Daily Double

July 1, 2007

Backhoes—backhoe loaders, tractor-loader backhoes, TLBs, call them what you will—have been performing daily since the 1950s, and they are still popular. They were multiple-task machines before the proliferation of attachments and now have their own impressive arrays of attachments. For half of a century they have been the principal construction machines for many contractors. Manufacturers still produce new models with more sophistication, more electronic controls, and promises of better productivity.

What has changed?

“There have been numerous important innovations,” observes Jim Hughes, marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment, which claims to have introduced the factory-integrated tractor-loader backhoe in 1957. “We have seen return-to-dig and return-to-travel functions, over-center backhoe for improved balance, the Case Extendahoe extendible dipperstick, power-loader linkage, Ride Control, and our patented Pro Control System.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of these versatile machines today is the necessity of having trained operators running them. Apart from accidents caused by the slipping of attachment holders and bucket mounts, it’s as much an awareness of the ground and people around you as the handling of controls that matters. Backhoe loaders are heavy equipment; that means that all operators must be trained and their bosses should be able to prove that they have been trained. If you cause damage with untrained operators, that can ruin you. These machines are so popular and so common that it would be easy for somebody who thinks he or she knows all about things with engines to hop in and start operation. Many accidents with backhoes occur because the operator was not aware of the other workers on the job site. Being a good site person is part of the operator’s skill. The buckets swing easily, and the excavation is strong and fast, but the backhoe seldom has the whole site to itself. The people who could stray into the danger zone are not only fellow workers but property owners, neighbors, and children, all of them interested in the clever machine, few of them aware of the power and danger involved.

How do these accidents happen? What situations should warn an operator? Are you working with somebody else? Where is that person? Imagine you’re using your backhoe to dig around foundations for a new house. You’re instructed to dig a channel about 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and you have an associate with a hand shovel who will clear away the bits of earth that the backhoe bucket leaves. The backhoe operator thinks it’s all going well, but he steps down to check the progress, resting the bucket on a pile of excavated earth near the dig. It all looks good. The operator climbs back into the cab and, as he does so, accidentally touches the control for the boom swing. The boom swings across and crushes his fellow worker against the house. With hindsight you can say that the bucket should have been rested further away from the worker in the trench. You can say the operator should have been more careful when he climbed into the cab. You could probably find several reasons why the accident happened, but they won’t change the situation or bring back the worker. In training your operators, you should tell them of as many situations to avoid as possible and emphasize that it takes only one careless mistake to cause an accident that destroys property or life.

One of the easiest facts to forget when you are operating a backhoe loader, for example, is the area above the machine, where power lines are likely to be found. It is easier to remember the buried utilities where you excavate than the exposed ones above you. Whether the danger is above or below—or on the machine itself—it is (according to just about every contractor with whom we have spoken) the moment of carelessness or the idea that “it can’t happen here, not this once” that produce the accidents. No, carelessness doesn’t cause a serious accident every time, but how many times do we want to test the statistics?

Backhoes Are Practical
Caterpillar has become one of the leading manufacturers to produce and market backhoe loaders, and its models have now gone through the A, B, C, and D Series to today’s E Series. Each series offered its own innovation. For the A Series, a variable displacement pump gave good hydraulic performance and fuel efficiency. In the B Series, the excavator-style boom was introduced, and that surely influenced the whole backhoe-loader industry. It was the Integrated Toolcarrier of the C Series that brought versatility to the front-end loader. On the D Series, the excavator-style Pilot Control Joysticks improved the ease of operation and productivity at the same time. While, for Caterpillar and other manufacturers, backhoes still look like backhoes, there have been continuing, practical innovations as engineering designs and production techniques have improved.

Now we have the E-Series backhoe loader from Caterpillar; it has been called a “platform for future growth.” On the premise that more applications mean more income, the E-Series backhoes feature several new upgrades. In the load-sensing hydraulics (standard on all Cat backhoes) the control valve gives a flow to all functions and provides flow proportional to the travel of the lever. That gives improved modulation, a swing control that is smooth, and greater response for production trenching. You can get a hydraulic thumb from the factory (or a mechanical one), and all the sticks of E-Series backhoe loaders are thumb-ready, with the thumbs suited to all buckets and couplers.

An interesting and practical aspect of Caterpillar’s electronic systems on these backhoes is called Product Link. Through a link with the manufacturer’s Internet application (Equipment Manager) you can monitor your equipment remotely. You can find not only its location but also the machine’s hours and general health—without leaving your office. In the same spirit, you should check the advantages of AccuGrade on Cat backhoe loaders in this series. By eliminating the need for manual grade checking (and rework), this feature can reduce survey costs dramatically.

With those 50 years of success proof positive that backhoe loaders have filled a need for contractors and municipalities, the updates we have researched and found tend to be practical. “The J Series offers a wide range of best-in-class features that result in the toughest and most productive backhoe loaders on the market,” asserts Bob Tyler, product marketing manager at John Deere Construction & Forestry Co. “With our J Series, we’ve built on the strength of our G-Series backhoes, while providing many enhancements that deliver a substantial increase in the amount of work an operator can do with the machine in a day.” Two of John Deere’s new backhoes in this series (310SJ and 410J) offer what the manufacturer calls Total Machine Control (TMC). “TMC integrates control of every system in the machine, from engine to transmission and hydraulic functions to brakes, delivering precise control of the backhoe in all operating conditions, for faster cycle times,” comments Tyler. The system also gives the operator excellent comfort, with armrest-mounted joystick controls, more leg room, and reduced heat in the cab. There are three speeds for backhoe hydraulics, called craning mode, normal mode, and high-production mode. This innovation is designed to improve cycle times up to 20% over previous machines.

There’s a tool-carrier option for those two John Deere models, with fast loader attachment changes using the Worksite Pro loader coupler. For fork work, parallel lift is offered. That includes an electronic parallel lift, return-to-carry, and boom-height kick-out that should increase productivity, with several attachments available. To improve speed and ease of operation, the tool-carrier loader sees the elimination of the Z-bar linkage and the self-leveling rod. There are fewer grease zerks and fewer bushings, too. That means less maintenance and less wear. The J-Series backhoe loaders have an operating weight range from 16,140 pounds to 25,550 pounds. Digging depths go from 14 feet, 3 inches, for the 310J to 17 feet, 10 inches, for the 710J, with loader breakout forces going from 8,600 pounds to 15,540 pounds.

Photo: Allmand
Smaller backhoes are popular for street and residential work.

Sizes and Capabilities
In its usual effort to give customers what they want (and not give them what they don’t want) Volvo used customer input at a series of head-to-head backhoe-loader field trials in the development of the company’s latest backhoe loaders. The trials helped Volvo discover what customers wanted and which features brought forward by engineers would not be wanted. The result, says this manufacturer, is a backhoe loader that makes no compromises at either end of the machine. Among customer-applauded features are the pilot controls standard for the backhoe (with mechanical controls also available as an option), a new loader-MP-joystick control with a proportional switch, and a tool-carrier option for the loader with parallel lift and a hydraulic quick coupler. The BL60 and BL70 offer the same dig depth of 14 feet, 9 inches, and the same bucket lift capacity of 1.3 cubic yards. The smaller model has 83 horsepower, an operating weight of 16,654 pounds, and a loader lift capacity of 5,295 pounds. The BL70 takes 90 horsepower, weighs 17,800 pounds, and gives a loader lift capacity of 7,619 pounds.

How small can a backhoe loader be? JCB offers the Mini CX, a machine that has an operating weight of less than 3,400 pounds. It can be transported on a trailer and gives low bearing pressures. While it can be operated easily by inexperienced users, it is powerful and versatile enough for professionals. The Mini CX gets power from a 20-horsepower diesel engine, and it has hydrostatic drive on the rear axle. Operators of this small backhoe loader say they had good visibility, good comfort, and good control. The fully adjustable operator seat rotates 180 degrees and eliminates that need for changing seats when switching from excavating to loading.

JCB’s range of backhoe loaders starts with that small model but goes on up with the 1CX, 2CX, 3CX, and 4CX. The last mentioned has four-wheel drive through four equal-sized wheels so that full engine power may be transmitted for excellence in pushing and loading. The four-wheel steer gives good maneuverability and a tight turning circle for those congested or restricted job sites. There is also crab steering available for the 4CX and 4CX Super. The powerful excavator with twin-ram slew gives fast, smooth digging cycles while the high dipper and bucket tearout produce good performance in tough applications.

At 7,750 pounds, Yanmar Construction Equipment’s new compact backhoe, the CBL40, is ideal for any digging up to 10 feet in depth. Water companies and utility contractors are particularly fond of them, says Bill Gearhart, marketing and product manager for Yanmar in Adairsville, GA.

One notable feature of the CBL40 is that it comes equipped with a hydraulic system similar to those found on larger excavators. “Whereas other compact backhoes use straight gear pumps,” Gearhart says, “ours is more responsive to changing loads. It can combine swing and boom motions for better productivity.”

Other features on the compact Yanmar include a self-leveling loader and a welded, single-frame construction design. It also has a hydromechanical transmission, so there’s no shifting involved—just smooth acceleration through the speed range—and a reputation for using about a third of the fuel consumed by machines designed to dig 14 feet or deeper. “It’s a real quiet unit, too,” Gearhart adds, “so if they’re out working in a neighborhood at 6 a.m., it doesn’t get the noise complaints that might follow with a larger unit.”

You can compare the features of backhoes. Charts that compare one company’s loader backhoes with those of competitive brands tend to show how similar these practical machines have become. From the potential owner’s point of view, the news is good. There are many models available that are powerful and easy to own (or rent). Almost all backhoes are sold through dealers or distributors, so it should be simple for you to contact your favorite dealer to find what his brands offer. The caution we were given by contractors was that we should never become too dependent on one brand, because that may mean that we miss advantages provided by another manufacturer.

How similar are today’s models? We compared the numbers for four different loader backhoes. At random, we came up with Volvo, Case, Komatsu, and John Deere. Without telling you who offers which, these are some of the numbers that we found. The sizes we investigated were the popular models with a digging depth of 14 feet to 15 feet. Gross power varied from 84 horsepower to 92 horsepower (with net power slightly less all around). They all had four cylinders, and all were turbocharged. Two used Powershift transmission, two used Synchromesh. Service-brake actuation was hydraulic for all four models, with two using oil (wet) discs and two using wet multiple discs. Tires were basically the same size. There were differences in lift capacity and bucket breakout power. The lift capacities for the four backhoe loaders were 5,295 pounds, 6,182 pounds, 7,340 pounds, and 8,598 pounds. The bucket breakout forces were 9,480 pounds, 10,004 pounds, 10,210 pounds, and 13,224 pounds. Two models had single-reverse linkage geometry; one had in-line reverse; and the other offered parallel.

Photo: Caterpillar
The reach of a backhoe is always an important consideration.

The minimum width of the loader buckets varied from 82 inches to 93 inches. The fixed-length digging depth was just about the same, at 14 feet, 3 inches, or 14 feet, 4 inches. The fixed-length bucket digging force varied from 11,915 pounds to 13,087 pounds. Transport lengths and widths were within a few inches of each other. Turning radii at curb varied from 10 feet, 11 inches, to 13 feet, 8 inches. Operating weights seemed quite different. One was not given but the other three were 13,985 pounds, 14,568 pounds, and 16,090 pounds. The fuel tanks varied from 31.4 gallons to 39.6 gallons. Going through the numbers several times, we did not see that any one model was far ahead or far behind. That’s good news, isn’t it? It seems to indicate that basic numbers for our leading manufacturers are similar. More importantly, it reflects a commitment to providing what is necessary for our needs, and your choice is likely to be good or better, not good or bad.

Features of Choice
What features should you be looking for in your backhoe loader?

One reason for their continuing popularity is that backhoe loaders are in the middle of the excavating range, with more power than many compact machines but less expensive than full-size excavators. If you are looking for something that always performs outside that middle range, you will probably be looking for a mini excavator, a full excavator, a skid-steer loader, or perhaps a telehandler. Presumably you want the multiple advantages of a backhoe, with the excavator and the loader in one unit. You may purchase a small excavator and a small loader for a sum less than that of a single backhoe loader, but will you need two employees to run them? Combinations of one mini excavator, one skid-steer loader, and only one operator for both have been successful for some contractors. Your decision may depend on the size of your company, the usual nature of your work, transportation available, and the availability of skilled operators.

Digging depth and reach are important considerations. Your pattern of work will dictate what you need. Most backhoes dig down to about 14 feet. Compact models will excavate to 10 feet and could be your best choice if you never need to dig deeper than that. If you load dump trucks, you’ll need a backhoe whose reach or lift height is adequate. Making sure that your backhoe can lift as much as you want is important, too, remembering that loaders usually have greater loading capacities than backhoes. Strange as it may seem, the horsepower of a backhoe loader is not as critical as you’d expect, according to many contractors. It’s the hydraulics that do the digging and lifting; the engine does not do it directly. If, however, you are considering a used backhoe, you should pay attention to the engine on it. When Tier-II engines were made mandatory, they showed better fuel economy (with more horsepower and torque, too) than the older diesel engines, so find out what kind of engine the used backhoe offers.

Photo: Case
A backhoe loader’s stability is important for many projects.

More of Today’s Models
Case, one of the most experienced makers of loader backhoes, has the new M Series 2, with five models included. The horsepower of the five ranges from 76 for the 590M Series 2 to 98 for the 590 Super M Series. The operating weights go from 16,510 pounds to 19,578 pounds, and the maximum digging depths are from 14 feet, 3 inches, to 15 feet, 11 inches. The loader capacities range from 6,182 pounds to 7,327 pounds. There is an assortment of attachments available, including pallet forks, augers and bits, angle broom, snow blade, landscape rakes, buckets, and hydraulic hammers. You can see from those attachments why backhoes have been so popular with both contractors and municipalities. “Tens of thousands of owner-operators got their start in the business with a Case loader backhoe and financing that met their needs,” notes Jim Hasler, vice president of Case Construction Equipment, celebrating its 50th anniversary of backhoes and loaders. Two years ago, Case passed the half-million mark in the production of loader-backhoes.

Case points out that the good performance of its backhoes is enhanced by the Pro Control System. This system “lets you feel your way though backhoe functions and allows you to quickly position the bucket with pinpoint accuracy.” If the operator needs to make a sudden stop, there are anti-rebound cushions for the boom that minimize any overswing, vibration, or spillage. “Our 580 M held up well over the years, and we are pleased with the performance of our new Case machine [a 580 Super M Series 2],” comments Mike Pederson, water distribution supervisor for the City of La Crosse, WI. The recent replacement of worn-out water lines along a residential street shows how La Crosse relies on its Case loader backhoes on a daily basis. “We’re replacing the three-quarter-inch galvanized pipe with three-quarter-inch copper tubing from the water main to the shut-off valve for homeowners,” he says. “The backhoe loader digs one hole in the street and a second at the shut-off valve. After the crew uses a pneumatic mole to bore from one hole to the other, large enough to install the new water service, the loader backhoe fills in the holes.” Pederson says his operators played an important role in selecting the type of backhoe required for their work, including recommendations for useful attachments.

The Allmand TLB 220 is as big as many contractors need for much of the daily work. It digs down to 8 feet, 4 inches, with a digging force of 2,875 pounds at the bucket. The bucket measures 56 inches in width and can hold a third of a cubic yard of material. The breakout force is 2,600 pounds, and the lift capacity is 1,700 pounds. This is the smallest of several Allmand tractor-loader backhoes, with a weight of 3,115 pounds and a transportation length of only 12 feet, 10 inches. At the high end of the Allmand scale, the TLB 425 offers a breakout force of 3,400 pounds (50% more than the model above), a digging force of 4,611 pounds, and a digging depth to 8 feet, 8 inches. There are several buckets available in different widths. It’s powered by a Kubota D1105, 25-horsepower, liquid-cooled engine, and the transmission is an Eaton HD Servo-controlled Hydrostatic rated at 65 horsepower. The bucket of the loader holds one-half cubic yard, with a lift capacity of 2,100 pounds. One of the Allmand models in the middle of the range is the TLB 325, with a digging depth of 8 feet, 10 inches, a loader bucket capacity of 3,400 pounds, a weight of 4,045 pounds, and a transportation length of 13 feet, 7 inches. The transportation length of backhoes can be important because you can haul some of them on a common trailer behind a pickup rather than having to incur the considerable expense of a special trailer. The transportation costs of loader backhoes should certainly figure in your calculations for its real cost.

Komatsu’s Dash 5 loader backhoes include, says the manufacturer, the best previous models and practical innovations for today and tomorrow. One aspect of Komatsu backhoes that strikes you at once is the practical approach of the designs. For example, the steering cylinders are mounted behind and above the front axle to give better protection from the usual job-site debris. With self-leveling on the bucket, it is always level when raising the arms of the loader. There is a nose guard to give protection for the engine compartment and to provide counterweight, too. The loader’s bucket holds a whole cubic yard of material. The digging depth is that of the ever-popular 14 feet. What Komatsu calls the S-boom design means that the operator has better visibility for avoiding obstructions when either loading or digging. The backhoe boom is quite narrow, again for excellent visibility. The outrigger pads are reversible, so they work well on paved surfaces or on earth surfaces. All those features are on Komatsu’s little WB142-5 loader-backhoe, and they are continued across the wide range of models available.

Such practical aspects of a loader-backhoe’s design seem to reflect a true commitment to the user’s needs. Komatsu is not the only manufacturer to provide such features; you should compare the features and benefits of the machine you’re thinking of acquiring. That is what contractors meant when they advised us that we should not have tunnel vision that includes only one manufacturer—the one we’ve always chosen for whatever local reasons. We should research as much as possible; a few hours could save us thousands of dollars. Today’s loader backhoes are beautifully made machines, designed with the user in mind. Your biggest problem will probably be deciding which of several excellent brands is the best for you. Isn’t that a good situation to be in?