Utilize local experts
While understanding ground conditions is critical, it can be difficult given the fact they can vary dramatically, sometimes within little more than an hour's drive. "Tulsa is just an hour and 20 minutes from our office," says Adkins, "and the ground conditions are totally different."
That becomes important if you're working in an area where the soil conditions are unfamiliar. "What works well in one part of the country might not work well in another," Adkins points out. "And it's not necessarily that the machine can't handle it, but they have the wrong tool on the chain."
"A contractor in Fargo, ND, in nice 'potato dirt' can likely get by with a 40-hp machine," Kuyers comments. "But that same machine would have a more difficult time in San Antonio, TX, 'rock' ground where conditions are more difficult."
To ensure a better match, Adkins encourages utilizing the expertise of the local dealer/distributor, which is staffed by locals who know the area.
"Talk to your dealer. They are the local expert who can direct you to the best machine for a given application," agrees Kuyers. "We [manufacturers] can talk specs and provide good guidelines, but all 50 states are different. A local dealer knows the local ground conditions. Utilize that knowledge. It's something that's free."
Walk-behind or ride-on?
The selection process will likely include discussions about walk-behind vs. ride-on units. Walk-behind units are a popular choice for smaller, short-run jobs, such as residential irrigation where trenches are cut relatively shallow. These models are also typically less than 36 in. wide, so they can maneuver through backyard gates.
"You may be working in tight areas, such as a zero lot line home where you're trying to get into the backyard to replace existing infrastructure," Kuyers says. "You need a small machine because you can't physically fit a large one. You will have to trench slower, but you may have no other option."
Walk-behind units are generally self contained. "A plumber, for example, might have a smaller walk-behind unit... because he will have other tools he needs to carry to a jobsite," says Adkins. "Also, cutting a trench from the house to the curb is one of many tasks he will do. He might only utilize the trencher for a small portion of his day when he's out doing a job, so the need for a dedicated ride-on is not there."
Ride-on units are a good fit when trenching is a day-in, day-out task. "It's a lot nicer to operate because you?re sitting down," says Kuyers. "It's less work. Generally, with a ride-on, there's a backfill blade on the front of the machine so once you open up the trench, you have something to close it with.
"In my opinion, any time you move deeper than 36 in. and cut any wider than 6 in., you're better off with a ride-on trencher," he continues. "The amount of spoils a walk-behind trencher can handle is limited. The ride-ons have more robust systems with more horsepower, so they can pull more dirt out of the trench. And they're built heavier for more difficult soils."
Ride-ons also weigh more, which can be an advantage in difficult conditions. "You want a tractor that's built heavy-duty to withstand a lot of abuse that a trencher goes through," says Kuyers. "Imagine pulling up rocks. The chain is catching on those rocks and you can see the machine bouncing up and down. The larger the trencher, the more work can be done and the more abuse it can handle."
They are also a better choice for longer distance trenching jobs, such as commercial irrigation for a multi-family unit. "You're still burying at a shallow depth, but you're going long distances," says Wren. "The bigger the machine, the faster you can go and the more productive you can be.
"A consumer putting in his own irrigation lines can rent a small walk-behind unit and take his time putting it in. But a contractor wants to do it as fast as he can," he adds. "Evaluating application is important. You can dig a 10-mile trench with a 40-hp tractor, but you will be there all year. That's when it becomes important to pick the right tractor for the job, then outfit it to the ground conditions you will dig in."