Backhoes Beyond the Everyday Construction Site

May 15, 2018

Since 1953, backhoe loaders have been commonly found on construction projects due to their superior capability in digging, trenching, excavating, and demolition. The addition of a quick coupler for attachments increased the machine’s versatility, allowing it to use grapples, augers, breakers, and more. Their adaptability, along with their small frame and precision control, has made them a staple on job sites—a staple that is often taken for granted. But these practical machines have uses beyond the everyday construction site.

“A backhoe loader truly is one of the most versatile pieces of heavy equipment available, whether it’s on the job site, in a disaster response situation, or a variety of other specialty applications,” says Ed Brenton, brand marketing manager for CASE Construction Equipment.

Recently introduced enhancements to the N-series, including improvements to the cab and drivetrain, as well as to the electrical and hydraulic systems, make the already versatile machines even more robust and productive, he claims.

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Cleanup on Aisle 4!
Disaster cleanup is the most common use for backhoe loaders outside of the utilities and construction sector, believes Dustin Adams, backhoe product specialist for Caterpillar. “Not only are BHLs a versatile tool with the availability of the loader and backhoe, but they have the ability to transport themselves from job site to job site.” Able to drive on the road, they can achieve top speeds up to 25 miles per hour.

Adams recommends the 429F2 IT with extendable stick and thumb for the best value and the most versatility. The extendable stick provides an additional 3 feet or more for longer reach when cleaning up debris or loading trucks. The 14-foot BHLs with extendable sticks are sufficient in most application and cleanup scenarios, thanks to their ample dig depth and 3-foot reach, Adams states.

The integrated tool carriers have a hydraulic quick coupler to quickly and easily change out loader attachments such as a multi-purpose bucket or broom. “It allows the operator to change tools independently and without having to hammer attachments pins,” states Adams.

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Credit: JCB
The JCB 4CX 15
Super at work

It’s a Disaster
JCB BHLs were recently used for disaster relief and recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, particularly for debris cleanup and rebuilding. “Commonly, backhoe loaders used for firefighting and disaster clean-up operations are fitted with multi-purpose buckets, such as JCB’s 6-in-1 bucket, that allow them to push, grab, level, dig, load, and grade,” says Diego Butzke, backhoe loader product manager for JCB North America. Hammer attachments are also used to break concrete or rocks, and grabbers and thumbs are used to clear debris.

Because firefighting and disaster relief operations involve a lot of pushing, loading, grabbing, and lifting, JCB recommends a high horsepower backhoe such as the JCB 4CX 15 SUPER because it allows the operator to do more with the loader end.

“The JCB 4CX-15 SUPER is a massive backhoe loader,” says Butzke. It features large tires on all four wheels for improved ground flotation, ground clearance, and traction effort. “Its three steering modes, including crab steer, allow tight turning circles and excellent maneuverability within disturbed work sites that are strewn with debris and obstacles. Customers commonly refer to the JCB 4CX-15 SUPER as a ‘wheel loader with a backhoe end,’ but it is a high-performance backhoe loader and the only backhoe of its type currently sold in North America.”

Because backhoe loaders are so versatile and able to be matched to specific applications with a variety of attachments, they are also widely used by militaries around the world, Butzke continues.

BHLs can quickly fill sandbags in preparation for natural disasters, says Brian Hennings, John Deere’s product marketing manager, backhoes and track loaders. When helping fight fires, they can cover more ground in less time. “You can use them to make a firewall by moving dirt and trenching. They’re good in tight areas too.”

For the cleanup after a fire or natural disaster (or even manmade disasters like 9/11 in New York City), attachments can be added to rip, grab, scoop, and load debris. A multi-purpose bucket or clamshell bucket can be put on the front and a hydraulic thumb or swingers can be added to the rear for ditch clean­out, Hennings says.

Exactly what you use—and what size—depends on the cleanup job. It’s important to choose the right tool for the right job. Where debris is heavy, nails and stakes that can puncture tires are a risk. “Some machines have run-flat solid tires, but track may be better,” Hennings believes. “Track has flotation, stability, and works on inclines.”

Credit: Kubota
Moving dirt with a Kubota M62

Working on the Railroad
Natural disasters aren’t the only unconventional application for BHLs. “They aren’t idle over the winter,” says Hennings. They’re often used for snow removal as a snow pusher, for loading trucks with sand or salt, and for clearing parking lots and airports.

They’re also becoming popular in the railway repair sector, Adams indicates. “Specialty components added to a BHL allow them to be transported along, and to operate upon, train tracks.” Specialty attachments allow them to make repairs to the rails and to replace railroad ties, reducing the number of pieces of equipment needed on the job site.

One of the most critical challenges in specialty applications, Brenton points out, is access. “If access to a worksite is problematic, you want to make sure that the equipment you are able to get onsite is going to be as versatile as possible in order to maximize effectiveness and productivity. We’ve found that a lot of railroad contractors use specially equipped backhoes in their operations. Access to work areas is a major challenge in the railroad industry, and having a tool carrier that serves as a platform for numerous applications is critical.”

Backhoes used in railroad applications 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. Some backhoes can be outfitted with universal couplers that allow the machine to handle attachments from other OEMs.

In railroad building and maintenance applications, backhoes are used to help place, move, and shift tracks. Brenton says CASE’s Extendahoe option is popular with railroad contractors because it provides the ability to reach further away from the base of the machine, which allows more work to get done without moving the machine, and improves access at sites where the backhoe can’t get as close to the tracks due to regulations or obstacles. “The CASE 580 Super N—a popular railroad model—achieves more than three feet of additional reach with the Extendahoe feature.”

Credit: Caterpillar
A stabilized Caterpillar 420F2 IT

Getting Attached
Backhoes are very versatile machines and are well-suited to a wide variety of attachments. Specialty jobs call for specialty attachments. Adams provides a list of attachments for the backhoe loader:

  • Loader Brooms (angle or pick up) to sweep/clean roadways and job sites
  • Multi-Purpose (4-in-1) Buckets to clean up debris
  • Backhoe Quick Coupler to change backhoe attachments quickly and easily
  • Backhoe Thumb to pair with a bucket or ripper shank to pick and place material
  • Heavy Duty Backhoe Bucket for general digging
  • Backhoe Ripper Shank for prying material such as concrete, rocks, roots, etc.
  • Hammer / Breaker for breaking material into smaller, more manageable pieces
Credit: Kubota
Using the Kubota L47’s multi-purpose bucket

The multi-purpose bucket is a versatile tool that can be used as a standard bucket, grapple, dozer/push blade, and box blade for back dragging. Brooms go on the front for final cleanup, Hennings concurs. He also mentions shears to snip through steel and get larger pieces down to manageable size, and serrated teeth on dipper sticks to help grab and hold material.

Common attachments for clean-up applications are 4-in-1 buckets, scrap grapples, pallet forks, and a clamping thumb for the backhoe. “Often, when a tractor loader backhoe is used in cleanup, it will be equipped with a combination 4-in-1 bucket and a thumb attachment on the backhoe,” says Jeff Jacobsmeyer, CE product manager with Kubota Tractor Corporation. “Equipping the tractor loader with a 4-in-1 bucket makes for quick cleanup for those large, heavy, bulky items. To enhance the capabilities of the rear backhoe for cleanup, the optional thumb attachment allows the operator to pick and place debris with precision.”

While the most common attachments are multi-purpose buckets, thumbs, grabbers, and hammers, he says that a 29-foot hydraulic hose reel is an available option to power hand-held hydraulic tools, such as hammers and disc cutters. “This is a useful feature in disaster relief and firefighting operations where other power sources may not be available.”

Kubota’s L47 and M62 tractor-loader backhoes, the two largest in the product line, feature a four-point rear mounting system to easily remove and reattach the backhoe, allowing for the installation of a three-point hitch. This enables the use of any type of three-point mounted equipment commonly used on tractors, including a box blade, angle blade, mower, and many more items to be operated from the rear of the tractor. “The ability to move and load heavy and sometimes bulky items is the key to the advantages of the TLB,” says Jacobsmeyer. An optional hydraulic coupler, available on both models, enables easy attachment and detachment of auxiliary implements. In addition, the backhoe features a quick coupler system for a fast exchange of buckets.

Credit: JCB
Somber digging with a JCB 3CX

One of the benefits of backhoe loaders is that they are relatively simple machines to operate, Butzke continues. In disaster relief and firefighting applications, however, operators need to be trained not only on how to use the machine but on how to operate safely in the hazardous or dangerous work environment.

In disaster relief scenarios, people are generally willing to help in ways they are not accustomed to, Adams believes. Sometimes that places people in situations they are unfamiliar with, such as working around construction equipment, operating unfamiliar equipment, or working around utilities. “It is imperative that operators receive training to familiarize themselves with the environment where they are assisting. Operators need to be trained and familiarize themselves with the machines and attachments they are operating. Reading and understanding the machine and attachment OMM [Operation and Maintenance Manual] will make them aware of machine and attachment limitations.”

Safety training encourages the operator to be very cautious of bystanders and instructs them how to dig in locations that are clearly marked for utilities. Digging into electrical or gas utilities can prove to be fatal and costly.

Configuring the Machine for Optimization
JDLink—John Deere’s telematics suite for machine/fleet optimization—can identify when the machine is idle so it can be deployed to areas where it’s needed. Hennings says, “Machines get moved around a lot when the situation is fluid.”

Many backhoes now come standard with telematics—a powerful equipment management and utilization technology that is particularly helpful for decentralized operations like railroad work, firefighting, or other disaster response applications. “Telematics provides an easy way for fleet managers to know the current location of machines and their crews,” emphasizes Brenton. “This can be helpful in many ways. It simplifies maintenance by keeping track of engine hours and maintenance alerts. It provides a record of how equipment is being used [idle vs. working mode, for example], and helps identify underutilized pieces of equipment that may be put to use in areas where they are needed.”

It also provides an extra layer of security. Geofences, or virtual perimeters, can be established to send alerts when a machine leaves the staging area, identifying possible theft and unauthorized after-hour use.

There’s an almost infinite number of ways to configure BHLs to suit specialty applications. Brenton mentions options such as sirens and PA systems, high-visibility paint, strobes, LED light bars, remote spotlights, and advanced lighting packages to improve visibility, which, in turn, increases effectiveness on the worksite.

“Other machine options include robust guarding packages and solid tires,” continues Brenton. “Front fend packages, fuel tank guarding and boom guarding can help beef-up a machine and protect its critical components from damage that can be caused by debris or other hazards.”

For disaster response applications, CASE offers an emergency deployment container through a vendor partner. Designed to be carried into tough-to-access areas by a backhoe loader fitted with forks, the container includes a hydraulic generator, 100-gallon fuel tank and pump, a fire extinguisher, medical response kit, GPS system, satellite phone, and other critical emergency response equipment. In addition, winches and hooks can be added to a machine for a variety of search and rescue applications.

Commonly considered a giant “shovel,” wheel loaders can also serve well in some non-traditional applications. Juston Thompson, product specialist and sales trainer for Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas, says their standard operation is to move material—sand, gravel, and aggregate. However, they are proficient in ag use—dairy operations in particular, where they move feed for cattle and assist in feedlot cleanup.

At mill yards, they are used to move logs. At transportation departments, they are used to load salt into salt trucks. Thompson speculates that they could clear debris from burned or flooded land, using a grapple instead of a bucket.

Wheel loaders are sometimes used as a support piece to the excavator for land clearing. “In South Georgia, they are converting land from tree production to farmland by pulling stumps,” says Thompson. A root rake and grapple are attached to easily move the root balls.

With the right attachment, they are capable of scrap material handling at junk yards and salvage yards. Twelve-foot carbide car body forks can lift a car lengthwise, while an engine picker holds the car down while the engine is being pulled out.

The 3-yard and 3 1/2-yd range comes with a quick coupler to change attachments easily. The most commonly used attachments include a grapple, material bucket, root rake, and car body forks. “A wheel loader moves stuff; attachments allow it to be used in many different applications,” notes Thompson.

Attaching a 12-foot plow on the bucket permits the wheel loader to push three lanes of snow. Thompson says several wheel loaders have been employed for snow removal in the Northeast after heavy storms dumped large amounts in March. “They need something bigger than a regular snow plow,” he observes.