Dig up the dirt

Dig up the dirt

Contractors weigh the pros and cons of trenchers and vibratory plows.

Before contractors dig into an irrigation job, they should consider everything from the soil to the sky. Between trenchers, vibratory plows and their attachments, factors like landscaping logistics and machine performance in varying weather conditions can play a key role in determining which equipment will be the best fit for the job.


Gilbert Turner, owner of Richmond Irrigation in Midlothian, Va., near Richmond, prefers trenching for most of his work.

“Different projects mandate which machine makes the most sense to use,” Turner says. “The biggest factor is disturbance. For existing lawns and landscapes, you want to plow if possible, but in new construction we trench everything.”

Although they can tear up a yard, trenchers allow contractors to dig deeper and wider than a vibratory plow. The size and scope of the project should be taken into account when choosing a trencher or trenching attachment. If the job requires pipe installation with a diameter that is more than an inch and a half, trenching is the way to go, says Brian Moran, president of American Lawn Sprinkler in Dryden, Michigan near Detroit.

To minimize the turf damage created by trenching, Turner looks for machines that have tracks instead of rubber tires. He has found those trenchers to have less ground pressure, better traction in different conditions and less likelihood of getting stuck.

Contractors should also look for machines that fit the logistics of the jobsite. On many residential properties, contractors may need to maneuver tight spaces. A more compact model or a ride-along may be necessary to safely navigate those spaces. Alternatively, a larger and more powerful model will be more efficient on larger spaces, Moran says.

“You have to figure out what it is you’re going to mostly be doing. If you’re getting something too big, you’re going to be tearing up the yard a little too much, and you want to do as little disturbing of the ground as possible,” Moran says.

Vibratory plows.

For residential areas and brand new lawns, a vibratory plow may be a smarter choice. V-plows create minimal ground disturbance, resulting in less cleanup and faster completion, Moran says.

“If you’re in someone’s brand new yard, you don’t want to have to replace the whole lawn when you’re done. You want it to look exactly like it did when you got there, before you started. And it’s possible to do that with vibratory plows,” he says.

Turner warns that first-time v-plow users may be in for a learning experience. With plows, you cannot inspect the trenches for unknown utilities or rock, and it is more difficult to gauge exactly how deep pipes will lie below the surface. This is especially problematic in tough terrain where soil settles in multiple layers of varying densities, he says.

“The first couple of jobs you use a plow on, you’re not going to be efficient,” he says. “You’re going to start thinking to yourself that you could have done just as well with a trenching unit.”

But after those first few jobs, employees will learn by trial and error the most effective starting points, ending points and other strategies that go into using a v-plow. Before long, Turner says contractors will see how the plow’s minimal disturbance can save time.

Renting vs. owning.

For Asa Hastings, owner of Aces Landscaping & Irrigation in Dracut, Mass., near Lowell, renting trenchers and their attachments makes the most sense for his business. “Even just the attachment is still very expensive to buy,” Hastings says. “It’s really easy to rent it for a half a day, pull the pipes and bring it back. Right now, we just don’t do the volume that justifies the 10 or 15 grand to buy a trencher. The costs of fuel to pick it up, fuel to drop it off, and the machine rental itself can all be billed to the job.”

On the other hand, businesses like Turner’s that specialize in irrigation work make purchasing the machine a no-brainer.

“We don’t spend a lot of money on equipment repairs. I expect to get 6,000 hours out of a piece of equipment. Once you get past that point, it will keep going, but it will give you some maintenance costs, and worse, downtime,” he says.

The same goes for Moran, whose company uses its plows every day in the summer. Although yearly routine maintenance costs may be high for his machines, Moran considers owning the plows to be a worthwhile investment.

“They are expensive to maintain – every time you take it in it is about $2,000 – but if you buy one, you’ll have it for over 20 years,” he says. “We buy ours used, and long as you get the maintenance done, they will last you a long time.”

If purchasing a plow or trencher makes sense, Moran advises finding a brand serviced locally so you’ll have continued dealer support.

“A very important thing is to look for someone who can service the machine in your area,” he says. “If you find a good deal on a brand but there’s no one in your state that fixes them, then you are really out of luck.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.