Sept. 25 2020 09:12 AM

Dig into trencher trends and save time and money on your jobs.

Photo: Ditch Witch

Working with trenches is dirty, difficult work, whether a contractor is installing pipe, laying lighting wiring or digging out space for hardscaping. Trenchers are used for their durability and power to handle digging jobs better, faster and quicker than digging by hand. The newest mechanical trenchers and modern attachments are more efficient than ever.

Current trends in trenchers focus on delivering more power and performance, easier operation, less maintenance, and longer equipment life. Whether you rent trenchers occasionally for bigger jobs, or own trenchers that run constantly during the busy season, these machines make life easier for all types of landscaping and irrigation professionals. We talked to manufacturers to find out the latest trends in trenchers, attachments and usage.

Newer models, better operations

Newer trenchers and their cutting-edge attachments are “designed with the operator in mind,” says Brant Kukuk, compact equipment product manager at Ditch Witch, Perry, Oklahoma. Two offerings from the company include the 1TR4 (for a R200 Zahn trencher) and the SK4TR, a stand-on skid steer trencher attachment, both of which offer chain visibility to help monitor how the machine is digging.

These attachments are also designed to better work around obstacles and to improve maneuverability in tight spaces, helping to prevent damage.

Photo: TrenchBadger

The TrenchBadger Pro 10/12 is “like a Weed Eater on steroids,” says Dale Ballenger, president of TrenchBadger Inc., Boynton Beach, Florida. The unit is a handheld, upright trencher with interchangeable blades for varying depths and widths. “They trench using the full diameter of the trenching blades, instead of the historical boom and chain,” he continues. This model’s design is focused on ease of use for the operator, as you stand upright while excavating.

In 2019, The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota, added to their TRX walk-behind trencher line with two models, the TRX-250 and TRX-300, which focus on performance, serviceability, ease of use and operator comfort. Both models utilize the company’s Intelli-Trench technology, which optimizes hydraulic flow for the job’s digging conditions. This design allows the handle to remain in place without constant adjustment, reducing operator fatigue.

Photo: GeoRipper

Redesigned in 2019, MiniTrencher’s EZ Kart also focuses on ease of use, with bigger, more stable wheels, better depth selection and aesthetic improvements. “Most notable are our innovations in chain and dirt deflection,” says J.J. Harris, general manager at MiniTrencher, Vancouver, Washington. “Our newest chains dig better, longer and wider, and our new dirt deflectors better mitigate rock ejection.”

John Deere, Moline, Illinois, has two new trencher attachment models, the TC36 and TC48, which are ideally suited to lighter-duty tasks, for customers in light construction applications. These can be configured to different soil and trench specifications, increasing uptime. The stabilization assist from the integrated skid shoe delivers optimal angles and more precise digging. These new models focus on operator comfort, with a spring-loaded trencher boom that reduces system shock. The multiple digging chain options these attachments add can drive lower operating costs.

Also notable in relation to newer models is that most manufacturers we talked to have avoided increases in pricing. “We try to maintain an affordable option for our customers,” says Kukuk.

Job site changes

The latest trends indicate that size of the machine is increasingly important, with smaller trenchers and attachments that allow you to “do more with less” coming to the forefront. “On smaller job sites, demand for compact equipment increases,” says Kukuk.

“Especially during the pandemic, we have seen an increase in residential work. With more time for home improvement projects, trenchers have been utilized more frequently.”

Photo: EZ Trench

Smaller trenchers are easier to move around and deliver faster trenching, such as E-Z Trench’s EZ900 and EZ9100, which fit through a 34- or 36-inch gate, says Monty Porter, vice president of national sales at the Loris, South Carolina-based company.

Harris at MiniTrencher also speaks to the challenges in residential jobs, pointing out that many traditional trenchers cannot get into backyards with the downsizing of yards.

With increases in automation and a need to reduce labor, many landscape and irrigation professionals have a need for a handheld machine to address smaller areas, whether for residential or commercial work.

Thinking outside the box can also boost your income stream. “Some landscapers have (added) landscape lighting to their services,” says Ballenger. “Low-voltage wiring was once installed with the rocking of a shovel to create a void, then laying the wire in the semi-trench. Now, with mini-trenchers, more landscapers are cutting clean lines to rest the wire in.” You may have options you haven’t previously considered, especially if you’re working with a smaller trencher or an attachment that allows you to go where bigger trenchers can’t. Harris suggests landscape lighting, dog fencing, robotic mower fencing, erosion control fencing and fence posts, for starters.

Of course, larger jobs continue to demand large equipment with better reliability, lower operating costs and increased productivity. Well-maintained, high-powered trenchers can run constantly for months on end for bigger projects, such as commercial utility installations and residential housing developments. But powerful machines that can handle more work and a longer job don’t have to be enormous. As Porter at E-Z Trench puts it, “Our equipment has always been a convenient size to load into a pickup or a work van, versus a trailer.”

Trencher selection and avoiding downtime

Wondering how to decide which trencher to use? Experience is key, as there are so many factors to consider, including the depth needed, the time allotted to complete the job, soil conditions and access to the space.

“If there isn’t access, I will need a machine I can carry in,” says Harris, and adds that you should also consider what may be too much machine for a job, or not enough. “The smaller the machine, the shallower the trench,” he adds, “But many irrigation professionals never go deeper than 12 inches.”

Photo: The Toro Company

Also consider versatility, suggests Kukuk. “When faced with a job that goes beyond just trenching, a stand-on skid steer with a trencher attachment is an option. These machines can switch out different attachments with ease, so contractors can customize the attachment to an array of landscape and irrigation applications, allowing for maximum ROI, productivity and efficiency.”

Whatever equipment you use, regular maintenance and inspection directly influence uptime. Most of the experts we talked to suggest checking equipment at the beginning of the day, periodically throughout the day, and again after completing the day’s work. Not responding to warning signs of wear and tear can lead to costly downtime. While the manufacturer’s suggested service intervals are important to follow, machines don’t know the schedule, which is why daily inspection is so important. The constant vibration and digging action of a trencher means that eventually parts will come loose. Familiarize yourself with what your trencher looks and feels like when it’s in proper working order, regularly checking points like cutting bits, belt tension and connection points.

Photo: John Deere

Not only is your equipment at risk if you don’t understand how to properly maintain and proactively prevent it from incurring damage, so are you and your staff. Downtime and expenses from injuries can be both costly and personally upsetting.

Make sure everyone who uses your equipment fully understands how it is supposed to look, work, feel and sound. “Wear your PPE!” says Harris. “So many landscapers and irrigation professionals ignore this practice. Show your customers that you care about their property by showing that you care about your body.”

And don’t stretch people or machines beyond capacity. “Each piece of equipment has efficiency boundaries,” says Ballenger. “Learning these boundaries will greatly enhance the use of the machine and the life of the equipment.”

With the changes and improvements in operator comfort and added efficiency, the right trenchers for your landscape and irrigation work can save hassle, energy, time and money. If you’re focusing on increasing productivity, it might be time to talk to a dealer about acquiring the right trencher for your business.

Nina McCollum is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at mccollumnina@gmail.com.

Rent vs. buy

Renting a trencher can be advantageous if you only need it for the occasional larger job and don’t want to deal with the costs and duties of another machine in your fleet to maintain and repair. But if you are renting trenchers every month, it’s probably time to consider buying. While renting can take some of the work away that ownership requires, you have to balance the investment in labor.

Many landscape and irrigation professionals will get to a point where they need to focus on speed, making work less “people-intensive,” as J.J. Harris, general manag er at MiniTrencher, Vancouver, Washington, puts it. “It may be a cash flow exercise that shows that making payments will cost less per month than renting.” He adds, “Mini-trenchers tend to pay for themselves within five weeks (or less), so purchasing one is almost always a better idea than renting.”

Consider your typical work, including soil condition and dimensions of trenches. These can help guide your choices. Your local dealer can help you identify the best machine for your needs after a discussion about your typical trenching needs and workflow. Going with the cheapest or smallest may not be wise. “Buying a trencher that will not go as deep as you consistently need is going to cause an issue,” says Harris. “If you are always renting the next size up, youmade the wrong purchase.”