Beyond the Basic Trencher Arm

The bulk of mid-size ride-on trenchers still leave the factory with a trencher arm mounted on the rear and some sort of weight package on the front. But for some contractors, moving beyond these basics can offer added value by increasing
versatility of the tractor.

There are a host of attachments available for all sizes of machines. But some of the most common ones utilized on mid-size units include rock saws, vibratory plows, backhoes, reel carriers and combination attachments (vibratory plows and trenchers).

Hydraulic offsets, or traversing trenchers, that shift an attachment right or left of center are also common, especially for working in subdivisions where homes already exist, or for working next to objects and in industrial parks. "A lot of rural gas and water contractors like this feature because if they're working on a highway easement or next to a tree line or fence line, they might have to shift the attachment to work to the edge of the right of way," says Bob Wren, training manager, engineering and development, at Astec Underground.

For smaller, compact units you might see tillers, mowers and cement mixers among other offerings. Machines larger than 50 to 100 hp are typically high-performance machines; although attachments are available, they typically have a dedicated attachment and task.

The availability of attachments is not new. However, the ease at which you can change them has been simplified on many models. And the desire to gain greater versatility is a trend that continues to grow.

"Contractors have to be more versatile today," says Wren. "Rather than have a tractor with a dedicated trencher, plow or rock saw, they can buy one prime mover and three different attachments to do three different types of work with the same machine. I think we'll see more of this attachment utilization in the future."

From rock saws to vibratory plows

Take for example Jay Fischer, Joe Boxrucker and Earl Bartholomew. Each of these contractors makes use of attachments beyond simply a trencher.

In the case of Bartholomew, owner of Heat Can Oil, LLC in Chanute, KS, rock saws add value for cutting through solid rock with the Ditch Witch and Vermeer machines he uses to install oil and natural gas lines, power and communications cables, water and sewer distribution lines and commercial sprinkler and agricultural irrigation systems. Rock-driven chains — with a 50/50 mix of shark and dirt teeth — accommodate less severe conditions.

"Since we have so much rock in Kansas, we have equipment with dedicated attachments based on the job," he explains. "It just makes more sense for us to have some specially set up for rock. For us, switching equipment based on the job is easier than switching attachments."

Saws are also useful for chipping away at surfaces covered with concrete or asphalt, says Brent Bolay, senior product manager for trenchers and attachments at Ditch Witch. "On paved surfaces, they open the trench and discharge the spoil to the side. Typically, the saw chews up the rocks, asphalt or concrete enough for it to be used as backfill when they're done installing the product."

Jay Fischer, equipment manager at MP Nexlevel, manages his fleet of Vermeer trenchers by switching attachments based on ground conditions. Located in Maple Lake, MN, the company focuses on installing product for cable television, telephone, fiber optic and electrical companies.

"We're in Minnesota so we have frost to deal with for several months of the year," he says. That makes trencher arms a necessity in the winter.

But when the ground isn't frozen, vibratory plows can be preferable because there is less restoration involved, making them popular for installing telephone, cable television and electrical power lines. "With a plow, you just cut a slit in the ground," explains Todd Roorda, Vermeer. "There is no open trench that you have to backfill so restoration is far less costly. Plus, some companies are beginning to require a certain compaction rate to prevent valleys when the ground settles. With a vibratory plow, you don't have to worry about that."

Many of Fischer's trenchers also utilize a backhoe or reel carrier on the front rather than simply a weight kit. "We switch based on the job," he says. Occasionally, he will also switch to a water system for use with the vibratory plow in hard ground. "We inject water into the toe of the plow shank to make it easier to go through the ground."

One tractor, multiple attachments

Changing between attachments has become an easier job, especially if you can do it in a shop.

Astec has designed its trencher tractors with hydraulics that come back to a common manifold at the rear. "There's a series of fittings at the manifold so all you have to do is mount the attachment and plug the hydraulic hoses from the attachment into the manifold," explains Wren. "It's not necessarily quick disconnect, but it provides easy access to hoses and fittings to make it easier for the customer."

"For us, it's just a handful of bolts and some hydraulic hoses," says Fischer. "It only takes a couple of hours.

"Having the ability to change between attachments gives us the ability to utilize one tractor and multiple attachments. There's a cost savings to that," he continues. "Without that ability, a trencher may have sat unused most of the summer until the ground froze. Now we can use the tractor year round and switch back and forth between a trencher and a vibratory plow. And if we find we have a job that needs a different attachment, we can just go and buy that attachment. We don't have to buy another tractor."

Like Fischer, Joe Boxrucker, operations manager at North States Utility in Eagle River, WI, also has to deal with frozen ground. He takes advantage of swapping between a vibratory plow and trencher based on ground conditions, which he says takes two employees half a day to accomplish.

Boxrucker has about 75 Case (Astec) machines, of which about a dozen routinely get a new attachment when the weather turns cold. "Our workload decreases substantially in the winter because the winter construction charge goes into affect to dig through frost. This typically sets in about Thanksgiving and sticks around through the first of May," he notes.

Boxrucker has been routinely changing attachments since the early 1990s. "What made us go to dual-purpose machines is strictly dollars and cents," he says. "The attachment costs about 20% of the unit. It's a way to utilize a piece of equipment 12 months out of the year, rather than have a unit sit for seven to eight months and be used for just a single purpose.

"Mainly, it was a financial consideration for buying an attachment and switching back and forth vs. buying an entire unit for one task," he continues. "And when we upgrade the tractor, we can still use the attachments."

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