Know Before You Trench

The scoop on what irrigation pros need to know before they begin trenching.

Considering the full scope of a project is crucial before beginning to trench.
Considering the full scope of a project is crucial before beginning to trench.
Vermeer Corp.

Soil type, jobsite size, maintenance requirements—these are just a few of the items irrigation professionals need to consider before they begin a project that involves trenching.

Experts from Vermeer Corp. and Little Beaver expand on what irrigation pros should know before they trench.  

1. Safety first

The first and most important safety measure when doing any work underground starts before the project. Irrigation pros should call 811 at least three business days before the project starts.

The free service, available in the U.S. and Canada, sends professionals to properties and jobsites to mark the location of underground utility lines.

“From there, once underground utilities are mapped—and before the project starts—it’s a good idea to mark a path for the trench,” says Joe Haynes, president of Little Beaver. “This path increases safety by helping operators avoid tree roots, rocks, underground utilities and other obstacles.”

Other safety items to look for include a slip clutch to protect the machine when encountering an obstacle with the cutter, a shroud around the cutter wheel that protects against flying debris and whether the trencher operates with a forward push movement, giving operators a clear view of the path ahead and a lower risk of falls or injuries.

2. Project specs

To choose the best trencher for the job at hand, irrigation contractors need to know the specifications of the project they plan to undertake. That will help determine whether they need a large trencher or small trencher, a ride-on trencher or walk-behind machine.

“There’s no need to go for a big, chain-driven trencher if your project requires shallow depth trenching,” says Haynes says. “Not only do these trenchers often dig deeper than needed, but they’re hard on lawns and can’t get into the small spaces mini trenchers can. Mini trenchers are suited for shallow depth trenching between 0.5 inch and 4 inches wide with adjustable depth controls down to 13 inches deep.”

Additionally, Haynes says that mini trenchers can fit through narrow spaces, doorways, fence gates, next to a house or between landscaping features, gliding over delicate turf with pneumatic tires that eliminate the damage caused by larger machines.

3. Ground conditions

Soil type is another factor irrigation pros should keep top of mind, according to Kyle Newendorp, product specialist at Vermeer Corp.

“Whether they work in rocky or clay or sandy soil determines what they want to build their chain around,” Newendorp says, adding that each trencher has cups that dig the dirt and push it to one side and teeth that perform that cutting.

So, for example, if the soil is rockier, irrigation pros will want more teeth. For less rocky or sandy soil or even black dirt, the cups on the trencher become more prevalent, Newendorp says.

4. Tracked or wheeled trencher

It’s also important to decide whether a wheeled or tracked trencher would be most appropriate for the job at hand.

“Tracked machines are popular because of their maneuverability and traction, but they do tear up the grass a little bit more,” Newendorp says. “So, if they want to go with a unit that’s a little bit heavy, they could go with a tire unit.”

Newendorp notes that with tracked models, irrigation pros should be aware that there’s a little more maintenance to make sure that tracks are tightened.

5. Dedicated trencher or attachment

In thinking about a trencher for a specific job, irrigation pros should also think about whether they will have other similar projects in the future and whether they want to purchase one dedicated trencher or use a trencher attachment that works with mini skid-steers.

“Having a dedicated machine is great, especially if you have a job every week or every other day, but if you want to have a machine that can do multiple different jobs and use multiple different attachments, that's where the mini skid-steers with an attachment come into play,” Newendorp says. “You want a trencher that can do all the jobs you submit for, so just make sure you make a conscious choice of the machine and capabilities you want now and in the future.”

For jobs that don’t correlate with the machine they already have on-hand, irrigation pros can work with their local rental yard to find a machine that fits.

6. Operator considerations

Because the operator is the one using the trencher all day long, irrigation companies should consider how ergonomic and easy to use the machines are, Haynes says.

Additionally, irrigation pros should look for a trencher that streamlines the backfill process to save on time and energy.

7. Maintenance requirements

Irrigation pros should look for a trencher that reduces maintenance costs.

For example, trenchers with replaceable teeth on the cutter wheel reduce maintenance by eliminating the need to replace an entire blade when only a few teeth are damaged, Haynes says.

Other maintenance items operators should keep an eye on include common wear parts, grease points, filters, engine maintenance and more.

“Refer to the operator’s manual and be familiar with maintenance timelines,” Haynes says.