Attaching a crumber or trencher cleaner on the end of the boom can help ensure maximum trench depth is achieved.
On track and steerable trenchers, the differential lock is replaced with hydraulic motors that make it easier to maneuver the unit.
Walk-behind trenchers equipped with tracks have improved traction and provide the operator with less bouncy and more comfortable trenching experience.
It’s true walk-behind trenchers are the perfect rental item, offering ample utility to professional contractors and weekend warriors alike. These machines are ideal for any application that requires digging in a tight space where a ride-on model can’t fit. Customers like them because the rate is reasonable, and you like them because they’re durable and, if maintained properly, can bring you a high return on investment. Utility and ROI aside, if you ask a group of operators about their experiences renting these machines, the same complaints consistently come up.
Complaints? What? Come on, don’t be surprised. Just by the nature of the work they do, walk-behind trenchers can be challenging to operate because they require a fair amount of muscle and coordination, right? Well, it’s true today’s latest models have improved greatly in terms of ease of use, but the older mechanical machines still found in many rental inventories are not a cake walk for some operators to use. To give you some insight into what frustrates your customers most about walk-behind trencher rentals, we talked to a few operators about their experiences. We also talked to leading manufacturers about product developments you might want to keep in mind the next time you choose a walk-behind for your inventory. Following are the top five frustrations your customers have with walk-behind trenchers:
Won’t dig deep enough
Thomas Hagerty, a farmer from Columbia, TN, recalls a rental experience where he specifically told the rental house he needed a machine to trench at least 24 inches. “At no place during the project was I successful in reaching a full 24 inches of depth,” he says. “The machine simply would not dig deeper than 18 inches.”
For operators that don’t use a walk-behind trencher very often, these results can be surprising and disappointing, however, manufacturers point out that in most cases the machine is, in fact, achieving the correct depth, it’s just that a certain amount of trench spoil always falls back into the trench. There are a couple of ways to combat this problem. One is to equip your trenchers with an optional crumber or trench cleaner, says Matt Collins at Ditch Witch, who explains this device fits onto the end of the boom and removes spoils from the trench floor.
Another way to minimize spoil fallback is to ensure your trencher is using the right type of chain. Jackie Leonard with Barreto Mfg. points out that in softer soil conditions, for example, a full cup chain will remove the most dirt. “Many areas have differing soil conditions within a short distrance,” she adds, “making a combo chain (cup and shark teeth) the best option. The shark teeth will handle the rocks or hard pack and the cup teeth will help to remove dirt from the trench.”
When all else fails, Jon Kuyers at Vermeer says to recommend a bigger trencher. “If your customer really needs to go to a 24-inch depth, rent them a 30-inch trencher.”
Operators get frustrated when they can’t get good traction, as this makes achieving the desired trenching depth all the more difficult. Sometimes, this is simply due to worn tires, as was the case for Hagerty. “Although the ground was damp, it was not saturated or muddy,” he recalls. “However, the tires were so worn on the trencher that it simply slipped on the grass when I attempted to achieve my desired depth.”
Raymond Bagwell, an electrical contractor from Clarksville, TN, says in his experience, the main reason for poor traction is there’s not enough weight on the wheels. “It takes a lot of traction to pull the trencher bar through the ground,” he notes. “In rocky ground, the trencher is bouncing up and down, taking weight off the wheels.”
According to Kuyers at Vermeer, it’s up to the rental yard to maintain the tires on its trenchers, but the problem of bad traction can also be chalked up to the operator’s attempt to trench too quickly. “Customers think the faster you go, the faster you trench, but it’s not true,” he says. “Customers need to be properly trained. Pulling too fast does not mean you cut any faster.”
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.
Mechanical digging chain drives on older models are just not as user friendly, particularly when striking an obstruction. They’re hard on the mechanical components and on the operator. But according to Leonard, even some hydraulic machines have their flaws. “Some hydraulic trenchers in the industry are outfitted with micro switches, so that when the clutch levers or bails are released, they will stop the chain and either kick the wheels into neutral or stop the engine,” she says. “These controls are very difficult to work in rocks and roots as you can’t operate the chain without engaging the wheel drive.”
When an operator strikes an obstruction while operating a Barreto trencher, however, Leonard says they can drop the clutch lever, stopping the wheels and chain drive, while the engine continues running. “The operator can then activate a separate manual digging chain lever that will operate the digging chain in forward or reverse to cut through or dislodge an obstruction while the wheels remain safely locked. The operator can then engage the clutch (engaging the wheel or track drive) intermittently until they work through the root or rocky area. Once the obstruction is cleared, the operator can then engage the digging chain and ground drive together and continue trenching at normal speed.”
Collins at Ditch Witch adds a complaint about an oversensitive clutch can simply be a sign that maintenance is needed. “Older machines use a single lever to go forward or back, with neutral in the middle, and over time, things just need adjustment,” he says. “Always refer to the operator’s manual for the right maintenance intervals.”
Good maintenance can makeall the difference
The consensus among all parties is that older walk-behind trenchers are not always a picnic to operate, but they get the job done. Fortunately, manufacturers have made numerous advancements to create new machines that are easy and simple for all operators to use.
Improved equipment goes a long way toward enhancing the rental experience for customers, but it doesn’t end there. You need to be sure you maintain your equipment according to the operator’s manual. “My biggest complaint is poor maintenance of equipment,” says Lloyd Reese, a DIYer from South Carolina. “I really hate to have to repair something I rent before I can get any work done.”
Reese recalls renting a walk-behind trencher and the digging chain was loose. “It jumped off and I had to adjust it,” he says.
For his part, when Hagerty was unsatisfied with the performance of the trencher he rented, he made sure to point out its failings when he returned it to the rental company, but his frustrations only grew when his complaints fell on deaf ears. “I asked for a partial refund of the rental price,” he recalls. “The manager became very defensive and basically blamed me for the difficulties I had.”
He continues, “Although the customer is not always right, I believe any business needs to be sensitive to the experiences their customers have with their business.”