Manufacturers and customers know backhoes still have a place in the market.
The precipitous drop in sales of backhoe loaders in recent years has stopped, and a modest recovery is being reported.
Despite the uptick, backhoes no longer enjoy the market dominance they once had nor do they receive the innovation and development attention given to more popular machines, such as skid steers and compact excavators. Even so, advances are being made, and modern backhoes are more productive than their earlier counterparts.
Here’s what some OEMs are doing to improve backhoes for those who appreciate the advantages these machines offer. They also provide some sound advice for those looking for a backhoe.
Case: Two machines better than one?
“One of the greatest shifts away from backhoes over the years has been the idea that two machines – typically a skid steer and a mini excavator – can get more work done than a backhoe because you have two machines operating simultaneously,” says George MacIntyre, product manager, Case Construction Equipment. “People like to make very hardline comments on this, but both things can be true: two machines in the hands of two skilled operators can get more work done than a backhoe. And there will always be applications where backhoe use is paramount, such as utility work and public works, especially in applications where machine roading is required.”
MacIntyre says the appeal of two-in-one performance at the heart of backhoe loaders that drove sales booms in the past is finding renewed interest today, especially in view of the ongoing operator shortage.
“A single skilled operator who knows how to effectively work both ends of the backhoe will deliver excellent long-term value and performance, versus trying to find multiple skilled operators for separate machines in today’s job market.”
The backhoe option also means there’s just one machine to own, maintain, insure and transport and just one operator to recruit, train, compensate and retain.
Case also continues to test and evaluate two electrified backhoes put into service last year. Those 580 EV models were electrified by Green Machine Equipment Inc. and Moog Inc. and feature Green Machine proprietary 480-volt, 90 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion WhisperDrive battery packs. The battery pack separately powers the drivetrain and hydraulic motors, providing breakout forces equal to diesel-powered machines.
Cat: A radical shift in controls
The big thing with Cat backhoes is the move from pilot controls to electrohydraulics on some models. By itself, this would be important. But Cat added multiple features that could be piggybacked along with that change to provide advantages.
Historically, backhoes had two operator stations with levers at each to control the functions of either the loader or the excavator. Cat mounted the two EH joysticks to the seat, so they swivel with the operator.
Dual-mode functionality means either implement can function in any position; you can manipulate the implement you’re not facing. When facing the backhoe end on the machine, the operator can control the bucket as required for repositioning the machine without swiveling the seat to the front. Moreover, controls can be active in any position, greatly facilitating working over the side of the backhoe.
There are three settings for response rate and two for modulation. Moving to electrohydraulics opens up a wide range of possibilities and more features will be added over time.
David Young, product application specialist, backhoe loaders, Caterpillar, says full digging and lifting power are available at idle. “Increasing the engine speed changes the speed of the hydraulics, but not the maximum force created.”
The Standard and Standard+ modes control engine speed, with the former capping engine rpm at 1,900 and the latter allowing full rpm. Engines across the lineup are the Cat C3.6, which is European Stage V compliant.
Young says center-pivot hoes are popular in North America, but side-shift hoes dominate in Europe. North American customers are beginning to appreciate the versatility of the side-shift design, and Cat now has three side-shift models in its North America catalog, the 428, 432 and 434. The 434 has equal-size tires. “It looks like a beast, and it is,” says Young.
JCB: A hybrid in the traditional sense
Recognizing that backhoes are often competing with compact machines for customer dollars, JCB introduced the 1CXT. It’s a hybrid in the traditional sense – not a hybrid of electric and internal combustion, but of backhoe and compact track loader.
Backhoe features include two workstations, a single side door for easy access, an optional extendable dipper offering dig depths up to 10 feet 1 inch and reach to 12 feet 10 inches at ground level and standard parallel lift when raising or lowering the front tool.
CTL features include tracks for greater maneuverability, a compact footprint and a quick universal hitch with hydraulic power to run skid steer attachments.
The most common configuration of the 1CXT includes 12.8-inch general purpose tracks, enclosed cab with HVAC, 8-foot extending dipper, 26.4 gallons-per-minute proportional hydraulic couplings and skid-steer-loader quick hitch. When excavating, the operator can choose between backhoe and compact excavator control patterns.
JCB backhoes offer a full suite of advanced features. AutoCheck checks the status of eight under-hood checkpoints at startup. Within three seconds AutoCheck advises the operator of the status of these checkpoints. AutoIdle conserves fuel while AutoThrottle restores engine rpm from idle when the loader end is actuated. AutoStabilizersUp, AutoBoomLock and optional AutoPreheat are also part of this feature set.
Ethan Clowes, product manager, JCB, says all these features are designed to make backhoe loader operation more productive, safer and more intuitive, especially for operators with limited experience.
JCB has done extensive development of electric machines and feels electric has a place, but it’s also developing hydrogen. Depending on the application, batteries are too heavy and charging times too slow, even on work sites where high voltage charging stations are available. Hydrogen is transportable, refueling is quick, and hydrogen-fueled equipment uses existing engines and components that have been modified for use with hydrogen. The only tailpipe emission is water vapor.
Hydrogen fuel production and distribution will require infrastructure development, but the electric grid will also require development if it is to meet the needs of electrified fleets. JCB’s prototype hydrogen backhoe loader made its first major public appearance in June 2022.
John Deere: Big changes
Commencing with the 2020 model year, Deere went from an open-center hydraulic system to pressure-compensate, load-sensing (PCLS) hydraulics in every model above the 310SL.
All backhoes from Deere other than the 310L EP and 710L now feature the EWL engine, which meets emissions requirements with just diesel oxidation catalyst and selective catalytic reduction; the older engines were DOC, SCR and exhaust gas recirculation. EWL engines have an improved torque curve and 3% to 7% more power.
Deere continues to use pilot controls. The company believes they offer better control.
“It is predictable and smooth,” says Justin Steger, solutions marketing manager, “not jumpy, a complaint we’ve heard from operators using electrohydraulic joysticks.”
Along that line, the company added Precision Mode to the 310SL, which reduces flow by 50% to the back implement while apportioning flow so there is no loss of lift capacity. There is also a Production Mode that provides full flow to the boom as well as the stick and implement.
Deere also offers the 315SL, a side-shift model. Operators who prefer side-shift to center pivot are still a niche in the North American market, but fans of the design insist it gives much better control when digging next to structures.
Of Deere’s seven models of backhoes, four are based on the 310 platform: 310L, 310L EP, 310SL and 310SL HL. There are important differences but keeping the features straight can be confusing.
At ConExpo 2023, Deere will bring its Performance Tiering model nomenclature to backhoes. Performance Tiering was introduced at ConExpo 2020. As with other equipment, there will be G, P and X models.
G models will have fewer features and lower cost while still offering John Deere reliability and service. Rental and owner-operators are key customers for G machines. P represents production models with full features needed for all-day production work. X models will have Deere’s latest technologies and will be the platform on which new designs first appear.
New Holland: Evolution not revolution
New Holland has been methodical about entering the electric equipment market. Its first electric machine, the E15X compact excavator, will be introduced at ConExpo 2023. “There’s much to be resolved for the industry as a whole,” says Ryan Anderson, product marketing manager, New Holland. “Electrical generation and distribution, battery materials and recycling and, more directly affecting customers, safety and serviceability are among the issues needing more complete answers.”
He says dealers must also be ready to provide sales and support and that New Holland is in the process of helping dealers adapt to new technologies. “Electric is our chosen alternative fuel, not hydrogen or natural gas.”
New Holland is rolling out D Series models; two C Series machines (B95C and B110C) have yet to be updated. Improvements to D Series machines include PowerBoost, which provides a brief increase in power at the touch of a button, and PowerLift, which provides increased lifting power similar to that of mid-size excavators. Laser, 2D and other precision tools will be expanded on D Series models.
“Planning for our entire product line is in place through 2026 or 2027,” he says. “Two key areas of focus are ergonomics and consolidation and standardization of controls.” Electrohydraulic controls are coming, as is improved visibility incorporating camera systems.
Anderson says backhoes are mostly evolved; there’s not a lot of room for big advances in features and technology. “And with sales hovering around 10,000 units per year for the industry, there’s not a huge incentive to pour resources into their development.”
Three tips to spec’ing backhoes
Because modern backhoes have features older models lacked, it may seem difficult to use established criteria in spec’ing one. Not so, say our sources. The same three things apply, but now they’re applied to more capable machines:
- Backhoe capabilities – The main ones are dig depth and dump height, but bucket breakout force is also important. Extendable sticks, loader arm design and bucket type give greater performance to smaller machines.
- Attachments – Applications OEMs are making it easy to use attachments with backhoes. Think of all the tasks you have to do and choose a backhoe that supports the tools to accomplish those tasks. Bidirectional or unidirectional hydraulics and coupler types must be considered. Don’t assume the tools you already own will be compatible with your new backhoe.
- Personnel – Switchable control patterns accommodate operator preference. Intuitive operation will make it easier to train new hires. Cab design and seating selection are important for comfort.