Operational Awareness: Loader Backhoe or Excavator?

Loader backhoes provide great versatility and high job site productivity. Here is some practical advice for selecting the machine that best fits your needs.

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Each year brings new business opportunities and new challenges, but also some of the same decisions. For example, is it time to replace an aging machine? Or should you try to make do for another year?

For those tempted to invest in an additional or replacement machine, there's a lot to consider. You may want to try a different approach to the equipment you use on job sites. Onsite contractors often use two machines for installations: a compact excavator or backhoe for trenching and digging, and a skid-steer loader for soil removal.

An alternative is a loader backhoe: It lets you handle essentially all installation tasks with one machine, thus making your equipment and operators more productive.

Loader backhoes with a standard 14-foot digging depth have been a popular choice for years, but today it may be worthwhile also to consider larger models with 16-foot digging depth for the added functionality they offer.

More than a shovel

"The backhoe loader is without a doubt one of the most efficient and productive machines around," says Katie Pullen, marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment. "And it really provides the most versatility for septic system installers."

Whether used for excavating, trenching, backfilling or building a mound, modern loader backhoes are becoming more versatile every year, Pullen says. A variety of bucket sizes are available, along with different bucket configurations – narrow ones to trench alongside a house, and wider ones for digging the hole for the septic tank or trenches for the drainfield.

Other attachments (see below) can add even more productivity. "It has been common practice for many years for larger equipment – such as standard or mass excavators – to use attachments, but now loader backhoes can use these types of attachments on smaller projects," Pullen says. "It's all about making that one machine more and more versatile."

Decision factors

A great deal goes into the selection of a machine: Pullen offers several key areas to consider and questions to ask.

Cost to operate. While the initial investment may be higher for the newer Interim Tier 4 machines, it's important to weigh long-term operating costs, as well. Interim Tier 4 engines that leverage cooled exhaust gas recirculation (CEGR) technology and a diesel particulate filter will provide faster response time and at least 4 percent better fuel economy while maintaining the desired power and performance, Pullen says.

Maintenance. Can you make daily maintenance checks from the ground level? Or do you have to climb onto the machine and remove covers to check fluid levels and hydraulic gauges or discover the source of an oil leak? Are all filters easily accessible? Are grease fittings or other lubrication points easily accessible?

Operator productivity. If operators are used to a certain control system, it's worth considering a replacement machine with the same type of controls. If new operators are coming on board, they may be more productive with the newer and now more universal pilot-style controls. Does the cab provide good visibility on all sides of the machine? Do the windows open to allow easy communication and provide cross-ventilation? Are the seats ergonomically designed and comfortable? Are there armrests and wrist positioners to reduce fatigue?

Attachments. Does the machine accommodate popular tools like hydraulic augers, hammers and tampers for the backhoe, and forks, grapples, rakes, brooms, snow blades and combination buckets for the loader? Can you change buckets and attachments without leaving the cab? Hydraulic quick couplers let operators make changes in seconds. A mechanical quick coupler also can help speed changes, but it does require the operator to leave the cab.

Climate-specific needs. Installers in northern climates usually have to dig deeper due to frost. In such cases, you may want to consider an extended arm for the extra depth it provides, says Pullen. It's also worthwhile to consider whether the machine's break-out force is sufficient for work in frozen soils.

Project size. How big are the biggest systems you install? Consider the maximum size and weight of septic tanks, especially if you install larger two-compartment tanks. Depending on what other machinery you have at hand, you may want to make sure the loader backhoe you select can lift and maneuver any tank you may need.

Some machines offer features that provide a power boost to move objects that might otherwise require an excavator, or to break through in tough soil conditions. "Buying a more expensive machine like an excavator to lift and place septic tanks definitely gives installers a lot of machine, but overall it may be more machine than they need and more than they need to pay for," Pullen says.

Choose wisely

Ultimately, the decision to buy a loader backhoe instead of an excavator and a loader depends on your operation – how many operators you have, how many jobs you work on at a time, and what performance you require from your machines.

"There's not a right or wrong answer," Pullen says. "But loader backhoes live up to their name, delivering loading, excavating and fast travel in one machine. Septic system contractors should at least include them in their considerations when they're ready to buy."


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