Contractors turn to a host of machines when they’re taking on grading and excavation projects. But few machines are as handy as the backhoe.
Brian Hennings, product marketing manager for backhoe loaders with John Deere Construction & Forestry, refers to the backhoe as the Swiss Army Knife of the construction industry. “The different attachments really make the difference,” says Hennings. “You can use backhoes to unload or move materials on pallets. You can pick up boulders or rocks. You can dig ditches, clean out areas. You can rely on a backhoe for delicate work around utilities or sewer pipes. It’s all about finding the right attachment for the right job.”
This isn’t going to change anytime soon. Backhoes remain a key tool for contractors who take on a variety of projects. But what is changing is the technology powering these machines.
Manufacturers today are boosting the technology of their backhoes, adding sophisticated machine control and telematics systems to them. Others are relying on technology to improve the power and reach of their backhoes. These changes can benefit the bottom lines of owners, who can now rely on that most versatile of machines, the backhoe, to do more work more efficiently.
Versatility Is Key
Diego Butzke, product manager for backhoe loaders and site dumpers for JCB North America, says that the versatility of backhoes makes them popular machines for contractors. Contractors are constantly looking at ways to reduce their operating expenses. By bringing in machines that are versatile enough to take on several different jobs, contractors can do this, helping to reduce their expenses at the same time.
“The more tasks a machine can do, the fewer pieces of equipment a contractor needs to bring to the work site, dramatically reducing labor, maintenance, and ownership costs,” says Butzke. “Not only can operators dig and load with a backhoe, they can also outfit their machines with various attachments that make them even more useful, increasing their return on investment.”
Butzke doesn’t hesitate when asked to illustrate the versatility of backhoes. Contractors, he says, might use a backhoe to demolish a structure, dig a basement for a new building, move dirt, or dig a septic system.
A landscape contractor might use a compact backhoe for grading, clearing trees and stumps, snow removal, moving rocks and boulders, or excavating a swimming pool. Contractors can also rely on backhoes for road construction work, using the machines for tasks such as breaking up concrete, grading, and paving.
In even better news for contractors, manufacturers are constantly working to boost the versatile nature of these machines, Butzke says. He points to JCB’s 3CX Compact backhoe as an example. This machine has been designed so that it can work efficiently in small and cramped spaces, such as in cemeteries or sub-sized building lots.
At the other end of the spectrum is the JCB 4CX-17 Super, a backhoe designed for large-scale construction, clearing of land, or moving of earth, he explains. “While the backhoe has always been a popular choice for its versatility, now contractors can choose a machine best suited to the variety of applications that are most common at their work sites,” says Butzke.
Ed Brenton, brand marketing manager with CASE Construction Equipment, says that because backhoes have two distinct sides with two different functions, they rank as some of the handiest machines for grading and excavation contractors.
The backhoe side of the machine, of course, is key, with its digging and trenching capabilities. Add the ability to run attachments from the rear of these machines, and it’s easy to see why contractors rely so heavily on backhoes.
But then there is the front side of the backhoe, with its loader and own space for attachments. This extra functionality provides the real value in backhoes, Brenton says. “There are few tools available for contractors today that provide as much ‘all-in-one’ functionality as a backhoe loader,” he says.
Contractors can turn to additional tools to make backhoes even more versatile, Brenton says. The extendahoe feature, for instance, allows operators to access even greater reach and digging depths.
Some manufacturers, such as CASE, offer optional features such as the company’s Power Lift extra. This allows operators to lift more than they could when using a standard backhoe, significantly improving the machine’s lifting and craning abilities.
“With any equipment purchase, we talk a lot about understanding the work that it allows you to do, which ultimately translates into your return on investment for that machine,” says Brenton. “If a machine allows you to perform more tasks, in theory you can bid it out to do more work. Backhoes really epitomize that theory.”
He adds that contractors can use backhoes with snow attachments to clear mounds of snow in the winter. The machine, depending on its auxiliary hydraulics and attachments, can work on light demo jobs and in construction applications that require hammering out and removing concrete or stone.
“It’s this all-in-one capability that makes the machines so popular with owners and operators,” says Brenton.
Dustin Adams, product application specialist with Caterpillar, says that backhoe loaders are even more versatile machines than many contractors think.
Many operators limit their backhoes to buckets on the loader to load and carry material and buckets on the hoe for excavation work. But creative contractors can actually squeeze additional uses out of their backhoes, Adams says.
He points to Caterpillar’s Integrated Tool Carrier Coupler, which contractors can install on a backhoe’s loader. Combined with hydraulic capabilities, this tool allows contractors to use a variety of brooms, snow pushers, blades, and material-handling tools with their backhoes.
Contractors who equip their machines’ hoes with quick couplers and auxiliary hydraulics can use hammers, augers, vibratory compactors, compactor wheels, and cold planers, Adams says. These attachments give contractors the opportunity to take on plenty of jobs with their backhoes.
“Cat has a large portfolio of attachments that range from simple fabricated tools to highly complex hydro-mechanical attachments that are designed and tuned specifically for Cat backhoe loaders,” he says.
Contractors often fail to tap the full potential of their backhoes, explains Adams. They too often ignore potential jobs that their backhoes can take on.
He points to the sweeping of job sites and the removal of snow as jobs that backhoes can easily handle, with the right attachments. There’s also road repair and asphalt patching work that backhoes can tackle if they are equipped with a cold planer on their hoe portion. “It’s not easy to replace that backhoe,” says Hennings. “You’d need something to handle the front-loader work that backhoes do. Then you’d need to bring in excavators to replicate the work you can do with the rear of a backhoe. Having that one machine that can do both types of jobs is an important benefit of the backhoe. For some customers, that is irreplaceable.”
Technology continues to play an important role in the backhoe industry, with manufacturers constantly looking for ways to boost their machines’ efficiency, performance, and safety.
As an example, Caterpillar backhoes come with economy mode, which allows operators to run their machines at a lower RPM while maintaining full power and full speed of their machine’s hydraulics. Adams says this provides top performance and a fuel savings of 10 to 15%, a definite plus for contractors’ bottom lines.
Caterpillar backhoes also come with load-sensing and flow-sharing hydraulics. This tech provides boosted hydraulic performance when operators are multi-tasking, Adams says. Operators working with this tech won’t lose control of their backhoes’ hydraulic functions, even when they are asking their machines to perform several tasks at the same time.
“The operators can smoothly operate the machine, and with less effort,” he says.
Finally, Cat backhoes come with the company’s Vision Link technology. With this system, operators and owners can track and trace their backhoes remotely. Contractors can access data on their machines’ fuel consumption and location, and can track the number of hours their backhoes have logged. They can also access backhoes’ machine fault codes—all valuable information.
Armed with this data, contractors can make better decisions on when to remove backhoes from the field, can determine if operators are running their machines as efficiently as possible, and receive alerts if their backhoes are being moved from a job site.
JCB has invested plenty in new technology, too, Butzke says. As with other manufacturers, the goal here is to boost productivity and increase the uptime of these machines.
The company offers its LiveLink telematics system, which now comes standard on all backhoes. This system allows owners or fleet managers to use a computer, smartphone, or tablet to remotely check a machine’s operating status, fuel consumption, and service requirements, Butzke says.
In 2015, JCB introduced its JCB Automate, a suite of automation features that come standard with the company’s premium backhoes. The system’s AutoCHECK feature provides a good example of the suite’s usefulness. AutoCHECK automatically performs daily under-hood checks on wiper fluid, oil, and coolant levels. It also checks the status of a machine’s air filters.
Backhoes today routinely come with such technology as cruise control, automatic smooth-ride systems, auto idle, automatic boom lock, and auto stabilizers.
One of the most important tech upgrades in the backhoe industry, though, remains the increased use of telematics. CASE, for instance, offers telematics as a standard feature on its entire line of backhoes.
Brenton says that contractors and operators are now becoming more familiar with the benefits of this technology, and are relying on it to determine everything from how many hours a machine has logged to how long their backhoes have sat idling. They can then make changes on how they are running their machines to reduce the amount of fuel they consume.
“By offering telematics with the purchase of the machine, it makes it easier for contractors to engage with it and understand just how easy it is to use and how easy it is to take that information and apply it in a meaningful way,” says Brenton.
He adds that contractors can use the data generated by their backhoes’ telematic systems to schedule maintenance activities. Larger contractors can use it to deploy their machines in a way that reduces fuel consumption and downtime.
John Deere provides its own telematics solution, JDLink, with all its backhoes. Not only can backhoe owners use the telematics system to monitor the working hours, idle time, and location of their machines, they can also use it to diagnose and resolve problems with backhoes in less time.
“Dealers don’t even have to be on the job site to help operators work through any problems they might be having,” states Hennings. “The dealer can remote in, take a look at a screen and work through many of the issues without possibly even having to arrive at the job site.”
Telematics also gives backhoe owners the chance to provide better security for their machines, he says. This is thanks to the geofencing feature of this tech.
Owners can create an electronic barrier surrounding their backhoes. If the machines are transported past this barrier, the telematics system will send a notification to their owner.
The most important feature, though, of telematics is the data on machine performance that it sends to owners. Contractors can use this data to determine which backhoes are in operation most often, which ones are spending too much time in idling mode and which are barely moving throughout the day.
Contractors can then use this data to more efficiently use their vehicles, something that can reduce fuel and labor costs and improve their yearly profits. “For contractors with larger fleets, trying to manage all their machines can be challenging,” says Hennings. “It’s not easy to track where they are located. It’s not easy determining how to best optimize the work schedules of these machines. But with telematics, it can be done. Owners can determine which machines are idling too much and those that aren’t being utilized at all. They can move machines to other job sites if needed, and they can do it efficiently and quickly.”
Machine control and guidance technologies are also making a positive impact on backhoe operators. This is especially true on the excavating side of the machine, where operators are often working in trenching applications in which a specific pitch is required.
Machine control can help operators hit this required depth more accurately and in less time, whether the technology comes in the form of a simple two-dimensional (2D) system or a boom-mounted solution that guides the operator to a specific depth, Brenton says.
The Important Questions to Ask
Should you invest in a backhoe for your contracting company? Should you instead spend your money on machines such as skid steers and compactors? Or, if your budget allows, should you invest in both types of machines?
That depends largely on the type of work your company does.
Adams, for instance, says that contractors who routinely take on jobs in a contained service area, can often benefit from using backhoes. That’s because operators can drive backhoes on roads at speeds of about 25 miles an hour. If work sites are located near one another, contractors can simply road their backhoes to a new site. They won’t have to worry about loading these machines on a trailer to get them from site to site.
Those contractors who take on jobs in a wider geographic area, though, might prefer to invest in machines such as skid steers and compactors that they would instead load onto trailers. They can then transport these machines over longer distances at a far greater speed.
It’s one thing for contractors to understand that they need a backhoe for their job sites. It’s another for them to decide upon a particular model of backhoe.
Butzke says that contractors should first ask themselves how deep they’d need to dig. This will tell them whether they can rely on a 12-, 14-, 15-, or 17-foot machine, Brutzke says.
Those contractors who need to dig especially deep might consider investing in additional technology. JCB backhoes, for instance, are available with the ExtraDig option, which allows operators to hydraulically extend the dipper to maximize the dig depth of their machines.
Next, contractors need to consider how much lift performance they might need out of their backhoes. Contractors frequently use backhoes to lift and place materials or other objects at a work site. It’s important, then, for contractors to understand their lifting requirements to help make sure they select the right machine.
Attachments have always been important for backhoes. The variety of attachments from which contractors can choose boost the versatility of backhoes. That’s why Butzke says that contractors need to consider whether they’ll be using attachments, and which ones, with their machines.
“That will dictate what type of pipework the backhoe will need to have to run those attachments,” he says.
Contractors who will be using their backhoes for loading work or driving them along roads to and from job sites should invest in machines with higher engine torques. The same holds true for those contractors who will be using their backhoes to break up compacted material.
Finally, Butzke recommends that contractors consider the conditions in which they will be working. Some harsh conditions might require backhoes with four-wheel drive. Contractors might also explore backhoes that come with limited slip differential to increase traction and reduce the wear that harsh environments can place on tires.
Brenton says there is no one-size-fits-all backhoe that is perfect for every contractor. Instead, contractors must take a careful look at their business, and the work that they regularly take on, to determine which backhoe is the best fit.
“Some of it is practical and some of it is aspirational,” he says. “What kind of work do you do now, and what kind of work do you want to do in the future? What are the digging depths that you regularly need to hit? The answer to these questions will help you determine the stick length you need, and if you need to consider an extendahoe.”
Contractors should also consider whether they will be transporting their backhoes by trailer, or if they will road them to job sites. Those contractors who are going the trailer route need to make sure that any backhoe they buy isn’t too big for their trailers.
Then there are the job sites in which contractors regularly work. Some work in conditions that require a wide track configuration for added stability. Others might work in harsher conditions, in which case they might need a cab instead of an open-air version.
Don’t Forget the Maintenance
Contractors can boost the lifespans of their backhoes with proper preventive maintenance. Fortunately, this doesn’t require an abundance of effort on the part of operators. “Backhoe maintenance is an important investment in the life of the machine,” says Butzke. “By paying attention to your maintenance schedule, and spending a little time and money on proper servicing, operators can avoid big repair bills and lost productivity in the long run.”
He explains that operators, at a bare minimum, should check all fluid levels of their machines each day, everything from engine coolant and engine oil to brake fluid and hydraulic oil. Some backhoes come equipped with technology that automates these daily fluid checks. But, it’s still up to operators and machine owners to add or replace fluids when the automated checks call for these moves.
Backhoes are equipped with grease fittings that can become clogged or damaged over time, Butzke adds. This can lead to a common maintenance issue in which a grease fitting will not accept any additional grease. Operators running into this situation might simply decide to skip over that stubborn fitting. This, of course, will lead to premature wear on bushings, pins, or bearings. Operators, instead, should always replace grease fittings that will no longer accept additional grease.
Contractors and operators should be aware, too, that because they often work in dirty environments, backhoes are subject to plenty of sand and dirt, pollutants that can seep into these machines’ pivot points. Butzke says that when operators grease their backhoes’ pivot points at recommended intervals, they are not only lubricating their pins and bushings, but also pushing out any abrasive sand or dirt.
Brenton says that the best maintenance move owners can take is to follow the recommendations from the manufacturers of their backhoes. “Preventive and planned maintenance as outlined in the owner’s manual is always the first and best line of defense, coupled with thorough pre- and post-operation walkarounds to identify any possible issues with the machine,” he says. “Those walkarounds are the best time to identify potential damage and notify maintenance personnel before they become a long-term downtime event.”