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How the Right Maintenance and Service Checks Enhance a Backhoe’s Productivity

Posted on 16th Sep 2013 @ 11:59 AM

Equipment manufacturers have created many specialized machines designed to do specific tasks very well. But when contractors need a machine that’s an all-around workhorse, combining versatility, agility and power into one package, they can often look no further than the reliable backhoe loader. While backhoes may initially bring large construction projects or roadwork to mind, models available today are great choices even for smaller jobs when the task at hand requires speed and power. According to Jim Blower, senior product manager, mid-range for JCB, professionals of all kinds find backhoe loaders to be essential tools on the job.

“A landscape contractor who installs ponds or builds retaining walls, for example, could probably do the work with a skid steer or a compact track loader,” Blower says. “However, by using a compact backhoe, he could get those jobs done faster and pass the resulting labor savings on to his customers, helping him win more bids. Small- to mid-size backhoe loaders are also very useful for professionals like electricians and plumbers when tying into water lines or connecting electrical supplies to new homes.”

Pay Now or Pay Later

Although they’re exceptionally strong and versatile, like any machine, backhoe loaders have their limits. Small backhoes are not designed to do the work of a full-size machine, so it’s important to use them wisely. “A machine will show signs of fatigue and wear more quickly if it’s overworked or constantly used at its limits,” Blower adds. “It’s important for owners and operators to know what their backhoe can and can’t do before using it in certain applications.”

While backhoes are tough, durable machines, they definitely require some regular TLC to stay in top working condition. Because most contractors are busy people with long to-do lists, it can be tough to find the time to service these machines adequately. Just looking at a manufacturer’s comprehensive backhoe maintenance guide can be a little overwhelming. However, according to Kevin Jayroe, backhoe technical specialist for JCB, it’s best to approach backhoe maintenance as an investment in the life of the machine.

“I advise our dealers to tell their customers to always keep the ‘pay now or pay later’ rule in mind,” says Jayroe. “In other words, you can either take the time to service the machine yourself or pay your dealer to service it now, or you’ll end up paying later due to premature wear and tear and the repairs that come with it.”
At Your Service

In its service manual, JCB categorizes routine backhoe maintenance by each of the machine’s major systems: engine; transmission, axles and steering; hydraulics; brakes; electrics; and bodywork and cab. From there, service intervals are divided up into hourly or calendar intervals, depending upon the owner’s preference. Most manufacturers recommend routine maintenance checks at 10 hours (daily), 50 hours (weekly), 100 hours (monthly), 500 hours (every six months), 1,000 hours (yearly) and 2,000 hours (every two years). According to Blower, the service intervals have evolved over time.

“As lubricants, filters and machine builds have developed over the years, the service intervals have increased to match,” Blower says. “About 10 years ago, the engine oil recommended change was every 200 hours, but today, it’s 500 hours. That reduces maintenance costs for the machine over its lifespan.”

Obviously, the most comprehensive and time-consuming maintenance still takes place at longer intervals, while faster, simpler maintenance is required more often. Meanwhile, a variety of pre-start and fluid level checks should be done regularly. In fact, JCB proposes that operators should make more than 10 different pre-start cold checks, service points and fluid level checks each and every day that an operator uses the machine.  However, Blower says machines with new Tier 4 Interim engines are changing that.

“With the new Tier 4i machines offered by manufacturers, these daily fluid level checks are now done by the machine itself,” Blower says. “This reduces the time an operator needs to start his work day and gets the machine working and earning money sooner.”

Weekly backhoe maintenance is much the same as daily maintenance, with the addition of checking the fan belt tension and overall condition and checking the machine’s wiring for chaffing or routing issues. After the first month of operation, manufacturers usually ask owners to take their machines to their local distributor or dealer for its first 100-hour service. From then on, monthly maintenance checks include checking engine mounting bolts, hoses, axle oil level, front hub bearings, drive shaft, steer axle movement and shimming, steer axle pivots and linkages, transmission charge pump filter, oil tank suction filter, rams, parking brake and battery terminals. Blower also recommends taking the time each month to inspect the door latches and cab seat to ensure correct adjustment and operation.

The maintenance checks and service points recommended at six-month and yearly intervals are overwhelmingly similar, basically requiring a comprehensive machine inspection. After two years of operating the backhoe, owners are also expected to replace brake fluid and check a few additional components for wear, such as the air cleaner’s inner element, oil filler and dipstick seals.

JCB’s Jayroe says there are considerations that can affect how often certain maintenance should be done. “For example, if you’re operating your backhoe under really tough conditions, it’s a good idea to change the engine oil and filter every 250 hours or three months rather than every 500 hours or six months,” Jayroe adds. “It’s really common sense. We recommend changing the air filter annually, but if your backhoe’s been exposed to large amounts of dust, it’s better to change it more frequently.”

Maintenance Musts

While all recommended maintenance activities are important, skipping some of them could lead to imminent machine failure. “At a minimum, operators should check all fluid levels — including engine coolant, engine oil, brake fluid and hydraulic oil — every day,” Jayroe says. “When adding or replacing these fluids, it’s very important to use the fluid that’s been specified by the manufacturer within the operator’s manual. These machines are engineered to precise standards, and simply switching the engine oil for a different viscosity can lead to serious problems down the road.”

As a result of their design, backhoes contain many grease fittings that can become clogged or damaged over time. This leads to what Jayroe believes may be the most common backhoe maintenance issue. “Typically, when an operator finds a grease fitting that will not accept grease, he skips to the next fitting,” Jayroe says. “However, in that situation, the grease fitting is usually clogged or damaged. By skipping it, the lack of grease will prematurely wear out the bushing or bearing. So, any grease fitting that won’t accept grease should be repaired or replaced.”

The dirty environment in which these machines operate obviously contributes to maintenance issues as well. “Sand and dirt can get into a machine’s pivot points,” Blower adds. “Greasing all the pivot points at the required intervals not only lubricates the pin and bushing but also pushes out the abrasive sand and dirt.”

Lynette Von Minden is a public relations writer with Swanson Russell, based in Lincoln, Neb.