Dig Through Dirt

Featured In: Lawn and Landscape

Trenchers and vibratory plows clear the way for irrigation work.

When it comes to installing and maintaining an irrigation job, a trencher or vibratory plow is an essential piece of machinery for a contractor. Both machines can move soil and make a path to install conduit. Each machine can accomplish the same job, but approach the turf differently, according to manufacturers.

Lawn & Landscape spoke with manufacturers about the pros and cons of these machines, how to best maintain them and what to look for when purchasing:

L&L: What are pros and cons to using trenchers for irrigation?

Andrew Schuermann, product manager, Ditch Witch: “They’re very widely available, they require just a very simple operation and they’re easy to use. It’s a technology that’s been around for a very long time.

“They can be used in almost any ground condition around the world. It allows you to inspect the job before, bury and cover everything back up.”

Katie Althoff, attachment specialist, Bobcat Company: “With the trencher, you get to actually see the pipe. Like if you are adding sprinkler heads, that’s a big advantage to actually see it.”

Schuermann: “Disadvantages of trenching are going to be obstacles, whether it be crossing sidewalks, other utilities in the ground that you’re trying to avoid.

“And another disadvantage to a trencher is just the nature of that activity, you’re removing the earth from the ground so there’s just a larger ground disturbance when compared to a vibratory plow.”

L&L: What are pros and cons to using v-plows for irrigation?

Tim Phelps, product manager, Barreto Manufacturing: “The vibratory plow’s going to be cleaner, less invasive on the soil. You’re not going to have this huge trench to deal with when you’re done.

And to put it back, you’re not going to have to worry about the sod re-growing, because you’re just going to have a slice in the ground. And also with that, I could see a vibratory plow being faster.”

Josh Beddow, marketing manager, The Toro Company: “If you are able to use a plow, because the ground conditions are conducive for plowing, you don’t have to worry about rehabbing the turf or the ground as much as you are going to when you compare that to a ride-on trencher.”

Phelps: “Vibratory plows, from what I’ve seen, have a set depth and once you have that depth set that’s all you can do. A lot of times, if you’re doing irrigation for a lawn, typically you don’t have to be very deep, and that’s usually not an issue.

However, getting the supply line to your manifold you would probably have to be underneath the frost line. In that sense, you would have to have a pretty deep trench.”

L&L: What are some other applications a trencher or vibratory plow can be used for?

Beddow: “We’re seeing them (plows) used for electrical or fiber optics to the home connections, different things on the utility side, lighting, electrical lines for lighting. Basically anything that is a small diameter product.”

Phelps: “Drain tile is a big one (for trenchers). You have your irrigation, you have your drain tile, you have electrical line, propane lines. Sewer lines. We sell trenchers with a minimum depth. Our depths range from 12 inches up to 48 inches.”

Schuermann: “Trenchers can be used for creating an edge around a flower bed. Wires are being installed with vibratory plows. Basically any other pipe and cable that they might be installing, you could use these machines for.”

L&L: What should irrigation contractors consider when purchasing a trencher or vibratory plow?

Schuermann: “Ease of use, ease of maintenance and then production is going to be a key factor for these guys who are literally getting paid by the foot.

The quicker they can get those lines installed the more they can get paid. The easier the machine is to operate, the easier it is for them to switch operators between different crews.”

Phelps: “Visit with rental companies and see what machines that they rent.

Price Point

Manufacturers say the cost of vibratory plows and trenchers vary depending on size, horsepower and special features.

A small walk-behind trencher can start around $6,000 and easily go up to $20,000 per unit, says Tim Phelps, product manager at Barreto Manufacturing. He adds that Barreto Manufacturing plows start around $22,000. According to Schuermann, trenchers are going to run $15,000 to $18,000 at Ditch Witch, while a similar plow will run slightly more, around $22,000 to $25,000.

A dedicated ride-on vibratory plow such as The Toro Company’s Pro Sneak 365 retails at about $45,000, says Josh Beddow, marketing manager at Toro. The company’s 16-horsepower walk behind trencher is considered “entry level” among dedicated trenchers and runs about $12,000.

Contractors who already own a small compact loader, can purchase trenching or vibratory plowing attachments, says Katie Althoff, attachment specialist, Bobcat Company. Depending on size, trenching attachments can range from $3,500 to $3,800. Vibratory plow attachments are a bit more expensive. They are close to $7,000 to $8,000 depending on which kind of blades are needed for it, she adds.

Look at the overall machine to see how it’s constructed, see where it’s constructed and also look at the serviceability of the machine. Are things easily accessible on it? Are the controls easy to operate? Is it an intuitive machine to where they can put any of their workers on it to where they would understand the machine?”

Althoff: “With trenchers, you really need to know what type of chain you want. With ours, it’s really easy to get a different chain on there, if you go to an area with different soil conditions. On the Bobcat Trencher it is easy to change both the width and the depth of your trench. To change out the width we provide add-on spacer kits to widen the trench width. To increase the digging depth, we offer an add on that increases the size of the boom and then the customer can buy additional links and cup and or carbides.”

L&L: What kind of maintenance is needed on these machines and how long do they typically last?

Beddow: “It’s really important to maintain the tension on the trencher chain and then you are looking at the teeth and tooth wear and making sure that on a regular basis, inspecting for any damaged teeth which can be replaced or repaired. Running a dull chain is really going to hurt you in terms of productivity. Kind of similar goes for the plows as well, making sure your blade is right for your conditions.”

Schuermann: “The biggest thing to maintain on these pieces of equipment is going to be your engine, making sure you’re using clean fuel, and the air filters are clean; making sure that engine stays maintained. Obviously, both these pieces of equipment have hydraulic systems. Make sure your oil stays clean and your hydraulic oil filter is changed on a routine basis. What’s good about irrigation installation, you typically have pretty good life of all those components because you’re typically only running shallow depths across topsoil within someone’s yard.”

Phelps: “We’ve been building trenchers since 1996, and we still have original trenchers out there. And we’ve been building track trenchers since 2008, and we still have those machines running in the field. Typically, in rental, you’re probably seeing 1,000 to 1,500 hours on a trencher.

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