Excavator vs. Backhoe: What are the Key Differences?

Learn the unique benefits of each machine to determine which one to choose for the job.

Backhoes and excavators are the workhorses of the construction site. They perform many of the same tasks, but each has unique strengths, and one machine may be better than the other for your next earthmoving project.

What is an excavator?

Excavators are powerful digging machines that feature a boom, stick and bucket. In addition to digging, they’re used for demolition, mining, pile driving, breaking and dredging.

Excavators are categorized according to weight class:

The cab of an excavator can rotate 360 degrees, allowing the arm to dig and dump gravel or dirt while the undercarriage remains stationary. (Excavators are also called 360s.) Most excavators are tracked, but wheeled excavators are better suited for level worksites and hard surfaces.

The bucket can be swapped for another attachment, such as a grapple (for excavation and demolition), rake (for removing roots and other debris), auger (for digging fence posts and utility pole holes) or breaker (for breaking up concrete or frozen earth).

To answer the trackhoe vs. excavator question, a trackhoe is a term that’s sometimes used for a tracked excavator.

What is a backhoe?

Backhoes are smaller and more maneuverable than excavators. They feature a boom, stick and bucket in the back and a large loader on the front, which is why they’re also called backhoe loaders.

The average backhoe can dig to depths of 12 to 16 feet, though some can dig as deep as 19 feet 6 inches. Their outriggers provide good stability on uneven surfaces. Rotation range on backhoes is limited to about 200 degrees.

A wide variety of attachments enables them to take on a host of tasks. Attachments include road brooms, rakes, hammers, drills, forks, plow blades, compaction wheels, plate compactors, drum compactors and breakers.

Backhoe loader vs. excavator: How to choose

Since both earthmoving machines can be used to accomplish some of the same things, how do you choose the right machine for your project? It comes down to the jobsite and the specific task.

Size of the jobsite

Excavators are larger and heavier and best suited for large jobsites, including industrial jobsites. Backhoes are smaller and primarily used on medium-sized worksites and farms.

If neither machine will fit where you need it to go, consider a mini excavator. Its maneuverability, track size and compact swing allow it to go places a backhoe or standard excavator can’t, and it’s also more fuel efficient. When considering a backhoe vs. a mini excavator, note that mini excavators exert less ground pressure, so they are also superior when working on sensitive surfaces.

Scale of the job

Excavators have more power than backhoes, especially more digging and demolition power. Use them for the heaviest duties. Use a backhoe for medium-size jobs, and mini excavators for smaller jobs.

Mobility

How often will you need to move the machine from one jobsite to another? You’ll need to transport a standard excavator by trailer. Backhoes can be driven on roads at up to 25 miles per hour.

Task

Midi and standard excavators provide unmatched power for efficiently digging trenches, foundations and demolition. For small to medium jobs that require digging, loading, breaking or material moving, including landscaping jobs and civil earthworks projects, a backhoe with the necessary attachments may be the best bet. For indoor demolition or backyard pool development, turn to a mini excavator.

Visit our online marketplace to browse our selection of excavators, mini excavators and backhoes.

Michael d’Estries is a freelance writer who specializes in science, innovation and the arts.

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