Large Trenchers Are Back Making the Cut

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | August 29, 2013

After the recession, the market for large trenchers has stabilized and is now seeing growth, thanks in part to the energy sector and boom areas such as North Dakota, as well as an increase in other utility work.

Cost of Ownership

Size Class Average Price Hourly Rate*
76-130 horsepower $131,145 $69.28
131 horsepower & over $507,618


*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.98/gallon; mechanic’s wage, $51.24/hour; money costs, 1.75%. Source:

“We see growth in pipeline activity domestically and abroad as the oil and gas infrastructure continues to grow with the distribution that needs to take place,” says Vermeer’s Jon Kuyers, global product manager, underground business.

Matt Collins, senior product manager, compact and heavy-duty equipment, for the Ditch Witch organization, cites the fiber optic market as a plus. “The telecommunications market in general has been driving business the last couple of years—we’ve seen quite a few of our machines go out with 36- to 42-inch plows for the backbone/middle mile installations, connecting community-to-community,” he says. “In the energy sector, we’re also seeing an increase in demand for Ditch Witch quads used for 6-inch and smaller installations. Obviously, machines are configured differently according to soil type and application—trenching or plowing—but the largest growth as far as demand goes seems to be the large quad plows.”

Yes, these over-100-horsepower staples of the utility industry can be considered “back,” but the downturn did take a toll.

The recession hastened the disappearance of a couple of minor brands from North America (Marais is one), a movement among some survivors toward producing just one type or model of trencher, a focus on niches (Tesmec), and inevitable consolidation. Trencor is a case in point; it is a brand that has had various partners and parent companies and now resides in the Ditch Witch portfolio. But the name lives on.

“Our parent company, The Charles Machine Works, acquired American Augers from Astec, as well as the Trencor product line,” Collins says. “Trencor products are still available and are being produced through the American Augers facility.”

Ditch Witch and Vermeer remain the most familiar players in the greater-than-100-horsepower category.

Ditch Witch has three models over 100 horsepower: the RT100, a 100-horsepower mechanical trencher, the RT120, a rubber-tired unit at 121 horsepower, and an RT120 quad-tracked trencher at 121 horsepower.

The increased availability of tracked trenchers and the new Tier 4-Interim engines are two of the more recent developments of note for fleet managers.

“Over the last several years we have seen the demand for quad tracks increase significantly,” Collins says. “Customers are constantly utilizing equipment in a variety of challenging conditions, such as different soils, terrain and weather, and a quad-track design can improve productivity in these conditions by providing better traction and flotation, and increased ground clearance.”

Ditch Witch introduced its first quad track, the RT115 Quad, in 2009.

The company is already producing the RT120 Quad in a Tier 4-Interim configuration; the RT120 rubber tired
and RT100 will go into production this month. Along with the new engines, Ditch Witch has completely changed the aesthetics of the tractors. In addition to the look,  there are several changes to the operators station, including a new color display, as well as potentiometer-style controls for both the ground drive and the attachment.

“These new controls allow the operators to dial-in the ground drive and attachment controls to maximize productivity,” Collins says.

Vermeer offers 12 models over 100 horsepower, with the RTX1250 and quad-tracked XTS1250 recently upgraded with Tier 4-Interim engines, common controls, improved fuel capacity, and, for the RTX1250, better service access to the engine coolers. The coolers were formerly stacked in front of the machine, but are now single layered and strategically placed for accessibility and improved cooling, Vermeer says.

“There are three different types of trenchers,” Kuyers says. “One is the traditional dirt trencher with a standard-duty dirt boom, then we have the rock trenchers that have high strength rotary bit chains with heavy-duty booms, and finally the bucket wheels, which are for more high production—it’s a different type of of trencher as it is not chain driven, but it’s utilized in many of the same trenching applications.”

These three different methods of digging a trench of predetermined width and depth into the ground may sound simple and even at first glance look a bit like “old” technology, but there are still interesting product advancements.

Vermeer has a Trench Sense feature that stops and reverses the chain automatically if it hits an object while trenching. “Generally, it’s not a big problem if you’re trenching in solid rock with a bigger machine, but if you’re working in dirt and there are boulders, and the machine’s trying to pull a 12-inch rock up out of an 8-inch trench, that’s a problem,” Kuyers says. Trench Sense performs several operations to essentially back the machine off and prevent it from stalling.

“Before, as soon as an operator hit the rock and the machine started to go into a stall state, you had to manually operate all these different controls,” Kuyers says. “Now, the machine senses the obstruction, does the work for the operator, and then continues to trench forward, repeating that until the object is removed.”

Vermeer’s Auto Plunge option on larger trenchers allows a consistent method to put down pressure on the boom. “It optimizes tooth life and productivity when you do a plunge cut,” Kuyers explains. “Because that’s an area where people have a tendency to be inconsistent, and it can cause some extra damage to the digging teeth and chain. It’s primarily utilized with our rock trenchers.”

When evaluating equipment, Collins points to understanding depth requirements as the first step.

“You need to know what the depth codes require for the placement of product in the ground,” he says. “The codes for fiber, for example, have varying depth requirements depending upon whether you are working in metropolitan areas versus backbone-type work. Make sure you understand the requirements, and the appropriate horsepower required to productively dig at the depths.”

Keep in mind the financial element, as well. “The price per foot contractors are getting paid never seems to be increasing, rather it’s decreasing, so productivity remains a key benefit when evluating tractors in this size class,” Collins says.

 Kuyers talks about ground conditions as his most important factor in selection. “The ground conditions dictate which machine to use; the easier the ground conditions, you can normally use a smaller machine. But there comes a point where even in good ground conditions, the deeper you go and the wider you go, you’re going to need to increase your horsepower, which increases the size of the machine you will need to use,” he says.

“Also, if a fleet manager has machines in Texas, a machine in Nebraska, and one in upstate New York, they’re all going to have to be set up differently—there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution unless you oversize it to the point with a machine that can accomplish all tasks,” Kuyers says.

And that’s not the optimal solution for managers looking to control operating costs.

Kuyers has even more advice for managers, involving the boots on the ground. “Listen to the field supervisor and understand exactly what kind of conditions the machine is going into,” Kuyers says. “A lot of people simply say they need a 5-foot trench, 10 inches wide, and they need a machine tomorrow, sometimes they don’t really understand the conditions. If you take one of the smaller machines that is capable of doing it, it could be destroyed in a matter of hours, compared to a machine that would be properly sized with the proper boom, and the proper chain and boom set-up.

“Understanding the specifications of trench depth and trench width is one thing, but understanding the ground that you’re going to be cutting into the majority of the time is essential,” Kuyers says.

Utility fleet companies tend to keep their equipment for longer periods of time, perhaps 8 to 12 years, and in order to extend life, it is important to properly maintain the equipment. “For a manager, I would recommend they read the operators manual and set up a maintenance schedule accordingly,” Collins says. “Keeping up with routine maintenance will without a doubt prolong the life of equipment and protect your investment for the long-term. We understand that everyone will evaluate the initial purchase price of equipment, but there are other things you should evaluate as well. Make sure you inspect the machine, see how it’s built, look at the quality of components, research resale values, and make sure you will be supported by a reputable dealer that can assist in keeping your equipment running for many years to come.”