Walk-behind and ride-on trenchers can perform some of the same tasks but are best suited to different applications.
Trenchers are must-have machines for digging trenches. These earthmovers use a toothed metal wheel to cut narrow trenches or a chainsaw-like belt to cut longer, deeper trenches. When buying or renting a trencher, you can choose from two trencher types: walk-behind and ride-on. Here’s what you need to know to select the best trencher for your project.
Space, soil, and application considerations
Before deciding between trencher types, ask yourself these questions:
- What are the ground conditions? Will you be digging in soft earth, rocky soil, asphalt or frozen earth?
- What task do you need to complete? For example, will you be digging drainage or laying pipe?
- What trench depth, width and length do you need?
- How much space do you have to work in?
- Are you concerned about damaging the terrain?
- How fast do you need to complete your project?
- What is your budget?
After you’ve answered these essential questions, you are ready to consider which type of trencher will work best for you.
Walk-behind trenchers: Affordable choices for narrow, shallow trenches
A walk-behind trencher, also called a landscape trencher or manual trencher, is an excellent choice for making narrow, precise cuts in the earth with less effort than digging by hand and more precision. Models feature either wheels or tracks and engines with anywhere from 11 to 27 horsepower. The brawniest walk-behind trencher can dig a trench up to 16 inches wide and 4 feet deep.
Affordable and easy to maneuver around obstacles, walk-behind trenchers are popular for digging in tight spaces with minimal damage to the surrounding terrain. They are often used for light-duty tasks such as laying residential cable and phone lines, digging drainage systems and making landscaping modifications.
While using a walk-behind trencher is easier than digging by hand, it requires considerable physical effort. If the terrain is hard or you need to dig a deep or long trench, consider choosing a ride-on model to save your back.
Ride-on trenchers: More horsepower for deep cuts and difficult terrain
If the terrain is hard or rocky, you’re cutting into pavement or you need to dig a trench fast, a ride-on trencher is your best bet. These workhorses, some with more than 100 horsepower, can tackle large jobs and challenging ground conditions. They’re a good choice when prepping for commercial irrigation ditches, pipelines, sewer lines and transmission lines, for example.
The largest ride-on trenchers can dig trenches up to 4 feet wide and 18 feet deep. Some models offer interchangeable digging chains and attachments that allow you to tackle a variety of tasks with one machine.
Ride-on trenchers are the standard choice for frost-covered ground since walk-behind trenchers lack the necessary horsepower and torque. If the frost is light and the soil underneath is soft, a walk-behind trencher with a pointed carbide blade can break through, but digging the trench may take a long time.
Keep in mind the space available to maneuver in and the width of entry points such as backyard gates and make sure the ride-on trencher you choose will fit. And remember that larger ride-on trenchers are heavy and could damage delicate surfaces.
Wheel or chain trencher?
Depending on the task, you’ll want either a trencher fitted with a cutting wheel or one fitted with a chain. A wheel trencher uses a circular saw blade to cut through tough materials such as roots and rock. A chain trencher resembles a large chainsaw and can cut through ground that is too hard for excavators. It’s frequently used by utility companies to dig deep, narrow trenches for power lines and cables.
Some trenchers can cut through small roots, but you can damage the equipment if you force the machine to sever a large root. If you have a limited number of small roots, use a trencher with a strong carbide blade and sufficient horsepower. If you have a lot of roots to clear, a mini excavator with a rake attachment may be a better option.
The right trencher can be a game-changing solution for digging residential ditches, commercial utility trenches and other relatively narrow excavations. The size and scope of the task, the ground conditions, your project timeline and your budget will steer you to the best trencher type for your project.