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Understanding the Role of Trenching Equipment in Modern Construction

Understanding the Role of Trenching Equipment in Modern Construction

A blue excavator with a trencher attachment breaking the surface of soil on a construction site

Understanding the Role of Trenching Equipment in Modern Construction

Reading time: 6 min

Excavation is a crucial part of construction projects of all sizes. During excavation, soil is removed from the project site, creating cavities in the ground that prepare the way for laying foundation, installing underground utilities and building subterranean structures.

One important type of excavation is trenching. Trenching involves carving through the ground to create narrow, deep trenches in the earth. While trenching is technically a type of excavation, the term is only used when the excavated cavity is long and narrow, typically no wider than 15 feet.

In modern construction, utility lines and tunnels are frequently laid below the ground. Digging trenches is a necessary step in placing plumbing and sewer lines, electrical conduits and data conduits beneath the ground.

While excavators, skid steers and backhoes are frequently used for general excavation projects, there are specialized machines made specifically to handle the task of trenching. 

The most popular type of machine used in trenching is a trencher. These highly specialized machines are capable of digging trenches at speeds up to four times faster than non-specialized equipment such as excavators.

In this guide, we’ll go over the most popular equipment used for trenching. Understanding the various options available on the market will help you choose the best machine for handling your next trenching project.

Introduction to Trenching Equipment

While standard heavy equipment, such as excavators and skid steers, are widely used for trenching, teams that excavate trenches frequently may prefer to use specialized trenching equipment.

Heavy Equipment Used for Trenching

Here are the most common types of equipment used in trenching, along with their advantages and disadvantages.

1. Excavators

Excavators are the most commonly used heavy equipment in trenching projects. Due to their versatility and power, they excel at digging deep and wide trenches quickly and effectively. They’re also useful for a wide range of tasks unrelated to trenching, making them a great investment for smaller operations. 

However, excavators aren’t as efficient at digging trenches as other machines. They don’t leave behind trench floors with a graded finish, and they require considerable effort to operate. 

To dig a trench with an excavator, an operator must dig into the earth, tilt the bucket to scoop up the topsoil, then extract the soil and deposit it on either side of the trench.

Like other heavy equipment, excavators also require regular maintenance to run smoothly. Common issues with excavators include hydraulic system leaks, track and undercarriage wear, and engine problems.

2. Trenchers

Trenchers are specialized machines designed specifically for trenching applications. They come in various sizes, from walk-behind models to ride-on units, making them suitable for a wide range of trenching tasks.

Most trenchers are designed with a digging chain that features teeth or cutting blades. This digging chain is responsible for cutting into the ground to create the trench. The entire apparatus is controlled by a hydraulic system, allowing the operator to control the depth, width and digging speed of the trencher with great detail.

Using a trencher over an excavator offers several advantages, making it the most efficient choice for most trenching applications. Trenchers are known for their precision in digging uniform, graded trenches with a consistent depth and width.

On the other hand, trenchers don’t have many applications outside of trenching. They typically cannot be fitted with attachments, and may not be a good investment if your team doesn’t dig trenches regularly.

Moreover, trenchers require specialized, regular maintenance to perform efficiently. One notable aspect is the regular maintenance of the trenching components, such as the digging chain and the associated teeth or cutting blades.

3. Hand Tools

Hand tools, such as shovels, picks and post-hole diggers play an important role in small-scale trenching tasks. In particular, hand tools are commonly used to dig narrow, shallow trenches in situations where larger equipment is impractical. They are essential for fine-tuning trench dimensions and details.

While hand tools have their place, they aren’t sufficient for large-scale trenching projects, such as digging utility lines. They are simply too inefficient, requiring a large amount of physical labor to create even basic trenches.

Specialized Trenching Attachments

If your team doesn’t dig trenches frequently, then investing in a high-quality trenching attachment might be a good solution. Trenching attachments can be fastened to your machine, such as a skid steer or excavator, providing it with augmented trenching abilities.

These attachments come in various configurations, including ones with rotating cutting chains (or wheels) that have better performance than using a trenching bucket. They offer precise features like the ability to set the depth and width of excavation, resulting in a more uniform trench.

While they aren’t as powerful as dedicated trenchers, they represent a good middle ground if you’re looking for a cost-effective trenching solution.

Overview of the Trenching Process

Trenching is a comprehensive task that encompasses several critical steps, starting with efficient planning and finishing with site restoration.

During the planning process, you’ll need to mark and map the path where the trench will be excavated, taking into account any existing utilities and underground structures.

Next, you’ll need to select the right equipment for the trench. For medium trenches, like those on residential projects, an excavator or push-behind trencher will likely be adequate. For large-scale commercial projects, you may consider renting or purchasing a ride-on trencher or trenching attachment.

Excavation follows, where you’ll use the selected equipment to systematically cut into the ground to create the trench. Once the trench has been dug, site restoration takes place. During site restoration, the trench is backfilled and compacted, and the ground surface is restored to its original or desired state.

Trenching Safety Concerns

Trenching presents inherent risks, particularly trench collapse, which can result in severe injury or even death. During a trench collapse, the weight of the surrounding soil and the configuration of the trench walls can cause the trench to cave in, trapping workers inside the trench.

To mitigate the risk of trench collapse, specialized safety protocols are employed, such as shoring, shielding and sloping. Shoring utilizes supporting structures within the trench which prevent the soil from caving in. Shielding employs pre-made trench boxes, which are typically made from aluminum, that help maintain the trench structure while workers are inside. Sloping involves excavating the trench walls at an angle so they cannot collapse inward.

To ensure the safety of construction personnel, OSHA has established regulations that mandate which safety precautions must be followed when trenching. 

OSHA requires that trenches deeper than 5 feet must have protective systems in place, while trenches over 20 feet in depth require the design of a professional engineer. In addition, excavated soil and other materials should be kept at a safe distance from the trench edge to prevent collapse.

Final Thoughts

Trenching is an essential part of many construction projects, from homes to commercial high-rises. Ultimately, the best trenching equipment to use on your project depends on the size of your project and the type of trench.

Dedicated trenching machines are efficient and quick while requiring substantial investment. Other equipment, like skid steers or excavators, are also great solutions for medium-sized projects or for teams that don’t frequently dig trenches. Depending on the type of machine you have, the EquipmentShare Shop can help you maintain it. Our extensive catalog of OEM and aftermarket parts can help you find the replacement components your equipment needs. If you’re having trouble locating a specific part, reach out to our dedicated parts experts and get personalized assistance.

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