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Backhoe Loaders (AKA Backhoes or Diggers) are relatively compact heavy machinery with incredible versatility. With a large bucket at the top and excavator on the back, backhoes can assist with everything from landscaping to general construction and demolitions.
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What are Backhoe Loaders?
A backhoe loader can be found at just about any job site, as they are a common piece of heavy equipment. One reason they are considered essential for repair and construction projects is that they provide two tools in a single machine.
A standard backhoe loader is made up of a four-wheel, diesel-powered vehicle with an operator’s cab in the middle, with a tool to each end. There is a loader on the front; a wide bucket set on dual arms used to pick up loose materials and push dirt into a hole when the job is completed. The backhoe itself goes on the back, and this is a hydraulic-powered digging scoop mounted on a three-point arm. The backhoe is designed for digging through hard earth. The person operating the machine only has to turn around in their seat to go from digging holes to filling them.
Digging and filling trenches and holes is a common requirement for construction jobs, landscaping, and utility work. Being able to exchange a backhoe or loader bucket for other attachments offers even more flexibility. Backhoes can be fitted with crushers, grinders, retractable-bottom buckets, and more tools for handling any kind of task. This combination of power, two tools, flexibility, and a relatively small size makes a backhoe loader an important tool for construction firms and contractors to have on their side.
What to Consider When Buying a Backhoe?
The reason that backhoes are so popular is that they are in the middle range of digging and loading equipment. Basically, they can offer more power than a compact machine, but without the cost of purchasing a full-sized excavator. Take a minute to consider if a backhoe loader is truly the right option for your digging needs. If you need something mid-range, then a backhoe is a good option.
If you expect to handle smaller jobs and you need some more flexibility, then combining a skid steel loader with a mini excavator and a regular bucket may be faster than using a backhoe loader. It may also prove cheaper to purchase the two small machines compared to the cost of one loader, but keep in mind that each machine requires their own operator and it would involve more maintenance and transportation. Smaller machines are valuable in crowded conditions, and recent trends in construction have seen contractors swapping out at least one of their backhoes for one of these mini excavators.
If you need more power, then you should go with a full-sized excavator. A full-size excavator is a massive machine that is only worth considering if you require continuous digging, such as digging building foundations. These machines are powerful, but that comes with a size that makes them less useful for a cramped site.
Backhoe loaders are the ideal middle ground; where you need an excavator and a loading bucket attached to one machine. These machines are also better at moving across a big job site or between several job sites. They can even be driven on the road if you want, while a skid steer and an excavator must be moved using trailers.
Choosing the Right Backhoe
One of the first things to consider when choosing your backhoe loader is the depth you’ll be digging. A full-sized backhoe loader can reach down to between 14 and 16 feet; a compact backhoe can only get to around 10 feet deep. A full-size machine typically reaches 14 feet. A compact one would be a great choice if you don’t need to dig deeper than ten feet. They are easier to maneuver, easier to transport, and don’t cost as much as a full-size loader.
Reach is another important consideration. If you have to dump loads into trucks of a certain height, then you should ensure that the loader is able to reach that high. Lift capacity is something else that should be considered; you want to be aware of how heavy a load your machine can take on. Don’t forget that the two tools have their own loading capacity – loaders primarily have a higher capacity than a backhoe.
Horsepower is something that doesn’t require as much consideration. The engine horsepower of the machine doesn’t directly affect the capabilities of attachments; the digging and lifting capabilities of a loader are powered by the hydraulic systems instead of the engine. You should certainly understand how much horsepower different models have, but don’t let that factor too much into your final decision.
Common Backhoe Features
Backhoes come with two stabilizer legs behind the rear wheels. The stabilizer legs support the weight of the machine when digging, thereby reducing the stress on the wheels and offering a steady and stable digging platform. You should choose a backhoe that has stabilizers that have grouser shoes for getting a good grip on dirt, as well as rubber-padded shoes that can be used with asphalt.
Most contractors choose backhoes that have four-wheel drive. These are great for driving on loose and muddy ground. As backhoe loaders are primarily used on muddy and loose ground, four-wheel drive can be an investment worth going for. This four-wheel drive does put a heavier burden on the transmission though, so make sure operators only use it as and when necessary.
For a crowded jobsite, four-wheel steering improves maneuverability as being able to turn the front and rear wheels independently reduces the turning radius of the machine. For tight spaces, “crab steering” allows you to turn the wheels in the same direction and essentially scoot the loader sideways like a crab. Four-wheel steering is relatively uncommon but it is becoming more popular. A 4X4X4 backhoe will have four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, and the four wheels are of an equal size.
Older backhoe loaders are made with mechanical hand and foot levers, which are used to control the functions of the machine. Newer models are equipped with “pilot controls” that are easier to use. These dual joysticks provide operators with just as much control without the stress.
When working with obstacles or digging a long trench, the sideshift control can be a real help. Sideshift allows for an operator to slide the digging arm to the side of the vehicle and use it there. They can then dig a trench parallel to the direction of the tires from that position. This makes digging along foundations and walls much easier and reduces the risk of accidental damage. Sideshift also gets rid of the need to constantly reposition the backhoe. Just inch it forward as and when necessary.
The cabs on loaders are becoming more similar to the inside of automobiles as manufacturers place more importance on ergonomics. The modern cab is larger, has a better line of sight, and has room for extra features such as climate control, suspension seats, and 12-volt outlets for accessories like cell phones. These things aren’t just basic frills though, as a comfortable operator is a happy and productive operator.
The cabs of a loader should also be built around safety considerations. OSHA requires that backhoe loaders be fitted with ROPS (roll over protective structures). The regulations outline just how much protection the ROPS provide during a rollover. There are also fully enclosed cabs, known as EROPS (enclosed roll of protective structures).
Most new backhoes are made with automatic transmission. These can be worth investing in if you are going to be driving between jobs and across work sites a lot. However, automatic transmission is more expensive and, if you are planning on transporting the loader on a trailer, you may want to consider a manual, cheaper, transmission.
Tips for Choosing a Backhoe Loader Supplier
There’s more to buying a backhoe loader than choosing the model; you should assess different backhoe sellers and find one that you can have a long-term relationship with. Much like any other kind of heavy-duty equipment, a backhoe loader is sure to wear down and need maintenance and repairs. That’s why you need to have a good relationship with the seller, so that you can handle everything without a problem.
Some sellers will stock just one line of backhoe loaders, and others will offer models from several manufacturers. Working with one who has a lot of different lines gives you an advantage by allowing you to choose the right brand for you. On the other hand, a seller who deals exclusively with one brand may have a deeper knowledge of those models. Either option would be fine, as long as you spend time comparing different brands, models, and sellers.
Post-Sale Service Agreements
Be sure to discuss service policies with potential sellers. Find out more about how they handle breakdowns; such as whether they provide on-site services or not. If you have to take the loader in because it requires extensive work, then can you count on them to transport it for you or do you have to handle that? Would they offer a loaner vehicle while you want for the repairs to be completed? Take a look at their parts inventory too, so that you aren’t stuck waiting for parts to be delivered.
Given that you will inevitably be counting on a seller for servicing, you should choose a seller that is within a relatively close distance to you. Don’t go for the absolute closest seller if you don’t want to, but do try to find one within 100 miles of your location to keep a round trip to about half a day.
You can get a lot of insight from talking to other businesses near you about the strengths and weaknesses of different backhoe sellers. Also be sure to ask the seller if they can provide customer references, preferably from their clients in industries like yours.
As you check their references, consider the following questions;
- How long have you been a customer of this seller? How many loaders have you bought from them?
- Did you get the best backhoe loader for your needs?
- Did the seller handle repairs and maintenance well?
- Would you buy from them again?
- What do you think they could do to improve their operations?
You shouldn’t underestimate your own personal reactions and gut feelings either. Choose a backhoe seller that you feel is easy to work with and has been honest to you. The impressions you have about people are accurate more often than not. Saving yourself a couple of thousand dollars on the initial purchase doesn’t mean much if you fork out even more in the long haul because you didn’t choose quality. Focus on the relationship you have with the seller more than the price tag on the machine.
What do Backhoe Loaders Cost?
Like most pieces of heavy duty construction equipment, a backhoe loader can have a significant price tag attached to it. These machines are built to be tough and reliable after all. Before freaking out too much about the price, keep in mind that the backhoe loader will last you for at least ten years, and then that upfront cost doesn’t seem so big.
The typical price for the base-model 14’ digging depth backhoe, which is the industry standard, with an average of 80 – 90 horsepower, can be anywhere between $55,000 and $75,000. 15’ to 16’ models can go for between $75,000 and $90,000, and loaders that can dig over 16’ sell for an average of $110,000. Compact backhoes in the 9’ to 10’ range (the most popular choices) are between $25,000 and $35,000.
Options such as automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, and sideshift increase the total cost of the machine. If you consider those options important though, then they are sure to pay for themselves in the increased efficiency they provide. Expect to pay an additional $1,000 to $2,000 for each specialized attachment that you purchase, such as the 4-in-1 bucket or the crusher.
Most backhoe sellers will provide subsidized financing from equipment manufacturers, which can help you to get a good deal on financing your purchase. Leasing is another good option when interest rates are high, but you would be better making an outright purchase if the rates are low.
It’s possible to rent out a loader on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. The rates per day range from $150 to $500. A weekly rental is generally between $600 and $1,500. The cost for monthly rentals averages between $2,000 and $3,000.
Should You Buy a Used Backhoe Loader?
Given the costs of buying a backhoe loader, you may wish to purchase a used one. Consider the flexibility of your schedule when considering buying used backhoe loaders. If you can’t use it for a week as it needs repairs, then this could completely throw off your schedule. Would you be able to take something like that in stride? Also make sure you purchase from a reputable seller, as going used means you’ll be relying on them for repairs more.
The prices for used machines drop considerably after they have a few thousands hours of use. A used backhoe with a 14’ backhoe and 2,000 hours of use can cost around $30,000. Going for something with more hours on it can lead to even more significant price drops.
However, you should keep maintenance costs in mind. Some dings here and there and peeling paint might not mean much to you, but a broken transmission is certainly an issue. Be sure to test drive the loader and do some basic loading and digging with it to get a good feel for how it performs.
Backhoe Loader Buying Tips
Fuel efficiency and emission control
A tier-II engine offers more torque and horsepower and better fuel economy than an older diesel engine. However, these are mandated for all new backhoes so don’t be too impressed by a dealer pitching them as an important feature on the backhoe. If you are buying a used backhoe, you should know the difference.
For environments that are harsh on air-filled tires – including recycling operations and demolitions sites – foam-filled rubber tires would be a good fit. These tires are more expensive, but they do save on the expenses and downtimes associated with blowouts.
Take some time to discuss sellers and models with other people in the industry to learn more about what they use and where they bought it. Hands-on experience with a vehicle you are considering purchasing is the most valuable information that you can use for your purchasing decision.
OSHA rules require specific safety procedures and training for operating heavy machinery. Make sure that the seller you use can provide the necessary training or, at the very least, recommend a good third-party training provider.
What Backhoe Attachments are Available?
While loader buckets and digging scoops are the most basic and common attachments for backhoe loaders, there have been more attachments made in recent years to make these machines even more flexible. For example, swapping out the bucket for a fork lets you transport pallets using the machine so you don’t need to use a forklift.
There are lots of different attachments for backhoe loaders. The front of the loader can be fitted with grapples (claws or hooks), forks, powered brooms, and snow blowers. The back can be fitted with thumbs (or crushers), grinders, and hammers. Both ends can be fitted with buckets of different sizes for carrying, dumping, and lifting different kinds of materials. There are “4-in-1 buckets” available that have a hinged bottom that can be manipulated with hydraulics. These make for an excellent choice for backhoe loader attachments.
ITCs (Quick Couplers)
If you’re planning on using several attachments, then you should consider choosing a backhoe loader with a quick coupler, also known as an integrated tool carrier (ITC). These industry-standard connections can be used for all kinds of construction equipment, and they have hookups that can be connected to the hydraulic system of a loader for powered attachments.
Renting when Necessary
You shouldn’t feel like you need to purchase all of the attachments you might end up using one day. Begin with the essentials and invest in more attachments as and when you need them. It’s also possible to rent attachments that you’ll use sparingly. Some backhoes with tool carriers are able to use skid steer attachments too.