Once the most popular machine on a jobsite, the backhoe loader operated as a loader and a backhoe, making it one of the most versatile and revenue-driven pieces of equipment. That changed in the 1990s when manufacturers began promoting the combined working force of a skid-steer loader and compact excavator. For a comparable level of investment, contractors could have two machines instead of one. The growing compact equipment market eroded the versatility stronghold the backhoe loader once had. Today, the markets for backhoe loaders and skid-steer loaders/compact excavators are growing, increasing the debate over the best option.
STATE OF THE MARKET
“While the demand for skid-steer loaders and compact excavators has increased in the last 5 years, backhoes loaders still have their place in the market,” says Ernie Ferguson, division sales manager of compact equipment for Terex Construction Americas.
Manufacturers like Terex have introduced lower price-point backhoe loader options to compete in price with the skid-steer loader and compact excavator. “The decision to use a backhoe loader or a skid-steer loader and compact excavator is largely based on the needs of the job,” states Ferguson. “While landscaping work and construction jobs predominately use skid-steer loaders and compact excavators, many municipalities and utility companies rely on backhoe loaders.”
Crews perform a wide range of work, including curb and gutter repair, landscaping to lift-and-carry jobs, and snow removal. One benefit of backhoe loaders in municipalities is travel speed. Many municipality jobs are relatively close together, making driving the machine from job-to-job instead of trailering it more efficient. Comparing road travel speeds of a backhoe loader (25 mph) to that of a skid-steer loader (8-12 mph) and compact excavator (3 mph), makes clear why municipalities would prefer a backhoe loader.
“Looking beyond travel speeds, municipalities can work with smaller crews when using a backhoe loader,” says Ferguson. “The backhoe loader’s size, horsepower, and attachment versatility are important qualities.” Ferguson points out different attachments involved with repairing a storm sewer, including a hydraulic breaker attachment, a loader, and a backhoe. “It just doesn’t make sense to haul in two machines when one machine and one operator can get it done in less time.”
Digging depth, bucket capacity, and horsepower are important to utility contractors. Backhoe loaders can dig deeper and move more dirt in a shorter period of time than a compact excavator; the unit’s outriggers provide better stability on uneven ground. The added horsepower of a backhoe loader delivers better breakout force for tough digging conditions. To get this same level of performance, a utility contractor would have to use a mid- to large-size excavator.
A major reason for the growth in compact equipment is decreasing construction site sizes. When working in confined jobsites, skid-steer loaders and compact excavators provide superior maneuverability. “Skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders can be outfitted with dozens of attachments and compact excavators will operate in areas that are harder to reach with a backhoe,” says Ferguson. “And while it will take the contractor two machines to do the job of one, many of those added costs are made up in fuel savings since these units are more fuel efficient than larger backhoe loaders.”
“The landscaping market is dominated by compact equipment,” Ferguson says. “Skid steers use a wide range of attachments to replace niche tools and reduce the amount of hand-labor work being done. Compact excavators aren’t used on every jobsite; however, when the need arises, it only makes sense to bring in a compact excavator or use a backhoe loader attachment on the loader.”
Another major reason for the popularity of the skid-steer loader and compact excavator combination among landscapers is transportability. The size and weight of the compact equipment mean contractors are able to trailer them behind a standard pickup truck instead of a larger vehicle requiring a commercial license. Since many contractors work on several sites throughout the day, this reduces expenses and creates efficiencies.
Backhoe loaders, skid-steer loaders, and compact excavators are among the most profitable and rented pieces of equipment. “When a contractor isn’t going to be using the equipment on a regular basis, renting makes sense,” explains Ferguson. “It gives them the best opportunity to match the exact machine they need for the job, while reducing operating expenses. In addition, the equipment is delivered and serviced by the rental store to further reduce their responsibilities on the job.”
Ferguson also points out that ease of usability accounts for preference. “Skid-steer loaders come standard with pilot controls, which are much easier to operate than hand/foot controls,” he explains. “This becomes an even more important benefit when running a machine for an extended period of time because it can reduce operator fatigue.”
A contractor’s decision between a backhoe loader or a skid-steer loader and compact excavator combination should largely be based on the work being performed; however, there are maintenance costs to consider.
“The most obvious comparison to look at is the servicing of one machine versus two machines,” says Ferguson. “However, since both machines likely will not be operating the same number of hours as a backhoe loader, the service intervals will not be the same. Depending on usage, two machines may or may not cost more to maintain than one.”
While maintenance costs may increase for two machines, potential downtime decreases. Service times can be rotated and a breakdown will not completely shut down operations.
THE DECISION IS YOURS
The backhoe loader versus skid-steer loader and compact excavator versatility debate is ongoing. Since there is no clear-cut way of doing a job, it all comes down to preference. While many contractors’ preferences are dictated by the job, it’s also driven by what machine they are the most efficient at operating. ■
For More Information: To learn more about Terex North Americas and its products, visit www.terex.com/en.
Modern Contractor Solutions, October 2015
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