Should You Use a Trencher or Vacuum Excavator? How About Both?

Trenchers have been a staple of efficient underground construction since Ditch Witch founder Ed Malzahn invented the world’s first service line trencher in 1949. Today’s trenchers have advanced digging systems, powerful engines and a bevy of other technological advancements that simplify open-cut utility and irrigation installation. For most residential landscaping, utility and irrigation installation jobs, a trencher will allow an operator to cut open the ground quickly and easily to proceed with the installation. However, even the most agile trenchers on the market today have some limitations.

To tackle these challenges, operators are increasingly relying on vacuum excavators to supplement their trenchers. Vacuum excavators can serve as a “tag-team partner” for trenchers, stepping in to fill the specific, niche excavation tasks that may be more difficult with a trencher. Vacuum excavators are also the ideal solution for damage mitigation. By taking advantage of both trenchers and vacuum excavators, operators will be prepared to handle any jobsite challenge and can keep their operation moving efficiently.

Trench This

Walk-behind trenchers are still the predominant open-cut machine solution, particularly for residential jobsites. The typical rule of thumb for operators is that for cuts up to 250-ft long, 26-48 in. deep and up to 8-in. wide, walk-behind trenchers are the best option. This makes trenchers ideal for a wide range of utility installation and landscaping tasks.

The typical walk-behind trencher is compact enough to maneuver through fence gates and around other jobsite obstacles. Additionally, Ditch Witch manufactures our walk-behind trenchers with one track shorter than the other to improve balance and traction.

When using a trencher for utility installation or landscaping, operators should be sure to use the most appropriate chain, tooth and sprocket (CTS) system. There are several options to choose from, including the standard cup tooth or shark and alligator tooth – both of which are ideal in rocky or frozen conditions. Using the right CTS for the ground conditions will allow a trencher to be as efficient as possible.

On many residential jobs, a walk-behind trencher should be the first plan of attack for utility installation. And when properly used, trenchers are the most effective and efficient solution for straight line irrigation installation. However, some jobs require a more sensitive or complex excavation strategy – which is where vacuum excavators come in.

Vac That

Today’s jobsites are rarely simple, especially for residential jobs. Above ground, they are filled with fences, sheds, existing landscaping, gardens, trees, doghouses and other potential hazards. And below ground, they are congested with existing utilities that operators must avoid striking. A vacuum excavator offers a more-flexible, less-invasive option than a trencher for irrigation and utility installation.

For example, trenchers can be too bulky to start or finish a trench when operating near a fence or adjacent to a house. The easily maneuverable wand of vacuum excavators provides the flexibility to excavate in places a trencher may be unable to reach.

Vacuum excavators also mitigate damage. Because they rely on pressurized water or air, the excavation is less invasive and poses less of a risk to damaging an existing structure. The less invasive and more flexible nature of vacuum excavators also make them a more desirable option for creating a trench in sensitive areas like gardens. Trenching through a garden can cause damage, while a vacuum excavator can safely excavate around plants and flowers.

One of the more traditional ways vacuum excavators are being used for damage mitigation is in exposing existing utilities before trenching. Today’s underground environments are often so congested that operators might unknowingly strike an existing utility if they’re not exposed before crossing with a trencher. While some landscapers rely on hand-digging, vacuum excavators are a more efficient and safer option. In fact, many utility strikes in residential jobs actually happen with a shovel.

By using a vacuum excavator, operators can trench up to the marked existing utilities, tag in a vacuum excavator to expose and excavate around the exiting utility, and return to their trencher to finish out the remaining trench. This is the ideal example of a trencher and vacuum excavator tag-teaming a utility installation.

Using Both

Efficiency is the name of the game in today’s underground construction industry – particularly as demand skyrockets and contractors deal with work shortages. Trenchers have long been the primary solution for landscaping and utility installation jobs, but vacuum excavators are quickly gaining popularity because of their diverse capabilities.

However, contractors should never view these machines in an “either/or” scenario. The fact is both trenchers and vacuum excavators have a role to play. Knowing when to use a trencher and when to tag-team in a vacuum excavator to handle a more specialized task is the key to working quickly and safely on today’s utility installation and landscaping jobsites.

Chapman Hancock is vacuum excavation product marketing manager for Ditch Witch and Brant Kukuk is compact equipment product marketing manager for Ditch Witch.

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