Taking on Tractor Loader Backhoes

It’s no secret the tractor loader backhoe can easily tackle two of construction’s fundamental operations —
trenching and loading. Like peanut butter and jelly or Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock, the loader and the backhoe go hand in hand on all types of projects. But tractor loader backhoes do more than just dig and load — these multi-tasking machines can take PTO implements off the rear and sometimes attachments off the backhoe boom or the loader’s quick-attach plate. They are the smaller, more versatile version of traditional, beefy backhoe loaders and they’re quickly earning a reputation as an overachiever in the construction equipment business.

Like the big numbers of sales seen in the compact tractor market (tractors categorized between 20 to 50 PTO hp), the compact tractor loader backhoe (categorized by its 14 ft or less dig depth) has seen similar expansive growth. Generally falling into the $35,000 to $50,000 range, compact TLBs are powered by 20- to 60-hp engines and have an operating weight between 3,000 to 12,000 lbs. Komatsu, Caterpillar, Yanmar, Kubota, John Deere, Case, New Holland, Volvo, JCB, Terramite and Terex are some of the marketplace heavy hitters. The tractor loader’s roots originally date back to the agricultural tractor market.

“When John Deere entered the market, they basically bolted a backhoe onto the back of a tractor, Kubota had a similar design, but these machines were still reported as agricultural tractors,” says Jim Blower, mid-range product manager for JCB. “The main difference is that with a tractor loader backhoe, you can take the backhoe off of the machine and under it is a three-point hitch with a PTO. So, it’s essentially a tractor. You can take off the backhoe and put on a mower and the rear PTO will run it. A backhoe loader doesn’t have a three-point hitch or a PTO.”

With plenty of sizes, options and versatility, a tractor loader backhoe (TLB) might be the ideal machine for your diverse operations in the construction, utility or agricultural sector, which require dig and load applications most of the time. It also offers the versatility of taking tractor or skid steer implements.

Before you saddle up and head off to the dealer lot, take some time to familiarize yourself with the variety of TLB options on the market. Weigh the pros and cons of manufacturers, glean operational techniques aimed at improving efficiency and safety and find a versatile loader backhoe that can handle the complexity of projects that make your business so diverse and rewarding.

Boom, Boom, Boom

If your piece of equipment is an extension of your own two hands, and the TLB’s loader is your right hand and the backhoe is your left, you might be able to get away with calling yourself ambidextrous. The loader and the backhoe are a great starting point for measuring your machine needs. We suggest climbing into the TLB and swinging the seat around to the backhoe position, taking special notice of the boom. There are two types of boom configurations for TLBs today — curved and straight.

While John Deere, Caterpillar, New Holland, Ingersoll Rand and Yanmar are set up on the curved boom end of the camp, Komatsu, JCB, Kubota and Terramite utilize straight boom designs. In a nutshell, the argument is usually that curved booms may provide improved visibility and easier truck loading. On the other hand, straight booms utilize less welded plates to gain strength and tend to be less expensive machines. The curved boom craze began when backhoes started to mirror the design of hydraulic excavators that employ a curved design for added visibility beneath their booms. However, a TLB with a 10-ft dig depth isn’t going to be moving mountains, so the curved vs. straight boom
argument comes down to a matter of philosophy and personal opinion.

“We could argue the pros and cons of straight and curved booms all day. It basically came from manufacturers who made big excavators. Big excavators have curved booms,” says Blower. “CAT came from making big excavators and they brought that design to the smaller machines. All JCB’s backhoes have straight boom.”

As your eye travels down the length of the boom, you may find that the TLB has the option of a side-shifting boom
system, as opposed to a center-mounted boom, which is the standard in North America. A side-shifting boom is a backhoe boom that is set on rails, on which the boom can slide to the left or right remotely. It’s a popular European technology. With the side-shifting mounting system, operators can pull the TLB next to a house or wall, slide the boom over and dig right up against the obstruction. Just note that side-shifting booms are fairly rare machines, but a few manufacturers, such as JCB, still manufacture small side-shift machines.

“Yanmar had such a system on its compact excavators in the 1960s, but with the advent of house swing and boom swing on excavators, side-shifting on excavators is no longer needed,” says Bill Gearhart, assistant marketing and product manager for Yanmar Construction Equipment. “Also, the cost of a side-shift backhoe is usually much higher than a center pivot backhoe.”

Although uncommon, side-shifting backhoes can be useful when traversing the jobsite. If you happen to be operating a side-shifting backhoe and you’re working on a cramped jobsite, slide the backhoe to one side of the machine and then pivot the boom inward toward the machine. By pulling the boom parallel to the back of the TLB, you minimize the boom’s overhang and the result is a smoother, more compact ride.

Buckets of Options

Just past the boom, something catches your eye. With spiky teeth and the load capacity of a construction-grade ice cream scoop, the TLB’s heavy-duty bucket is primed for some serious trenching action. Like their compact excavator brethren, TLB buckets come in an array of sizes and options.

“The bucket on a TLB is similar to, but different than, the one found on a compact excavator. Usually, the backhoe loader bucket is a heavy-duty design due to higher digging forces. Of course, this depends greatly on who is defining a compact excavator,” says Jeff Aubrey, backhoe loader product manager for Komatsu. “Eight-ton compact excavators can use buckets much like those found on
tractor loader backhoes.”

On a TLB the most common size bucket is a 12-in. But 8-, 18- and 24-in. buckets are also available so you can outfit your backhoe for any job, big or small.

Like compact excavators, most TLBs feature a quick attachment system as standard equipment, for swapping a heavy-duty bucket for a rock bucket, and many manufacturers offer auxiliary boom hydraulics for powering more demanding attachments such as hydraulic breakers, hydraulic thumbs and tilting buckets. But the majority of the time, you’re going to have the standard heavy-duty bucket equipped and you’re going to be boom-deep into a trench.

“When digging a trench, peel — don’t scoop. Use the dipper to strip layers of soil from the trench. This is faster and neater,” says Aubrey. “When repositioning the unit to extend the trench, lift the stabilizers and the loader bucket off the ground. Then lift and push with the backhoe to move the entire machine forward. There is no need to engage the transmission or turn the seat. The operator can then use the backhoe to straighten the machine on the trench line.”

But before you starting trenching, all TLB manufacturers agree that safety should be at the top of the list when it comes to operation. As with any piece of equipment, always be sure to read the owner’s manual before hopping onto the operator’s seat and wear your seat belt when you are at the reins. Then phone your one-call services before moving a muscle.

“Check with the utility companies to see if there are any buried utilities in the area where the operator will be digging,” says Curt Unger, general sales manager for Yanmar Construction Equipment. “Never swing any load above another worker’s head. This is especially true if you are swinging over a trench where someone is working. Be aware of the outriggers and watch them to be sure they don’t cause a cave in into the trench.”

Carrying the Load

After exploring the backhoe portion of your TLB, it’s time to concentrate on the bucket. There’s probably a huge pile of dirt beside your trench after you tested your digging skills. At this point, a skid steer loader would come by to collect the spoils. But you and your TLB are big boys and you can clean up your own mess. Just return your backhoe to the full and up-right position, swing your seat around and hit the material loading warpath.

While the skid steer loader will fit in tighter work areas, the TLB can move more material faster on open range
jobsites. The popular 24-in. bucket and simple load and drive controls make quick work of any loading job. The job determining the size of the attachment or bucket is fairly standard procedure in the attachment game. If you’re working a construction site, oftentimes the building codes will determine what bucket size the operator should use. For instance, if building footers need to be 18 in. wide, an 18-in. bucket would be a perfect match. There are 12- and 16-in. buckets that also common place on a TLB, along with 4-in-1 buckets and grapple buckets

Basically, the loader bucket is controlled with one lever. Pull the lever back to raise the bucket, push it forward to lower it, left to curl the bucket and right to dump the contents (controls may vary). Depending on the manufacturer and options, there might be a second lever that operates auxiliary hydraulics for a grapple or 4-in-1 bucket.

If your loader duties call for moving material that is less pliable, such as a crates of bricks or stacks of lumber, more than likely, your backhoe loader is equipped with a quick attachment system that will let you swap your bucket for a set of pallet forks. Typically, these quick-attach systems are compatible with skid steer attachments, but you’ll want to be careful as to which attachments you slap on your TLB.

“There are a couple things to look out for when equipping a skid steer attachment to a tractor. You have to
consider what you are working with, how dense and how heavy it is. Determine the material’s weight by cubic foot and then compare that number to what your tractor can handle,” says Blower. “Sometimes operators will be moving light material and they’ll put on a larger bucket. Then they’ll move heavy material with that same bucket without even thinking about it. It tends to happen more often in the north when operators move snow. They think snow is light, which it is when it falls from the sky, but when it sits around and freezes, it gets extremely heavy.”

Although it isn’t really fair to compare the skid steer’s supreme versatility with a TLB, these loader backhoes do have tool carrying advantages.

“With a TLB the operator sits up higher, so he has better visibility. The two machines [TLB and skid steer] are also built differently. A skid steer loader is built on a rigid, one-piece frame with a small wheel base and small tires. It gives a rougher ride than a TLB,” says Unger. “Conventional steering wheels also make the TLB more popular in the rental yards because many people are not familiar with skid steer controls.”

Putting the Tractor in TLB

Unlike a backhoe loader, a TLB has a three-point hitch and PTO hidden just behind the backhoe. A PTO (power take off system) powers a tractor’s rear attachment by transferring the engine’s horsepower through a driveline to a series of gears in the transmission housing. Attach the PTO driveshaft to an attachment and you’re ready to rake with a landscape rake, dig with an auger or move snow with a snow blower.

There are three major types of PTOs in the industry — Independent, Live Two-Stage or Transmission Driven PTO. The difference isn’t in how the PTO operates, but how you engage and disengage it. With an independent PTO, you can engage and disengage the PTO at will, regardless of the transmission or clutch operation. However, that’s not that case with a live two-stage or transmission driven PTO.

The live two-stage PTO utilizes a dual stage clutch pedal, which completely disengages the transmission and PTO when depressed and engages the PTO when the clutch is released half way. This system allows the attachment to get up to speed before you start moving. A transmission driven PTO utilizes the clutch pedal to disengage both the PTO and the transmission.

While you have the option of choosing your PTO on most compact tractors, the PTO on a TLB is predetermined. The most common PTO is the independent system. Yanmar offers an independent PTO system on its TLB with a three point hitch and PTO (it also offers the CLB40 without the PTO and three point hitch and with a three point hitch but no PTO), as does Kubota, JCB and John Deere.

Aside from the PTO, you’ll also notice that nearly all TLBs feature four-wheel drive, but feature different transmission options. On Komatsu’s WB146-5, a TLB with a 14-ft dig depth, you have the choice of either a 4×4 synchro shuttle or a four-speed full powershift transmission with auto-shift and kickdown features, much like a hydrostatic transmission. Kubota features a hydrostatic transmission on all of its TLB series machines, while Yanmar offers a hydro-mechanical transmission (a.k.a. constantly variable or infinitely variable transmission) that combines the pros of a hydrostatic transmission, such as no range shifting during loader operations, and a mechanical transmission, such as improved fuel economy.

Safety — The No. 1 Cause of Productivity

Safety should be in the forefront of every equipment operator’s mind. Aside from reading the owner’s manual, the operator needs to be aware of all personnel in his work area and where they are at all times. TLBs can cover a lot of ground and handle a huge work load quickly, but you don’t want to be too eager to swing around to the loader controls and get moving before you survey the area to make sure you aren’t going to mow down any of your working buddies. Check and double check the area when operating a TLB on any jobsite.

When you’re faced with a mountain of material to load and move, “use the proper gear so you don’t spin the tires or tax the engine excessively and stay in control,” says Aubrey. “Enter a pile with the bucket level, then use both the lift and bucket functions to fill the bucket. Finish, don’t start, with the bucket curl to get the maximum payload.”

As the backhoe outriggers sink into the ground like landing alien spacecraft from planet productivity and the bucket tears into the ground, it’s just a matter of time before you oscillate your seat and take hold of the loader controls to move the backhoe’s spoils. Just don’t get too excited when you are getting your work done in record time and forget about safety, proper machine operations and the machine’s limitations. Although you may feel big and mighty atop your TLB, remember that the TLB is still a compact machine.

“Don’t overwork the machine. These are still compact machines with limitations. If you spend all day, every day digging 10-ft trenches with a 10-ft machine, you may need a larger machine,” says Blower. “While 10-ft machines can dig a trench that deep, that’s the maximum. 10-ft machines were designed to dig 5- or 6-ft trenches and then move on to a new operation.”

A safe operator who is conscious of the machine’s limitations will be a productive operator. Although these highly productive machines are ready to tackle two of the most common jobsite chores, keep in mind that the TLB isn’t a magic wand. But that might not stop the crew from calling you Merlin after you’ve dug a trench and made the dirt pile “magically disappear” in no time.

Jason Morgan is assistant editor of Compact Equipment.

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