Analyzing trends in trencher technology

March 6, 2017 -  By
Trencher trends Trenchers are becoming lighter, nimbler and easier to operate and maintain.

Trencher trends Trenchers are becoming lighter, nimbler and easier to operate and maintain.

Advancements in trencher technology help contractors do more work using less manpower, while paving the way to new uses of the machines.

When John Newlin purchases a trencher for his irrigation and lawn care business, he looks for three main features.

“I want something that has a small footprint to minimize damage to customer properties, is safe to use and is serviceable,” says the owner and president of Quality Sprinkling Services in North Ridgeville, Ohio.

Newlin and other irrigation contractors are in luck. Trencher manufacturers are introducing lightweight machines that are safer to use and easier to operate and maintain. These advancements are helping contractors do more work with less manpower and opening doors to new uses for the machines.

“Our customers need machines that are more efficient,” says Chris Thompson, product manager of compact equipment for Ditch Witch in Minneapolis. “We’ve gotten this feedback from trade shows, on-site customer events, our online customer community panel and through our dealer network.”

Ditch Witch’s newest line of trenchers was designed with efficiency in mind. The CX track system includes a shorter left track and longer right track to provide better traction and a shorter overall length for improved maneuverability in tight spaces. Routine maintenance is simplified by easy access to the machine’s components and the elimination of daily grease points, Thompson says.

Peter Blundell, president of MiniTrencher, a manufacturer and distributor of handheld trenchers in Vancouver, Wash., also sees the industry moving toward lightweight trenchers that are easy to transport and operate. Smaller machines can access tight spots that typically would require hand tools. They’re also able to trench at faster rates, he says. The evolution and availability of materials used, plus the changing technology of both two- and four-stroke engines and better power-to-weight ratios, have opened the door to developing these lightweight machines, Blundell says.

“Trenchers are typically 150 pounds or more, need to be transported by a trailer and can be cumbersome,” he says. “The newest type of trencher now starts at around 30 pounds. They can be easily carried in the back of a truck or in the trunk of a car and are easy to operate.”

In December, MiniTrencher’s GeoRipper was the winner of the New Product Contest in the specialty landscape category at the Irrigation Show and Education Conference in Las Vegas. The GeoRipper handheld portable trencher can cut trenches up to 1.5 inches wide and 27 inches deep.

“Lightweight trenchers, which originally started out as just chainsaws, have evolved to be better, lighter and more efficient machines,” Blundell says. “This technology did not happen overnight, but over several years of trial and error, like most equipment development.”

Industry experts say several factors contribute to these trencher trends. Labor shortages and the rising cost of labor demand high-efficiency trenchers that save time and require less manpower. Newlin’s company, which provides 75 percent irrigation services and 25 percent lawn care services to a mostly residential clientele, owns two walk-behind E-Z Trenchers that it uses for smaller jobs and renovation work. The machines, which can trench 100 feet in approximately 5 minutes, have cut production time by 50 percent.

“Our E-Z Trenchers save time and require less physical labor,” Newlin says. “Using tarps to catch the soil and eliminating hand digging and root cutting cuts production time in half.”

The trend toward irrigation contractors diversifying their service offerings is also driving advancements in trenchers and trencher technology. For example, Thompson has seen more contractors using trenchers to lay wires and cables for different types of jobs.

“We have designed machines that can put sprinklers in one day, do a water line the next day and then drop fiber (optics cables) in after that,” Thompson says. “By doing three or four jobs with one machine, contractors can find new revenue streams and grow their businesses.”

Start with safety

Minitrencher

Right Choice Lightweight machinery may be a good option, but choosing the right tool for the job is most important, experts say.

Safety is another concern. For example, Newlin is cautious of handheld units, which he says are subject to kicking back in the operator’s hands. Manufacturers say they are responding to these concerns.

Ditch Witch recently replaced the decals on its safety bar, which had been known to peel over time, with laser cut warnings and instructions that will never wear off. Thompson says the company also urges anyone who operates a trencher to get professional training.

“We really push our certified training programs provided through our dealer network, which cover every machine we have,” Thompson says. “Being more familiar with the machine will increase the safety factor.”

Blundell agrees that training and experience are important. “The feedback we get from our customers is that once they get (a handheld trencher) and learn how to operate it, they love it,” he says, adding that a MiniTrencher mounted on an EZ Kart, a setup used for digging longer trenching runs and controlling depth, is perhaps the safest way to operate it. “There is a technique to operating a handheld trencher safely and properly.”

Despite trends and advancements, Patty Sipe, co-owner of Heads Up Sprinkler Co. in Plano, Texas, believes contractors will achieve maximum efficiency by choosing the right trencher for their needs. Before choosing a trencher, it’s important for contractors to consider the type of soil they will be working with and pay attention to the machine’s width and depth capabilities. The depth of the teeth, the distance between the teeth, the perforation of the teeth and the ability of the machine to channel the soil out of the trench are all factors to consider before purchasing a trencher. Her company uses a Ground Hog trencher to provide irrigation system repair and long-term care services to residential clients.

“The advancements don’t necessarily make the trencher any easier to operate specifically,” Sipe says. “Walk-behind trenchers need to be weighted and powerful enough for each job. Larger driving models may offer more comfort for the operator, but ultimately, machines that cut through the soil without clogging and reach the proper widths and desired depths without stalling make the operation easier.”

Trenchers also require maintenance. Contractors should find a reputable dealer who can service a machine with minimal downtime. Contractors also should be prepared to perform daily maintenance: tightening nuts and bolts, checking air filters, cleaning the cooling fins, and checking drive belts and digging chains for wear and tear.

“If a contractor is not willing or able to maintain a trencher, they should stick to a pick and shovel or hire out (work that requires a trencher),” Blundell says.

Thompson recommends contractors weigh their upfront costs against their operating costs to ensure they’re buying the right machine for their needs.

“You can get a trencher that is less expensive,” he says, “but premium products are designed for longevity and ease of use.”

Photos: Top: Ditch Witch; Bottom: Minitrencher

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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