Dig-and-load operations — it’s a
combination found on almost any construction site. In urban areas,
contractors often separate those two tasks with a “systems approach” —
skid steers and compact excavators. The excavator will dig for
footings, utilities, foundations, landscaping and everything in
between, while the skid steer picks up and ferries spoils and supplies
back and forth with speed.
But other contractors are looking for one do-it-all machine to get the
job done — something cheaper and more convenient then hauling two
machines (with two operators) to a project site. Oftentimes, they just
want to rent a quick and easy piece of equipment that can perform the
two basic tasks of construction — digging and loading.
With a dedicated loader on the front and a backhoe arm hanging off the
rear, a backhoe loader is the perfect amount of digging and loading
performance for plenty of construction operations. With the swing of a
seat most backhoe loaders can go from digging a trench to moving spoils
in a matter of seconds. And with a steering wheel, two controllers and
a few levers and buttons, most backhoe loaders are easy-to-operate
tools — not as intimidating for new employees and long-time renters.
The history of the backhoe loader goes back 50 plus years. On separate
sides of the pond, both Case and JCB began tinkering with ideas of a
dig-and-load combo machine for the construction industry. In England,
JCB began development of its first backhoe loader in 1953, utilizing a
tractor fitted with a loader, backhoe and the JCB logo. By spring of
1957, Case successfully introduced the landmark Case Model 320 and
began its backhoe loader production in Indiana.
Those first machines were built big and brawny — constructed using
large tractor chassis, big buckets and long backhoes, engineered for
big jobs in wide-open spaces. But as urban areas grew tighter and
precise and delicate operations became more in demand, smaller compact
backhoe loaders were required for close-quarters construction. With a
7- to 12-ft dig depth, 20 to 60 engine hp and an operating weight
between 3,000 to 12,000 lbs, compact backhoe loaders can give
contractors big construction capabilities while meeting smaller jobsite
“They are light weight, turf friendly and easily transported from one
job to another,” explains Keith Rohrbacker, construction equipment
product manager at Kubota Tractor Corp. “Their compact size allows
access where larger machines cannot fit, reducing need for manual
labor. The loader has plenty of digging power and the machines are good
at load-and-carry work. The backhoe digging power and depth meets most
popular jobsite requirements. They are also economical on fuel.”
Plenty of big manufacturing companies are producing compact backhoe
loaders today — Terramite, Kubota, Bobcat, Allmand, Ingersoll-Rand,
Yanmar and JCB, just for starters. These smaller backhoe loader
siblings are immensely popular in the utility and general construction
markets, great for dig-and-load operations in residential or urban
areas. But compact backhoes are most popular on the rental lot.
“Rental companies comprise the largest consumer of compact loader
backhoes,” says Paul Anderson, Bobcat loader backhoe product
specialist. “The loader backhoe’s compact size and light weight are
demanded by rental customers.”
Plumbing and electrical contractors will rent the loader backhoes to
repair and install utility lines and septic tanks, using the backhoe to
trench a straight line and the loader to perform light backfilling
applications. General contractors will rent to dig foundations, tear up
driveways and transport spoils. Homeowners are even big renters, often
installing and repairing underground utilities themselves. These
backhoe loaders are light and less intimidating than large loader
backhoes and more maneuverable for working in established yards.
“Most of the homeowners out there only need to get down roughly 8 to 10
ft,” says Dan Rafferty, compact products manager at JCB. “We’re focused
on giving these customers what they need — something they’re
comfortable with. That’s what’s great about these types of machines.
They’re easy to use, they get down where you need them to go and
they’re easy to transport.”
The only problem for such new customers is picking the proper machine
for the task at hand. Whether you’re renting or buying a compact
backhoe loader, you will have a wide range of choices and decisions —
dig depth, brand, engine horsepower, bucket type, operator platform,
boom configurations, price and more. To give CE readers a better
understanding of the compact backhoe loader industry, we asked four of
the industry’s top manufacturers — Kubota, Bobcat, Ingersoll-Rand and
JCB — to give us some insight into the options, trends, sizes and scope
of the compact backhoe loader industry. Read the 10 top questions
How are compact backhoe
loaders categorized today?
The small backhoe loader market is most often classified by the dig
depth of the backhoe — typically anything under 12 ft (although many
manufacturers call their 14-ft backhoe loaders compact).
“I think that many in the market define them by their digging depth.
However, horsepower, weight and width are important factors to
consider,” says Rohrbacker.
“AEM [Association of Equipment Manufacturers] would group backhoe
loaders by horsepower — 20 to 40 hp would cover most of this field. At
this time AEM does not break out compact backhoe loaders from other
tractors. But rental yards and spec check groups categorize them by
digging depth. In that case, they use less than a 12-ft digging depth.”
Many compact backhoe loaders fall into different size categories,
including less than 6-ft, 6- to 9-ft, 9- to 11-ft and 11- to 14-ft dig
depths. Backhoe loaders designed with digging depths less than 10 ft
are often directed toward the rental market. Certain companies are also
primed at building bigger or smaller compact backhoe loaders. Companies
like Ingersoll-Rand, Volvo, Yanmar, John Deere and Bobcat manufacturer
larger compact backhoe loaders (typically 9- to 14-ft dig depths),
while Terramite and Allmand concentrate on the smaller models
(typically dig depths from 10 ft and down). Kubota makes models in both
How much do compact backhoe
loaders typically cost?
Compact backhoe loaders come in a wide price range — anywhere from
$12,000 to $50,000. “Just like skid steers, there’s a different price
point for just about everyone in the market,” says Rafferty.
The most popular size of compact backhoe loader would be in the 9- to
10-ft range, costing anywhere from $26,000 to $35,000 retail depending
on features and options. But contractors can choose from a big pool of
unique units. You can find a cheap and sturdy compact backhoe loader
like the Terramite T5C with a 20-hp Kohler gasoline engine, an 8-ft,
4-in. dig depth, work lights and a ROPS canopy for only $17,000 plus.
Or buyers can search out the Cadillacs of compacts like the JCB 208
MiniMaster, which goes for around $48,000 to $50,000. The JCB 208
boasts a myriad of features, including a universal quick-hitch coupler
allowing use of attachments, a 47-hp engine, both canopy and cab for
operator safety and comfort, a loader mechanical linkage that provides
mechanical self-leveling and a hydrostatic drive that boasts 0- to
7-mph travel speeds for easy maneuvering.
Who are the major manufacturing
players in the market? What company
has the most market share?
No manufacturer CE surveyed would part with too much market share
information, but for the past few years Terramite was considered the
market leader. Of course, the list of companies making small backhoe
loaders is growing very quickly and competition is getting fierce. Big
• Bobcat Co.
• John Deere
What types of buckets can you get for the front of a compact backhoe loader?
If your operations call for a lot of load-and-carry applications, you
will need to choose your bucket wisely. Most general buckets fall into
the 60- to 80-in. bucket range and are often determined by the size of
your machine. Most manufacturers tend to make the bucket slightly
larger than the width of the backhoe loader.
But there are options beyond a simple steel bucket. “For our machines,
we offer standard general purpose buckets, multi-purpose buckets,
grapple buckets, industrial buckets, light material buckets as well as
many other non-bucket attachments,” says Georg Seyrlehner, backhoe
loader product manager at Ingersoll-Rand.
Heavy-duty buckets, 4-in-1 buckets, clamshell buckets and narrow
buckets are also interesting alternatives. Besides buckets, many
compact backhoe loaders are designed to take attachments as well as
its skid steer-style loader quick coupler on its compact backhoe loader
line. There are several Bobcat attachments that are compatible,
including augers, hydraulic breakers and trench packer wheels. These
attachments can also be used on Bobcat’s compact utility loaders,
compact excavators and skid steers.
What are the main backhoe
boom configurations on the market?
There are two main types of boom configurations on backhoe loaders —
curved and straight. The straight boom gives operators more reach when
it comes to straight out digging, and since most jobs for compact
backhoe loaders involve trench applications, this means less
repositioning for the operator. A curved boom gives operators better
digging geometry, say manufacturers. With a curved, excavator-style
boom, crews will find it easier to clear worksite obstacles and that
truck loading is better because you can easily clear sideboards and
position material in the center of the bed. “But on the small backhoes,
there is not much difference,” Anderson says.
Are side-shifting backhoes big
in the North American market?
Whether you have a straight or curved boom, in the North American
market you most likely have what’s called a center-mount backhoe boom.
A center-mount boom is a backhoe that’s fixed to the frame of the
machine and cannot shift like an excavator. But there is also what’s
called a side-shifting boom, where the backhoe can actually move from
side to side, engineered for off-center digging.
Alas, side-shift is big in Europe, not in the United States.
“They are not big, but it is a developing market,” says Rohrbacker.
“Like mini excavators, it gives the operator the ability to dig next to
a wall or structure. But they’re new and their cost is higher. The
benefit is width. Our side-shift backhoe uses vertical stabilizers.
They do not extend past the width of the machine, so they are useful in
more compact areas.”
The side-shift backhoe is great for trenching up against a wall or
other obstructions — similar to a zero tailswing compact excavator. But
most U.S. backhoes are traditional center-mounted and cannot dig next
to a wall or other obstructions easily.
“We see potential in the future with those machines, however the
concept is in its early stages in the United States,” says Seyrlehner.
How can a new buyer judge a quality
compact backhoe loader model?
Quality is a relative concept, but there are plenty of fair criteria on
which to judge a piece of equipment — safety, design, power, fuel
economy and price are just a few examples. A good start is to ask for a
demo unit, to run the compact backhoe loader through a few paces on a
“We currently have a demo program we use to put our machines in the
hands of the customer,” explains Seyrlehner. “We feel this is one of
the only ways a customer can not only see the quality, but also feel
the quality of the machine.”
While demoing a variety of units, be sure to keep an eye on the general
construction of the model and its unique and standard features. A
loader quick-coupler would be important if changing attachments occurs
regularly (bucket, pallet forks or an auger). A certified ROPS/FOPS
canopy and retractable seat belts to protect the operator are
essential. Four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and differential lock
improve mobility in mud, sand, snow and in tight quarters.
Be sure that the arm crowd force and bucket breakout force meet your
requirements. The loader must have the lift capacity you need with
bucket or pallet forks mounted and must have enough lift height to
clear the sides of your loading bin or truck. Most compact backhoe
loaders fall in the 8,000-lb weight class and are only about 6 ft wide,
so they’re easily transportable and turf friendly. Others may weigh
more than 9,000 lbs and require commercial trailers and special
driver’s licenses. Others may consider a heavy weight a detriment when
on soft surfaces or for rental applications. Other considerations
• Hydraulic attachment operation —
single or multi-function?
• How simple is the machine instrumentation?
• What’s the fuel economy and tank capacity?
• Controls — are they simple and require little effort?
• Is there a smooth ride while traveling?
• How easy is entry and exit?
• Operator space — is it comfortable for larger operators?
• Do you need to jump off the machine to switch from backhoe to loader functions?
• What’s the visibility like from both the loader and
backhoe operating positions?
What types of features make a
comfortable compact backhoe loader?
Operator comfort is paramount. The more comfortable an operator is, the
more productive and the smoother your operations will be. A comfortable
seat is the first requirement on compact backhoe loaders. Ergonomic
placement of controls is also a plus, and the overall entry into the
operator’s platform and the ease at which the operator can change from
loading to backhoe operation are equally key.
“Customers come to expect improvements in the loader backhoe’s cab,
such as operator room and visibility,” explains Anderson. “Operators
like the easy-to-operate controls and leg room offered, as well as the
180-degree turning seat. This prevents the operator from having to get
up from his seat to move back and forth between the loader and backhoe
with air condition and heating are popular on the more expensive
machines, and informative instrument panels are also on the grow.
Kubota’s IntelliPanel control panel informs the operator of the
tractor’s system conditions using simple letters and symbols to make
communication between the tractor and operator simpler. Operational
information, precautions and maintenance requirements are promptly
announced so that steps can be taken to prevent potential problems from
Are the growth of skid steers and
compact excavators affecting sales
of compact backhoe loaders?
While skid steers and compact excavators can be used
for different applications, a skid steer cannot efficiently
do the job of a compact excavator — and vice versa.
This is where the value of a compact backhoe loader comes into play.
Backhoe loaders can perform almost all of the functions that each of
those machines can do individually with the customer only purchasing
With that said, the skid steer/compact excavator combo is growing in popularity.
“That’s definitely one of the areas that is eating some of the market,”
says Rafferty. “The mini excavators — even the micros — have 7 1/2 ft
of dig depth all the way up through a 14-ft dig depth, which is a
full-size backhoe. Space also has tendency to limit full size backhoes
on a jobsite. Anything that can counter rotate on its tracks or tires
[like a skid steer] and have 360-degrees of slew [like a compact
excavator] when it’s operating is going to get you into tight spots and
that makes a big difference to buyers.”
But most likely it will depend on the application. Sometimes a skid
steer/compact excavator systems approach is better for a certain
application and other times a compact backhoe loader will do the job
just fine. Each machine has its own niche.
“Often, owners see the value in each machine, own
several kinds and deploy each where their specialty is best utilized,” says Seyrlehner.
How big is the compact backhoe
loader market today? How many units
were sold in 2004?
Unfortunately, the number of compact backhoe loader units sold per year is not tracked by
organizations like AEM. But according to each
manufacture CE surveyed, “It’s definitely a growing market,” says Rafferty.
“The market that Ingersoll-Rand is competing in — the 9 ft to 12-ft dig
depths — is roughly a 6,000-unit-a-year market,” says Seyrlehner. “It
is difficult to measure because the market is served by dedicated
compact loader backhoes that may be about 5,000 to 6,000 units per
year,” explains Anderson. “It is also served by compact utility
tractors with backhoe attachments and this market is much bigger.”
The general consensus is that about 5,000 to 8,000 compact backhoe
loaders were sold in North American in 2004. “And that may hit 10,000
or more by the end of 2005,” says Rohrbacker.