For years, the construction and heavy equipment industries have extolled the advantages of skid-steers, compact track loaders, and mini excavators, maybe to the point of giving a false impression that the market is moving away from the use of large equipment…and perhaps even convey the misconception that the big backhoe loaders are outdated.
Nothing could be further from the truth. “The 14-foot [backhoe] has a larger market by far,” admits Brian Hennings, product marketing manager, backhoes and tractor loaders, John Deere Construction and Forestry. “The 15-foot and 17-foot are a smaller part of the market. There is a set of trade-offs: with a larger machine comes higher costs. But there are still needs for more dig depth and power. A segment of the industry always requires more; it’s about time and getting the job done more quickly.”
Can You Dig It?
The bigger machines provide more performance, making them ideally suited for large-scale projects in need of power, speed, and capacity. That’s why the 15-foot class and above continues to enjoy appreciable market share.
Increased horsepower allows them to dig deeper and carry heavier loads. “Typically,” says Ed Brenton, product manager, backhoe loaders, CASE Construction Equipment, “these machines are over 110 hp, which is not only necessary to provide enough power to drive such a heavy machine around but is also needed to achieve the higher lifting and digging capacities which they are used for the most." The average dig depth is 12 to 16 feet.
“They provide productivity with more power,” says Hennings. Deere’s 410L in the 15-foot dig class offers 113 net hp, while their 710L in the 17-foot dig class delivers 148 net hp. The latter model was updated in 2017.
Caterpillar offers a variety of horsepower selections across seven models of backhoe loaders. Their largest is a 146 hp (gross) selection. They also offer two engine platforms, according to Dustin Adams, a product application specialist. “Our models 440 and 450 house the Cat C4.4.” Both meet Tier 4 Final emission requirements.
Ideal jobs for these more robust backhoes include loading up trucks, placing pipe, breaking concrete, digging trenches, and "moving stuff around," says Hennings. “They can be used for digging footings, utility hookup, road repair, and cleanup—especially with a hydraulic thumb from the factory to pick up tree trunks.”
An array of attachments makes the backhoe one of the most versatile machines on a job site, giving it an edge over mini and mid-sized excavators in some instances. Because they use “bigger buckets and bigger attachments,” says Hennings, backhoes provide “additional productivity.”
A multi-purpose bucket on the front makes cleanup quick and easy. A clamshell can clamp onto objects and pick up easily without pushing against them, he explains. Other popular attachments include road brooms, snowplows, rear hammers, breakers for concrete, and drum or hydraulic plate compactors for compacting the aggregate to prevent cracks in the concrete or buckles in the asphalt after you backfill a trench. With quick hydraulic couplers, changing attachments is easy and usually done by the operator from the cab.
All Cat backhoes will feature a Single Tilt IT loader coupler for quick attachment changes. “Operators can easily change from grading with a standard loader bucket to sweeping a residential street with a Cat angle broom,” Adams gives an example. “Loading trucks with pallet forks or pushing snow with a snow blade is also easily within reach.” Most IT Loader attachments are compatible across the entire model lineup, increasing attachment utilization and avoiding the need for redundant attachment purchases.
Commonly used on construction sites of projects with a long duration, these adaptable machines are agile, traversing a variety of types of terrain, from hard-packed ground to loose soil, and from level, flat ground to hilly inclines.
Some versatility is sacrificed due to their size, Brenton believes. “Versatility is lost on smaller job sites such as in residential or urban areas, but gained in larger open areas where obstructions are not much of an issue."
Bigger backhoes indeed need more space; however, their turning radius is impressively small, all things considered. "Their larger size is a trade-off,” confesses Hennings. “The larger footprint is more cumbersome to get around.”
However, they get from one site to another very well. Indeed, one of the benefits often discussed is their ability to self-transport. They can travel up to 25 mph between job sites without the need for a trailer. That results in fewer people needed, less cost, less time wasted, and more ease of mobility.
Although they are self-transportable up to 25 mph for short distances, Hennings points out that longer trips will necessitate a tandem axle trailer to haul them.
To maintain their competitive performance and improve performance and productivity on the job site, backhoes are on the receiving end of updates and enhancements, such as a direct-drive transmission on CASE N Series backhoe loaders that “compensates for load and speed to achieve the most efficient roading gear while traveling on various inclines,” says Brenton.
“A loader-style F-N-R selector switch allows quick and easy directional changes without removing your hand from the loader control lever,” he continues. PowerBoost is a feature similar to Case’s PowerLift function; it provides a momentary boost of increased hydraulic power for digging through tough ground. What differentiates the PowerBoost function from PowerLift is that it does not limit engine RPMs, providing more speed and efficiency. For more control while lifting, PowerLift is preferred, he specifies.
For more control, as well as operator comfort, Cat has added seat-mounted controls as standard features on the new 420XE, 440, and 450. “The Dual Mode feature enabled by seat-mounted controls allows operators to run their machines with their seat positioned at an offset angle for better visibility, in addition to allowing them to control implements to the rear of them for easy machine repositioning,” Adams explains.
Also, electronic loader controls provide true parallel lift and take the guesswork out of loader positioning with programmable loader kick-outs and programmable return-to-dig. Cat’s Single Tilt IT Loader Coupler is available for all models as a factory-install option or field-install kit. “The powershift transmission simplifies shifting gears manually by removing the stick shift and allowing the operator to control gear selection by twisting the Power shuttle Lever,” Adams notes.
Operator comfort will be enhanced on John Deere’s 410 and 710 with an update due out this year: auto-ride control will be a factory option. “On rough roads, the front cylinder operates as a shock absorber,” details Hennings. It helps keep material in the bucket just as it keeps the operator comfortable.
Controlled by ground speed, courtesy of accumulators in the hydraulic system, it automatically turns on and off, Hennings elaborates. “The hydraulic cylinder acts normally without manual turn-off, allowing the operator to focus on other things and be more productive.” Deere offered manual ride control for years.
Deere is also making Autoshift standard. Hennings explains it: “The operator selects the highest gear desired and the transmission automatically shifts to it based on ground speed and engine speed.” Selecting the appropriate gear is easy on the powertrain and provides system protection, with less stress on the components.
Fuel-efficient technology has come to backhoes with John Deere’s auto idle. The engine slows when the operator lets go of the controllers, but pre-set speed resumes once the controllers are engaged again. Hennings considers it particularly apt during trenching operations.
Similarly, economy mode limits the engine, producing appropriate power to load trucks, backfill, and trench without having to fully depress the throttle. “It uses less engine RPM,” points out Hennings.
Consistency is important for speed and RPMs, but also for grade, which is why Case emphasizes grade control systems. “[They] have started to become more popular, allowing contractors to keep a consistent grade around their job sites without having to hire another person to take grade,” says Brenton. Because the operator no longer has to get in and out of the cab all day, it’s also a safety feature.
For additional operator comfort and machine performance, Cat has now fully integrated EH technology to enable seat mount controls, electronic loader controls, and programmable operator control modes. “EH Technology has been used on previous generations of Cat backhoe loaders to supplement standard and pilot controls by offering proportional thumb rollers for aux[iliary] hydraulic control and programmable aux[iliary] flow,” says Adams.
Not Fueling Around
Operating at lower engine RPMs and reducing fuel consumption by 5–15% is enabled on Cat backhoes through selectable power management modes, which Adams says allow the machine to maintain full implement speeds and full hydraulic power.
CASE has made standard two fuel efficiency systems that are designed to create the optimal operating environment while providing the right amount of power and reducing the amount of fuel burned. “Our ‘ECO-mode’ loader function places the engine at its peak torque curve, providing the most efficient power for truck loading and roading applications,” says Brenton. Their ECO-Mode is an RPM range that can be set by the operator on the backhoe hand throttle that will limit the amount of fuel used yet still providing the operator with maximum power and speed.
“Machine control is not yet fully integrated into the backhoe market,” continues Brenton, “but grade control systems that are used more as a notification system are starting to become very popular.”
Size is Relative
The largest backhoes from Kubota are the B26, L47, and M62—compact machines built for independent contractors, landscapers, and rental services. “The B26 is an innovative compact tractor/loader/backhoe with 24.3 engine horsepower, integrated loader, and quick detach backhoe,” says Patrick Baker, product manager. “The L47 sports a Hydrostatic Transmission, packed with a 47.1 horsepower engine, and is ideal for rental users, contractors, landscapers, and homeowners seeking professional results.” The M62 engine produces 63 horsepower, making the machine well-suited for landscaping jobs and general construction sites.
As smaller machines, Kubota’s TLBs are versatile for a city utility crew fixing pipes in a confined, urban setting or for independent contractors, landscapers, and rental houses. Size isn’t the only versatile characteristic of these tractor-loader-backhoes. By swapping a three-point hitch for the backhoe, attachments such as a box blade, angle blade, or mower can be added, enabling operation on diverse applications. An optional hydraulic coupler enables easy attachment and detachment of auxiliary implements.
These aren’t the same TLBs as the last generation, Baker insists. In addition to a front loader and powerful tractor, Kubota’s M62 TLB features highly efficient backhoes that “dig deeper and reach farther than previous models.” Specifically, the M62 has a 14-foot maximum digging depth, a 17% improvement over the previous model, and the L47 boasts a 10-foot digging depth and a bucket digging force of 5,825 pounds.
Both have Backhoe Crawling Mode, a lever-engaged mode that saves the operator time when repositioning during backhoe operations. The backhoe crawling mode allows the operator to creep forward or backward with the touch of a finger while remaining at the backhoe controls.
Fuel savings are achieved in part due to the Common-Rail direct injection system that reduces emissions and the Exhaust Gas Recirculation system certified T4F emissions-regulated engine on the L47 and M62, which also feature Hydrostatic Transmission Plus for precision, performance, and automated control of the HST pump and drive motor.