Years ago, when installing irrigation for landscapes was still in its infancy, and landscape lighting was just a pipe dream, digging a trench was a major chore. “Back in the old days, we did everything by hand. We dug holes by hand; we dug trenches by hand. We didn’t care how it got done, we just got it done,” said Mike Hale, sales and marketing manager with Little Beaver in Houston, Texas. Thankfully, with all the equipment available today, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.
Back then, the trenchers that were available were quite expensive and labor was cheap and plentiful. Today, the reverse is true. Available labor is almost nonexistent, and when you can find it, much more costly than it was all those years ago. But lighter-duty trenchers are readily available, and much less costly than they used to be.
We’re spending time and money dealing with programs like H-2B, to fill our seasonal labor needs. Meanwhile, mass production, plus new techniques and technologies have brought the price of mechanical trenchers down to affordable rates.
Yet, many of us have not switched our thinking when it comes to this equipment. We continue to use the old-school techniques we learned years ago. However, if we want our businesses to grow, we must evolve. Of all the tasks you must complete, digging trenches shouldn’t be something that adds a lot of hours or days to the time it takes to do a job.
Bruce Birdsong, owner of Precision Landscaping Management in Dallas, Texas, puts it this way: “If a job normally would take 10 manhours to hand dig something, but you can do it in an hour or two—at the most—with a trencher, then it’s a lot more efficient to use a trencher.”
“It’s just so much faster,” said Trent Noel, construction operations manager at the Klausing Group, Inc., in Lexington, Kentucky. “You can cut several hundred feet an hour with a mechanical trencher, whereas with hand digging, depending on the circumstances and the soil conditions, you might only be able to dig 100 feet in an hour.”
Those hours add up, especially when you’re bidding out a project. During the bidding process, every conceivable advantage is precious. If you’ve bid the project with the idea of trenching by hand, chances are, you will not be competitive.
So why do many contractors still dig trenches by hand? A simple answer is that we’re creatures of habit; we don’t like to leave our comfort zones. We kid ourselves by saying, “It really doesn’t take that much longer.”
“We’re constantly depending on labor, but humans haven’t changed much in their ability to dig a trench any faster,” said Dale Ballenger, founder and CEO of TrenchBadger in Boynton Beach, Florida. “Productivity, in regard to hand trenching, is probably one of the biggest reasons why contractors and installers start looking for trenchers.”
With all this in mind, let’s look at how we can make a trencher not only a productive tool for our company, but a profitable one as well.
With the variety of equipment on the market today, choosing among the many 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.
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 primarily on large, wide-open commercial properties or more confined residential jobs? The size of the projects you take on will dictate the type of trencher that you’ll need.
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 a property and how long it takes to clean the area being trenched after you’re done.
If you primarily work on unfinished, new construction without fences or other restrictions, a larger ride-on or walk-behind machine might speed you through your jobs more quickly. “If we’re doing new construction work, we’re able to utilize larger trenchers, because everything is graded and free of roots,” said Rajan Brown, vice president of design construction and sustainability with Heaviland Landscape Management in San Diego, California.
Larger trenchers’ power also comes in handy in areas with tough soil. A big machine is also a good choice for the northern half of the country during the winter months, where the ground can be frozen or covered with ice and snow.
To increase flexibility, a number of manufacturers have added tracks to their equipment. This allows you to trench on hillsides more safely than with wheeled units. A trencher so equipped is also ideal for the more rain-prone sections of the country, as the tracks make it easier to move around on wet or muddy ground.
However, not every job justifies the price tag of a larger trencher. Because it digs deep and wide, it also leaves much more excess turf in its wake. Replacing this turf takes time and labor.
But if large trenchers are the landscape contractor’s sledgehammers, then their smaller counterparts are the surgical knives. Specialty trenchers, commonly known as mini-trenchers, make narrower, shallower trenches that can be ideal for installing irrigation systems or wiring for landscape lighting. Instead of the chain-and-boom mechanisms found on larger trenchers, these smaller machines typically use simple wheel blades, which can also be used for bed edging or creating perimeters.
A smaller machine can be ideal if you’re working in thin, sandy soil, need greater maneuverability, or need only limited digging capacity. Mini-trenchers leave much less excess turf to backfill, easing the cleanup process. They’re also easier to transport; many of the smaller versions will fit into the bed of a pickup truck. The shallow, thin trenches these machines dig require less crew maintenance than those dug by their larger brethren, and the damage to the turf takes less time to regrow. Although they’re not made for heavy-duty jobs, mini-trenchers can be valuable tools in a contractor’s arsenal.
If your business has already invested in a multiuse machine, such as a compact utility loader or a mini skid steer, you can rely on an assortment of attachments that can instantly turn it into a trencher, as well as an auger, bucket, backhoe and other landscape machines. For a contractor who has the need for all these different tools, these machines can save a lot of time, money and labor. If the scope of your work is narrower, or if you find that you need to use trenchers on a daily basis, you may be better off investing in a dedicated machine.
When you’re ready to pull the trigger, make time with a dealer to see the machines in action via product demos. Consulting with a dealer can help narrow the field by informing you as to the type of chain that would be most efficient for your type of work (if you get a trencher with a chain mechanism), the horsepower you require, or even how to finance the purchase. A good dealer will make sure that whatever equipment you choose can be easily serviced, and that replacement parts are going to be readily available if and when you need them.
Dealers can also demonstrate some interesting newcomers to the market. “A trencher’s not normally something you’d purchase every year,” said Birdsong. “You’re out there working, and then when you finally talk to the rep, they show you something that makes you think, ‘Wow, they’ve made a lot of changes to make the job much more efficient.’” Another consideration is the number of hours you’ll be putting on this machine. You also have to decide whether to purchase a new or used trencher, or to lease or rent one. “We only own one trencher, and it’s small,” said Brown. “Depending on the size of the job, we rent the correct piece of equipment. It all depends on what the project is.”
Whether you buy, lease or rent, bringing in a powerful piece of equipment, such as a trencher to help you in your work, reduces the amount of hand labor your crew people have to put in. This workhorse will increase your productivity, keeping your company growing strong for years to come.
Can you dig it?