Made for Walking

It was realized long ago that there
had to be an easier and more efficient way to dig those short, shallow
trenches in confined areas. So in 1949 contractors had their first look
at a compact trencher, called the Ditch Witch, that combined the
capabilities of a large trencher with the ease of use and
maneuverability of an everyday lawnmower.

Those early versions later became known as pedestrian or walk-behind
trenchers, as the machines evolved to where seats were added — making
even easier work of many of the larger projects. Today, there is an
even wider range of choices available, but pedestrians have maintained
a steady place in the market. Through a strong presence in rental
applications, the market has capitalized on the machine’s small size
and convenience of use, giving customers more opportunities to use it
in a wider variety of applications.

“We still view the pedestrian trencher market as our core market,” says
Brent Bolay, trencher product manager for The Charles Machine Works
Inc., manufacturer of Ditch Witch equipment. “This class is where
[Ditch Witch] started and where compact trenchers in general started.
Now there are a lot of units out in the marketplace, and there are more
manufacturers in that category than anything else. So there is just a
high enough usage out there that it has been a very strong market for a
long time.”

A Pedestrian Market

Since the first compact trenchers were unveiled, the machines have
ridden the highs and lows of the housing industry. After a decline in
residential construction in 2001, compact trenchers were subject to the
same rollercoaster ride as nearly every other segment of the
construction industry. But it wasn’t long before that too passed, and
the market has continued its upward trek ever since.

“The trencher market has been good and it’s definitely on the upswing —
with 2004 showing an improvement over 2003, and 2003 was already better
than 2002,” says Bob Wren, trencher product manager for Astec
Underground. “For a while, the market was almost saturated with
machines, but now it’s back on the upswing. It had all depended on the
housing market, because that affects everything — gas, water, electric,
cable television, telephone. So if the housing market stays good,
utility contractors are going to keep working.”

According to manufacturers, pedestrian trenchers (in terms of number of
units) are still one of the biggest markets to be had, comprising
roughly 50 percent of the compact trencher market. This is due in large part to the fact that
walk-behinds are considerably less expensive than a riding trencher —
usually about one-third the initial cost of even the smallest riding
machine. In addition, the vast number of potential rental outlets has
become a primary driver of the pedestrian market.

With more rental opportunities, created by the need for smaller
machines that can be used in more applications, about 65 percent of
pedestrians find their way into the rental industry. The balance is
shared by small contractors, landscapers and a smaller category
comprised by a variety of customers including homeowners. And because
rental drives so much of the market, pedestrian trencher manufacturers
try to offer customers just the right machine based on as many factors
as possible — from large contractors to the do-it-yourself homeowners.

“In a lot of those examples, with the homeowners and the smaller
contractors, transportation will become a big consideration,” notes
Bolay. “Those customers need to be able to get that trencher on a
trailer that’s small enough to go behind a smaller vehicle. Then you
have the area where you’re working — a lot of people have shrubs,
trees, fences, concrete walls and other obstructions that they need to
get around. So the size of the machine to get in and do the job can be
a fairly large determining factor. Granted, how the rental yard has the
machine priced on a per-day rental might sway people just as much as

Lose the Seat

The advantages of a pedestrian trencher become fairly evident as soon
as you see one. They’re small, easy to get into tight spaces and you
can move them around relatively easily. Engines typically range from 30
hp and down, providing enough capability to dig trenches up to 36 in.
deep and 4 to 6 in. wide. And while a riding trencher will provide more
horsepower and thus more capability, they usually cater to a much more
dedicated type of user.

“Pedestrians are mostly used for shallow work, short runs of 30 to 100
ft, while the riding machines are used for the utilities from 30 up to
110 hp,” explains Wren. “It really depends on how much work a customer
is going to do and what kind of business he’s into. If he’s only in
service work and he doesn’t dig a lot of footage every day, a smaller
machine is going to be fine.”

Regardless of their size or whether it has a seat, the basic concept of
opening up a trench in the ground stays the same throughout any
manufacturer’s product line. The primary component is the digging
chain, which actually excavates the dirt. The operator fits that chain
with just the right ratio of cup teeth and carbide bits, by either
welding or bolting them on. Then, the capability of the machine is a
simple matter of the amount of horsepower imparted to the digging

The operation of the units, on the other hand, is quite different.
While the trencher booms on the first generations of trenchers had to
be raised and lowered manually, modern pedestrians have evolved into
having hydraulics on the machines to raise and lower the boom. Modern
pedestrians have a natural and intuitive operating routine, which also
tends to cater more to the rental market than the riding machines might.

“Small pedestrians are maneuvered around by the operator by engaging or
disengaging one of the drive tires — you want it engaged where both are
pulling while you are trenching, then you disengage one, and use that
to your advantage for steering the machine around the jobsite,”
explains Bolay. “An operator who gets behind a pedestrian might not
have ever run a trencher before, but he’s probably run a lawnmower, a
tiller or some other garden tool, so from that standpoint, a pedestrian
has similar characteristics in terms of how it functions and responds.
The larger machines will even use the hydraulic capability for steering
of the drive tires to maneuver around.”

Riding units also have the capability of a backfill blade, which adds
functionality by allowing operators to quickly and easily return the
spoils back into the trench when they are done. But on the downside,
the bulkier design might not allow entry into the tighter, more
confined worksites. Manufacturers say the bigger the job, the deeper
you’re digging, the larger the amount of spoil you are going to have to
deal with. So as jobs get bigger, the more likely a customer will be to
lean toward a riding machine.

“The capability provided by a backfill blade can be a deciding factor
for some customers, but again, that ties into the size of job they’re
doing,” says Bolay. “If you’re talking about a relatively small job
around your house with a fairly shallow trench, you can backfill with
just a shovel and get along ok. However, if you are doing more than a
couple hundred feet of that, it can become a pretty major project.”

Drive Systems

For years, mechanical ground drives were the standard on trenchers of
every size and shape. Using gear boxes, shafts, pulleys, chains and
sprockets to drive the digging chain, mechanical drives gave the most
power and efficiency in a wide range of ground conditions. But since
hydrostatics came out in 1979, years of improvements, superior
reliability and lower maintenance have closed the gap in the riding
market considerably.

The same has started to happen in the pedestrian market. Now, most
manufacturers offer both types of drives throughout their product
lines. Ditch Witch’s 1030 and 1230, for example, are both mechanical
drives, while its 1330 uses hydrostatics. The larger 1820 is still a
mechanical drive to the digging chain, but in all of those machines,
hydraulic drives have at least been incorporated to the ground drive.
According to Bolay, this progression has resulted in a more reliable
and easy to take care of machine for most customers.

“Particularly down in the smaller horsepowers, you only have so much
available horsepower to begin with, so the mechanical drive is still
the most efficient transfer of power,” he says. “We are just trying to
take advantage of that to provide a machine for that customer who is
really focused on productivity. And at the same time, we offer machines
that offer a little more convenience in the hydraulic drives.”

Manufacturers say one of the biggest advantages of a hydrostatic drive
is the ability to reverse the digging chain. If an operator comes
across a tree root or a large rock in the ground with a mechanical
drive, the options become relatively limited. A hydraulic drive, on the
other hand, allows the operators to reverse the digger chain and either
cut their way through or resort to hand digging.

Astec Underground features both hydrostatic ground drive and hydraulic
boom raise and lower in its Astec RT60 walk-behind, in addition to
offering the only planetary drive pedestrian on the market. The Astec
RT160 is a 24-hp pedestrian trencher with hydrostatic ground drive,
steerable axles and a hydraulic boom lift, as well as an exclusive
parking brake operator presence safety system.

Vermeer’s 270-lb RT60 has a patent-pending ground drive assist, which
helps operators trench a straight line and reduce physical labor. The
company’s larger RT100 and RT200 both feature hydrostatic ground and
trencher drives, further helping to eliminate moving parts and reduce
maintenance costs.

“Since hydrostatics have evolved over the years and that technology has
become more affordable, manufacturers have started putting them in
their walk-behind trenchers,” says Todd Roorda, product specialist for
the rubber tire division of Vermeer Mfg. Co. “Over the past couple of
years, the market has accepted hydrostatic walk-behinds and they have
really taken over. Their reliability is stronger, the longevity is
better, they are easier to maintain and they are less expensive to
operate, which really improves a rental store’s return on investment.”

Hydrostatics have also increased in popularity because of safety. Old
mechanical trenchers were designed with a hand-crank to raise and lower
the boom — requiring the operator to maneuver around the trencher boom
to lay the material in the trench. But with hydrostatics, manufacturers
can make the machines safer to use by incorporating electric over
hydraulic operator presence systems.

“Nowadays, manufacturers are really attempting to keep the operator at
the operator station,” says Wren. “Manufacturers are not building the
machines they were 20 years ago. Contractors used to think of a
trencher as a tool that wore out quickly and was essentially a
throwaway unit. Today they are built much better by all manufacturers,
and I think the utility contractors are keeping them longer because
they last longer — they are not such a self-destruct item as they used
to be.”

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Choosing the right trencher for your application and your work setting
can be tough. According to manufacturers, a pedestrian will technically
perform many jobs that a riding unit can. However, it comes down to a
balance between the amount of money you want to spend on your rental
and how much time you want to spend on the job. Since a riding unit has
more horsepower and more weight, it will dig your trench faster, but
from a financial aspect, it will cost more to rent that machine than it
would a walk-behind trencher.

“You also have to look at the amount of product you have to install in
the ground, and the amount of space you have to work in,” says Roorda.
“If a ride-on trencher is going to be hard to move around or if there
are a lot of trees in the way or if you have to go through a gate to
access the backyard, those are all things you need to look at. Some
people will choose to rent a pedestrian machine simply because of the
fact that they don’t want take down a fence. But those sorts of things
can make the


Your rental store will, of course, help make the decision easier. Even
before you walk in, the stores in your area will know what types of
ground conditions their customers encounter. The harder the conditions,
the more weight and horsepower it will take to do the job. Plus, they
will know their customer base — more homeowners will rent walk-behind
trenchers vs. ride-on trenchers, where it’s typically the opposite for
contractors, simply because the jobs are bigger.

“It always comes back to the application — how much work you have to
do, how deep do you have to go, how wide of a ditch do you have to put
in the ground and how many feet are you going to put in?” says Wren.
“The less work there is to do, the smaller the machine can be… and
the more work there is to do, the bigger it has to be. Most pedestrians
are just for short runs and not over 3 ft deep. Of course, some
customers would like to have a walk-behind that will go 10 in. wide and
4 ft deep, but that’s asking a little bit much for a machine that only
weighs about 1,600 lbs.”


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