Digging Maintenance: Routine Inspections for Ride-On Trenchers

Jobs requiring long trenches, beyond 100 ft, are the bread and butter of ride-on trenchers. These machines keep the operator comfortable and, most importantly, productive for long days spent installing water, electric or sewer lines. As with every job, productivity is of the utmost importance for operators working behind the wheel. Any minute of machine downtime can be a heavy burden on the bottom line. That’s why removing sources of downtime is so important.

Reducing downtime is heavily dependent on machine maintenance. Routine maintenance can help underground construction contractors proactively identify a problem before it occurs on a jobsite, drastically reducing or eliminating downtime. For instance, if a digging chain has the wrong tension, a contractor can identify the issue before stepping out on a jobsite, eliminating the risk of a chain slipping off its sprockets during operation. The risk of lost productivity is a key motivator for healthy maintenance habits. Another benefit of proper upkeep: the extended life of equipment. Developing maintenance habits is not a hard task, especially when the outcome keeps a contractor’s trencher fleet running smoothly.

Selecting a Ride-On Trencher

It’s important to understand the working conditions of a ride-on trencher before setting a maintenance routine, as proper maintenance intervals are often determined by operating environments. For example, average trench depth can be a key factor when developing maintenance routines for a ride-on trencher.

Once the trench depth is known, contractors can better determine the type of ride-on trencher to efficiently handle the task while also reducing wear. When selecting a ride-on trencher, there are three groups to keep in mind. The 18- to 50-hp group is dedicated to digging depths of 3 to 5 ft, while the 50- to 80-hp group is best for depths of 4 to 6 ft. For 4 to 8 ft of digging depth, the 80- to 130-hp group is a better fit.

The next step in ride-on trencher selection is determining soil conditions on the job. Long-term wear and tear ultimately comes down to soil. Based on soil conditions, contractors will choose the appropriate digging system for a project and determine if additional attachments are required. Loose soil or tough clay and rock require different chains. For the most efficient cut, digging systems should match the operating conditions.

Enhanced Performance Calls for Routine Maintenance

To keep ride-on trenchers productive, it’s important to perform daily, weekly and monthly maintenance activities. Best practices for maintenance can be found in the trencher operator’s manual. The manuals provide a wealth of information, and there is no better constant companion for performing proper maintenance. A few common maintenance routines all ride-on trencher operators should follow include:

• Check engine oil and coolant levels regularly or even daily.
• Regularly change filters, especially when working in adverse or dusty conditions.
• Lubricate all trencher service points.
• Inspect digging systems daily or after each job.

Digging systems are the primary culprit of operational issues for ride-on trenchers. The process of digging a trench causes wear on the teeth, chain and sprockets — the more difficult the soil conditions, the more often they must be replaced. Operating a trencher with worn or damaged digging components can not only decrease productivity, but also cause unnecessary stress or damage to the trencher itself.

Improving Digging-System Efficiency

Expect to regularly change filters, especially when working in the adverse and dusty conditions of trenching.

Expect to regularly change filters, especially when working in the adverse and dusty conditions of trenching.

Worn teeth, chain and sprockets reduce digging efficiency, which can result in shock loads that damage other parts of the machine, such as the engine and transmission. Additionally, when consistently operating with a worn chain link, sprocket teeth can completely wear through roller sleeves, causing damage to the pins that connect them. And if a chain doesn’t have the correct tension, a contractor will lose productivity when the chain slips off the sprocket.
The best defense against wear and incorrect tension is regular inspection of the digging chain. As mentioned, the length of time between inspections depends on the machine and type of work. To learn more about making adjustments and identifying proper chain tension, check the operator’s manual.

Depending on conditions, teeth can wear prematurely or unevenly. When this happens, the teeth can put unnecessary stress on the digging chain with all the issues mentioned. Digging teeth should be replaced as soon as they become dull. To stay on top of performance, check the teeth whenever the trencher is acting sluggish or at the end of every day or job. When replacing teeth, make sure they conform to the pattern on the digging chain.

Don’t overlook sprockets — where there are worn teeth, there are often sprockets in need of replacement. Keep this in mind when performing routine trencher maintenance. Remember: Sprockets should never be replaced alone. The digging chain should be changed at the same time. Operating an old chain on new sprockets causes premature sprocket wear, and operating a new chain on worn sprockets causes excessive chain wear and can result in chain failure.

Beyond the Trencher: Track Maintenance

Contractors expect their ride-on trenchers to easily navigate the jobsite. This is best accomplished by a track system in top shape. To extend the life of a track system, keep it clean and free of mud, rocks and other debris. All debris must be purged from the bearing areas to prevent intrusion to the roller bearings. This care is even more important in cold regions where the contaminants could freeze and cause damage to rollers, bearings and sprockets in sub-freezing temperatures. Contaminants can also result in premature wear on imbeds of the rubber track and the drive sprockets.

Keeping the roller bearings lubricated will also extend the productive life of a ride-on trencher. This is even more relevant when the jobsite has wet, muddy and cold conditions. Correct fluid levels in the planetary gearboxes must be maintained to prevent premature damage to internal gears.

Additionally, track tension is an important factor in ride-on trencher upkeep. Correct track tension must be maintained to lessen the chance of damage to imbeds and the track, caused by the track sliding off the idlers and sprocket. As always, the operator manual lists the correct fluids, grease and track tension procedures to extend the track drive system life. The best way for a contractor to remain productive is by following a proper maintenance routine. From reading the operator’s manual to keeping a close eye on the digging system, wheels and tracks, maintenance is a simple step for optimizing performance, reducing downtime and improving the bottom line.

Steve Seabolt is the product manager for heavy-duty trenchers at Ditch Witch.

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