Two of the most iconic construction machines are the hydraulic excavator and the backhoe loader. They can be used in some of the same applications, but each has some advantages over the machine. Which machine is best for you depends on careful examination of relevant criteria.
What is an excavator
Excavators are tracked machines that swivel 360 degrees and have an “arm” at the end of which is a bucket or some other tool by which the machine performs work.
First developed in the 1880’s, hydraulic excavators are now manufactured to be more powerful, comfortable, productive, versatile and advanced than the original models, but the science behind how they operate hasn’t changed in nearly 150 years.
What is a backhoe
A backhoe is similar to a tractor or wheel loader, but with an excavator-like boom permanently attached to the rear of the machine.
Prior to the invention of the backhoe, manufacturers began designing a backhoe attachment that could also swing from side to side. Farmers bolted these attachments to the rear of their tractors to add digging capability and higher reach to their tractors.
Both Case Construction Equipment and JCB saw the demand for tractors configured with a loader bucket on the front and a backhoe on the rear and, in 1957, developed their own tractor loader backhoes.
Excavators versus backhoes
Since backhoes have an excavator-like boom, they can perform many of the same functions as an excavator.
Both are capable of excavating, trenching, truck loading, material loading, material placement, etc., and this is because both can be equipped with the same attachments. Both feature the same attachment plate and offer hydraulic power to the attachment, so the only eliminating factor is size.
The differences between backhoes and excavators
The largest JCB backhoe—and one of the largest backhoe loaders on the market—is the 4CX-15 Super. It features 109-hp engine and a maximum dig depth of 20 feet. Whereas the largest JCB (construction) excavator features a 281-hp engine and a maximum dig depth of 26.5 feet.
Also, the smallest JCB backhoe—and one of the smallest backhoe loaders on the market—is the JCB 1CXT; it weighs about 9,400 pounds and features a dig depth of 10 feet. The smallest JCB mini excavator, on the other hand, weighs just 3,856 pounds and features a dig depth of 8.5 feet.
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Therefore, size is a limiting factor when it comes to backhoe loaders.
Excavators perform better
Backhoe loaders feature three other weaknesses on the backhoe side compared to excavators: swing, mobility and power. The backhoe portion of the backhoe loader can swing up to 100 degrees to either side (depending on the model), but an excavator provides 360 degrees rotation. The limited swing motion restricts some layouts, such as truck positioning when truck loading, since the truck must be positioned either to the backhoe loader’s left- or right-hand side. When truck loading with an excavator, trucks can be positioned anywhere within the excavator’s radius.
An excavator has greater maneuverability on the jobsite. Tracks are better at traversing most terrains (including rocky, sandy, muddy, and high grades). In trenching applications, excavators can position their tracks parallel to the trench and just move a few feet every few cuts. A backhoe loader must position itself perpendicular to the trench, reverse up to it, swivel their seat 180 degrees, cut the trench, then reverse while turning one direction and move forward again to position itself a few feet down the trench.
Imagine parking a car and then pulling out just to park it again in the adjacent parking space. The backhoe loader operator will spend more time repositioning (and less time producing) and will need more space compared to an excavator. Also, mini excavators can also work safely in congested sites and small spaces. They are small enough to go through backyard gates and inside elevators. Backhoe loaders aren’t small or light enough to go to many places that are accessible to mini excavators.
Finally, backhoe loaders demand more power than excavators. They need hydraulic power for both the backhoe portion and the loader portion, so the potential power output is split. Whereas all the hydraulic power in an excavator goes to just the excavator boom, therefore excavators in the same sized class as a backhoe will be able to operate attachments that require higher horsepower.
Basically, whatever task both machines can do, the excavator can do better.
Backhoes perform more
However, backhoe loaders have a few advantages over excavators.
First of all, wheels give backhoe loaders exceptional speed compared to excavators. Backhoe loaders offer speeds of 25 mph, whereas the fastest tracked excavators clock in at just over 3 mph. Faster travel speeds can be a great benefit if work sites are just a few miles apart, such as when maintaining farms, golf courses, or municipal properties. Backhoe loader operators don’t need to wait for a trailer to pick them up to bring them to the next job site.
However, if you really want an excavator with some travel capability, you can get a wheeled machine in the mid-range sizes and the smaller end large-ranged sizes capable of 18 mph.
Also, tires are safer than metal tracks on asphalt, concrete, manicured lawns, etc.
Secondly, the loader side makes digging into a pile easier compared to an excavator and it makes truck loading faster, since the bucket at the loader end is much larger than the bucket on an excavator.
The combination of a higher material capacity and faster travel speeds make it better suited to transporting materials and in lift and carry applications.
For companies who need both a loader and an excavator only for part-time use, a backhoe can eliminate the need to purchase two machines. Combined with its ability to travel, it may also eliminate the need to have a truck and trailer.
However, if you only need the loader attachment occasionally and jobsites are more than a few miles from each other, it’s probably better to get an excavator, since backhoes are expensive compared to excavators with similar capabilities.