and pulled. Also, backhoe booms and dippers often are employed to lift and lower heavy equipment and materials. Hydraulic flow is a factor there as well. And attachments vary in flow requirements. Knowing the application of a backhoe and what attachments will be utilized are all-important considerations.
Digging depth / reach
How far from the backhoe must you reach with boom and dipper? How far below ground will you dig? Will you be working in regions where frost extends deep into the ground? These questions all pertain to the choice of backhoe on a tractor. If relatively short extensions of the dipper are required for comparatively shallow trenches or holes, a standard boom will suffice. However, if wide or deep holes will dominate your work, you will need a boom with an optional extended dipper. Longer reach also can mean safer work because the machine is positioned farther from the edge of an excavation.
Anyone who spends hours in a backhoe loader knows that comfort and convenience features do more than pamper an operator. They contribute positively to productivity, safety, and health. So, look for engineering that literally and figuratively supports you. Steering assists that reduce the number of necessary turns of the steering wheel at higher speeds. Air suspension seats to reduce jolting of frame and spine. Automatic depth controls to reduce repetitive motions. Quick-attach mechanisms. Intuitive transmission controls. At the end of the day, these separate tired operators from bone-weary ones.
Center mounted / side-shift mounted
Most backhoes sold in the United States are center-mount models, in which the boom is mounted on a kingpost pivot affixed to the center of the backside of the tractor. This allows the boom and dipper to swivel approximately 180 degrees. Side-shift mounts have the kingpost mounted on a carrier that slides on a rail from side to side across the back of the tractor. This arrangement gives an operator more flexibility in operating a boom without repositioning the tractor — plus the plane of work can grow to 280 degrees. The side-shift feature is popular where work areas are confined, but it limits the boom’s lifting capacity.
Most backhoe loaders function as diggers and loaders. Yet attachments have been developed to take advantage of backhoe loader engineering and increase its versatility on a work site. Some require more hydraulic flow than others. Here are some popular backhoe tools:
This makes short work of the laborious task of drilling holes into the earth for posts or columns. Because it is mounted at the end of the dipper, more than one hole can be drilled without repositioning the tractor.
Blade / broom
These simple front-end push tools are for spreading or clearing away material. Popular blades include one-way, high-speed, snow, extendable and V-shaped plows. Brooms utilize standard flow hydraulics.
Front-end loader buckets come in many configurations, including all-purpose, 4-in-1, side-dump, high-dump, ejector, mulch, sand spreader, boxer bucket and gravel scoop. Dipper buckets can range from 10 to 60 in. in width.
This tool is employed on a backhoe dipper to firm backfilled trenches or otherwise increase the density of mounded soil. It comes in two types — flat-surfaced tools that slam the ground and compaction wheels that roll across it.
To speed exchange of attachments, quick-couplers have been engineered. After-market manufacturers have developed universal couplers as well as specialty couplers — including tilt-rotating couplers for landscaping and grading.
This two-tined tool for a front-end loader was developed to slip between surfaces of a pallet on an unloading dock, in a warehouse, on a job site. Variations include forks with extra-long tines and forks that slide laterally for precise placement.
Grapple / thumb
These dipper attachments grab an object being lifted and release it at the drop point. They are ideal for irregularly shaped objects such as boulders. Variations include ones configured for logs and landfill garbage.
This dipper battering tool is utilized in both construction and demolition applications. It does not require high-flow hydraulics, but the percussive nature of the tool can stress a machine.
This Wisconsin equipment manufacturer dates from 1842 and introduced one of the industry’s first tractor backhoe loaders in 1957. Today, it offers five full-size N Series backhoes, including 4WD models. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from Case →
The Illinois company dates from 1925 and is a heavyweight in the heavy construction equipment industry. Its seven backhoe loaders are all center-pivot models with one able to dig down 17 ft. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from Caterpillar →
In 1954, this British manufacturer introduced its first backhoe loader and has grown to dominate the European market and to sell widely in North America. It markets four models in the United States with digging depths ranging from 14 to 20 ft. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from JCB →
Founded in 1837, Deere built its first tractor in 1918 in Illinois and began to turn out heavy equipment in 1974. Today, Deere manufactures seven backhoe loaders, the smallest a 69-hp model, the largest with a 148-hp engine. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from John Deere →
The history of this Japanese firm dates to 1890. It began building construction equipment in 1953. The company line of tractor backhoe loaders range in power from 23- to 63-hp with the latter capable of digging down 14 ft. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from Kubota →
New Holland began in New Holland, Pa., in the late 19th century and is part of CNH Global. Its backhoes feature a notably thin extended boom and a dipper that can reach down 18 feet. Some models have hydraulic flow up to 40 gpm. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from New Holland →
Roots of this French company extend back to 1952. Today the equipment manufacturer offers two center-mount backhoes and four side-shift models, including the 100-hp TLB990 with 2WD, 4WD and crab steering versions. Click here to see Backhoe Loaders currently for sale from Mecalac →
Combining two popular tools — an excavator boom and a bucket loader — the backhoe loader has attracted legions of commercial and individual users through the years. Digging and loading tasks are no longer labor-intensive for either contractors or DIY property owners. The introduction of compact tractor models and assorted attachments increased the machine’s appeal. The general utility of backhoe loaders continues in a modern era of specialty machines.