Aug. 11 2021 10:26 AM

Weigh your options and plan ahead when deciding whether to rent or buy a trencher.

As the landscaping and irrigation industry return to normalcy from the pandemic, purchasing decisions are being reanalyzed just like every other operational function following an unexpected 2020.

For industry professionals, when it comes to trenchers, several questions come to mind. When should you rent, and when should you buy? What do you need to know before you purchase? How do you maximize your budget to get the most for your money?

Along with the obvious questions and circumstances of purchasing a piece of equipment, industry veterans suggest considering all the market angles, even low-probability situations, as the best way to make that equipment purchase worthwhile.

Reasons for rental

As with any equipment purchase, often the best option seems to be renting before you buy and to hold off on purchasing until there is a steady, long-term demand. However, if you have ongoing projects, industry professionals say purchasing a trencher from the start may be the best option to save money, time and energy.

According to Kevin Birk, operations manager at Todd’s Services, Ann Arbor, Michigan, that specializes in landscape and irrigation, if a company is doing more than 20 systems a year, they need to take a hard look at buying a trencher.

“That is a good defining line of when it is time to buy,” says Birk. “But when you buy you always have to keep into consideration repair and maintenance costs and add them into your costs before purchasing.”

Similar to other kinds of equipment, looking at the overall return on cost is a good strategy to determine whether purchasing is a better option, says Andy Larazin, operator of Phoenix-based Larazin Services, which offers landscape and trenching services.

“A good rule that I always follow is that if I can use it three to five times and it already pays for itself, then just buy it from the start and do not waste time playing games with renting trenchers,” says Larazin. “At the same time, do not overlook buying a used trencher from an equipment rental company that has a good reputation. That can be a quality investment.”

Larazin has provided trenching services in several states over 35 years and says that no matter the market, the mentality should be the same. Look for a good deal on a trencher to buy before continuing to rent the same trencher over and over again. He adds that with new technology and selling platforms, landscapers should not limit themselves to their particular city or state and conduct in-depth research to try to find the best deals without boundaries. Looking online or connecting with other communities through colleagues could provide an undiscovered opportunity.

“Buying equipment like trenchers and finding good deals is not a big game of ‘hide-and-go-seek’ like it used to be back in the day, so do not treat it like it is,” says Larazin. Once you make a purchase, make sure that clients know that you have that service available for both short-term and long-term jobs. Keep demand coming in to make that purchase worthwhile.

Lazarin says it is common to underestimate rental costs, including time lost due to equipment pickup or even the fact that the trencher may be out of stock and unavailable to rent when needed. Local rental companies may not have trenchers in a large enough size needed to do the specific job or may have low inventory and often sold out. An additional cost is ensuring that both truck and hitch are adequate to tow the trencher. He recommends that all costs be taken into consideration, and no cost is too small to count.

“There is no blanket law for everyone, but buying usually makes more sense,” says Larazin. “If you do end up buying a cheap trencher and do not use it much, just make sure you are keeping up with the maintenance. If you are not, then it could break down on you, and you are back to square one in the renting versus purchasing dilemma. When you are focused on that back-and-forth and not actually offering or marketing your services, you are having a negative impact on your bottom line in two different ways at the same time.”

Before you buy

Before buying a trencher, Larazin highly recommends landscapers sit down and write down a list of the exact features they are looking for including trench depth and width and machine hydraulic supply flow, all variables that factor into the cost of a trencher.

Birk suggests that landscapers contact their colleagues in the industry, look for good reviews from them and let that be their guide. From those notes, you get more insight into what features and design works best for you. For example, Birk prefers a diesel-powered trencher that you sit and drive to operate, instead of walking along side.

“I am reluctant to buy any brand that I don’t know someone who is a long-time user of it with minimal issues,” says Birk. “We are a part of a forum of 10 contractors across the United States and we share user stories. That helps guide a lot of our purchasing decisions.”

Larazin and industry professionals stress that users need to check compatibility with the machine that is going to be powering the trencher attachment and if the hydraulic needs of the trencher are going to be standard flow versus high flow. Hydraulic versus manual adjustment is an issue that needs to be taken into consideration as well as matching the cutting teeth to the soil for future replacement purposes.

Larazin suggests using a frequency calendar to track how often trenching jobs are being requested, which could serve as a valuable tool in identifying a built-in demand for ongoing trenching services in a specific market.

“Do not make up an imaginary demand or unrealistic expectations,” says Larazin. “If you have any hesitation on the decision to purchase or rent a trencher, track where your demand is coming from and what jobs are being requested.”

When buying a used trencher, Larazin recommends not judging a trencher by its cover. Wear and tear marks, dents and scratches have nothing to do with actual engine performance, and used trenchers can be smart investments. He suggests carefully examining all parts of the trencher from the engine to the tip of the trencher boom. If possible, knowing the type and geographic location of soil the trencher has been working in will also give the prospective owner a good idea of the level of use. It’s useful to ask questions when possible and never to make assumptions on prior use.

“Asking questions now will save you time and money later,” says Larazin. “The rental process is convenient and now there are more four-hour rental rates as well as all-day, sunup to sundown rental rates. But if you end up buying a trencher, just know that paying attention to it when you are not using it is just as important as paying attention when you are using it in the field.”

Digging in

Making sure there’s enough available work to justify a purchase is one of the major variables that industry professionals need to take into consideration before making any equipment purchase.

That’s especially true for a piece of equipment that’s used more sparingly on jobs, like trenchers.

Another angle to consider is maintenance. No matter what condition you purchased a trencher in, you want it to be ready to go when you need it. Taking the time to do your homework and keep it well-maintained will make a difference. As with a lot of other equipment, winter is a great time to sit down and get familiar with your purchase.

“The winters are a prime opportunity to perform maintenance to minimize long-term cost of repairs and new parts,” says Birk.

He uses the winter to complete maintenance tasks including full hydraulic services, oil changes, sharpening blades and tire replacements.

“For some reason, tire maintenance often gets overlooked with trenchers, and that can lead to reoccurring costs that really eat into your profit margin,” says Birk. “Tire maintenance is the foundation of our operations, including using dual tires for more balance to prevent tip-overs to inflating our tires with foam for better performance. We switched over to that about five years ago and haven’t had a flat tire since because it adds more weight.”

He says this level of attention to detail with their trenchers has allowed for more continuous operations during their busy spring and summer seasons and eliminated the need to always be on the lookout for purchasing new trenchers.

“We have old trenchers that work well due to this strict winter maintenance schedule,” says Birk. “We have eliminated the age factor and increased the performance value. It makes life a lot easier for us with fewer surprises.”

Rodric Hurdle-Bradford is associate editor for Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at rodric@igin.com.