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Backhoe vs Wheel Loader: A Detailed Guide to Selecting the Ideal Equipment
9 minute read
Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
April 24, 2023

Backhoe vs Wheel Loader: A Detailed Guide to Selecting the Ideal Equipment

Every piece of construction equipment has its own use case and backhoe loaders and wheel loaders are no different. Although they are both common machines on any job site, especially when it comes to earthmoving and snow removal, each one has its pros and cons and jobs they're better suited for, and we're going to cover everything in this blog.

Both backhoes and wheel loaders can be rented on DOZR Marketplace in a variety of sizes. By the end of this guide, you should have a good idea of the size you need to get the job done.

Understanding the Functions and Applications of Backhoes and Wheel Loaders

Fixed with a bucket on the front and a digger on the back, backhoes are essentially the perfect combination between a wheel loader and an excavator. This makes them incredibly versatile machines that can do the jobs of several machines. They're extremely common on small and medium-sized projects, or when only one piece of machinery is needed to be utilized at a time.

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Backhoe image
70 HP - 100 HP
Wheel Loader image
1 yds - 7 yrds
Excavator image
13 ton - 80 ton
High Reach, Long Reach, Wheeled

Some common projects for backhoes include:

  • Digging and backfilling trenches

  • Digging around utilities

  • Moving materials

  • Clearing debris

  • Snow removal

Wheel loaders only have a bucket on the front. However, they tend to move faster and because of the articulating center, are extremely maneuverable in tight spaces. There are small, medium, and large wheel loaders, all with their own specific industry use.

Small and medium loaders are typically for small projects like landscaping, snow removal, earthmoving, and residential construction. Large wheel loaders are common in mining, quarrying, and large land-clearing projects that require moving massive amounts of dirt.

Some common projects for wheel loaders include:

  • Material handling

  • Moving large amounts of dirt and soil

  • Pushing dirt and soil

  • Clearing debris

  • Snow removal

While many of the jobs are similar, the amount and efficiency of the work will vary, which we will cover below.

Key Differences Between Backhoes and Wheel Loaders

The main distinguishable feature between these two machines is that backhoes have the excavator arm at the back, but beyond that, there are some other differentiators to note.

Dimensions and Maneuverability

Wheel loaders have a much wider range of weight than backhoe loaders do. Backhoes typically range from 9,000 to 20,000 lbs while wheel loaders can be anywhere from 9,000 to 250,000 lbs. Small and medium-sized wheel loaders that are used for everyday construction projects are the ones between 9,000 and 60,000 lbs. Wheel loaders will also give you more power, ranging from 40 hp to over 500 hp while back loaders really only range between 50 to 150 hp.

Case Backhoe
Case 580 Super N Backhoe

This difference in operating weight will completely change the dimensions of the machine and how it moves. However, wheel loaders typically have articulated steering, allowing the machine to bend in the middle. Not only does this allow the machine to carry more weight, but also bends around and turns more freely.

Backhoes, on the other hand, are typically smaller in size but don't have that articulating middle point. This, along with having a fixed attachment at the front and back, can make it harder to maneuver in tight spaces.

Digging Depth and Range

While wheel loaders can be used to move dirt, they are not effective digging machines. If your job requires any digging of trenches, it's best to go with a backhoe. Backhoes can dig between 13 and 20 feet depending on the model. For anything less, you can go with a mini excavator and for anything deeper, you will need a full-size excavator.

Loading Capacity and Bucket Volume

On the other hand, if you're working on a project that requires lots of earthmoving, a wheel loader will be your best option because that's what they are designed for. With bucket capacities ranging anywhere from 1 cubic yard to 19 cubic yards, wheel loaders can move more than backhoes which typically have a bucket size of around 1.3 cubic yards.

Versatility and Attachment Compatibility

Because of the digging attachment and bucket, backhoes will be naturally more versatile than wheel loaders. They can use the back arm to dig and the front bucket to move material and grade. Attachments can also be switched out. However, there are limited attachments for the rear excavator arm.

John Deere 244L Wheel Loader with fork attachments
John Deere 244L Wheel Loader with fork attachments

The number of attachments for wheel loaders is limited. The most commonly used ones are root rakes, grapples, forks, buckets, and waste handlers.

Root rakes allow operators to pull roots and vegetation without collecting soil. Grapples assist in picking up oversized or awkward loads like debris. Forks can be used to handle pallets or square loads. And waste handlers are most commonly used in landfills.

While this is not the case with skid steer attachments, many wheel loader and backhoe attachments are only able to be used with similar manufacturers. They do not fit universally across all machines and it's important to get the right ones.

Operating Expenses and Maintenance Requirements

Like with most construction equipment, fuel will be a major operating expense. Other operating expenses like maintenance and repair will all depend on a lot of factors. However, both machines are considered durable and fairly easy to maintain.

Any additional training provided to the operator should limit potential damages and increase worksite safety. Daily greasing is also important, especially on the excavator side of a backhoe. Attachments should also be factored into operating expenses.

If talking specifically about renting, small wheel loaders with a 1 cubic yard bucket and backhoes typically rent for the same prices, depending on the market. Once you get around a 3 cubic yard bucket wheel loader, prices will be higher.

Benefits of Utilizing a Backhoe

Let's go over the benefits of a backhoe specifically.

Adaptability in Restricted Spaces

Contractors have different thoughts about backhoes and the space they take up. On the one hand, they're sometimes the only machine you need on a utility project or landscaping project, eliminating the need for using a larger number of machines that could take up valuable room. That's why they're so popular in metropolitan road projects. In that sense, they can easily move in restricted spaces.

When not operating the excavating side, while you can easily bring the arm close to the machine, it still takes up more space than a mini-excavator or skid steer would. This makes the size both a pro and a con, depending on the area you intend to work.

Excavating and Trenching Proficiency

For excavating and trenching purposes, backhoes are great tools. With the excavator arm at the back of the machine, this is exactly what they are designed to do. Capable of digging between 13' and 20', backhoe loaders are the perfect machines for jobs that might require more than a mini excavator but less than a full-sized excavator.

Kubota L35 backhoe loader
Kubota L35 backhoe loader

Compatibility with a Range of Attachments

Backhoes are compatible with a wide range of attachments for both the front bucket and the back excavator. Attachments include augers, cold planers, hammers, rippers, and more. However, not every attachment will be compatible with every make and model. There is a lot less universal sizing like on skid steers and compact track loaders so it's important to do your research.

Simplified Transportation and Mobility

Being on wheels, backhoes can navigate many terrains quite well. It's important to see if your backhoe is 4x4 or 2x4 as it will affect its efficiency for mobility and different terrains. Also, most machines have ISO and SAE controls so operators with experience will be able to use them with ease.

Benefits of Utilizing a Wheel Loader

Now onto the benefits of utilizing a wheel loader.

Enhanced Loading and Lifting Abilities

If you're working on a project that will require lots of lifting and loading then wheel loaders are the better choice. Not only do they have bigger buckets, as we've already mentioned, but the added horsepower gives them the ability to lift more weight as well. Wheel loaders can lift anywhere from 5,000 lbs to 158,000 lbs, depending on the make and model.

Rapid Cycle Times for Material Handling

Wheel loaders are incredibly quick machines both in terms of movement and lifting times. Because of their power, they increase efficiency, they are designed to move quickly on flat ground, and they can scoop lots of material in one motion.

According to reports from Caterpillar, if driving on smooth surfaces and with loose aggregates, operators should be able to load, dump, move, and travel in a short span of 27 to 33 seconds.

Caterpillar 906H wheel loader
Caterpillar 906H wheel loader with fork attachments

Improved Stability and Traction on Varied Terrain

Because of the articulating style of wheel loaders and their all-wheel drive, wheel loaders can drive well on a variety of terrains. Also, because they're designed to work on mines and quarries, they are designed for rocky terrains.

However, they may lose stability on slopes. Operating your equipment at 50% payload is recommended when traveling on slopes.

Ideal for Large-scale Construction Endeavors

As mentioned, wheel loaders are typically used on large-scale earthmoving projects that need to move a lot of dirt and aggregate. Oftentimes, residential and small-scale projects do not require the power of a wheel loader when other options like skid steers, mini-excavators, and backhoes are available.

When it comes to snow removal, both can have their uses, especially if you're a landscaper or contractor with lots of properties to cover. Wheel loaders can be the best choice with speed and cycle times and how fast you can get the job done.

Factors to Evaluate When Deciding Between a Backhoe and a Wheel Loader

Project Specifications and Tasks

We've already covered a lot of the basics here but let's summarize when to use a backhoe vs a wheel loader.

Use a backhoe when:

  1. You only have space for one piece of equipment that needs to be able to dig and move equipment in a residential or commercial area

  2. You need to dig more than a mini excavator and less than a full-sized excavator

  3. You have a wider variety of tasks to do that will require different attachments

Use a wheel loader when:

  1. No digging is required and you have to move a lot of dirt, aggregate, or snow quickly

  2. Space is limited but you need equipment that can turn really easily

  3. When the aggregates or materials you're moving require more power

  4. When you require more powerful hydraulics

Budget Limitations and Equipment Acquisition Costs

If budget and financing are an important part of your decision, as they normally are for contractors, then that is something to research as well. Typically, backhoe loaders cost between $15,000 and $80,000 while wheel loaders can cost between $30,000 and $200,000 to purchase. All numbers will vary by features, size, and location.

Availability of Trained Operators

Everyone knows that the construction industry is in a labor shortage right now and finding a trainer operator can be challenging. Not every contractor has the luxury of spending hours training new operators, nor can they afford to send them to training sessions to get their skills built up. However, if you can find one for either machine, that's a good start and may factor into your decision on what to rent.

Renting vs Purchasing: Making an Informed Decision for Your Project

Now that we've covered the basics of both machines, it's time to make your decision.

Advantages of Renting Construction Equipment

The advantages of renting construction equipment are pretty simple: lower upfront costs, less liability when something goes wrong, and you only need to rent it for as long as you need to get the project done.

You can see the rental prices for a wide range of equipment selections, including both backhoe loaders and wheel loaders, on DOZR. You can also book the rental fully online. Or, you can call one of our experienced sales representatives to help make the right decision too.

Discovering the Most Competitive Rental Offers through DOZR

With DOZR, you can search for equipment in your area and see what every rental company's rates are. This can help you make an informed decision on which company and service will work best for you and your budget!

We hope this has been helpful in figuring out whether a backhoe or wheel loader will work better on your construction projects. Check out our other comparison blogs as well including the differences between skid steers and tractors and skid steers and compact track loaders.

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Find Your Next Equipment Rental on DOZR
Backhoe image
70 HP - 100 HP
Wheel Loader image
1 yds - 7 yrds
Excavator image
13 ton - 80 ton
High Reach, Long Reach, Wheeled
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Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.
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