Experts’ Tips: Trenchers

February 13, 2020 -  By
Trencher in action (Photo: JCB North America)

Consider this Trencher choice depends on project type, project scope and productivity. (Photo: JCB North America)

Trenchers come in many varieties. Knowing which is right for you depends on three things: project type, project scope and productivity.

“We categorize our trenching equipment by small, medium and large,” says Michael Hatcher, president of Michael Hatcher & Associates in Olive Branch, Miss. “Each category has helped us gain a competitive advantage on different projects and at different points in our company’s history. Whether you’re a new company or have been in business for 30-plus years like us, the cost of equipment always plays an integral role in your success and profitability.”

When Hatcher was first getting started, most of his jobs were smaller residential jobs. All he really needed — and could afford — was a smaller walk-behind trencher. As his company grew and started taking on larger jobs, Hatcher started looking to larger machines.

“The small trenchers no longer gave us a competitive advantage because we couldn’t achieve the production rate we needed,” Hatcher says. “We started renting some midsize machines until we had enough work to justify buying them. Renting also gave us an opportunity to test out different equipment to see what we liked best.”

Today, Hatcher’s crews are primarily using trenchers to install irrigation systems. Due to the scope of the projects they are doing, there is little opportunity to use those small walk-behind trenchers anymore. A couple of midsize options now provide the competitive advantage Hatcher is looking for.

“The articulation of some of these midsize ride-on trenchers makes them very maneuverable and versatile,” Hatcher says. “We also have some trenching attachments for our mini skid-steers, which are another good match for our smaller and midsize projects.

“On our really large projects where we’re sometimes installing miles of irrigation pipe, we use a tractor with a trenching attachment on the front and a backhoe on the back,” Hatcher adds. “We’re often installing 6-inch mainline as opposed to a 2-inch (line) on the typical residential property, so we require the ability to dig a much bigger trench.”

Experts from four trencher manufacturers offer some additional insights on how landscape contractors can choose the most productive, cost-effective trencher for the project at hand.

Perry Girard (Photo: Case Construction Equipment)

Perry Girard (Photo: Case Construction Equipment)

Case Construction Equipment

Perry Girard
Product marketing manager – attachments

The beauty of pairing a trencher attachment with a compact track loader is that you have a stable platform to operate that trencher from; the wider track base allows for smooth operation across a steady plane. While landscapers may use it intermittently to lay in wiring for decorative lighting, a trencher attachment also provides opportunity for business growth. Landscapers can become a resource for utility companies and other contractors to dig in trenches for utilities — services they are likely waiting on anyway before they can begin the final grading and landscape on a property. To pick the right trencher, a contractor just needs to evaluate the width/depth they plan on trenching, along with the soil type.

Mike Hale (Photo: Little Beaver)

Mike Hale (Photo: Little Beaver)

Little Beaver

Mike Hale
Sales and marketing manager

One of the most important things to think about before starting a trenching project is the scope of the project and the surrounding area. If the job is to dig a 3-foot-deep trench around an unfinished commercial building, a larger machine might be the best option. However, for smaller projects, such as those on finished landscapes or delicate materials, a walk-behind mini trencher is usually a better choice. Larger trenchers can rip up the ground. Some compact trenchers have carbide-tipped teeth and more of a sawing method that allows operators to cut through material like tree roots. Contractors might not realize all of the potential projects that can be completed with a mini trencher — things like plumbing and drainage lines, low-voltage wiring, silt fences and sprinkler systems.

Ryan Connelly (Photo: JCB North America)

Ryan Connelly (Photo: JCB North America)

JCB North America

Ryan Connelly
Attachments sales manager

When choosing a trencher attachment, it is critical to match flow and pressure requirements. Standard-flow attachments will typically run on machines with up to 26 gallons per minute (gpm) of hydraulic flow, whereas high-flow trenchers may require up to 40 gpm. It’s also important to match the chain assembly — including consideration for chain length and width, tooth type and tooth spacing — with the application. For example, standard single chains are well matched to loose or damp soil, whereas half-rock and frost chains are recommended for hard, rocky or frozen ground. All-purpose combination chains may be the right solution for good performance in a range of conditions. Landscapers also may want to compare manual versus hydraulic side shift. While hydraulic functionality will add cost, it will also increase efficiency.

Matt Hutchinson (Photo: Vermeer)

Matt Hutchinson (Photo: Vermeer)


Matt Hutchinson
Product manager for tree care/rental and landscape

Adding a dedicated trencher or compact utility loader with a trencher attachment is an excellent way for landscape contractors to diversify their services with irrigation and shallow utility installation work. A trencher is a great fit if a contractor only needs to trench or requires a machine that can fit in tight spaces. Don’t get confused by the term “dedicated,” though — many dedicated trenchers can also be outfitted with backfill blades and hydraulic boring attachments for going under hard surfaces. For contractors looking to do more than just trench, a compact utility loader and trencher attachment may be a better route. The right setup will deliver a performance similar to a dedicated machine, but the ability to add other attachments allows for expansion into additional areas.

About the Author:

Gregg Wartgow is a 20-year landscape industry reporter.

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