When you’re working on a project that needs some serious earthmoving power, you’ll likely be in the market for a trencher. What is a trencher you might ask? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a piece of equipment meant to dig — you guessed it — trenches.
In this post, we’ll cover how to use a trencher, the differences between the various types of trenchers, and answer some frequently asked questions when it comes to this equipment. Let’s dig in!
Step 1: Pick Your Trencher
First, you have to pick the right equipment for the job. Below we break down the different trenchers and the types of jobs they’re best suited for.
Types of Trenchers
There are two main kinds of trenchers: walk-behind and ride-on.
A walk-behind trencher is typically best suited for small- to medium-sized jobs where space might be tight, such as digging for irrigation, landscaping or commercial construction projects on softer terrain. Additionally, walk-behind trenchers are great if you’re working on an enclosed work site or dealing with restricted access. Plus, if you’re looking for precision, a smaller walk-behind trencher can help you maneuver evenly for a seamless installation of irrigation, plumbing, or cables (such as phone, internet, or electrical).
When it comes to understanding how to operate a walk-behind trencher, be aware that it’s operated manually and pulled backward, and it requires a bit more than a ride-on model when it comes to physical labor. It’s also usually less powerful than a ride-on trencher at 12–31 horsepower, but this is typically perfect for smaller-scale jobs and great for maneuverability.
A ride-on trencher will likely be your best bet for a larger, trickier job that requires more horsepower (49–131 horsepower). Think of your heftier construction sites with harder terrain (like rocky soil or pavement) where deeper and wider trenches across longer distances are needed.
A ride-on trencher operates with you in the driver’s seat vs. walking behind it. This requires less physical effort on your part and allows for more horsepower. However, this can translate to less maneuverability, making ride-on trenchers best for jobs that don’t require the utmost precision and aren’t limited by space constraints. Ride-on trenchers can help you achieve longer, deeper and wider trenches in tough terrain.
Both types of trenchers can be equipped with either a toothed metal wheel (a rock wheel trencher) or a chainsaw-like digging belt (a chain trencher). A rock wheel trencher is great for tackling rocky terrain, pavement, and hard soil. Plus, they have their own spacers and ejectors to get rid of excavated materials as you’re working.
A chain trencher is, as you might imagine, like a giant chainsaw. It has a chain mechanism that wraps around a boom, allowing you to easily manage the depth of the cut. This style of trencher is also flexible and has a bucket-style excavator to move debris, making it ideal for digging narrow trenches for wires, cutting roots and cutting through the soil.
Whether you’re using a wheel or chain trencher, a ride-on, or walk-behind, trenchers can make quick work of an otherwise slow project. Once you’ve chosen your ideal trencher, it’s time to get to work.
Step 2: Prepare Your Job Site
This is another area that will vary depending on your project, but there are some best practices to keep in mind, including:
- Obtaine the proper permits.
- Contact relevant utility entities before trenching to ensure you don’t cut through any cables, pipes, or protected tree roots.
- Clearly marking where trenching will occur and clear any major obstructions.
- Make sure you and your team fully read the operating instructions and safety precautions before getting started.
Next, it’s time to start digging your trench.
Step 3: Operate Your Trencher
While the specific instructions will vary between trenchers, there are some basics that apply to most of these machines. Being familiar with the basic mechanisms beforehand will help you get to work even faster. You’ll find the following on most trenchers:
- Steering mechanism. On a walk-behind trencher, this is typically just a set of handles, while a ride-on trencher has more robust steering levers or track controls.
- Depth control. Often operated by a hydraulic mechanism, this lever will allow you to raise and lower your trencher boom as needed.
- Chain or wheel control. This turns the actual trenching mechanism — either a wheel or chain — on and off.
- Speed control. This allows you to control how slow or fast your trencher moves.
- Gear shift. Your trencher will start in neutral and you can then put it in forward or reverse.
- Safety. Finally, the safety mechanism helps you keep your machinery in control. Often a lever on a handle, the trencher won’t start until you disengage the safety.
Once you have these basics down and know the specifics of the particular machine you’re using, it’s time to dig your trenches. First set the depth and speed controls, and then you can start the engine, turn on the chain or wheel, and disengage the safety to start your job. Keep in mind that you may need to adjust the speed and depth as you work, depending on the terrain you’re working with, as well as the direction of the chain or wheel.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about trenchers.
How long does it take to dig a ditch with a trencher?
The exact amount of time will depend on your project needs, including how many feet deep, wide and long your trench needs to be, what kind of terrain you’re dealing with, and the machinery you’re using.
Will a trencher cut through roots?
Typically, yes, as long as they’re not too tough or large. Be sure you aren’t cutting through any protected tree roots before you start.
How do you use a trencher with tracks?
A trencher with tracks is typically a ride-on trencher, as they’re meant for tougher jobs on rough terrain. Knowing the basics of how to use a trencher and reading operational instructions closely will help you use this machinery successfully.
How deep can a trencher dig?
The required depth of your project will help you determine how big of a trencher you need. Pay attention to the measurements: For example, a 36-inch trencher can dig up to 36 inches. Typically, a walk-behind trencher can dig up to 48 inches, and a ride-on trencher can dig up to 6 feet.
Will a trencher work in wet ground?
Yes, a trencher will work in wet ground, but be sure you operate with precaution. If the ground is too wet, you run the risk of losing the chain or wheel. If the ground is only moderately wet, however, this may help trenching go faster.
Ready to start trenching? Whether you need to dig for laying wires and irrigation or a much more robust landscaping project, knowing how to use a trencher will help you determine which type of machine is best for you. Check out our trenchers available for rent.