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Trenchers . . . More Than One Way to Dig

ELIZABETH LEXAU | Power Equipment
Whether installing pipe, laying cable, or digging out space for hardscape or edging, trenching through packed earth can be hard on both people and equipment. The equipment that does your digging can have a big impact on your bottom line.

Is your machine powerful enough to speed through the trenches quickly? Is it equipped to cut through the soils you encounter most often? Can it easily maneuver around the properties you serve? Does it leave the surrounding area as clean as possible? These are just a few factors that affect trenching productivity on the jobsite.

An array of options

For irrigation and landscape companies, common trenching choices include ultra-compact minitrenchers, larger dedicated walk-behind units, fullsize ride-on trenchers, and multi-tasking compact utility equipment that can perform a variety of other jobs with different attachments. In some conditions, vibratory plows or pipe pullers offer a trenching alternative.

With the variety of trenching equipment on the market today, choosing among the options can seem daunting at first. But making the right purchase is as much about understanding your own company as it is about understanding the equipment itself.

“The most important thing for any contractor is understanding how the equipment will be used on the jobsite,” says Matt Collins, product manager for compact equipment, Ditch Witch, Perry, Oklahoma.

One of the first things to look at is the size and scope of the projects you currently handle and those you’d like to take on in the near future. What is the depth and width of the trenches you need to dig? Do you work on large, wide-open commercial properties or more confined residential jobs?

The machine’s size and power are key considerations.

“The horsepower you need is determined by three things,” says Neil Borenstein, The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “First, how wide of a trench do you need? Second, how deep do you need to dig? Third, what kind of soil do you have? In the Midwest, you may be looking at black dirt that’s easy to get through. In the Southwest, where you may have caliche soils, the job may be much more difficult.”

Choosing a machine that’s undersized and underpowered for the majority of your jobs will compromise speed and overwork your equipment. On the other hand, choosing equipment sized to the largest job you’ll ever handle can be a mistake, too. It’s better to buy equipment based on the norm and rent for the extremes.

Get in, clean up and move on

How quickly you can get in and out of each job is a big factor in productivity. When it comes to trenching, speed includes not only how fast the machine moves through the dirt, but also how easy and economical it is to bring to the site, how well it maneuvers around the property and how long it takes to clean up when you’re done.

For Tyler Maifeld, Maifeld Landscaping, Sumner, Iowa, a mini trencher means greater mobility and more economical travel. Maifeld Landscaping is a 35-yearold design, installation and maintenance company founded by Tyler’s father, Randy Maifeld, who passed away earlier this year.

“For us, it’s all about what we can fit onto each vehicle each day,” says Maifeld, whose company has relied on Trench Masters from Brown Products, Inc. for many years. These lightweight mini trenchers use interchangeable rotors to accomplish a variety of tasks including sprinkler system installation, landscape lighting, invisible dog fencing, defining landscape beds or installing edging.

“A lot of our jobs are forty-five minutes away in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area,” says Maifeld.

“We need to pack as much stuff as we can onto each trailer. These are very portable. Two guys can lift one and set it on a trailer that’s already loaded with material for the job.”

Petra Simpson, who co-owns Artep Landscape of Kennesaw, Georgia, with Larry Simpson, emphasizes the importance of access within the job site. “It’s very important to know the design and layout of the property and choose your trenching equipment accordingly,” she says.

If you primarily work on unfinished new construction without fences or other restrictions, a larger ride-on machine might speed through your jobs more quickly.

But many contractors find smaller pedestrian trenchers or compact utility loaders faster because they can move more easily around the confined spaces found in most residential properties. They also do less damage to finished landscapes, an important factor because extra clean-up costs can erode profits.

“Some smaller walk-behind trenchers offer more flexibility,” said Scotty Porter, director of marketing for E-Z Trench Manufacturing, Loris, South Carolina.

“One unit we offer is a combination trencher and bed edger. It can dig up to nine inches deep and 2� inches wide.”

Consistently digging trenches wider than necessary can also add clean-up costs.

“Remember, every bit of dirt you take out of the ground you have to put back in,” says Lee Campbell, Brown Products, Inc., Midland City, Alabama.

Instead of the traditional boom and chain assembly used in larger trenching equipment, the Trench Master’s rotors can be changed based on the needs of the job. “If you’re putting cable into the ground, you don’t have to dig a trench three inches wide,” says Campbell. “It’s more work on you and on the machine. Instead, choose the width you want in order to minimize the load on the machine and the extra dirt you have to put back in the ground.”

Another way to minimize dirt movement is with pipe pulling equipment. Instead of digging an open trench, vibratory plows pull pipe through a narrow channel created by a vibrating blade that loosens soil as it moves. “If you’re working around established homes, this makes less impact on the ground,” says Collins. “You’re not opening up a four-inch or six-inch trench.”

While traditional trenching is still the method of choice for many jobs and soil conditions, vibratory plows can leave a finished property clean, without the need for back-filling and reseeding.

E-Z Trench has recently introduced it latest trenching unit. Not only does it dig a small Photo courtesy: Brown Products trench, it can pull up to 3/4 inch polyethylene pipe into the trench and then backfill all in one pass.

Multi-tools

Another key consideration is whether your company needs a dedicated trencher or a more versatile machine. “There has been an increased demand for versatility,” says Collins. “Customers want to be able to do more on the jobsite.”

For someone who digs trenches all day, a dedicated pedestrian trencher may be the best choice. But many landscape and irrigation contractors are turning to multitasking equipment to perform their trenching work.

Compact utility loaders and skid steers can accommodate trenchers along with a wide array of other tools for lifting, digging, moving, grading and more. With these, contractors can handle many jobs with a single power unit.

“In these times, when everyone is trying to do more projects and have more diversity in what they can do, a compact utility loader can give them that diversity,” says Borenstein. “These are especially beneficial for irrigation contractors who do landscaping, too. But even an irrigation contractor, who primarily does trenching, can benefit from a utility loader. You can use it to move materials, like piping, sprinklers, mulch and dirt.”

If trenching is only part of your service, these walk-behinds should be in your equipment shed.

Easy does it

How easy the equipment is to learn and operate is a big factor in productivity.

Controls that are easy to understand will make a difference, especially if several people need to be trained or you have parttime or seasonal workers.

“Your operators aren’t always going to have several years of experience,” says Borenstein. “You have to make sure they can become proficient quickly. If it’s easy to learn and operate, you won’t have to be as selective about who you assign to use the equipment. It also impacts safety. You want your machines to be easy to operate so they can be operated safely.”

How easily it steers is one factor that makes a difference in user-friendliness. “Trenchers have historically been hard to run because they were not very steerable,” says Borenstein. “Our track trenchers are very steerable. With only three controls, they’re also easy to operate.”

Don’t discount the importance of operator comfort. “The easier you make it on the operators, the more likely they are to be productive on a daily basis,” says Collins. “We continually look at how we can make our equipment more user-friendly and easier on the operator.

We also look for ways to increase visibility to make the operator more aware of his surroundings for safety and comfort.”

Assembling a fleet

Michael Hatcher and Associates, a 21-year-old Memphis, Tennessee company, uses an assortment of trenching equipment to accomplish the diverse jobs of their full-service landscape and irrigation company.

“We have two Ditch Witch 410SX vibratory plows that are also equipped with six-inch trenchers,” says Kelly Ogden, irrigation manager for Michael Hatcher and Associates. “We also have smaller Ditch

Witch walk-behind trenchers and a Bobcat equipped with an eight-inch trenching attachment.”

Accessibility, versatility and the type of property determine the machine they use on each job. “For most of our residential applications with existing lawns, we use the vibratory plow,” says Ogden. “The 410SX is a walk-beside unit with a trencher on the front and a vibratory plow on back. Both of our 410s also have a boring attachment so we can use that to bore under sidewalks. We use the smaller walk-behind trenchers for backyards on residences where the gate isn’t wide enough for the 410.”

They added the Bobcat later.

“The Bobcat is a very versatile piece of equipment,” says Ogden. “When we’re done trenching, we’ll put a blade on it to back-fill trenches instead of manually back-filling.

It also has a bucket, a post-hole digger, and a tree auger. Our construction department uses it a lot.”

Of course, before you decide to purchase any new equipment, you have to know that it will make you money. Do you have the demand to keep a trencher in use on a regular basis? If not, renting is also an option.

In fact, renting can be a great way to try out equipment and make sure it works for your applications. For her trenching jobs, Simpson started by renting a Ditch Witch trencher, a Bobcat mini loader and a Bobcat mini excavator. Her company purchased the trencher and mini loader but continues to rent the mini excavator only as needed.

Evaluating equipment and service

Connecting with a local dealer is one of the best ways to start exploring trenching equipment. Not only are you shopping for the right equipment, you’re also shopping for the right level of service and support.

“Digging in the dirt is a tough task,” says Collins. “All machines that work in this environment do go down. When you evaluate equipment, make sure to take into account the service and support, as well as the maintenance needs. You want a good relationship with your dealer. You want to know that when you need them, they’ll be there. When you need a part, you want to know the dealer has it on the shelf.”

Ogden says availability of parts is the most important thing and should play a major role in your decision. “If you can’t find a part readily, you can be down for two weeks.”

Your dealer is also the one who can help make sure your trencher is equipped with the best chain and teeth for your soil conditions.

“One mistake contractors make in purchasing is not spending enough time with their dealers,” says Borenstein. “Most people in irrigation aren’t experts in trenchers, but the dealer is an expert and can help figure out what kind of chain you need, what kind of horsepower you need, even help you figure out financing. Many don’t take enough advantage of that expertise.”

Putting it to a trenching test is essential. “Demo different models from different vendors,” says Collins. “Different machines dig deeper and have more horsepower. The best way to evaluate this is not from a piece of paper or a brochure but by putting your hands on it and putting it in the dirt.”

 
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