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Which is better for your needs: compact excavator and skid-steer loader or backhoe loader?

TC60 compact crawler excavator & TSV60 skid steer loader.
TC60 compact crawler excavator & TSV60 skid steer loader.

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200 Nyala Farm Road
Westport, CT
US, 06880


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Just a few decades ago the backhoe loader was the most popular machine on a jobsite. The ability to operate as a loader and a backhoe made it one of the most versatile and revenue-driven pieces of equipment in a contractor’s fleet.

All of that changed in the 1990s when manufacturers began to promote the combined working force of a skid-steer loader and compact excavator together. For a comparable level of investment, contractors could now have two machines instead of one.

As the market for compact equipment grew, the versatility stronghold that the backhoe loader once had on the jobsite began to erode.

“While the demand for skid steer loaders and compact excavators have certainly increased in the last five years, backhoes loaders still have their place in the market,” says Ernie Ferguson, division sales manager of compact equipment for Terex Construction Americas. To understand which is better – a skid steer loader and compact excavator, or a backhoe loader – it’s important to look at the needs of the work being performed in certain markets.


A major reason for the growth in compact equipment is because construction sites are getting smaller. When working in confined jobsites, skid steer loaders and compact excavators provide superior maneuverability and a smaller footprint than a backhoe loader. In fact, these smaller machines have replaced a lot of larger equipment once used for the same job.

“Skid steer loaders and compact track loaders can be outfitted with dozens of attachments, and compact excavators will operate in areas that are harder to reach with a backhoe,” says Ferguson. “And while it will take the contractor two machines to do the job of one, many of those added costs are made up in fuel savings since these units are more fuel efficient than larger backhoe loaders.”


Crews are performing a wide range of work including curb and gutter repair, landscaping to lift-and-carry jobs and snow removal. The number one reason why municipalities prefer backhoe loaders is travel speed. Since many of the jobs municipalities are performing are relatively close to one another, it is often more efficient to drive the machine from job-to-job instead of trailering it. When comparing the 25 mph road travel speeds of a backhoe loader to the 8 to 12 mph of a skid steer loader and 3 mph of compact excavator, it’s easy to see why a municipality would prefer a backhoe loader.

“Looking beyond the travel speeds, municipalities are able to work with a small crew when they use a backhoe loader,” says Ferguson. “The backhoe loader’s size, horsepower and attachment versatility are also important qualities.”

To illustrate that point, Ferguson points to all the different tasks involved with repairing a storm sewer. The job involves using a hydraulic breaker attachment to bust-up concrete, a loader for removing and loading the concrete into a truck, and a backhoe to dig out the area and/or place any heavy gutter grates. “In this instance, it just doesn’t make sense to haul in two machines when one machine and one operator can get it done in less time,” he adds.

Utility work

Digging depth, bucket capacity and horsepower are important to utility contractors. Backhoe loaders can dig deeper and move more dirt in a shorter period of time than a compact excavator and the unit’s outriggers provide better stability on uneven ground. In addition, the added horsepower of a backhoe loader delivers better breakout force for tough digging conditions. To get this same level of performance, a utility contractor would have to use a mid-size to large excavator.


“The landscaping market is dominated by compact equipment,” Ferguson says. “Skid steers use a wide range of attachments to replace niche tools and reduce the amount of hand labour work being done. And while compact excavators aren’t used on every jobsite, when the need arises it only makes sense to bring in a compact excavator or use a backhoe loader attachment on the loader.”

Another major reason for the popularity of the skid steer loader and compact excavator combination among landscapers is the transportability of these machines. Because of the size and weight of the compact equipment, contractors are generally able to trailer them behind a standard pickup truck instead of a larger vehicle that requires a commercial license. Since many contractors will work on several different sites throughout the day, this reduces expenses and create efficiencies.


Backhoe loaders, skid steer loaders and compact excavators are among the most profitable and rented pieces of equipment in a rental yard’s fleet. “When a contractor isn’t going to be using the equipment on a regular basis, renting makes sense,” explains Ferguson. “It gives them the best opportunity to match the exact machine they need for the job, which will help to minimize their equipment fleet overhead, while reducing operating expenses. In addition, the equipment is delivered and serviced by the rental store to further reduce their responsibilities on the job.”

Ferguson also points out that many novice operators prefer to rent skid steers loaders instead of backhoe loaders, because of the perception of being easier to use. And, in most cases that is true. “Skid steer loaders come standard with pilot controls, which are much easier to operate than hand/foot controls,” he explains. “This becomes an even more important benefit when running a machine for an extended period of time because it can reduce operator fatigue.”

For many experienced operators, it’s all about moving material as quickly and efficiently as possible, and renting a backhoe loader is like getting two machines for the price of one.

Maintenance considerations

A contractor’s decision between a backhoe loader or a skid steer loader and compact excavator combination should largely be based on the work being performed but contractors also need to look at all maintenance expenses.

“The most obvious comparison to look at is the servicing of one machine versus two machines,” says Ferguson. “However, it’s not that clear cut since both machines likely will not be operating the same number of hours as a backhoe loader, which means the service intervals will not be the same. Depending on usage, two machines may or may not cost more to maintain than one.”

While maintenance may be more expensive for two machines, it also has its advantages when looking at potential downtime. Service times can be rotated and a breakdown will not completely shutdown operations when using a skid steer loader and a compact excavator together.

The choice

A number of manufacturers have introduced new, lower price-point backhoe loader options that compete with what a contractor will pay for skid steer loader and compact excavator. “Since prices are comparable, the decision to use a backhoe loader or a skid steer loader and compact excavator is largely based on the needs of the job,” says Ferguson. That, and of course, what machine an operator is most efficient at operating on a specific project. It is not the cost of the machines as much as the productivity on a specific job that matters. 

TLB840 Backhoe loader.

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