Digging The Options

Dedicated walk-behind trenchers versus compact utility loaders—-here's why you need both in your rental inventory.

There are many ways to dig a trench. Two methods for short distance trenching-dedicated walk-behind trenchers and compact utility loaders (CULs) with trenching attachments -- will give you the same end result. But which is best for your customers?

Let’s take a look at each system, so you can connect your customers with the best way to dig their trench.

Job dedication

When choosing a trenching system for your customers, dedicated walk-behind trenchers offer several advantages. First, because trenching is all they’re built to do, they do it very well.

“You can trench a 200-foot-long, two-foot-deep trench in about 20 to 30 minutes with a walk--behind trencher,” says Greg Barreto, president of Barreto Mfg. “If trenching is all you have to do, then it’s the ideal machine.”

Walk-behind trenchers are built to be compact and highly maneuverable. Smaller size, however, doesn’t mean they’re any less capable of handling challenging ground conditions or standing up to the rigors of trenching.

“Manufacturers continue to pack as much horsepower in as small a package as possible,” says Brent Bolay, senior product manager with The Charles Machine Works Co., makers of Ditch Witch products. “It allows them to have a compact machine but enough power to do more work.”

Cost is another consideration. A trencher in the 7-to 20-hp range can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $13,000. That’s significantly less than a CUL with a trenching attachment. Typically, a CUL base machine costs around $15,000; the trenching attachment around $4,000.

“Obviously a CUL can do more than trench when it has other attachments,” says Barreto. “But if you need a piece of equipment to just dig a trench, you can buy two or three trenchers for the price of one utility loader with a trenching attachment.”

Barreto also points out that hauling a trencher is simpler. “A trencher can be placed in the back of a pick-up truck, while the CUL and all its attachments usually requires a separate trailer.”

Jack of all trades

CULs have come a long way since their introduction in the mid-1990s. They’re now available in walk-behind and stand-on versions, and their compact size allows them to tackle projects on the tightest jobsites, often replacing the need for hand labor.

The CUL’s greatest asset is its versatility--these machines are definite multi-taskers. They’re capable of trenching irrigation and digging holes for trees and plants.

They can haul materials around the jobsite, and perform light grading and excavation. These machines are ideal for customers who have several tasks to complete on one jobsite.

“CULs allow users to do more things before and after digging the trench,” says Eric Hennarichs, national rental sales manager with Finn Corp. “A dedicated trencher might do a faster job with the trench, but it can't do anything else.”

As noted, some CULs offer a stand-on platform for users. This can allow operators to have a better view of the trenching area.

“CULs offer a better view, and you don’t have to walk backwards,” says Hennarichs.

Making the match

There are several considerations to keep in mind when a customer needs to dig a trench. Todd Roorda, rubber tire product specialist with Vermeer Mfg., offers this list of items to consider when helping a customer decide which trenching system to rent.

Ground conditions: What type of conditions will the unit be working in? “The harder the conditions, the more a customer might lean toward the dedicated trencher,” says Roorda. “A walk--behind trencher is designed to do one thing and do it well, and that's trench.”

Productivity: If an operator is on a tight schedule and needs to maximize their rental period, they might want to look at a walk--behind trencher, says Roorda. “Walk--behind trenchers traditionally out--produce CULs with trenching attachments,” he says.

Length of job: This goes hand--in--hand with productivity. “As trenching jobs get longer, operators will be looking at getting more productivity, and a walk--behind trencher should be used,” says Roorda. “If the job is short, the productivity of the dedicated unit might not necessarily be as much of a benefit.”

Operator preference: Operators might be more comfortable operating a dedicated unit or a CUL depending on their experience. And as Roorda says, “If the ground is a little muddy or if an operator just plain doesn't want to walk, a CUL would be more beneficial.

Why walk when you can ride?”

Multitasking: If a job requires other machines to be on the site along with a trencher, a CUL is a good choice. It might be more economical for the customer to bring one base machine to the jobsite with many attachments rather than several pieces of equipment to do several different jobs.

Which to choose?

As you can see, both types of trenching systems have their advantages. And sources feel there is a need for both types of systems in your rental inventory.

“There really is room for both dedicated trenchers and CULs at a rental business,” says Bolay with Ditch Witch. “CULs are ideal for the customer with several tasks they need to complete on one jobsite. If you have a landscaper who needs to install a water line and plant a tree, send him out with a CUL and some attachments. If you have an inexperienced customer, like a homeowner, who needs to dig a trench, rent him a dedicated machine.”

The bottom line is CULs aren’t designed to replace a dedicated trencher in your inventory. Most rental businesses will add a CUL and attachments to their inventory in order to offer customers a versatile machine -- not to replace any dedicated machines, says Barreto.

“Most rental businesses had an inventory of trenchers before this wave of CULs hit the market,” he says. “They might purchase a CUL and several attachments, but they’re not doing it to replace their dedicated trenchers.”

And Hennarichs with Finn points out that trenching attachments for CULs aren’t at the top of the popularity lists for these machines.

“We see trenching attachments as ‘second generation’ attachments,” he says.

“Meaning, most people purchasing CULs don’t pick the trencher as one of the first attachments they buy. They come back during their second round of buying and select the trencher.”

Of course, having both types of machines will help combat missed rentals. As Roorda points out, “Missing rentals is something every rental store despises. If the CUL is out on rent without the trencher, the rental store can’t provide their customer with a machine.

The trencher attachment might be sitting idle, but without a power unit, it can’t be rented. Having both styles of units on the yard only gives that store a better chance to rent their customer a machine.”

It’s clear that both types of machines can be successful in your rental business. By asking the right questions and considering both trenching options, you can help your customers choose the right method that’s best for them.