Trencher Trends: What to Consider When Selecting a Ride-On Trencher

Ditch Witch trencher

Underground construction projects, particularly utility installations, require a precise machine that can carefully slice through the ground to lay irrigation, electrical, fiber and telecom lines. Ride-on trenchers have proven to be these durable and powerful pieces of equipment designed for the job.

“From digging a trench for utility installation to a variety of landscape, hardscape and construction-grade tasks, ride-on machines are the easiest and most affordable solution to help underground construction professionals get the job done,” says Seth Matthesen, Ditch Witch category manager. “With boosted power and efficient digging mechanics, ride-on trenchers are designed to push through difficult ground conditions ensuring an efficient operation. And, with a growing number of available attachments, operators can customize their machine to meet almost any jobsite need, maximizing uptime, improving job performance and increasing ROI.”

When spec’ing out a ride-on trencher, be sure to know your application. This includes being informed on a jobsite’s size, ground conditions, trench depth and transportation requirements. Understanding the needs of a project can help you select the right trencher to stay productive and efficient.

“Ground conditions have an impact on the size of the machine and the type of trencher chain that should be used,” says Nick Olson, product manager at Vermeer. “The digging depth and width determine the size of the boom a contractor needs, but they can also affect the size of the trencher required. Digging deeper and wider requires more horsepower than shallower and narrower digging in similar ground conditions. Finally, understanding the jobsite conditions is crucial because the size of the machine a contractor chooses may differ if they are working in a wide-open area or in a backyard that requires passing through a narrow gate.”

Vermeer’s PTX44 Is a Gas-Powered Service Plow

While ride-on trenchers are a popular choice for installing a wide range of utilities, it’s important to select the correct size machine to accommodate the product you’re putting into the ground. For example, small and midsize trenchers are ideal for smaller-diameter installations such as electrical, fiber and telecom lines. Large diameter utilities that are buried deeper — like water, gas and sewer lines — will require a larger machine.

“If an operator typically only installs 4-in. pipes, then a more compact, ride-on trencher would be a good option,” says Matthesen. “However, if they’re planning to expand their operation to include the installation of sewer or water lines, those can be 8- or 12-in. pipes and will require a larger ride-on trencher. So, before operators invest in a ride-on trencher, it’s imperative they understand their jobsite needs.”

Let’s dive deeper and take a look at some other buying considerations and trends pushing the ride-on trencher market.

Tension Tips: Need to Check Your Trencher’s Tension? Ditch Witch’s Seth Matthesen Can Help

Chain tension plays an important role in how the machine operates. Improperly tensioned chains will lead to premature wear and will not perform as well. Chains are available in multiple sizes for a variety of different trenchers. When checking the tension, contractors should ensure the chain is not sagging or too tight. If chains do begin to sag, they’ll vibrate the equipment and cause unnecessary wear. If chains are too tight, different wear patterns on the sprocket or sidebars will begin to appear. It’s important for contractors to keep in mind that larger trenchers require bigger chains that will require more sag than smaller equipment. As such, industry experts agree that a good rule of thumb when checking proper chain tension on a standard trencher is that two to three fingers should fit between the chain and the lower part of the boom.


Your trencher needs the right teeth to efficiently slice through soil. Two of the most common teeth are cup and rotary cutters. Cup teeth boast a scooped shape and are the standard choice for most soil conditions. They work especially well when trenching in clay and loamy-type material. Rotary teeth are used in tougher ground conditions and are typically used to break up or dislodge solid materials like rocks.

“Chain configurations that use cup cutters are more effective in loose dirt and sandy soils,” says Olson. “However, when working in conditions such as rock, trencher operators will need a rock chain with carbide-tipped rotary teeth to dig into these challenging ground conditions. Contractors may also opt for a combination chain configuration with both cups and rotary cutters. The tooth spacing, or pitch, also impacts the performance of a trencher. Spacing of both cup and rotary cutters can affect how smoothly the machine operates and can also affect how big of a bite each cutter takes when it contacts the native material, which can have an impact on productivity.”


Vermeer RTX550 trencher

Comfort is key to staying productive and even retaining skilled operators in today’s competitive market. With that in mind, OEMs are stocking their trenchers with features that promote a comfortable experience for operators. For example, look at Ditch Witch’s PT37. Matthesen explains this machine was designed to alleviate operator pain points and prioritize operator comfort.

“Ditch Witch’s newest ride-on trencher/vibratory plow, the PT37, features a new operator station that is designed for improved comfort and convenience,” he says. “The station includes adjustable seats, ergonomic controls and a steel enclosure for the engine compartment to protect components from debris. For a more comfortable ride, the updated engine is designed to push heat away from the operator.”

Ditch Witch’s RT125 Quad is another model designed with comfort and productivity in mind. Matthesen mentions the trencher includes comfort features from an ergonomic, high-back swivel operator seat and control console to added legroom and tiltable steering.

Olson adds that two of Vermeer’s largest ride-on models offer isolated operator’s stations, adding more comfort by protecting operators from the elements. However, Olson mentions that not every contractor wants a trencher with an operator station so Vermeer provides different options for those customers. The company offers its PTX40 with remote control operation and the PTX42 walk-beside model with controls on the side of the machine.


Fun Fact: Ride-on trenchers can do more than just trench thanks to the power of attachments — allowing an operator the chance to expand their business. Two of the most popular tools are rock saws and microtrenchers. Rock saws are built to cut through difficult rocky conditions, so investing in one will allow operators to trench across tough conditions more efficiently.

“Due to the increased demand for fiber, microtrenching is on the rise in the underground construction industry,” says Matthesen. “Adding a microtrencher to an operator’s fleet can open a whole new set of job possibilities.”

Vibratory plows are also a commonly used attachment for utility installation work. Olson mentions that a vibratory plow is highly efficient in installing small-diameter products like fiber because crews can bury lines or conduit using the knife of the vibratory plow — avoiding the need to open a trench and backfill it. Backhoe attachments are a great choice for starting and finishing a trench, such as an entry pit and an exit pit in HDD work.

“A backhoe attachment is beneficial especially on jobsites in which the start and end of a trench are in close proximity to urban hazards like fencing or existing landscape structures,” says Matthesen. “A backhoe attachment is also used in rehabilitation and repair projects because it allows for more precise digging than a standard trencher attachment.”

Other attachment options to maximize productivity include a center-mount trencher, sliding-offset trencher, backfill blade and reel carrier.

Pam Kleineke is managing editor of Compact Equipment.

Ride-On Trencher TLC: Vermeer’s Nick Olson Details the Machine’s Maintenance

Contractors should refer to the machine’s operator service manual for specific information about recommended routine maintenance, but here is a general list of common inspections and maintenance that should be performed regularly.

General Inspections for Ride-On Trenchers

  • Make sure the operator presence system is working properly
  • Double-check the torque on your machine’s lug nuts —
  • make sure everything is nice and tight
  • Make sure the sprocket nuts are properly torqued
  • Check your tires and rims or tracks for damage
  • If you have a tracked machine, check the track’s tension
  • Grease or oil all lubrication points
  • Ensure all the lights are in good working order
  • Test your service and secondary brake
  • Check the brake fluid level
  • Inspect the machine’s electrical harness for any signs of damage or abrasion
  • Look at the ROPS on your machine – if you notice any bending, cracking, breaks or signs of flexing, get in contact with your dealer right away
  • Honk the horn to make sure it works

Engine and Drivetrain Inspections

  • Look at the air cleaner — is it clean?
  • Check the following oil levels for any signs of leaks:
  • Engine oil
  • Axle oil
  • Planetary oil
  • Gearbox oil
  • Make sure the machine’s coolant levels are where they are supposed to be
  • Clean debris from the radiator/grille
  • Drain the water/fuel separator

Hydraulic Inspections

  • Check your hydraulic oil levels
  • Look for any leaks
  • Make sure all hydraulic functions are working properly

Trencher Inspections

  • Ensure the trencher and cutters are securely mounted
  • Check the tension on the digging chain
  • Make sure the chain is lubricated properly
  • Inspect cutter and teeth and replace as necessary
  • Inspect the condition of the trencher cleaner assembly or restraint bar and make any necessary adjustments

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