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Backhoe vs. Excavator: Which Machine Is Best for Your Project?

Backhoe vs. Excavator: Which Machine Is Best for Your Project?

Though it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a backhoe and an excavator, they differ in three main ways: size, versatility and rotation. These factors make each machine suited for different jobs, so it’s important to choose the right one for your project.

Size

The main difference between the two machines is size — excavators are larger and heavier, while backhoes are slightly smaller. The excavator is typically a better fit for demolition projects, mining, driving piles, drilling shafts for rock blasting and overall large-scale industrial projects. The backhoe, as the smaller and more adaptable of the two, is better for farming, snow removal, loading jobs, and medium-scale construction and excavation projects.

Versatility

When it comes to the excavator vs. the backhoe, versatility is also a differentiating factor. Though both machines offer a number of attachment options, the backhoe has a much greater selection and is therefore capable of a wider variety of tasks. One benefit of backhoes is that they can be driven on roads, which makes them the better choice for projects with spread-out worksites.

Rotation

Finally, backhoes and excavators have different rotation ranges which make them very different machines from an operator’s standpoint. An excavator operator can rotate the entire machine’s chassis and arm together in a complete circle, while a backhoe’s arm only pivots across a range of about 200 degrees.

The best way to determine which machine is right for your project is to learn the ins and outs of each.

What's the difference between a backhoe and an excavator

What Is a Backhoe?

A backhoe is an excavation machine comprised of a standard tractor base that supports a digging bucket on the end of a jointed two-part arm. The opposite side of the backhoe will often have a front loader attachment (in which case the backhoe is technically called a “backhoe loader”), so the seat swivels 360 degrees to allow the operator to face whichever side is being used at the time.

The part of the backhoe arm that’s attached to the tractor is called the boom, and the segment that holds the digger bucket is called the dipper or dipper-stick. The pivot that connects the boom and dipper is called the king-post. There is a wide variety of attachments available for a backhoe, like drills, hammers, rippers, rakes, breakers and more. The front loader can also be replaced with different brooms, plows and forklifts. In some cases, a backhoe can even serve as a crane by looping the straps of a lifted object over the dipper stick.

The term “backhoe” can be confusing because the digging bucket is actually on the front of the machine. But the backhoe’s name actually refers to the way that the machine digs by pulling earth toward itself, or backward, rather than pushing it forward like a traditional shovel.

What Is a Backhoe?

What Is an Excavator?

An excavator is a digging machine that consists of a boom, dipper, digging bucket and chassis — much like a backhoe is constructed — though an excavator can have either tracks or wheels. However, while a backhoe is often made up of a traditional tractor with a backhoe attachment, the excavator is purpose-built to perform tasks using the digging arm and therefore can handle heavier projects.

While excavator parts are similar to those of backhoes, excavators greatly differ in rotation capability. Unlike a backhoe, the excavator’s entire cab rotates 360 degrees atop its undercarriage. Most wheeled and compact excavators also have a dozer blade attached opposite the digging arm.

Like the backhoe, the excavator also has a range of attachments that make it capable of tasks beyond standard digging, like heavy-duty drilling and demolition. Excavators are also often used in conjunction with brush-cutting attachments in forestry projects.

Excavators are often called diggers, mechanical shovels or 360s. Excavators with tracks instead of wheels are often called “trackhoes,” a direct reference to the machine’s similarity to the backhoe.

What Is an Excavator?

Which One Makes More Sense for Your Project?

There are a few factors to consider when determining whether a backhoe or excavator is the best fit for your project.

Size

The size of your machine should match the scale of your project. If you’re working on a large-scale construction, excavation or demolition project where sheer machine power is important, you’re likely better served by an excavator. If your project is more moderate in scope, you might consider using a backhoe.

Mobility

One advantage of the backhoe is that it can travel easily across a job site and even drive up to 25 mph on roads. If your project is spread apart and you need to complete tasks in different areas, you’ll have an easier time using a backhoe.

Task Specificity

Some tasks, like digging, can be done using a backhoe or excavator, but there are others that are really only possible for one machine or the other. Evaluate the specific tasks and attachments you foresee needing on your project and make sure the equipment you choose is capable.

Backhoe vs. Excavator FAQs

Still have questions about the differences between backhoes and excavators? Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

Can You Excavate With a Backhoe?

Yes, backhoes can be used for excavating or digging projects. One thing to remember is that backhoes are typically best suited for small to moderate size projects, like digging a residential basement. Excavators are best for heavy-duty projects like mining or large-scale construction.

What Is the Difference Between Backhoe and Excavator Controls?

When it comes to a backhoe vs. an excavator, controls can be a common point of confusion. Backhoes typically use two operating systems: pilot control or lever control. Pilot control only uses  buttons to maneuver the machine. Lever control uses two side levers that can be pushed forward, backward or side to side to control the backhoe. On the other hand, excavators usually only use levers to control the machine.

Do I Need an Excavator or a Backhoe?

In general, excavators are better suited for heavy-duty projects like major construction, and backhoes are better for moderately sized projects like farmwork. The following table breaks down recommendations based on common scenarios.

Backhoe Excavator
Small to moderate size projects Large or heavy-duty projects
Farming Demolition
Snow removal Mining
Loading jobs Driving Piles
Spread-out worksites Drilling shafts for rock blasting
Residential basements Dredging rivers
Uprooting trees Trenching

If you’re still not sure which machine makes sense for your project, consider speaking directly with a heavy equipment professional. Someone who knows the ins and outs of both machines, as well as their various attachments, can take a look at your site plans and make an expert recommendation as to which of these machines is right for you.

Know what you need? Rent a backhoe or excavator from one of our 10,000 suppliers across the U.S.

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