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As with most equipment purchases, choosing the right trencher is more about your business than it is about the equipment itself. How many inches a machine trenches per hour is one measure of productivity, but that's only part of the story. For most contractors, the overall productivity of the machine depends not only on how fast and powerful it is but on how well it fits in with your company's operations and the kinds of jobs you take on.
If your new trencher speeds through a job but leaves the lawn with a huge mess to clean up, you may end up paying for that additional speed with additional labor. If it cuts like a knife through butter but causes huge new transportation headaches for your company, it may not be the best fit for your fleet.
You need to ask yourself several questions:
What is the size and scope of your trenching projects (your current projects and the ones you wish you could tackle if you had the right equipment)?
How frequently do you need trenching equipment?
Do you need a trencher primarily for irrigation or will you be using it for other landscape applications? How deep and wide do you need to trench? Where do you use a trencher? On established landscapes or undeveloped areas? On large commercial properties or smaller residential yards?
What ground conditions do you encounter? Clay or sand soils? Rocky terrain? Do you already own a compact utility loader, skid steer, or track loader?
Do you need a dedicated piece of equipment or would trencher attachments work better?
What are your current transportation limitations? What extra demands will new equipment put on your current set-up?
Finding the right sized machine to fit your applications is critical. A machine that's too small won't have the power and speed you need to do your work productively, while one that's too big will compromise productivity in other ways.
"Larger machines are more productive," says Jon Kuyers of Vermeer Manufacturing. "But the downside of large size is transportation. Another downside is that a large machine might do more damage than necessary on an established lawn."
"The size of the machine is very important," agrees Jeri Briegge, public relations manager for Ditch Witch. "An undersized unit can overwork the machine to the point that it becomes unreliable."
On the other hand, some contractors will never use the full capability of a larger machine, and will pay for size with increased cleanup. "Don't oversize your machine," says Gail Porter of E-Z Trench. "Whenever you have to remove dirt, you also have to replace dirt. That takes time. The less you have to remove the better."
Digging depth and width are obviously going to be critical factors in your decision making. The majority of landscaping and irrigation tasks require trenches that are six inches wide or less. Many tasks only require widths of four inches, two inches, or even smaller. Choosing a unit that accommodates the depth and width requirements of the vast majority of your projects is key.
Some contractors size up to meet the most extreme situations they ever encounter. But renting equipment to handle the extremes often makes more sense. If you choose a machine designed to dig trenches much deeper and wider than you typically need, you may be compromising productivity on the majority of your jobs.
No matter what trencher you choose, matching the chain and teeth to the soil conditions you encounter is another aspect of productivity. Many chains use C-shaped 'cup teeth' designed to actually shovel the dirt from the trench. These are very efficient and productive in lighter soils but will wear out quickly in more abrasive conditions.
A 'shark tooth' features a carbide tip that easily breaks through hard dirt and rocky soils. This provides much greater durability if you frequently encounter these tough conditions. Many contractors will mix and match teeth for a combination chain that is well-suited to their specific conditions.
Dig the options
Finding a unit that makes quick work out of the majority of your jobs and does it with the least amount of turf damage is the goal. There are several options to consider, including dedicated trenchers, trencher attachments, and mini-trenchers. Another alternative for some installations is the vibratory plow (sometimes called a 'pipe puller' or 'lawn plow').
Dedicated trenchers are the specialists of the group. They are well-suited for companies whose jobs require frequent long, straight, deep or wide cuts. Dedicated trenchers come in all sizes in both ride-on and pedestrian models. Both have their advantages.
Ride-on units can dig deeper and wider trenches and can be less fatiguing. They are also more powerful; the mightiest units can cut through the most extreme rocky terrain. Pedestrian units, while not as powerful, can still dig through the moderately tough or rocky soils encountered in most landscaping and irrigation situations. In addition, they offer much easier access in tight spaces such as residential yards.
How frequently you use the equipment will also help you choose the right dedicated trencher. "A walk-behind is great if you're going to be using it once or twice a week or so,"? says Kuyers. "But if you're using it for more than a couple jobs per week, you'll want to size up to a ride-on for more productivity."
Although they specialize in trenching, some ride-on units are also able to perform a number of other related tasks. Some come equipped with factory-installed tools, such as a backfill blade, backhoe, or boring unit for drilling holes under sidewalks. Others can be fitted with optional attachments.
For companies that want even more versatility but don't need a dedicated trencher, outfitting a skid steer or mini-skid with trenching attachments is another option. A wide variety of trenching equipment is available for both standard skid steers and mini-skids or compact utility loaders. This is an especially practical route for companies that already own this multi-purpose compact utility equipment.
The beauty of this option is that, with interchangeable attachments, one power unit can perform a wide variety of tasks. One machine can go from trenching to planting to hauling pavers, to snowplowing . . . hopefully not all in the same day, but the option is there. Compact tracked machines or mini-skids add to these benefits by reducing turf damage and offering greater mobility in confined spaces.
Like dedicated trenchers, attachments vary in cutting width and depth and in their ability to handle demanding soil conditions. Again, matching size to the kinds of work you do is a critical issue. Many companies find a combination approach works best.
A & D Landscaping, a full-service landscaping and irrigation firm in Logan, Utah, uses a combination of two trenching attachments. "We use a full-size Bradco trencher with a Case skid steer and a smaller Bradco trencher on a compact utility loader," says Jared Gillman, general manager with A & D. "We use our smaller one on established lawns because it's on a track system. We also find it's often efficient to use both trenchers on the same job, especially on bigger commercial jobs. Using the smaller model on the smaller runs saves a lot on hand labor."
There's small and then there's really small. Mini-trenchers make up yet another class of trench digging equipment. These offer a lightweight, portable, maneuverable option for smaller trenching jobs -- up to around four inches wide and twelve inches deep, depending on the model. They are easily loaded and unloaded, take up little space in the back of a pickup, and do their job with minimal backfill work and little damage to established landscapes.
Mini-trenchers use a variety of mechanisms to get the job done. Kwik-Trench from Little Beaver and the Groundsaw from E-Z Trench each use cutting wheels; the Trenchmaster from Brown Manufacturing uses a variety of interchangeable rotors; and Vermeer's RT60 and Ground Hog's T4 each use a boom and chain operation.
Even in large irrigation installations, many contractors frequently run into situations where the larger size of a standard trencher can inhibit productivity. Either they're trying to dig in areas that are too tight for their machines or they?re spending more time than necessary repairing turf or loading and unloading equipment.
"Many irrigation contractors use the Trenchmaster to supplement their big machine on large jobs or they use it alone on smaller jobs," says Lee Campbell of Brown Manufacturing, makers of the Trenchmaster and Bededger.
"For example," says Campbell, "let's say a customer calls and wants to add two or three sprinkler heads. A contractor may only need to trench sixty feet. By the time they get to the site, load and unload their large trencher, they could be finished with the whole job if they were using one of our machines without tearing up the lawn." Some mini-trenchers, like those from Brown Manufacturing, have interchangeable attachments that allow for stump grinding, root pruning, bed shaping and more jobs. This makes them an attractive investment for the multitasking landscape or irrigation professional.
Vibratory plows or pipe pullers offer an efficient trenching alternative in average soils. Instead of digging a trench to bury pipe or cable, these work by cutting a slit in the ground and burying lines directly. This makes them a very popular choice on sites that require minimal landscape disturbance. In rocky or tough soils, though, a traditional trencher is typically needed. Some models, like the LM 42 from Vermeer and the Ditch Witch 410SX, actually allow for a trencher and other attachments. This can give contractors the best of both worlds.
A plethora of efficient trenching tools have evolved since the days of shovels and spades. If your trenching equipment is slowing you down, take a long look at the way your company digs. Then look at the new options available. There's probably one out there to speed you through every channel.