Sept. 15 2014 03:38 PM

COMPETITION AMONG LANDSCAPE contractors can be fierce. During the bidding process, every conceivable advantage is precious, especially where time and cost of labor are concerned. Investments in machinery that can save on both can make all the difference between securing and losing a bid.

When it comes to trenching, the advantage of having a trencher on a job site is clear. Digging a trench by hand can, by itself, take a crew of four people many hours. With this piece of equipment, one person alone can dig that trench much faster. The time, labor and money saved, in the long run, make these machines invaluable for landscape contractors.

That said, there are choices to be made, as trenchers come in multiple sizes, and trench at a wide variety of depths and widths. All of these factors come into play at worksites and can either demonstrate or hinder the trencher’s role as a labor-saving machine. Buying a trencher that best suits the size and nature of your business, as well as the environment in which your crews work, is key. Therefore, it is necessary to do sufficient research on the kinds of trenchers available to you, in order to pick the most appropriate piece of equipment for your company’s needs.

Large trenchers, such as Toro’s TRX line and Ditch Witch’s RT series, can cut trenches up to four feet deep and eight inches wide. Their power comes in handy in areas with tough soil, such as the clay that’s present in much of the Southeast, or the harder soil of mountainous terrains.

It also may be a good choice for the northern half of the country during the winter months, where the ground can be covered by inches of frost and snow. That ground demands a deep, wide trench, especially where landscape lighting and irrigation are concerned. “On one job in the Rocky Mountains, we needed 36 inches of cover, because there was a 36-inch frost line,” said Kurt Thompson, director of irrigation at Orlando, Florida-based Massey Services. “If you only had three inches of dirt on top, the wires and pipes would freeze and break.”

The large depth and width requirements also give these trenchers an advantage in projects under construction, when sod has yet to be installed. Large trenchers are generally more effective in situations where turf disturbance isn’t an issue.

In addition to their trenching capabilities, many large trenchers are available with tracks. So, if you’re doing any kind of trenching on hillside properties, using a trencher with tracks instead of wheels can help keep it stable.

It can also be ideal for the more rainprone sections of the country, as the tracks make it easier to move around on wet or muddy ground. Tracks are also useful on jobs that require intersecting trenches, as it’s easier for a track trencher to pass over an existing trench without disturbing it. “With a track system, you can do that much more easily,” said Sean O’Halloran, marketing product manager at Toro. “With wheels, it could be an issue.”

However, not every job justifies the $12,000-and-over price tag of a large trencher. Because it digs deep and wide, it also leaves much more excess turf in its wake. Replacing this turf takes time and labor. Such effects on your bottom line may make large trenchers more trouble than they’re worth.

Also, these larger machines require special considerations when they’re transported. They’re so large that they need their own trailers to haul them around. Besides the additional costs of getting a trailer, it also means that extra preparation time will be necessary to move these machines on and off jobsites. Large trenchers do not do well in scenarios where speed is of the essence.

But if the large trencher is the landscape contractor’s sledgehammer, then its smaller counterpart is the surgical knife. Specialty trenchers dig to roughly four inches deep and two-and-a-half inches wide. Instead of the chainsaws found on many trenchers, some of the smallest trenchers, also called minitrenchers, have simple wheel blades.

There are a number of manufacturers making these mini-trenchers.

They’re excellent for areas that have thin, sandy soil, such as the desert areas of the Southwest or the peninsular sections of Florida. “Most of Florida has loose, sandy soil,” said Thompson, whose crews use E-Z Trench Groundsaws in that region.

The smaller trenchers work very well on jobsites where minimal turf disturbance is a priority. The shallow, thin trenches these machines dig require less crew maintenance than those dug by their larger brethren. “The grass has to regrow over that trench,” said Scotty Porter, director of marketing at E-Z Trench. “If you have a two-inch, versus a four-inch wide trench, that’s half the grass that has to grow back in.”

The advantages of smaller blades don’t stop there. They’re more versatile as to what they can do on sites, such as bed edging and shaping flower bed perimeters.

Their smaller size suits smaller jobs.

They’re ideal for residential work, as they can more easily fit into a backyard. Additionally, their lesser stature makes them easier to transport. You can fit them in the backs of trucks and transport them around where they’re needed; they also work well in emergencies. “They do the job,” said Chris Husband, owner and president of Glendale, Arizona-based Liquid Technologies. “If you need a small trench and don’t have much time, they’re great.”

Also, smaller size means smaller price. Small trenchers can be picked up for approximately half the cost of larger ones, within the range of $5,000, with mini-trenchers costing closer to $2,000. This may make them more attractive to contractors with tight budgets.

However, contractors are advised to be penny-wise but not dollar-foolish. Using a smaller trencher in tough or muddy terrain that better suits a large one will result in more labor and money being spent on a project, rather than less. “They’re not made for heavy-duty jobs,” said Thompson.

Yet these mini-trenchers add another tool to the contractor’s toolbox, especially if you work in the residential market. Easy to transport, they make the work a little easier.

Have you ever observed a crew of four hand-digging a trench to install an irrigation pipe, and thought, “Gee, if they only had a small trencher—look at how much time it would have saved.” Instead of four men digging, one person behind a small trencher could have done all the work. The balance of that crew could have been spending useful time planting new shrubs or trimming the old ones.

Beyond dedicated trenchers of all shapes and sizes, there are also multiple-use machines available to perform many kinds of landscape work. Compact utility loaders and mini skid steers are all-purpose machines that rely on an assortment of attachments to instantly turn them into trenchers, as well as augers, buckets, backhoes and other landscape machines. For a contractor who has the need for all of these kinds of jobs, these machines can save an extraordinary amount of labor, time and money. They combine the tasks performed by many workers and devices into the domain of one person on a single machine.

Trenching attachments, much like their dedicated machine counterparts, vary in trenching widths and depths. Because of this, they can be used in place of dedicated trenchers for a variety of jobs. Many of these multi-purpose machines come in either tracked or wheeled types.

But a multi-purpose machine’s utility is dependent on whether you need all of its other features. They’re large machines and, thus, require trailers. They’re slow to set up, much like the larger trenchers. The price tag is also far higher than for either kind of trencher. Mini skid steers, for example, have been known to sell for up to $40,000, with each attachment costing between $3,500 to $4,000 each. For a contractor who performs this a wide array of tasks on a regular basis, this equipment is a bargain. For contractors  who do not, however, they may be more inclined to look into getting a dedicated trenching machine.

Even after you’ve made a decision on what kind (or kinds) of trenchers best suit your needs, there’s still the decision to be made about whether to buy them outright, lease them, or rent them. This, too, is a multifaceted business decision.

Rental costs can be a fraction of purchase costs—ideal for contractors who only need a trencher once or twice per month. “I don’t have to worry about maintenance,” Husband said, of renting large trenchers when he needs them. “I  don’t have to worry about  storing it and carrying it around.” 

However, for those who need to trench on a more frequent basis, those rental costs will begin to add up. To that end, it may be more economical in the long run to own a trencher outright, or lease it, and have it readily available. “There’s a functional decision to make,” Thompson Trench said. “There’s the number of actual operating hours, and determination about the robustness of the equipment. All that stuff goes into your decision—besides depth, width and soil considerations.”

A decision to rent may be made for more than just financial purposes, though. It provides the opportunity to test the different manufacturers’ trenchers without making a firm commitment. You can examine the pros and cons of each machine and pinpoint your decision down to the exact trencher you want for your company. This can take much of the trial and error out of buying a trencher.

Whether you buy, lease or rent a trencher, whether you use a large sturdy piece of equipment, or a smaller trencher, one thing is for sure: hand labor is kept to a minimum. And isn’t that exactly what equipment is meant to do?