Backhoe Basics: Exploring the Latest in the Backhoe Market with John Deere

John Deere 310SL backhoe

Backhoes are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment on a utility construction site. From picking and placing, loading and excavating, and backfilling and finishing, a backhoe can be an integral part of a successful product. To get the most out of the machine, however, it is imperative to choose right tool for the job.

To get a better sense of capabilities of backhoes and the market in general, Utility Contractor spoke to Justin Steger, John Deere’s Solutions Marketing Manager for Site Development and Underground. Here’s what he had to say.

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What are the key factors an operator should consider when purchasing a backhoe?

Generally, whether it is an owner/operator or a fleet manager, the first thing you want to look at are the key specs – engine horsepower, operating weight, and dig depth. From there, that will lead you to the type of machine that is best suited for the job, regardless of manufacturer.

From there, you want to consider how it will help your business. Are you going to use the coupler? Are you going to be switching attachments? Utility contractors typically love couplers and switching attachments, which helps them get the most out of the machine.

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Typically, you want to look for a coupler that is compatible with multiple generations of attachments and multiple manufacturers of attachments. Deere’s coupler is compatible with our equipment going back to the G Series of backhoes, as well as some of the other OEM’s attachments.

And the other thing regarding attachments is pay attention to the hydraulic flow. Whether you have hydraulic powered attachments already or you are looking to purchase them as part of a backhoe package, pay attention to the flow and the pressures that those attachments require and make sure you have the power unit in the backhoe to support them.

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John Deere 310SL backhoe

What is the typical size backhoe for utility contractors?

Typically, we see utility contractors using our 310 range (310L, 310L EP, 310SL, 310SL HL), which allows about 15 ft of dig depth. That is also a popular size among rental customers. Machines in that range of are not too large and easy to transport, and the 15 ft of dig depth is in the sweet spot for most of the utility work that backhoes do.

One key option for these backhoes is the extendable dipper stick, that provides a little more reach or a little more dig depth without having to size up the entire machine.

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How has technology evolved in the backhoe space over the past 3-5 years?

One thing that is sometimes overlooked is the hydraulic system, which is the heart of the machine. On today’s machines, we have gone from open center hydraulic systems, which depend on engine speed for hydraulic power, to more sophisticated pressure-compensated, load-sensing hydraulics – or PCLS. PCLS allows the machine to produce hydraulic flow while being less dependent on engine speed, resulting in 3-7% fuel savings which varies by model and application.

We are seeing some manufacturers trending toward electro hydraulic – or EH controls – vs. pilot operated controls. But Deere backhoes are currently pilot operated due to feedback from customers. They like the smooth, predictable performance of pilot controls, which is crucial for utility contractors and backhoe operators because it is not often that you are digging virgin ground. Backhoes are commonly used for urban projects, and customers tell us that pilot controls give them better feedback through the joystick. We hear that often enough that we are planning to stay with pilot hydraulics until the customers tell us otherwise.

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Finally, we are starting to see OEMs, Deere included, entering the realm of battery-electric backhoes. We currently have our Phase 1 prototype, which is being tested in conjunction with National Grid in the Northeast. At this stage we are proving out the technology and the systems and making sure that we are well positioned when the market demand it.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see regarding backhoe operations? Do you have tips to avoid these or improve performance?

One key consideration in efficient operations is the positioning of the backhoe. If you are digging a trench, for example, you want to position the backhoe to minimize repositioning the machine, which can take time and reduce efficiency.

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The other thing to think about is where you are dumping your spoils. As you excavate the trench, generally you want to swing and dump downhill: you don’t want the dirt falling back into the hole you just created, but you can use gravity to your advantage to swing downhill, dump it, and then swing an empty bucket back uphill. This will increase your cycle times and it might help increase fuel economy improvements as well.

A common mistake we see relates to the stabilizers. Many operators want to lift the entire machine a foot or so off the ground. But when you do this, you raise the center of gravity and reduce stability. So, when you put the stabilizers down, you want just enough to get the tires just off the ground. That is where you are going to be most stable, and the most productive.

The last piece of advice relates to the extendable dipper stick. Everyone loves more reach, and the fact you can add reach without having to reposition the machine or pick up the stabilizers leads some operators to use the dipper stick more than they should. If you are using the dipper stick for excavation, you are limiting the breakout force of the machine, which is going to be less productive. Additionally, it can cause excessive wear and tear. Our recommendation is to excavate normally and take advantage of the extendable dipper stick for cleanup or backfill. That is how you will get the most production.

What are the key maintenance checks/procedures for ensuring best performance and longest life of the machine?

One of the things related to maximizing uptime involves the emissions systems. For machines that require diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), you really need to keep the DEF clean and keep it warm. That will eliminate a lot of headaches when it comes to the emissions system.

As far as general maintenance, keeping on top of standard checks is key. Deere has designed our backhoes with a fold-out front hood that allows you to check fluids, filters, coolers, etc. We also design the equipment so that grease points are as easy to access as possible.

We also have features to lower operating costs lower, including Eco Mode, which helps optimize power flow and fuel efficiency.

What are the most popular attachments?

For the front loader, couplers and multipurpose 4-in-1 buckets are common because they help make the machine as versatile as possible. With the 4-in-1 bucket you still have a bucket to load, carry, dump and truck load, but you’re also able to open the bucket up to use as a cutting edge. For utility contractors, forks are another popular attachment. If the backhoe is the only machine on the jobsite, it is nice to be able to drop the bucket off, pick up a set of forks, unload a truck full of pipe, set it on the ground and go to work.

On the backhoe side, thumbs are extremely popular. Thumbs give you versatility to be able to pick and place. We also see many operators using hammers and breakers to be able to break up concrete for pipe repairs. Finally, plate compactors are popular because they can help with the final process of compacting the backfill.

Depending on how deep and what the site requirements are, you can do everything with one machine and one operator and keep costs as low as possible.

How do you see the backhoe market evolving in the near term?

Specific to utility contractors, the backhoe industry has seen a transformation. It started to tail off in the past 10 years as backhoes were being replaced by compact excavator and skid steer combos. There are several reasons, including the fact that compact excavators and skid steers are easier to transport. But then you have two pieces of equipment instead of one, so there are tradeoffs. We have seen that trend start to stabilize, however, and today backhoes are still a very strong industry and a very strong market.

When you look at backhoe features and technology, it comes down to machine performance, so the focus is on making the equipment move more dirt and burn less fuel, along with making it easier to operate, especially with today’s skilled labor shortages. Some of our newer features include power shift transmission and Auto Shift, which is standard. With Auto Shift, you can select the highest gear that you want the machine will shift optimally based on engine speed and ground speed, which helps reduce wear and tear.

Similarly, we include Lift Mode and Precision Mode in the machines as well. Lift Mode helps optimize the hydraulic system for lifting or craning objects such as manholes, while Precision Mode limits flow for fine accuracy.

Further into the future, I think we’ll start to see a move toward electrification. Electric equipment has less moving parts, which makes it simple and easier to operate, while reducing wear and tear. At the same time, it is quieter and doesn’t burn any fuel. There are many questions to answer yet, but electrification looks to be a key element for the future. Tags: ,