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Trenching... Time to Throw Away the Shovel

RICHARD LENTI | Landscape

When it comes to the tasks that befall the landscape contractor, none may be as thankless as trenching. Unlike design or installation, which have their visual rewards not long after the work has begun, trenching has no such dividends.

Yet without it, all that beautiful turf and plant life in our charge wouldn’t stand a chance. An irrigation system is the lifeblood of any landscape. It has to go somewhere. And since exposed PVC pipe isn’t an option, trenching is ultimately necessary.

Photo courtesy: CEAttachments

For anyone who’s ever manually dug a trench, they know firsthand that it is back-breaking work. And though trenching equipment is available, for some reason there are contractors who insist on doing it the old-fashioned way. Maybe it’s the image of big unsightly rigs tearing up turf that discourages them. Maybe it’s a work ethic based on sweat. Whatever the reason, there is an easier, more efficient way.

From huge pieces of equipment weighing thousands of pounds to small walk-behinds weighing a few hundred pounds, there’s a machine for the job, designed to perform whatever the task at hand is.

When buying a trencher, there are several ways to go. There are mini-trenchers, machines that will dig a trench up to one foot deep. Several companies manufacture attachments that can be used with equipment you may already own. Then there are larger trenchers for when you need to go several feet deep.

While some landscape contractors prefer to rent this equipment on an as-needed basis, in the long run you’ll probably be better off buying something that can trench mechanically. Just what piece of equipment you’ll ultimately need will be determined by the type of work you are already doing, the types of jobs you plan to be doing in the future, and the money you have to spend.

Mini-trenchers are an affordable way to mechanize your company’s trenching needs. They cost a few thousand dollars, and are rather compact in size. For anyone on a tight budget, with a limited amount of storage space available, these machines are ideal.

Besides size, the way a mini-trencher operates differs from its larger brethren. Unlike bigger units, which primarily use a chain on a bar to accomplish their task (think chain saw), the minis use either a blade or a wheel with points on it.

With digging depths that range from seven inches to thirteen inches, and one-half to three inches wide, most mini-trenchers will suit the needs of a large number of landscape contractors. What you can do with these units is also affected by the horsepower of the machine. Generally, the harder the soil, or a deeper and wider trench will require a unit with more horsepower.


Photo courtesy: Brown Manufacturing

Some units can also be used as bed edgers. Some models are steerable, making that task relatively easy. The steerable feature helps you navigate the twists and turns you’ll often encounter when bed edging.

Trenching for bed edging differs from trenching for pipes in that a standard trench is primarily a rectangle—a square bottom with straight vertical sides. Not so with bed edging. It resembles a “v” shape or a “check mark” that goes down three inches or more, and slopes back into the bed about eight inches. In some areas of the country, where “bed defining” is used more often than plastic edging, this feature has proven very popular.

“What we’ve found out at trade shows was that people were using our machines to dig trenches, and then they would drop plastic edging in there,” says Grady Williford of Brown Manufacturing in Ozark, Alabama. “But what customers wanted was the trench to slope back into the bed, so they could get the mulch down below the top of the edging.”

Still, old habits don’t die easy. There are always going to be hold-outs for the good old-fashioned “pick and shovel” method of digging a trench -- the logic being “Why should I buy a new piece of equipment for digging? That’s why I have crews!” Well, if saving time and money appeals to you, then you may want to retire those picks and shovels when it comes to trenching.

“When you use a mini trencher,” says Gail Porter of E-Z Trench in Loris, South Carolina, “productivity is going to increase dramatically. You’re going to be able to do your work a whole lot quicker, and it’s not going to take as much manpower. With one of these trenchers, you can normally cut about 100 feet in five minutes.”

One landscape contractor who conducted a study found that they were able to do in 15 to 20 minutes what they had been doing in six to eight man-hours with a shovel. Plus, it’s a neater job; when the soil is removed it comes out like powder. That’s a feature that makes mini-trenchers especially attractive when installing an irrigation system on sites that already have turf.

“The advantage is that a mini-trencher won’t tear up the turf like a larger machine. You put one of those out there, and you’ll really make a mess of someone’s yard,” says Williford. “Some people put a piece of plastic down beside the trench, throw the dirt on that plastic, and then put the dirt back on the hole. In most cases, you’re only digging a two-inch-wide trench. You fill that back up and it will grow back quickly.”

Photo courtesy: Kanga

“Even companies that have the big trenchers will buy our machine and use it when they’ve got to do work on an existing lawn. It doesn’t make a mess, and you don’t have to dig a four-inch-wide trench like you do with bigger equipment. If you’re burying a -inch line, that’s twice the amount of digging and dirt removal that you need,” added Williford.

Another factor to consider is transporting the equipment. You’ll need a trailer for a larger machine, but a mini-trencher only weighs a few hundred pounds and will easily fit in the back of most trucks with your other equipment.

In fact, you might already own pieces of equipment that can be used for trenching, even though that’s not what they were originally designed for. Several companies, including Compact Power, Toro and CEAttachments, make trenching attachments that you can use on skid steer loaders, and even excavators.

“We sell trencher attachments,” says Sarah Falkavage of CEAttachments in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, “that can be used on standard skid steer loaders. And they can be used on any brand and any model on the market.”

The way they work is that the trencher attachment mounts on a universal skid steer attachment bracket. A hydraulic motor runs off the hydraulics of the skid steer that turns a chain which will dig the trench. The depth of the dig can range from 36 to 60 inches and the range of width is usually six to 12 inches. A spoil auger then carries the dirt away from the trench.

Several trencher attachments are available; they differ in size and the load of work they can perform. The smaller units require around 10 gallons per minute of hydraulic fluid to operate; the larger units for high flow skid steers require a flow of around 20 to 40 gallons per minute.

Although the depth of the trench often dictates what size attachment you will use, the type of soil you are excavating must also be considered. “Depending on the digging conditions, if a person is working in very rocky or very hard soil, even for a shallower depth, he may need to use the more powerful unit.”

The range of depth of the attachments for skid steers is adjusted through the curled bucket. As you curl the bucket out, the trencher goes deeper and deeper. For example, because you have a 60-inch trencher attachment doesn’t mean you have to dig 60 inches; you can dig less than that.

“The unit doesn’t physically change. You don’t take part of the chain off to adjust the depth,” says Falkavage. “You’re basically going to roll back your bucket on the skid steer.”

These attachments usually run anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000. If you already own a skid steer loader and you’ve been renting a trencher in the past, these attachments, in the long run, will save you money.

Photo courtesy: Brown Mftg

“Many landscape contractors already have skid steer loaders in their fleet,” says Falkavage. “With these attachments, that skid steer loader becomes even more versatile. You put the trencher on when you need to do the trenching. And you take it off and put trench filler on when you need to cover up the trench you just dug.”

Another advantage is that you’ll already have the right piece of equipment for the job, whatever awaits you on the jobsite.

“Many times when you go out and rent a unit, it’s not going to necessarily be the one that you need for the digging conditions,” says Falkavage. “When you own the unit, you’re not at somebody’s mercy, having to use whatever they have available. You know you’ll have the right tool for the job.”

Trenching attachments are also available for compact utility tractors. Those attachments mount on the back of the tractor, where on the skid steer they mount on the front. Because the compact utility tractors are smaller, the attachments have a mechanical drive as opposed to a hydraulic drive. It’s not quite as powerful, but may be an option if you own a tractor and not a skid steer.

But there are going to be times when a unit dedicated to trenching is what the job calls for. That’s probably when you’ll need to rent a piece of equipment. And if your company is doing a lot of trenching, eventually buy one.

The type of equipment available from companies such as Vermeer and Ditch Witch range in size from very affordable walk-behind trenchers weighing a few hundred pounds, to ride-on trenchers weighing thousands of pounds.

Now more than likely, the jobs you’re doing won’t require a 12,000 pound, 85 horsepower trencher. But they are available. Realistically, you will be trenching for irrigation lines on a regular basis.

You can probably come up with lots of reasons not to own a trencher or an attachment: I can rent one; it’s too expensive; I don’t have the room to store one. Those may all be valid reasons.

Yet there are good arguments to be made for owning this equipment that are hard to counter. You can increase the types and amount of jobs you are currently taking on. It will increase your business. That, in turn, will help pay for the equipment. The bottom line is it will make you money.

And you can’t argue with that.

 
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