Choosing the Right Trencher

Whether installing pipe, laying cable, or digging out space for hardscape or edging, trenching through packed earth can be hard on both workers and equipment.
Choosing the right trencher is more about your business than it is about the equipment itself. There is a wide variety of trenching equipment on the market today, and 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.

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?

How many inches a machine trenches per hour is one measure of productivity, but that’s only part of the equation. 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 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.

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.

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 as well? •How deep and wide do you need to trench? Where do you use a trencher? •How much of the time will it be used on large commercial properties and how much on smaller residential yards? •What ground conditions do you encounter—clay or sandy soils? Rocky terrain?

Another question you might ask is, do you already own a compact utility loader, skid steer, or track loader?

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 might need to do your work productively, while one that’s too big will compromise productivity in other ways.

“Some smaller walk-behind trenchers offer more flexibility,” says 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 two inches wide.”

Larger machines are more productive, 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; 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 Porter. “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 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. Analyzing your needs and choosing a unit that accommodates the depth and width requirements of the vast majority of your projects is key.

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. When you sign on a project that requires a larger piece of equipment, you might consider renting the unit. On the other hand, if you find you have a few small projects that require trenching, you might also consider renting a smaller unit.

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. Manufacturers are continually seeking ways to make their equipment more user-friendly and easier on the operator.

Another key consideration is whether your company needs a dedicated trencher or a more versatile machine. There has been an increased demand for versatility. Contractors 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 trenching attachments 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 Neil Borenstein, marketing manager of Siteworks, a division of The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota.

“These units are especially useful for contractors who do landscaping. But even a contractor who primarily does trenching can benefit from a utility loader. You can use it to move materials, like piping, sprinklers, mulch and dirt,” Borenstein said.

Buying or leasing a piece of equipment requires a considerable outlay of resources. You would serve your company well if, before you buy a trencher, you rent a few different sizes of equipment. Putting it to a trenching test is essential. Demo different models from different vendors; 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 the trencher and digging in the dirt.