What is a backhoe?

What is a backhoe loader_Featured Image

A backhoe was probably one of the first construction machines you noticed as a kid. They have a cool two-machines-in-one profile: a loader bucket at the front, and in the rear is a backhoe that digs.

Backhoes have been a staple on North American jobsites for more than 60 years. People love that they can do tons of things, from loading and moving materials to digging ditches, installing utilities, hammering concrete, and lifting pipes.

The popularity of the backhoe has taken a hit lately compared with the versatility of mini (or compact) excavators, skid steers, and compact track loaders.

But it still has an honored place in the Dirt World, and construction owners/operators, road contractors, utility companies, municipalities, and others appreciate its many capabilities.

Parts of a backhoe

“Backhoe” is short for “tractor-loader-backhoe,” which perfectly sums up the machine’s main parts:

Frame and cab

This is the machine's guts, where the engine horsepower and hydraulic power are centered. It’s also where the operator sits. With a simple seat adjustment, the operator can swivel 180 degrees from facing forward (to operate the loader) to facing backward (to use the backhoe).

Inside the cab in the forward part of the operating station are the controls for both driving (also known as “roading”) via the standard steering wheel/accelerator/brakes and operating the loader bucket.

The backhoe controls are accessible when you position the seat rearward. We’ll get into more detail on both the loader and backhoe controls later.

The tractor also has stabilizer legs that can be lowered and raised and are positioned behind the rear wheels.

Loader

Using this end of the machine, you’ll be able to transport, grade, or load materials.

Two loader arms (or the boom) are the primary connection of the tractor frame to the front loader bucket. These arms control how high you can raise the bucket. The loader control on the right of the steering wheel also operates the bucket's position, from curled to full dump.

Buckets are the popular choice for this end of the backhoe, but they can be swapped out with attachments such as forks and sweepers, making it a swiss army knife when needed.

In addition to material moving and backfilling, the loader bucket helps stabilize the machine when operating the backhoe.

Backhoe

This is the digging end of the machine and the one that does most of the work. In North America, the backhoe typically extends from a center-mount pivot (or kingpin) attached to the tractor; this swings 180 degrees side to side.

The backhoe has three main parts: boom, stick (also called “arm,” “dipper,” and “dipperstick”), and bucket. The boom controls the depth of the cut, and the stick controls the length and reach. The bucket is the business end of the backhoe; its open-and-curl movement helps you get that full bucket of dirt.

One popular option is an extendable stick (also commonly called an “Extendahoe,” a trademark of Case Construction Equipment). This gives you additional reach and dig depth and the option to safely put more room between the machine and a trench edge.

Need to do more than dig dirt? A full range of attachments can take the place of the backhoe bucket, including hammer/breakers, compaction plates, and augers.

Backhoe sizing and important specs

“Backhoe” is a kind of a generic term that applies to both small to large machines even though they look a bit different.

Full-size backhoes are integrated two-machines-in-one units with a center seat that pivots 180 degrees to face either the front loader or the rear backhoe. Although smaller sizes are available, they typically have more than 90 horsepower and maximum dig depths of 14 feet or more.

Backhoes are typically sized by maximum dig depth; 14-to-15-foot dig depth machines are popular, hitting the sweet spot between power and size. Other specs include horsepower, breakout force, and hydraulic flow/pressure.

Another backhoe type mounts onto the back of a sub-compact, compact, or utility tractor loader. These either have a loader seat that adjusts to operating the backhoe or have a separate rear-facing seat and controls. With these compact or utility backhoes, you’ll need to leave the loader seat to access the backhoe position.

These are more basic machines with smaller capabilities than their full-sized counterparts. Maximum dig depths typically start at around 6 feet and 16 horsepower. Instead of a cab or canopy, some compact units have a rollbar roll-over-protection system that can lower during transport.

Backhoes have a maximum dig depth of around 6-20 feet and range in horsepower from around 16 up to almost 150.

What is the difference between a backhoe and an excavator?

Since backhoes and excavators do many of the same tasks – digging trenches, placing utilities, breaking up concrete – it might be easy to confuse them. (And sometimes, people in the industry will even refer to an excavator as a “hoe” or a “backhoe.”)

Fortunately, the machines don’t look similar at all. One quick way to tell them apart: Backhoes have a loader bucket on the front; excavators do not. Backhoes are wheeled machines; most excavators are on tracks (although there are wheeled excavators.)

The digging end of a backhoe operates on a stabilized tractor platform, with most North American machines swinging 180 degrees from a center mount pivot. The entire upper machine rotates a full 360 degrees on excavators, with the operator always facing the boom, stick, and bucket.

Backhoe controls also come in two types: joystick controls, which look like the ones in an excavator and can use either an excavator or backhoe control pattern, or two mechanical levers or “wobble sticks,” which use a backhoe control pattern. Although they can swap between an excavator or a backhoe control pattern, excavators are always controlled by two joysticks.

With maximum speeds of around 20 to 25 mph, Backhoes allow users to road the machine, depending on local road regs. (But be smart. Pull to the side when the traffic builds up behind you.) With a maximum travel speed of under 10 mph, the tracked excavator can’t do this. (But wheeled excavators can travel up to 25 mph.)

Despite these differences, mini (or compact) excavators have helped take a significant bite out of the backhoe market. Combined with a skid steer or a compact track loader, the mini ex offers maneuverability that isn’t available to larger backhoes.

What companies make backhoes?

Compared to some machines (have you looked at how many companies make mini excavators?), only a few make backhoes. Market leaders include Caterpillar, Deere, Case, JCB, New Holland, and on the smaller machine end, Kubota.

Some manufacturers are developing electric models aimed primarily at companies with sustainability goals. Although initial electric model customers report the quiet operation and the same breakout force as diesel models, concerns remain about how long a machine can run on a charge and recharge time.

How much do backhoes cost?

There will be big price differences between new and used machines. And then there's the whole renting vs. buying debate, but rentals are a great option if you need a backhoe for a shorter length of time. Let’s tackle new machines first.

New machines

Some manufacturers have started to list retail prices on several machine types, including some models of backhoes. Some examples, priced when we put together this article, include:

  • A 24-horsepower compact canopy unit, $32,000.
  • A 54-horsepower compact canopy machine with a backhoe thumb, $77,000.
  • A middle-of-the-pack basic 14-foot maximum dig depth 92-horsepower machine, $137,000.

Various factors influence pricing. There’s a whole host of options to consider that will add to the final tally. These include features such as ride control, whether you want a cab or canopy machine, and any additional attachments.

And location matters. A backhoe in highly regulated California, for instance, will be more expensive than one sold in Alabama.

But know that dealer support – how quickly they can respond to and repair a down machine, for instance – is more critical than the initial purchase cost. Financing and warranties also need to be part of your calculation.

Used machines

Most beginner backhoe buyers start with a used machine. However, just as with used cars, there will be a wide range of conditions and prices based on current demand. Generally, a less-than-2,500-hour machine (contractors usually put around 900 hours per year on backhoes) in good condition will be priced higher than one with more than 5,000 hours.

Lean on a trusted equipment supplier; they’ll help steer you toward the right machine for your operation.

Renting a backhoe 

Another option is renting, which can be economical, especially for those just getting started. Many rental suppliers in the construction world will be happy to quote rates for daily, weekly, and monthly rentals.

When writing this, a 15-foot, 108-horsepower backhoe was renting at $580 per day, $1,400 per week, and $3,200 per week, to give you an idea of the cost.

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