Backhoe Loaders Can Do

July 1, 2009

I said it quite innocently. The man with me was the new representative of a manufacturer and he said he could make a construction machine do more than one task and wouldn’t I like to have one of those? “Backhoe loaders have been doing multiple tasks for years!” I laughed. That was not the answer expected, and I did not mean to embarrass him on his first month in the job. But it was true. Backhoe loaders (loader backhoes, tractor loader backhoes, TLBs, BHLs, whatever you want to call them today) have been the trusted workhorses of thousands of contractors for years. And they still are. While today’s market seems to be considerably smaller than it was 20 years ago, with many of the machines going to municipalities and utilities, the users of backhoes are faithful supporters. They also tend to use them for many years before changing.

“The backhoe loader is really in a league of its own,” notes Jeff Aubrey, product manager for backhoe loaders and compact wheel loaders at Komatsu America Corp. “While there are backhoe attachments for skid-steer loaders, they are still not true competitors. First and foremost, the BHL is two machines in one, with one operator. Second, the machine can travel from point A to point B on a large job site very quickly, or from job site to job site without a truck and trailer. Third, backhoe loaders have versatility. They can trench with the back end and load with the front end. Today, that versatility has increased because a large percentage of the BHLs have auxiliary hydraulics on the backhoe to run hammers, augers, plate compactors, and similar attachments. Many BHLs are equipped with auxiliary hydraulics on the loader to run clam buckets, grapple buckets, brooms, and attachments like that.” Those comments from an expert tell us why those who have backhoe loaders tend to use them regularly and keep them.

Photo: Kubota
There is a backhoe that is right for just about any project.

Last year, Case Construction Equipment introduced its new M Series 3 line of loader/backhoes. Performance and serviceability (keywords for any contractor) are the driving forces behind this introduction. There are five models in the Case series: 580M, 580 Super M, 580 Super M+, 590 Super M, and 590 Super M+. Horsepower ranges from 79 to 109, with digging depths from 14 feet, 3 inches on the standard backhoe to 20 feet, 4 inches with the Extendahoe. All models in the series have Case Family IV engines with Tier III certification. The engines have been turbocharged to respond to customers’ requests for power and the electronic engines with high-pressure common rail injection on the Super M and Super M+ models improves that all-important cold starting and fuel efficiency. The load-sensing hydraulics in the Super M+ backhoe loaders improve fuel efficiency, too, helping to move more yards per gallon of fuel. If anybody thought backhoe loaders were old-fashioned or out-of-date, these Case models quickly rectify that thinking. The ease of operation (even for novice operators) also helps to improve performance, with optional pilot controls giving even easier operation with joystick controls. And it’s easy to switch between backhoe-style and excavator-style controls, based on personal preference. That’s another step forward in productivity.

The manufacturer who can probably claim to have established the backhoe loader as a major international machine for construction is JCB. That company has been selling them successfully since 1954. Its offerings today cover a range that goes from the 1CX (with its operating weight of 6,150 pounds, maximum digging depth of 8 feet, 4 inches, and a loader capacity of 1,345 pounds) to the 4CX17 at almost 18,000 pounds. That 1CX is only 1.4 meters wide, with the ability to turn on its own base, a stable, low center of gravity, full side-shift capability, yet a reach of more than 3.38 meters. There are also two mini-backhoe loaders from JCB, each with an operating weight under 5,000 pounds but still digging to 8 feet, 4 inches and loading 1,375 pounds.

So Many to Choose From
Mechanical or powered loaders are machines that, more than any others, have made a difference to how construction work is done. Imagine how the pyramid builders or the stone haulers at Stonehenge would have felt if somebody had lent them a modern loader! It was the digging, lifting, carrying, and dumping that stretched and broke the backs of yesterday’s workers. Today we can select a backhoe or a loader that will do all the hard work for us.

Selecting a loader in 2009 is almost like going into a supermarket when somebody has asked you to “get something for supper.” There are many choices, most of them good. Experienced contractors tell me that you should decide what you want to do with your loader, even write it down as a list of tasks, and then go shopping to see if you can match a model that suits all your needs. “The first factor in choosing the size of a loader is probably determining how much material you need to move in a given amount of time,” advises Michael Gidaspow, a colleague of Jeff Aubrey at Komatsu. “The material density, combined with how much material you need to move, can help you decide the appropriate bucket size and loader for your application. Another important factor could be dimensional limitations. If you need to load into a certain height of dump truck or hopper, you will need enough dump clearance. Related to that, you usually want to have a loader that will fill a truck in about five passes. If you are working in a defined area, such as indoors, you may be limited to a certain turning radius or machine height.”

“The only way to determine what type and size of equipment would be best for any customer is to know what tasks are required and match the machine to the job at hand,” advises Robert Beesley, product manager for Komatsu’s compact track loaders. Everybody agrees that there are many options within the ranges of all makes of loaders, options enough to match any projects, from ones that require the operator to drive through the garden gate on sensitive grass to those where the machines are huge enough to handle rocks, boulders, and several cubic yards of soil and spoil. “Keep in mind,” adds Beesley, “that a customer needs to consider the future and what tasks may be over the horizon.”

Photo: Komatsuv
The stability of a backhoe is essential to productive work.
Photo: Michael Peters
Backhoes can do so many jobs onsite, and all with just one operator.

Versatility is a benefit that Kubota presents for the L45 tractor-loader-backhoe. “It operates like three machines in one,” is how Brittany Mohr describes this TLB. “It combines a strong loader and backhoe with three-point implement capabilities.” Powered by a Kubota diesel engine and new HST Plus Transmission, the L45 could be ideal for contractors, rental users, landscapers, and even homeowners who want professional results. “The Kubota L45 is designed to meet and exceed the needs of a professional, while helping the novice to operate like one,” observes Keith Rohrbacker, Kubota product manager. “Whether the task calls for a tractor with three-point implements, excavating utility trenches, or loading materials, this machine gives you the power and versatility to get the job done.” That HST Plus Transmission mentioned has a hydro-dual-speed, load-sensing ability and auto throttle to give automated control of the HST pump and motor. The loader has a slanted boom and braceless frame, with a lifting capacity of 2,200 pounds with a 9-foot, 6-inch lifting height. The backhoe offers a 10-foot digging depth, a high-performance inching valve and a standard hydraulic thumb bracket. One can operate the backhoe in crawling mode (standard) to save time when repositioning while trenching. Many attachments can mount easily and be exchanged on the loader, backhoe, and optional three-point hitch.

Backhoes and loaders are prominent in Volvo’s comprehensive range of construction equipment. They have loaders from small to huge, each one a leader in its class with dedication from the manufacturer to low fuel consumption, quick and simple maintenance, and high resale value. The Volvo Care Cab on wheel loaders has impressed those who have seen and used it. The operator has precise control over his work and over the many available attachments, with the patented TP-Linkage and load-sensing hydraulics. Volvo has long been a maker of efficient engines and today’s loaders have the V-ACT engines with fully automatic transmissions for good maneuverability and fast response.

Users of Volvo backhoes have praised the “all-around strength” and “breakout power,” and contractors will empathize with one who says that he especially likes the ability of the backhoe to go forward and be lifting at the same time. You can control the forward and backward motion with a pushbutton, so that control is all on the joystick for the boom of the front loader and you don’t have to take your hand off the stick. They are, apparently, small details but significant to the operator who works a backhoe every day.

The improvements to all construction and earthmoving machinery in recent years have been in fuel efficiency, hydraulic performance, and IT technology. The latter is a feature like Komtrax in Komatsu’s machines; it’s standard in Tier 3 machines. It helps the customer to use his equipment more efficiently and to know where it is at all times. Komtrax can also communicate with both customer and distributor, helping a service technician to diagnose a problem before he even sees the machine. These three improvements mentioned have been attained by most manufacturers, perhaps with a maker’s own specific name for the improvement. Features like onboard machine diagnostics help a technician to check many items from inside the cab, before he even needs to open his toolbox. Backhoes and loaders have been getting better and it would be remiss of a potential purchaser not to check for popular improvements.

Let’s look at a few examples. It was the Customer Advocacy Group (CAG) that played an important role in the development of John Deere’s new K-Series wheel loaders. “John Deere went outside its own loop and got operators’ and managers’ opinions,” comments Fred Moffitt, an equipment operator at Collison Stone Co. in Milan, IL, and a member of CAG. “I think they got the right kind of input they needed to build the loader we need.” The new loader in the K-Series group of eight models is the 2.75-yard 524K, a utility-sized unit not previously offered. Its electronic innovations are especially interesting. It may be in this area that we should look for the most up-to-date capabilities. All John Deere K-Series 4WD loaders include keyless start, seat-mounted controls, an expanded sealed switch module, and a new LCD monitor with a multi-function interface. That keyless start feature enables operators to start the loader with the push of a button. It also has a security mode to prevent unauthorized engine starting until a code is entered on the sealed switch module keypad. Special codes can be set for the owner, operator, and transport. Such theft deterrents are features to look for in any expensive new loader.

Photo: Caterpillar
Backhoe loaders can handle soils, materials, and equipment of all kinds.
Photo: Case
Most manufacturers make models of several different sizes and capabilities.
Photo: John Deere
Multiple tasks are the daily demands of a backhoe loader.

A feature useful for many contractors is the monitor that displays payload-weighing data (with an embedded weighing scale powered by Loadrite). “The payload scale was an important item for us,” comments David Morrison from Aulick Leasing Inc. in Rapid City, SD. “The loader we worked with was equipped with one, and it was handy not only in loading trucks correctly but also because we used the scale with a counter to keep track of our daily production. It’s a big plus.”

You’ll see safety mentioned by all manufacturers. They design their machines to be operated safely and include components to assist in that goal, but the key to safety is in the work of the operator. Most of these points I’m going to make are known to everybody. At least, we all presume they are. But do your new hires know the potential dangers of operating backhoes and loaders? Do your experienced workers always follow safety guidelines? When you are talking about a moving, rotating, heavy machine, there is only one opportunity to be safe, and that is on the job you are doing right now. Foremen, supervisors, and owners will not be wasting time or overstepping their authority to perform unheralded, regular safety checks on their operators and equipment.

The higher you raise the bucket of your loader, the more it becomes unstable. That is especially important to remember when you are turning or working on uneven ground. You can overturn a loader by turning it uphill on a steep slope, or trying to turn too fast on a downhill slope. Common sense? Of course, but such mistakes are made every day. The loader does not always overturn, but it may do so the next time. When the backhoe or loader is moving, it does not expect to hit tree stumps, holes, or ditches, and it responds with understandable annoyance if the operator makes it do that. The excellent visibility now common on most loaders and backhoes means the operator can see virtually everywhere, and he or she should be looking everywhere to take advantage of those design improvements.

One of the least understood and most often neglected aspects of earthmoving is the earth itself. We should know the soil we are going to dig and move. Excavating unstable soil or undercutting a bank with a backhoe, for example, can result in an accident. Slow down when the soil conditions are poor. Check for obstacles before you drive your machine into them. That applies especially to underground obstacles. You have checked for utility lines, pipe, and cable in the place where you intend to push your bucket, haven’t you? Again, if it’s an electrical or gas line, you may get only one chance to do so. Reminders about safety are often treated with bored nods and mutterings, but have you read the operator’s manual for the machine you’re going to use? It’s not the same machine as the one you learned on 20 years ago. It’s better, and you need to know how it works.

Terrains and Technologies
A development that has contributed much to safe earthmoving has been the use of tracks. Excavators, of course, have used them for ages. Today, however, some of the smaller machines cope with poor terrain, or going over sensitive ground without damaging it, by using tracks. It has to be some 25 years since ASV loaders showed us what you can do with tracks instead of wheels. Terex now owns ASV, and it has taken the tracked models even further into perfection. For the Terex ASV midsize machines, there is now a specialized track option for extreme conditions. The new Extreme Terrain Tracks are wider and have more aggressive treads to give added traction (on ground that you’d never have attempted before). The wider (16.5 inches) tracks lower ground pressure by some 10%, and that translates into higher flotation for better operation soft conditions. I have met several contractors who have extended their working seasons by using tracked machines in climates where, previously, snow and ice stopped all activity. You can also change the tracks on your loaders. Use them with wheels most of the time, then change to tracks when needed.

Ground conditions can affect another vital part of any backhoe or loader: service. When conditions are unfriendly, service may be rushed or even neglected. One of the features emphasized by manufacturers, and something for which we should look in any potential purchase, is the serviceability of the machine. For the Case M Series 3 loader/backhoes features like a flip-up hood, external sight gauges, and grouped ground-line service checks can give fast, easy access for maintenance and service. The new electronic instrument cluster with diagnostic and service reminders is especially convenient for operators at the job site. Axles with outboard wet disc brakes mean the axle does not need to be removed to be service. A single-level axle lube fill and check, water-aspirated air cleaner, and swing-out coolers all add to the ease of maintenance on those Case machines.

Photo: Case
Improvements in control systems have made backhoes simple machines to operate.

On Gehl’s V270 Skid Loader serviceability is emphasized, too. The large engine cover is hinged and positioned by gas springs to assist lifting and holding it in place, and it returns easily to the closed/operating position. The large rear door opens on hinges on the right side, to give full access to regular maintenance points. The entire ROPS/FOPS assembly on Gehl’s new skid-steer tips rearward on a hydraulic lift for easy internal service access.

John Deere’s 332 compact track loaders have designs that stress the importance of service and uptime. You’ll get fewer pauses in the work schedule with 500-hour engine oil and filter service intervals, while the large fuel tank gives prolonged effort in the field. The undercarriage of this loader (which has been popular on steep slopes, in sand, and across muddy terrain) is easy to clean, and less expensive to maintain and operate, with the all-steel rollers, metal-faced seals and journal bearings, along with the steel-reinforced rubber tracks. Belts, brakes, and lifters don’t need adjustment. Check the track tension every 50 hours and adjust it as needed with a grease gun. “Those 332s go right through wet and soft ground,” advises a user in Virginia, Mike Hawkins, head of contractors R.C. Hawkins in Catlett. “You can load, dig, grade, and haul with them. Because they’re compact, you save on handwork and they’re easy to maneuver round fragile structures. Also, we don’t need big trailers to haul them!”

JCB’s compact hydrostatic-drive wheel loaders are models in a range of loaders that goes from a maximum operating weight of 11,204 pounds (for the 406) to 47,036 pounds (for the 456ZX). One feature that has been especially popular with operators is the Vibration Isolation System (VIS) that reduces in-cab vibration and noise levels. Many loader operators work all day in the same loader and find that anything that makes it more comfortable inside the cab reduces their fatigue and improves their productivity. The shovel capacity of the JCB loaders ranges from one cubic yard to a hefty 4.6 cubic yards.

It was at the end of last year that Doosan introduced the DL 160 wheel loader. It was another machine in a range that has already won acclaim in North America. “Doosan continues to build a full spectrum of products and services, designed to meet every customer’s need,” comments Mike Stanley, president and chief operating officer for Doosan Infracore America Construction Equipment. “We continue to prove that, for durability, cost effectiveness, and quality, customers need to look no further than Doosan.” Among features of the DL 160 are extended component life (thanks to lower gear speeds and less heat resulting from lower internal RPMs), optimum fuel economy from an improved power train efficiency, multifunction boom and bucket capability, higher breakout forces and tipping capacity that either meet or exceed the standards of other manufacturers, easier maintenance with centralized remote hydraulic checkpoints and accessible filters and electrical components, and a hydraulically driven reversible fan that cleans debris quickly from the cooling group. Check inside the cab of this wheel loader to see how Doosan has made it an operating environment both comfortable and efficient. The DL 160 weighs 19,246 pounds, offers a tipping load at full turn of 11,680 pounds, a breakout force of 17,200 pounds, bucket capacities from 2.0 to 2.1 cubic yards, and a straight tipping load of 14,330 pounds. Like all Doosan machines, this model is covered by the company’s 48-hour parts guarantee. If Doosan fails to deliver the requested replacement parts in time, a rental machine or gift card (equal to the rental rate up to one month) will be given to the equipment owner. How’s that for committing to maximum operational uptime?

Look at the features of one brand of backhoes and loaders and see what it offers. You can use your observations for looking at what others offer and base decisions on the differences and advantages you find. All Caterpillar backhoe loaders, for example, have these features. They have a variable displacement piston pump and closed-center, load-sensing hydraulics to provide quick implement response and speed as well as high forces at any engine speed. They have flow-sharing hydraulic valves to ensure proportional hydraulic flow to all implements and improve the machine’s innate multifunction performance. The curved glass and contoured fenders of the Caterpillar cab gives the E-Series backhoe loaders better serviceability and superior visibility. The low hood improves the sight lines to the loader end, and the hood tilts forward for easy access. A couple of years ago Caterpillar offered the AccuGrade Ready Option, a factory-installed grade-control system offered in two versions with a site reference system using onboard sensors and a laser reference system using a sitewide laser reference. You can see what is available, then, from consulting the options offered by a leading manufacturer to determine if there are similar (or other) options from other makers. The successful purchase of a loader or backhoe loader will often depend on the carefulness of your own research. Call it homework if you will, but it is usually worth the effort.