All manufacturers we spoke to noted the best way to ensure optimum traction from a walk-behind trencher is to opt for tracks instead of wheels. “These are great for rental yards that need a machine to operate in a variety of soil conditions,” says Collins at Ditch Witch. “All of our walk-behinds are available with tires or tracks. And you can always upgrade.”
Hard to steer/maneuver
No one would ever accuse a walk-behind trencher of being graceful. Let’s face it, these machines are like a giant electric steak knife cutting through the soil. There’s bound to be some vibration. Still, that doesn’t mean operators enjoy it or can even handle it in some cases. “In my area of northwest middle Tennessee, it is very rocky,” says Bagwell, who occasionally rents walk-behind trenchers for installing electrical circuits, running water lines and putting in sprinkler systems. “You can be in good ground one minute moving right along, and the next thing you are in rocky ground moving very slowly and being beat and bounced around everywhere. My experience with these machines is you have to man-handle the darn things to get them in working positions.”
Unfortunately, this is the nature of standard trenchers, Leonard says, no matter the brand. “If the trencher does not have hydraulic steering capability, the operator has to put some muscle into it when turning the machine,” she says, advising users to “make sure the axle lock is disengaged when transporting, and then reengage when trenching.”
Collins notes that older walk-behinds are harder to maneuver because they’re mechanically driven machines. To steer, the operator has to physically move the machine by grabbing the bail system to go left or right. “The latest machines are all hydraulic. Independent hydrostatic motors run each tire or track. The operator can steer easily with his fingertips. It’s much less labor intensive and you get equal traction on both tires.”
Vermeer’s latest trencher models are also hydraulic, but use handlebars to steer because customers are used to the configuration, Kuyers says. To make operation very intuitive, “We created a linkage system so when you pivot the handlebars in one direction, the trencher goes that way,” he says. “There’s no pushing or pulling.”
He continues, “We kept the handlebars partly so that if the machine gets stuck in the mud, there’s still some way to get some leverage to pull it out.”
Differential lock doesn’t work
Hagerty recalls that during one walk-behind trencher rental, he couldn’t lock the differential into position to drive both wheels simultaneously. “This added to the problem of wheel slippage on the grass,” he notes.
Kuyers says this can be a problem on older mechanical trenchers, especially if the operator is unaware there even is a differential lock. “When the operator is trenching and he doesn’t lock the differential, only one tire will spin, and they won’t get full tractive effort.”
He continues, “We have no differential lock on our current models. Instead, we use a hydraulic drive system where both hydraulic motors are pulling with equal power. You can steer any way you want.”
Still, if there is a problem with the differential lock on a standard trencher, Leonard at Barreto says the first item to troubleshoot is whether the cable needs to be adjusted. “Our mechanical components for the axle lock on our standard trenchers are located inside our oil tank and are fully lubricated at all times. They have no exposure to dirt and there is minimal friction on the components due to the immersion in the hydraulic oil.”
She adds, “Track and steerable trenchers eliminate this problem by removing the differential lock and replacing it with hydraulic motors to steer the unit.”
“The engage/disengage clutch for the wheel movement was so sensitive there was literally about a 1/4-inch range where the clutch would be in neutral,” Hagerty says of one rental experience. “This made it very difficult to stop wheel movement when I encountered a rock or root.”
Kuyers at Vermeer explains older, mechanical trenchers have belts that can slip, causing the machine to stall if they’re too tight, or burn up if they’re too loose. Newer hdraulic models, however, employ a lever that hydraulically engages the chain. By reversing the lever, you can reverse the chain easily to clear an obstruction.