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Backhoe on a construction site.
Backhoe on a construction site.

Backhoe vs. Excavator - What is the Difference?

5 Minute Read
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Tim Forestell
January 12, 2022

Backhoe vs. Excavator - What is the Difference?

When looking for an equipment rental there are many machines that can do the same job. Two commonly compared machines are the backhoe loader and excavator. When it comes to these two pieces of heavy equipment it can be tough to determine if an excavator rental or backhoe rental is best suited for your project. 

What is the Difference Between a Backhoe and an Excavator?

When looking at these two machines, the obvious visual difference is the loader bucket on the front of the backhoe. However, these machines also differ in their controls, movement, and attachments.

rented backhoe working on construction site

Backhoe Uses

Sometimes known as the swiss army knife of construction machines, a backhoe can do a little bit of everything. Backhoes can be used in landscape design to dig foundations for gardens, pools, and planting; backhoes can also be used to lay mulch and soil. They can also be used in construction for moving debris, drilling holes, or breaking land.

rented backhoe working on construction site

Excavator Uses

Excavators are frequently used in general construction. The different attachments allow it to dig holes, hammer apart hard concrete, tear apart old buildings, and move materials. This machine is extremely useful when working in construction as it can do it all. The reach can be used for demolition projects, and the powerful hydraulics can be used for lifting heavy materials.

Backhoe vs. Excavator

Here are some things to consider when choosing between a backhoe and an excavator rental.

1. Rotational Ranges

Rotational ranges refer to the ability of an operator to move the hydraulic arm in different directions. Rotational ranges are important when a project requires a machine that is more stable or if they need an arm that can swing freely.

If you are looking for a machine that has a tail swing of 360 degrees, then the excavator is the way to go. A backhoe can only rotate 200 degrees because of the stable structure of the cab of the backhoe. The structure of a backhoe is rigid because the operator needs to drive to different locations when digging. An excavator's undercarriage, on the other hand, allows the machine to move in a full rotation without needing to drive anywhere.

When choosing between a backhoe and an excavator, think about the movement needed when digging and if one of these fits the project better.

2. Mobility

Excavators are less than ideal when it comes to mobility. Larger machines can be bigger and move slower. Smaller machines can move more freely but then you’re compromising on digging ability. Most excavators also have tracks - although you can rent wheeled excavators. Tracks are better for stability but decrease the speed at which the machine moves. 

Backhoes can move around the job site at approximately 25 miles per hour due to their smaller, compact design and wheels. Wheels make a backhoe more friendly for concrete and asphalt foundations.

3. Controls

A backhoe and an excavator have different controls. Depending on the flexibility of the operators or the experience of the crew, one machine might be a better fit than the other.

Backhoe Controls

There have been many upgrades to backhoe controls over the past few years. There are two main controls for backhoes: The pilot control and the lever control. The pilot control option only uses buttons to move the machine. The two-lever control uses two side arm levers to maneuver the backhoe. 

The pilot controls are continuing to grow in popularity among operators. Button operating can be more comfortable and less strenuous to operate for hours on end, making them much more popular for operators. With one simple push operators can switch from using one function to the other with ease. 

The pilot controls are a great example of how technology in equipment is impacting not only the efficiency of machines but the future of how they operate. Tasks as simple as digging a hole can now be done by pushing a button, rather than needing to move the levers in a certain way to work.

Older models of backhoes use manual controls known as “wobble sticks” or levers. Manual controls forced the operator to command the movements of the machine using specific actions. The old way of operating a backhoe is sometimes preferred by experienced operators, but with the advances in technology, more backhoes are being built with pilot controls as they are easier to use.


Excavator Controls

Excavators differ from the backhoe as all controls are based on using joysticks and levers. Excavators come with two joysticks, both of which have a set function designated to each joystick. These functions are going to be the same no matter the brand of machine. This universality is helpful because it doesn’t matter if you’re operating a John Deere excavator or a Komatsu: you know how it works.

The movement of an excavator is controlled by foot pedals located in the front of the machine. The pedals are used to power the tracks both forward and backward. These pedals also control certain attachments like thumb attachments. Excavator controls require a bit more precision and practice compared to the controls of a backhoe.

Excavator on job site.

Is a Backhoe or Excavator Better for Farm Work?

Machines for farm work can be a bit more difficult to place. Size, ability, movement, and diversity all need to be considered. Overall, a backhoe is a better machine to rent for a farm. The wheels make it much more mobile. Both the front bucket and back arm can be fitted with a variety of attachments to make this machine truly diverse.

Excavators are great for specific farm projects like drilling holes for fences or building a new barn. If you’re looking for a machine for general farm use, a backhoe is the way to go. The front bucket can be used to move materials, hay, crops, or tools. The back digger can still be used for smaller excavator projects. Auger attachments, fork attachments, and even farm-specific attachments for tilling or laying crops make the backhoe a farm hero. 

Excavator on a job site.

Backhoe vs. Excavator

Ultimately the choice between renting a backhoe or an excavator is up to project requirements and personal preference. Many operators choose to use backhoes due to the versatility and design of the machine. Also, the option to use a front-end loader and digging bucket on the same machine makes them very appealing.

Some operators prefer to choose an excavator due to its size, power, and rotation range as many of these features are greater than a backhoe. Whichever way you go, both machines are guaranteed to help you complete your job

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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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