Loading, Lifting, Digging…and More

Nov. 1, 2010
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For years (especially since the skid-steer loader began its reign) we have heard that backhoe loaders will vanish from the construction equipment yards of North America. It hasn’t happened yet. Backhoe loaders are still the backbones (often called the workhorses) for many public and private operations. My own observation is that backhoe loaders seem most popular with owners whose business is local, which would explain why municipalities still use backhoe loaders so much and why the local contractor (as opposed to the company that travels across county lines to conduct its business) likes the capabilities of this versatile machine. When I see a backhoe loader, it is usually traveling down Main Street or Washington Avenue to a job site less than 5 miles from its base. Therein lies one of its advantages. You don’t need a special truck or trailer for a backhoe if your work is local; it travels to the job by itself. It is truly a self-contained machine.

When describing their backhoes loaders, Volvo tells us you get a loader with the strength and simplicity of a Volvo wheel loader and a backhoe with the power and performance of a Volvo excavator. That’s a good description. The backhoe loader, perhaps more than any other construction machine, has developed to its current efficiency (in fuel economy and performance) with plenty of input from users to optimize design, reliability, and power. “By incorporating direct customer input into every phase of development, Volvo engineers were able to create a reliable, value-priced machine that delivers increased profitability to operations of all sizes,” says this manufacturer. Features of the Volvo models praised by users include the ability to lift and move forward at the same time so that “When you get there, the bucket will be there, too.” The pushbutton method of controlling forward and backward motion is also popular. “The control for the front loader boom is all on the joystick.”

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The flow-sharing system in Volvo backhoes (like the BL60) automatically balances flow and pressure between hydraulic functions to optimize multifunction performance. The flow from the pump is shared among functions in proportion to the movement of the levers

when using two or more functions simultaneously. That guarantees a smooth operation without hesitation and delays. The boom and dipper have been redesigned—simplified, in fact—by using common top and bottom pivot forgings to allow better weld penetration and, therefore, a stronger boom and longer life. The extendible dipper now has increased clearance between the inner dipper and telescopic cylinder, for trouble-free operation. The service brakes have been much improved so that only a light pedal effort is needed to stop the machine, and there are several other safety features, safety being a Volvo characteristic for some 80 years.

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From this point on I’m going to call the machine a backhoe. Over the years there have been several names and initials used, including backhoe loader, loader backhoe, BHL, TLB, and tractor loader-backhoe, but I think we all know what is meant if it’s just called a backhoe.

Who Needs a Backhoe?
“Backhoe loaders continue to be an integral part of most contractors’ equipment lineup and a rental yard staple,” advises Keith Rohrbacker, product manager at Kubota Tractor Corp. “At Kubota, we are continuing to manufacture backhoe loaders that boast new features and technology. Kubota’s L45 tractor-loader-backhoe, for example, features an integral mainframe, HST Plus Transmission and the versatility of being three machines in one by combining a strong, integrated loader and quick-attach backhoe with a Category 1 three-point hitch. With a slanted boom design and braceless frame for excellent visibility, this loader is designed with a lifting capacity of 2,200 pounds. The backhoe offers a 10-foot digging depth and backhoe crawling mode to reposition along trenches. Powered by a 45-horsepower Kubota diesel engine, the L45 offers great versatility and is ideal for operators with professional results in mind.” The mention of the popularity of the backhoe for rental yards and fleets seems to emphasize the traveling quality of the machine and its appeal to contractors and others (perhaps in landscaping or site clearance) whose work is basically local.

What do you want to do with your backhoe? It may be forgotten that this machine serves more than one purpose in construction, and with only one operator. It excavates trenches effortlessly, lifts materials to the height you need for most work, lays pipe, stockpiles, backfills, and picks out pieces of street and sidewalk for those times when the pipes below are broken. Last week, we had a sinkhole in our main street—not like that frightening one in Guatemala, but you could lose your bicycle down there and the water pipe below was broken. What did the city use to make the hole workable? A backhoe, of course.

“The beauty about backhoe loaders like the Kubota L45 is that there is no one best use,” asserts Rohrbacker. “It’s versatile because it is essentially three machines in one: a loader, a backhoe, and a three-point implement tractor, with the maneuverability of a compact tractor for use in tight places. Whether changing from loader to backhoe, or removing the quick-attach backhoe to expose the Category 1 three-point hitch, the operator can quickly and easily switch attachments and implements to match the next task. Auxiliary hydraulics on the loader and backhoe expand the attachment and application versatility. These Kubota compact tractor-loader-backhoes are set up for easy operation by inexperienced users with the added bonus of power and versatility that satisfies professional needs.” That well-known ease of operation could be why they are so popular with rental yards; not all customers are experienced operators. Of equal importance in your selection of a backhoe is to evaluate the practical aspect of different features, for your kind of work. “It is important for buyers to consider for which applications they could use the tractor, and to check that the machine not only has the power and capacity to meet their needs but also provides features for comfort for those long operating hours,” adds Rohrbacker.

TMC for John Deere J Series backhoes means “total machine control.” The controls mounted on the armrests allow the machine to be operated with the seat rotated up to 90 degrees from the rear position—for those jobs where you need to concentrate on the work beside you. You also have a choice of speed with John Deere backhoes: fast, medium, or slow. Slow is for craning objects or working in confined spaces, or excavating around utilities. Use medium for normal digging. Fast will give you cycle times as much as 20% faster than usual. “With the 310SJ, I like the lower speed for digging out utilities and medium speed when I’m around houses,” says user Terry Baker, at V.H. Grading & Excavating in Dewey, AZ. “I kind of tone it down to the medium for that and then, when I am digging ditches, just flat-out digging, it’s really quick using the high mode.” Backlit pushbuttons in the sealed switch module in the comfortable cab let the operator have fingertip control of several functions, including return-to-dig. There is auto idle, where releasing the joysticks momentarily slows the engine speed to reduce fuel consumption and noise. Your preset speed resumes automatically when a joystick is activated. If you want great power in your John Deere J Series backhoe model, look at the 710J. The digging force of the standard (24-inch) bucket cylinder is 17,000 pounds. The loading height is 14 feet, 3 inches, and the reach from the swing pivot is 22 feet, 6 inches. Digging depth can be 17 feet, 10 inches. The loader bucket has a capacity of 1.62 cubic yards. There’s a breakout force of 15,540 pounds and lift capacity at full height of 9,277 pounds. John Deere’s downloadable brochure of its J Series loaders is one of the most comprehensive and interesting.

More Simple, More Efficient
There are thousands of experienced backhoe operators out there, but there are also many new employees who are not familiar with this well-established and proven workhorse. The importance of the operator of any construction machine should never be underestimated, whatever new technologies make some features faster and others more fuel-efficient. You don’t just jump on a backhoe and do everything perfectly, just as you don’t just mount the nearest thoroughbred and win the Derby. Good advice, practical training, patience, and encouragement are essential. One practical piece of advice we have seen or heard frequently is: “Warm up the backhoe first.” It may take 10 minutes of warm-up (mostly to get the oil doing its job correctly inside) to have the backhoe in its best working order. This must apply especially in those places and seasons where overnight temperatures are low, near freezing or worse. Even if today’s backhoes are ready more quickly than yesterday’s, don’t forget that many backhoes in service today are yesterday’s models: Backhoes last a long time! Taking the backhoe from its yard and driving to the job site is not too strenuous, but it can cause unnecessary wear on this and that if you plunge straight into excavating or heavy loading. Wait a few minutes. Your patience will have its reward in extended service and performance. Another bit of advice heard regularly is that new owners should try to get an attachment or two included in the initial purchase of the backhoe; that multiplies the machine’s usefulness to the tune of many dollars.

Many of you will be using well-used backhoes and asking what is so different about new models? First, understand that manufacturers of construction equipment don’t change every model every year. Grading and excavation contractors are practical people. They are unlikely to buy a green backhoe this year rather than last year’s blue or pink one. Backhoes (and most construction equipment) are not like personal vehicles. Manufacturers don’t start a new series of machines each year. Why would they? It was in 2006 that Caterpillar introduced the E-Series backhoe loaders. What was better than, say, the D-Series? Performance is better. Operator comfort is better. The controllability of the machine is much better. Its versatility has improved even more. These are internal improvements, features that make the backhoe work more efficiently. The new Cat backhoes do look different, with more modern styling than yesterday’s models, but that is hardly the most important change.

The digging depth of the backhoe is important. How deep will you need to dig in your usual work? The answer could be “Never more than 10 feet,” so look for machine that achieves that. The Caterpillar 420E (with 89 net horsepower) has a backhoe digging depth of 14 feet, 4 inches when equipped with its standard stick. An extendible stick puts the digging depth to 17, feet 11 inches. The 430E (with 97 net horsepower) has a standard digging depth of 15 feet, 5 inches, extended to 19 feet, 6 inches with its extendible stick. The 416E (with 74 net horsepower) will give you the same digging depths as the 420E, but it can also have an optional turbocharged engine that boosts the new horsepower to 89.

At the Job Site
Versatility is a word often used to describe the features of a backhoe. Let’s stay with Cat for a while and look at some features of the big 450E backhoe loader. Its standard digging depth is 17.2 feet, its operating weight is 27,115 pounds, its net horsepower is 124. To support its claim to versatility it offers a selection of work tools. This powerful backhoe offers a heavy ditch bucket, a ditch-cleaning bucket, a hydraulic hammer, a vibratory plate compactor, a thumb, and a backhoe quick-coupler. Imagine all the jobs you can do with those tools on the backhoe end of the machine. At the loader end you can have a general-purpose bucket, a side-dump bucket, a multipurpose bucket, a light-material bucket, loader forks, an angle blade, a broom, a rake, and a single-tilt quick-coupler. Now you can see why backhoes are so popular with contractors and other owners who have limited resources but plenty of different jobs to do.

The horsepower and digging depths of Komatsu’s range of backhoe loaders are similar, and you may find that comparisons between the products of different manufacturers show few major differences. Look more closely. Horsepower and digging depths are not the whole story. Compare each end of the machine. In Komatsu’s biggest backhoe, the WB156-5, at the loader end, the standard bucket width is 7 feet, 9 inches, and it weighs 1,000 pounds. The bucket holds 1.25 cubic yards. The lifting capacity is 8,598 pounds at maximum height and more than 11,000 pounds at ground level. The breakout force of the loader is 13,224 pounds. At the backhoe end of the Komatsu WB156-5, you have a bucket breakout force of 13,505 pounds and an arm breakout force of 8,631 pounds. The capabilities of other models in Komatsu’s range (WB142-5, WB146-5, WB146PS-5, and WB156PS-5) are relative. For all the Dash-5 Komatsu backhoe loaders, the operator has 360-degree visibility from a standard, adjustable suspension seat (with all the switches and gauges clustered for simple operation). The self-leveling feature keeps the bucket level when you’re raising the loader arms. A safety feature is that steering cylinders are mounted above and behind the front axle to protect them from debris at the job site. What else does manufacturer Komatsu emphasize about its backhoes? Reversible outrigger pads for paved and earth surfaces alike; a heavy-duty power shuttle transmission and axles that let the machine travel up to 23 miles per hour from site to site (with no extra truck, trailer, or employee); a large, lockable toolbox; and an ignition key to operate all key locks on the machine.

The operator’s manual is not a customized coffee coaster. Not only does the manual show you features of the backhoe, it also gives you good advice on how to run it and steers you away from bad habits that look easy to start with but end up as trouble. Read the manual, refer to the manual, don’t let employees ignore the advice of the manual. One of the recent improvements in backhoe operation has been the way in which an operator can reposition the machine onsite, even in trench work. It used to be a criticism of the backhoe that it could not be repositioned easily. Check your manual. See what your preferred manufacturer has done about that.

When you are at the job site, you meet challenges that, however well you prepared your approach, you did not expect. The challenge or problem may be quite small, but you wish you had something to defeat it with your backhoe. That’s where attachments or work tools come in. Much of your backhoe’s work will be loading materials and digging the soil. Happily, the machine’s ability does not end there. One of the best brochures we have seen is JCB’s for its backhoe loaders. It writes about and illustrates many applications, garnered from the company’s 50-plus years of experience with backhoes in every part of the world. These backhoes must have handled every kind of soil in every kind of climate. Consider the loader end. For a quick, secure attachment interchange there is the quick-hitch, and there are shovels or buckets for loading (obviously!), dozing, digging, backfilling, grading, grabbing, and general purpose. On its own, the general-purpose shovel can handle many types of materials. For those other job-site chores, you may not need a new machine or another employee, just one of these quickly attached helpers: a crane hook for awkward loads; a sweeper, hydraulically operated for sweeping roads, sites, tracks, yards… just about anywhere; a clam shovel that can load, doze, dig, grade, grab, and backfill; buckets for bulk earthmoving and site stripping; a side-tip shovel for infill materials; a snow blade (needed in many states); and a concrete skip to place concrete accurately in footings, bases, or foundations. It’s getting easier to see why backhoes are popular with many contractors and owners.

And that was only the loader end of the machine. JCB also offers tools for the other end. These tools are either made by JCB or by another manufacturer and approved for use with JCB backhoes. That’s something we should always check, whatever brand of backhoe we use. Are the attachments I think I’d love going to work with my machine? For breaking roads, rocks, and concrete slabs, a hammer mounted on a JCB backhoe’s dipper will strike 1,000 blows per minute with 578 foot-pounds per blow. The general-purpose bucket does just that, anything you think of as a general purpose in sitework. For more specialized work, you can have a ditching bucket, a rotary mower, a hedge trimmer or a spreader. I won’t list the applications, but think what you can do with a ripper tooth, compactor plate, kerbmaster (for positioning stones), a trapezoidal bucket, augers, a patch planer that can plane right up to the wall or curb, a lifting hook and an extendible dipper. And those tools or attachments all go on the backhoe end. You can even have an optional, hand-held tool circuit installed on your backhoe to increase the number of attachments for job-site use. JCB offers almost 20 different backhoe loaders, from small to large, with dozens of enhancing attachments, so you can see why they don’t think backhoes are out-of-date or irrelevant these days!

Another manufacturer who can claim more than 50 years in backhoe production is Case, whose 590 Super M+ recently collected great praise for its engineering excellence, especially in relation to its fuel efficiency (with a turbocharged Case Family IV 445TA.E3 diesel engine) but also for its load-sensing hydraulics, which are reported to move more yards per gallon of fuel. The Case M Series of backhoes arrived a couple of years ago, with five models ranging in horsepower from 79 to 109 and digging depths from 14 feet, 3 inches on a standard backhoe to 20 feet, 4 inches with the Extendahoe. Among features honored by users have been the new pushing power in first and second gears, which gives the loader more productivity, and the electronic auxiliary control for the loader that makes control of attachments easier and more precise. Inside the cab there is a pattern change switch which lets operators switch easily from backhoe-style or excavator-style controls, giving better productivity based on the personal preference of the operator. The Case Pilot Controls in this M Series can have a one-touch idle built in; that lets the operator return the engine to idle at the touch of a button, and returns the engine to the previous RPM setting at a second touch of the button. The warranty on Case’s M Series 3 backhoes is two years or 2,000 hours on the power train, and five years on the boom.

If the backhoe is going to be the workhorse of your fleet, its servicing must be simple and straightforward. The new Case models offer several new serviceability points to keep down the cost of maintenance. The electronic instrument cluster provides diagnostic and service reminders to help keep the backhoe working at its peak efficiency. Tell your operators to pay good attention to such reminders. Also in the service frame of mind, the swing-out coolers give easier, faster access. New axles with outboard-mounted wet disc brakes allow servicing of the brakes without removing the axle. Those axles are engineered to be checked and filled from a single lube point, too. A flip-up hood, grouped sight gauges for hydraulic fluid and coolant, and spin-on filters for great oil change all help you save time every day on the servicing and maintenance of your Case backhoe.

As you can see from the examples quoted, the manufacturers of backhoes are some of the best known and most respected companies in construction equipment. For them, backhoes are not afterthoughts, not sub-prime products. They have become and will remain the backbones of thousands of contractors’ fleets, because of their versatility, their longevity and…because they are so useful and well made.