With the dip in the new-housing market, trencher manufacturers have felt a pinch from belt-tightening rental houses in 2007.
But leading OEMs concede the cyclical buying nature of the rental market may have been in play regardless of the housing slowdown. And, with or without the rental houses buying, there's still considerable work for which sub-100-horsepower trenchers are positioned best.
"Even though the housing is down, we see a lot of work in the telecom industry going on," says Brent Bolay, trencher product manager with The Charles Machine Works, manufacturer of the Ditch Witch equipment brand. "There's the routine need for regular telephone, but then there's the additional need of fiber and trying to take that fiber on to the home userfor voice and data and video. There's actually quite a bit of work going on in that sectorright now."
As with its fellow leaders in the sub-100-horsepower market, Ditch Witch offers a full range of dedicated walk-behind and ride-on trenching machines. The RT Series of ride-on machines was introduced in 2004, and was recently joined by a 42-horsepower 420sx, "a higher-end" vibratory cable plow addition to the general product family.
"We have always been focused on providing a compact package, but enough horsepower to really do the kind of work that the job is in front of you," says Bolay.
"A trencher can outproduce anything else on the market as far as getting that ditch dug for you and getting the line in efficiently."
That sentiment reigns at Vermeer Manufacturing, where director of sales Tony Briggs says that while the housing market has softened, trenchers are actually providing new application solutions. This is especially so with Vermeer's introduction of two ride-on tracked models, including the 46-horsepower RTX450.
"I'm seeing it doing a lot of silt-fence type of work in California on slopes that we've not been able to work on before with a tired machine," says Jim Reeves, solutions specialist at Vermeer. "It's got a lower center of gravity and it has a much more stable platform for them to work on the 2:1 slopes."
North of San Francisco, the machine is taking on vineyard work formerly "trenched with a manual machine that could be manhandled onto those slopes." Or, of greater concern from an environmental standpoint, the lines were simply hung above the ground.
"Again, because of the slopes, we have not been able to do that type of work before with the ride-on trencher," says Reeves. "We're now single-line-plowing in irrigation into the vineyards, and we're doing 28 acres this fall as a test bed. If that works out, there's a huge market there for us."
Beyond 100 horsepower, Vermeer turned heads at World of Concrete 2007 last January with the introduction of a 120-horsepower quad-track machine, RTX1250, the result of an exclusive agreement with undercarriage specialist Loegering Manufacturing.
"It really opened the eyes to some of the contractors who weren't necessarily thinking trenchers were as productive as they could be today," says Briggs. "So, I think it's opened up some doors for us."
"The 'oval' tracks on the RTX450 and the quad-track system on the RTX1250 have really increased the value proposition for purchasing our machines, but it's also allowed the contractors to be much more productive. For the increase in cost that they have to pay for some of these technological advancements, they are getting that back in productivity gains and more."
Other leading OEMs do offer compact tracked units, from 25 horsepower down.
As the advancements continue, the heritage of the trencher is neither lost nor without relevance today.
Astec Underground, which in 2002 purchased what was once the Davis line and then the Case line, marked the 35th anniversary of the Maxi Sneaker compact ride-on model with the 2007 introduction of the Series D model, featuring a more powerful and heavier engine. Developing new models to both meet industry needs and fill gaps in the acquired product line, Astec also recently introduced two walk-behind models, bringing its total of sub-100-horsepower trenchers to 10.
"The RT460, RT560, RT660, and RT960 are the only ride-on trenchers that are equipped with a flywheel, torsion shaft and double-reduction planetary drive system," says Astec. "This system protects the hydrostatic pump and motor, and provides the necessary torque to work in varying ground conditions.
"The flywheel is mounted to the motor and stores energy to power through tough spots, prevent stalling in hard or frozen soil, and protect the hydrostat from shock loads. The torsion shaft drive between the flywheel and final drives absorbs chain-line shock loads, reducing stress on drive components. The planetaries multiply motor torque for excellent digging power."
Trenchers retain their selling points, say the manufacturers.
While "we would be ignorant to think that excavators aren't taking some of that business from the pedestrian lines right up into the ride-ons," says Vermeer's Briggs, "the contractors who have them in their fleets understand the niche they provide."
That, says Ditch Witch's Bolay, is because these products remain focused on underground construction, specifically the tidy placement of a utility into the ground.
"Probably the thing that helps sell a trencher as much as anything to anybody is that, when you're placing small-diameter pipe or cable in the ground, it can just do it much more efficiently than an excavator, or a backhoe, or any other type of machine that is digging in the dirt," says Bolay.
For a job beyond 75 feet, the excavator operator will quickly fall back, says Vermeer's Reeves.
"Up to that point, he can dig his start pit, he can dig his exit pit and he can open up 75 feet of ground in a reasonable amount of time," says the irrigation-application specialist. "But if he's going much farther than that, or if he needs a clean trench or a straight-wall trench, or if he needs to re-use that spoil as backfill material, I can win hands-down there.
"If I'm doing 20 to 25 feet per minute and I'm only going 75 feet, the time difference isn't that great," says Reeves. "If we've got to do a water line and we have to do 300 feet of it, I'll be off the trailer, dig the trench, and be back on before he's a third of the way done."
It's on those long runs, concludes Ditch Witch's Bolay, "where a trencher really does shine."
|The Cost of Ownership|
|Size||List Price||Hourly Rate|
|* Hourly rate is the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating costs. Unit rates used are gasoline at $2.96 per gallon, diesel at $2.83 per gallon, mechanic's wage at $43.07 per hour, and money costs at 5.75 percent.|
|Source: EquipmentWatch.com , phone 800/669-3282|
|Up to 39 hp||$22,393||$15.46|
|Up to 39 hp||$30,373||$18.42|
|Trencher Specifications (per horsepower up to 100)|
|Model||Style||Operating Weight (lb.)||Max. Cutting Depth||Cutting Width (in.)||Gross Engine Power (hp)||Wheels or Track|
|* Specs shown for hydrostatic model. Also available with powershift.|
|Source: Spec-Check.com Xpanded Specs (as of August/07)|
|Ground Hog T-4||Pedestrian||230||1′0″||3–3.5||6||2WD|
|Ditch Witch 1030||Pedestrian||900||2′6″||4.3–7||11||2WD|
|Ditch Witch 1230||Pedestrian||905||3′0″||4.3–6||13||2WD|
|Ditch Witch 1330||Pedestrian||920||3′0″||4.3–6||13||2WD|
|Ditch Witch 1820||Pedestrian||1,300||4′0″||3.3–16||18||2WD|
|Ditch Witch HT25||Ride-On||4,080||3′3″||4–16||25||Track|
|Ditch Witch RT36||Ride-On||n/a||5′0″||16||36||4WD|
|Ditch Witch RT40||Ride-On||4,810||5′3″||6–12||42||4WD|
|Ditch Witch RT55||Ride-On||7,560||5′2″||6–12||60||4WD|
|Ditch Witch RT75*||Ride-On||11,645||8′4″||6–24||74||4WD|
|Ditch Witch RT95*||Ride-On||13,630||7′10″||6–24||99||4WD|