Can I use heavy machinery?
May 4, 2010 5:13 PM   Subscribe

How hard is a backhoe loader to operate?

I will want to excavate* and landscape a house site in the future, so will either go the quick, professional and expensive route and outsource it all (most likely), or alternatively, I could buy or rent a backhoe loader, for more flexibility.

Which I've never used before.

I'm comfortable on a 50 HP tractor with hydraulics and PTO attached equipment, but I've never used either a backhoe or a loader. How hard is it? Mostly just common sense?

I'm reasonably safe and conservative, I understand needing a stable platform and not overloading. And certain medication should not be used when operating heavy machinery...

* yes I know this probably requires engineering certification. A separate issue.
posted by wilful to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Backhoes are not all that difficult to operate - though ideally you'll have at least one other person around to help you gauge the position of the bucket in deeper holes and fine excavaction work. Light grading work is very easy and tends to go quickly once you become acquainted with the sensitivity of the controls.

The real problem with using a backhoe is that the mistakes people make with them tend to be expensive - say, pulling up a pipe or conduit, getting bogged (yes, it is possible) and needing a tow, etc. As much as I have enjoyed playing Giant Sandbox in the past, in your shoes, I would hire an insured professional.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:24 PM on May 4, 2010

Making a big mess quickly is pretty easy and a great deal of fun. Learning to run the digger bucket along a flat trajectory, in order to dig nice trenches with flat bottoms, requires a great deal of practice, as does learning to move stuff in the order required to avoid leaving a site looking as if giant five year olds have run amok with giant mattocks.
posted by flabdablet at 5:45 PM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: Sorry Inspector.Gadget, can I just quiz you on that? Without getting into a debate, you say it's not that difficult to operate, but that I should get a professional? Qué?

Insurance is compulsory for owner-builders in Victoria, so that's no issue, and dialling before you dig is also not really an issue on a rural block (and not something that professionals are immune to). As with getting bogged, well that's my time wasted rather than the pro's, it's a fact of life that I'm anticipating. Good drainage is important for a bunch of reasons.
posted by wilful at 5:45 PM on May 4, 2010

Sorry Inspector.Gadget, can I just quiz you on that? Without getting into a debate, you say it's not that difficult to operate, but that I should get a professional? Qué?

The machine itself is not difficult to operate. While I can't speak for Inspector.Gadget, I can tell you that while it is fun playing Giant Sandbox with heavy machinery, the potential for expensive screwups increases exponentially when the operator is untrained.
posted by crankylex at 5:50 PM on May 4, 2010

wilful: "it's not that difficult to operate, but that I should get a professional?"

Yeah, seconding that. It is easy to use, but the some of the mistakes you may make have huge consequences.

Easy to make mistakes with an excavator can lead to things like: knocking down or being electrocuted by power lines, crushing an expensive vehicle, injuring or killing bystanders, or expensive property damage.
posted by idiopath at 5:52 PM on May 4, 2010

Exactly what crankylex said (and what I said above). Most everything will be fine. The problem is that even though you're unlikely to get into trouble if you've cleared everything with utility companies, are operating on solid ground, etc., mistakes are very costly. Even a small chance of really screwing up is enough to make it (in my opinion) worth passing the risk onto someone else who you pay to bear it, simply because screw-ups tend to be costly.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:53 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I rented a medium sized bulldozer/backhoe about 5 years ago when I redid my yard with a tractor trailer full of mushroom soil/topsoil mix. While the yard (about a 1/4 acre) came out nicely and without major incident (except for the battle I lost removing a hedge with apparently 3 miles of root network, but that's a story for another day) I still get a little bummed at the uneven spots that stick out like sore thumbs to me, due to my bush league dozer skills, but I saved a ton of money doing it all by myself over a very long 3 days. Ironically enough more than a few people in my neighborhood who had professional landscaping done say they like the way mine turned out better than theirs. So, as long as you're careful and turn the perfection wick down a tad I'm sure that you'll do swimmingly. Just avoid underground pipes (get the location of all underground pipes marked), and hedges. One must never underestimate the tenacity of a long standing hedge to remain in its place of residence. Good luck!
posted by chosemerveilleux at 5:55 PM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: So mostly safety issues that with a little forethought are avoidable?

I'm comfortable taking that risk on, I'm not a cowboy in any sense.
posted by wilful at 5:55 PM on May 4, 2010

I learned how to operate one when I was eight, so they're not terribly difficult to use. They may or may not be difficult to use safely, however.
posted by Jairus at 5:59 PM on May 4, 2010

A friend of mine rented a backhoe, and I came along to watch. He wanted to do some basic dredging with it.

I was amazed at how hard it was to do what we wanted to do. To this day I don't know if it was the right tool for the job, but figuring out how to properly scoop with the thing (even after we loosened up soil with a pickaxe) was really hard.

On top of that, the rental agency didn't properly train my friend on how to load the backhoe on the trailer, and he ended up losing control of it on the freeway, fishtailing heavily with the backhoe hitting a guard rail, tipping over it, and almost dragging the truck down the side of a hill.

He ended up wrestling some control back and jack-knifing it in the freeway median. I was following him, watching the whole thing happen.

The rental agency said that even though he purchased insurance, it didn't cover the fact that he loaded the trailer wrong. It took him about a day to sort it out and finally they agreed to cover the damages.

So I guess that's a possible downside.
posted by circular at 6:10 PM on May 4, 2010

Try not to put the digger claws through the tyre, for instance. That's very expensive.
posted by flabdablet at 6:10 PM on May 4, 2010

Oh yeah, and where my friend's "trench" was supposed to be, there is now a half-foot deep impression in the ground that peters out at the end...we gave up on it after about 2 hours. I think he knew he was up for a job transfer.
posted by circular at 6:12 PM on May 4, 2010

To clarify: operating the machine is not difficult. Obtaining acceptable results may be.

I've never operated a backhoe, but I do have a number of hours on a Bobcat. The hardest part was operating the feet levers with numb feet (cold!) and heavy boots. Only turtled it once.

More importantly, digging the appropriate holes might not be too bad. But backfilling and grading might come back to bite you. If you don't backfill properly, you loose structural integrity at worst, and end up with lumpy landscaping after a couple of seasons at a minimum. I was watching them regrade a highway overpass "middle area" (IE, not structural, just a hill between the roads), and the amount of driving back and forth and compacting they did was mind boggling. Every "lump" of dirt that wasn't properly smashed down means a pothole in the landscape eventually.
posted by gjc at 6:32 PM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: It's relatively simple to operate any machinery like this in a mediocre way, that may be passable. It's always a learning curve to get the motions of the controls down. However, if you're talking about grading a house site, you need to consider that you may have to haul soil away or store it on site; moving alot of soil effectively is difficult, and hauling it off will require a dump truck and a place to dump. Also, it is very important to achieve proper grading and drainage on any site to avoid either ponding or erosion issues. You really should have a good grading and drainage plan drawn up by a professional, and follow it (which may be difficult with rudimentary skills). If you have any trees, plants, streams, or other natural resources that you want to protect, you'd better work it into any plan and avoid disturbing the soil in that area at all.
posted by Red Loop at 6:48 PM on May 4, 2010

They are somewhat difficult to master. That being said, one of my buds just bought one this year to clear his farm of stumps. (I still can not fathom why he shuns dynamite; even though the backhoe is fun, explosives would be even more fun, and legal. What's not to love here.) That has gone well according to him. Preparing grade and excavating say a basement are far, far more difficult tasks. The grade is probably doable because you can just keep trying until you get it right.
posted by caddis at 6:59 PM on May 4, 2010

To clarify: operating the machine is not difficult. Obtaining acceptable results may be.

This. I've watched people learning before, and they can produce some comically bad results. Watching a truly skilled operator is amazing -- the coordination and spatial thinking it takes to make a perfectly straight and level trench, while working blind and on an angle, is not easy.
posted by Forktine at 8:15 PM on May 4, 2010

You could try renting before you need to do anything and just play with it. If you do that, pick somewhere you are 100% positive there is nothing underground or aboveground. Just because it is rural does not mean there is nothing underground. Something as simple as a drain tile could cause problems if you damage it. You may have to train with it for quite a while before you master it enough to do something useful.
posted by JJ86 at 8:53 PM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: As a civil engineer we have a special love for "idiots with backhoes", don't be one. Call the "call before you dig" people and make sure, sure, sure there is nothing you are going to hit. If there is underground stuff you are digging near, dig by hand till you find it to make sure (this is called potholing in the industry) of its location, btw this is how the responsible construction crews do it, and they do it for a reason. If you hit a gas line or electric line you may well die, if you hit a water line you will really piss off your neighbors and ruin any work you have done. In any case if you hurt any utilities you will pay for the repairs, and pay a crew of professionals. This goes for overhead lines as well, and they are easy to forget about. Sometimes even the professionals screw this up, don't be that guy.

Now then it isn't to hard to run one, it is really hard to run one well. If you are just installing some conduit or filling in a hole or minor grading you can do it. Practice some first and then just do it, you may wind up doing it twice. IF you are doing something that requires structural integrity (foundations or bedding for road, driveway or path) you will need to also compact it. This can be done with a handheld 'wacker' or jumping jack(the only thing you should DIY), a roller attachment for the backhoe (really difficult) or a large roller that is a separate piece of equipment. Getting the right density of the soil is critical and best just leave this to professionals. If it is a small area or path just use the wacker yourself or even just a heavy walk behind roller you fill up with water.

If you aren't doing any trenching I would probably skip the backhoe and use a bobcat (skidsteer loader). They are smaller, more agile and easier to operate than a full size backhoe. If you are only doing trenching then rent either a ditcher (the rental place will know) or a mini excavator. The mini excavator are way, way easier to dig with than a backhoe they just don't have a loader bucket. They do usually have a dozer blade though that can do a decent jog grading a small area. I would also suggest reading a book or watching some kind of instructions on how to run the equipment also. I would probably rent the equipment and try it out. If it doesn't work out you can always hire the professionals later, but if you can manage it you will save a ton of money.
posted by bartonlong at 9:20 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone, that's enough for me.

To restate, I don't think I am an idiot (hey they all say that), and would go through all safety precautions. Overhead check, underground check, slope check, site safety assessments, etc etc. These are all manageable, able to be thought through, I've demonstrated to myself that I'm at least as smart and as worksite safety aware as the average tradie on these matters.

I know I can't judge soil stability matters on a slope, that requires an engineering assessment. Not to be taken lightly.

It's mostly a matter of the quality of the outcome, I respect the skill in time and the quality of the output by experienced operators, I don't expect to replicate that at all, but, never having actually used one, it's good to know that as a basic tool, they're accessible.
posted by wilful at 9:50 PM on May 4, 2010

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