Selecting which trenchers to add to a fleet can require a bit of “trial and error” to learn what horsepower, torque and boom height is best for a job.
Photo courtesy of Ditch Witch

Equipment is easier to acquire than quality labor, and it can even retain the good people you have by giving them the torque and tools to complete potentially back-breaking jobs efficiently. “Any time a piece of equipment can cut down labor, it’s worth buying,” says Joe Swett, CEO, Sunrise Irrigation, Palm Harbor, Fla.

Swett operates a mostly residential irrigation business, and because of fence gates, property sizes and topography –tree roots and such – his team relies on trenchers as the “labor” that can cut through tough ground while keeping jobs on time and on budget.

“Everything we put on a crew is based on efficiency, and whatever we can do to save labor and get a quality job done faster,” Swett says. “For us, open trench has been the way to go.”

Trenchers and vibratory plows (v-plows) are irrigation service staples, and each serves its purpose. Paired with essential hand tools, along with crew training and ongoing maintenance, an operation can leverage equipment to support its team and provide the service clients expect.

V-plow or trencher?

Sunrise Irrigation’s utility trailers house pedestrian trenchers because Swett explains, “we don’t need massive equipment” since residential properties tend to be close together and allow somewhat limited access to where his team will need to lay pipe or perform repairs.

From underground utilities to roots and rocks, “we can open up the ground and see what we’ve got, so it’s easier,” Swett says of using a trencher. His fleet includes three trenchers, two for service and one for installation since 90% of the business is residential irrigation maintenance.

“We can use these and get though a 36-inch fence gate,” he points out.

When selecting which trenchers to add to the fleet, he says it has required a bit of “trial and error” to learn what horsepower, torque and boom height is best for their jobs. “We started with less expensive machines that had lower horsepower, and we finally started tweaking that and finding out what worked for us.”

Swett says digging 2- and 3-feet deep is not necessary for the properties his team services. “So, I don’t need a large boom and I go with a shorter one,” he says. “I also look at horsepower as it relates to the torque I can get to the teeth. If I need to go through rocks, roots or really thick soil, I’ll opt for a higher horsepower and shorter boom so I can get more torque to the teeth to rip through the ground vs. a longer boom and lower horsepower, which will give you less torque in the ground to tear through material.”

John Newlin, owner, Quality Services, North Ridgeville, Ohio, says, “Trenchers have their place based on the application and size of pipe and project.” His key equipment includes a pipe puller with trencher attachment, and he prefers to use v-plows for installation because there is less settling of the yard.

“We hire some with agricultural backgrounds and they usually know how to run the equipment.” Randy Hunsicker, project manager at Commercial Irrigation & Turf

Commercial Irrigation & Turf also leans toward v-plow for most installation projects, and the Peoria, Ill.-based company serves golf courses and large commercial grounds, along with residential properties. Versatile equipment is the key for this firm.

“As for heavy equipment, we run vibratory plows, trenchers and small boring rigs, so we have different sizes for different applications, and most of our machines are all-in-one,” says Randy Hunsicker, project manager.

On light commercial and residential jobs, Commercial Irrigation & Turf dispatches its 36-inch, diesel-powered walk-beside machine that is center pivot and has a trencher plow on front, v-plow on the back and a rotor borer attachment. “That way you can get underneath sidewalks and driveways,” Hunsicker explains.

With this equipment, the company can install ¾-inch pipe to 2-inch pipe with a v-plow. “With spacers, you can go all the way up to 4-inch pipe with the trencher, as well,” he says, noting that the company mostly uses 1- to 1¼-inch pipe for residential projects and 1- to 4-inch pipe for commercial jobs. The company owns five of these multi-use machines.

For large commercial projects, the company uses larger equipment with a small backhoe on front for excavation. “We have two of those with v-plows and one that is a trencher,” he says of the combo package.

When breaking ground, Commercial Turf & Irrigation tries to use a v-plow in most circumstances. “It’s your best bet for cleanup,” Hunsicker says. “When you trench, you have to backfill and there is settling that can happen over time, while a v-plow lifts the ground up a little and you hardly see any settling.”

He also prefers a v-plow for pulling in pipe.

“The only time trench vs. using a v-plow is if we are putting wire and multiple pipes in a ditch,” Hunsicker says. “Then, we want an open ditch so there is more access for laying multiple products.”

Trenching provides more access for repairs in some cases. “You can trench and work more easily without digging up pipe to glue on fittings – you can do everything in the ditch and lay multiple pipes, which is harder with a v-plow and not really recommended,” Hunsicker says.

Going back to labor savings, Hunsicker emphasizes how unnecessary cleanup after installation can stall a crew’s efficiency. “Cleanup time takes away from the actual work,” he says, explaining why he prefers to assign v-plows to projects whenever possible. “We want to make sure the property looks great after installation, and for minimal cleanup, we try to use the smallest piece of equipment possible that is still very capable of doing what is required,” he says. “We want the smallest footprint machine that will not tear up the ground too much and take away from the main part of the job.”

Essential hand tools.

A selection of shovels and rakes are essential hand tools for performing irrigation work. As Swett points out, “It’s the basics.” His crews are equipped with pony shovels, flat shovels for cleanup, rock rakes and chainsaws for tearing through roots, if necessary.

Newlin’s team uses a German-made pneumatic hand shovel. “It is great when dealing with compacted soils,” he says, adding that other basic hand tools “are the norm” and include steel shovels, hard racks and tampers.

Smaller staples. While trenchers and v-plows make short work of a job, smaller hand tools are also needed.

“You want a trenching shovel that is comfortable to use,” Hunsicker adds. “It used to be a flat spade and you had to chip away the ground, where now there are more curved trenching shovels that help dig a ditch no wider than you need.” These trenching shovels are available in 4-, 5- and 6-inch widths, he says.

“If you were to Google, the most common shovel would be a round-point,” Hunsicker says, noting that he thinks these typically 8-inch shovels dig up more ground than necessary for most jobs.

“You’re excavating more than you need to run irrigation pipe,” he says. “So, the trenching shovel is more efficient because you are not digging such a wide area, and most of the time, we are digging 5 inches wide vs. 8 to 9 inches like you’d do with a round-point shovel.”

Training & maintaining.

Equipment is only as good as the crewmember who’s running the machine – how they use it and maintain it. Training is essential for safe, efficient operation and for equipment longevity. Swett starts his people with learning projects on the company’s own property.

“We do a test section in our yard and shop and operate the equipment, digging trenches in a controlled environment to learn how to properly use the equipment and not tear up grass with the tracks,” he says, noting that pivoting track-wheel equipment can disrupt the turf and result in a frustrated customer and more “repair work” for the crew.

Hands-on training comes after team members learn safety and basic machine anatomy in a classroom environment. “We discuss how to operate it and the depths we trench,” Swett says.

Training at Sunrise Irrigation happens weekly, and sometimes more frequently. During this time, they also discuss maintenance. “We tighten chains every day and stay on top of the preventive maintenance cycle,” Swett says. “The biggest things are changing oil, which we do religiously, and we do our 100-hour service at around 65 to 75 hours because of the type of environment the equipment is in.”

“It’s cheaper to change oil than a piece of machinery,” Swett says.

Training at Commercial Irrigation & Turf is also hands-on and customized to the team member’s skill level. “We hire some with agricultural backgrounds and they usually know how to run the equipment,” Hunsicker says. “Some never want to run the equipment and prefer to do the labor or plumbing side of the job.”

On most jobs, the foreman runs heavy equipment and teaches crewmembers as they gain more experience. Operating equipment begins with basics. Hunsicker says, “We start simple with flat ground.”

Equipment is greased daily, oil is checked before starting equipment each day, and the company adheres to service intervals for oil change and hydraulic fluid flushes. Also important, Commercial Irrigation & Turf relies on its nearby commercial dealer to service heavier, complex equipment.

At the end of the day, the right equipment, trained crewmembers and attention to maintenance are the key ingredients to completing irrigation jobs efficiently and up to quality standards. And finding the right combination of tools for the job to avoid too much cleanup. As Hunsicker says, “We are irrigation installers – we want to put pipe in the ground, sprinkler heads and put water to it.”