Renting a trencher. Lessons learned.

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BlueRidgeMark

Feeling the Heat
Oct 8, 2015
262
Virginia
Rented a trencher (for the first time) because I'm dropping my utilities underground. I will still have about 230 feet above ground from the power pole across the street to a pole on my property , but the last drop from the pole on my property to the house is getting moved underground.

The power and phone companies have been great, but Comcast..... It took an hour of yelling to finally get them to agree to have someone call me to talk about the specifics. Verizon heard what I wanted to do (without interrupting me -- Comcast, take notes please!), and immediately suggested that as the best option. I didn't even have to ask! And then Comcast wants their own conduit at least 18" from both power AND phone. Power I understand, but they can live in the same conduit as phone with no problem. But no, they are Comcast....

So, three 90' trenches. Oy. No, four, counting the one that's going out to where the new shop will be located.

Anyway, here's the biggest lesson learned:

1. If you live in a county where the electrical inspector's nickname is "By The Book Bob", and the code requires power to be 36" deep, do NOT rent a 36" trencher. Rent at least a 40" trencher. Better yet, 48". That way, when it bounces or hits a rock, you're still below your 36" minimum so you don't have to go back and hammer away at that part of the trench that is only 34". BONUS: You don't have to shovel out the loose stuff at the bottom, saving you HOURS of backbreaking labor.

2. Get the biggest, most powerful trencher you can possibly afford. I would not have thought a 22 hp Ditch Witch would be stopped by an 1 1/4" root, but it was. Repeatedly. And I I wouldn't have thought a 22 hp Ditch Witch would be slowed to a crawl or completely stopped by clay soil. But it was. Constantly. We did a lot of the work with two of my grown sons (big guys) helping to drag the trencher backwards with nylon cargo straps attached to the trencher and wrapped around their waists. The tracks would just start digging a hole instead of puling the trencher along. Still had to go at a crawl (several minutes to go a foot!), or the chain bogged down to a stop.

All in all, a very disappointing experience for my first time using a trencher. I was not expecting two days of hard labor, I was expecting a few hours of running a machine.
 
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I did a 24" ditch with a Ditch Witch 2 yrs ago and it was a disaster too. Chain came off a few times and the links on the chain broke twice. The last one was 2 ' short of the goal so I did it by hand and took the PIS back to the rental place broken.

There is no need to keep cable and phone separate but you knew that already. Wow, I'd be changing companies. We've gone wireless on internet and phone and saved a ton of $$. It's not as reliable but so satisfying to tell them to FO.
 
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Wow, thanks for sharing this. I always wondered what using one of those things would be like. Guaranteed i'll have the need someday and now i'll know what to expect. Ive seen the rental ones and they appear easy to use. I guess that's not the case.

So, in hindsight - do you think you would have been better off renting a mini excavator with a small bucket? I've used one of those before to dig a large hole - and it did so very easily, even removing large rocks. From using it I think i'd be able to make a nice trench with it.

It wasn't all that bad either - $350 for 24 hrs. delivered and picked up. They were also 8 hrs late to pick it up so I actually had the machine 32 hrs.
 
They look good in the videos going through sandy soil and small roots.
 
Wow, thanks for sharing this. I always wondered what using one of those things would be like. Guaranteed i'll have the need someday and now i'll know what to expect.
2nd that.
 
36" depth for electric?? last I knew direct burial for electric was 18". Do away with the problem and use conduit it will also solve the problem if you ever have to replace it. A trencher will only dig as fast as the soil will allow. You can't bring a 12" rock up through a 6" trench.
 
Our county wants 24" for power, but the local power company wants 36" in 3" conduit for a house feed. No direct burial allowed.

And then there are those idiots at Comcast..... 2 feet deep in 1 1/2" conduit! Did I mention that they are idiots?

We did hit one decent sized rock, and dug that out, but this thing was stopped by baseball sized stuff.
 
So, in hindsight - do you think you would have been better off renting a mini excavator with a small bucket? I've used one of those before to dig a large hole - and it did so very easily, even removing large rocks. From using it I think i'd be able to make a nice trench with it.


Dunno. I haven't used one of those, so I can't tell what that would have been like. It's hard to imagine it could have been less effective.
 
I used one for a 30' trench 18" deep. Wasn't easy but did it myself. 36" would have been out of the question.
 
Totally depends on the soil. We don't have sand but with a high quality machine (newer from home depot) I have done hundreds of feet in glacial till at 30" depth. No, you don't want to trench at the full depth that the machine is capable of because that means your blade/chain is almost vertical instead of sawing the earth at a light angle where the spoils easily come out of the trench.

I could NOT get Comcast or centurylink to tell me the conduit size they needed. It was miserable. Then the power company wanted guy wires on the pole in my front yard, turned into a very expensive and ugly project. I left the main feed overhead. Oh well.
 
I also had bad luck with a trencher and would probably go with a mini excavator next time around.
 
No, you don't want to trench at the full depth that the machine is capable of because that means your blade/chain is almost vertical instead of sawing the earth at a light angle where the spoils easily come out of the trench.

Actually, the bar on this was better than 4 feet long, but it will only go down to about a 45 degree angle. The actual diggable depth is 36". I'm pretty sure all trenchers are built that way, or as you point out, you would never get the dirt out of the trench.

But doing that, even if the soil were nice and soft, would still leave you with less than 36" depth because not all of it comes out.

I could NOT get Comcast or centurylink to tell me the conduit size they needed. It was miserable.


It took me an hour of yelling at them to get them to have someone call me. Once the local engineering office called, it was a slam dunk. The gal knew exactly what their requirements were, understood the whole process well, and was able to answer all my detailed questions.
 
We trenched 250' from our house to the lot next door we purchased. We renovated a falling down barn into a shop.

We had an excavator (with thumb) come in to do the trenching. The White Mountains of NH has far too many rocks for anything else. We trenched about 3', laid 2" conduit, and pulled No.2 Alumnium, and a 12-3 wire (3-way light switch from barn to house). We then backfilled with about 1' of sand, then just filled, and wood chipped over the top.

My lesson: Excavators are awesome.
 
I've did plenty of trenching. I usually end up hitting, Tiles, rocks, electric wires, once I even hit a air conditioning line. those usually are not underground, Ugh.. my advise is that If you have much to do get one that you ride on.
 
Not my experience at all. I trenched a 165' run then installed 2-1/2" conduit, service cable, then another 140' run, conduit &service cable then 100' for a water line all with a Vermeer walk behind in about 10 hours. The electric was around 30" and the water was at the full 48" depth. Our soil is primarily clay in my part of Ohio . Two of the runs required crossing the drive way. I had to take multiple passes to get through 100 years of compacted stone but the rest wasn't to bad.

Excavators are cool but trenching requires very little cleanup when done. No large chunks or clumps of dirt required to break up.
 
well there is the cool factor of using the excavator, the speed of it is always amazing and the ease at which it just digs out tons of earth always amazes me. as for clean up, the ones i've always rented have a little blade on front you can lower and push the dirt back in the hole or trench.
 
I have quite a bit of trenching experience. I trenched and installed 1200' of french drains around my property. Trench. Dig ditch wider with mini excavator. Trim roots by hand. Dump in some #2 washed stone. Lay down geotextile fabric. Install pipe. Add some stone. Close wrap. Fill till level. Repeat 300 times.
On hills. Next to driveways. And through the woods. Pretty harrowing stuff for a newbie and working almost completely alone. My soil is almost completely clay and rock. Horrible stuff to work with. So heavy!

The primary workhorse was a skidsteer (Bobcat) with the trenching attachment. I rented from Sunbelt rentals. Pay the extra. Get the one with tracks NOT wheels. If it gets wet, wheels are useless. I had them come pick the wheel version and take it right back almost right after they delivered it. It wasn't cheap, but I didn't get hurt one bit. It also clawed through roots without issue. I needed my trench to be about 12" wide, so I came through with the mini-excavator and dug the remaining bits out and removed large rocks and stuff.

It rained almost every day. It was a miserable project w/o the weather cooperating. At the end of 9 days, I slept for almost 15 hrs straight.
 

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Hmm - separate trenches for Telco, catv, and power? That's kind of wacky since NEC requires them all to be bonded (grounded) together while on the pole.
At my utility we allow all 3 to be in the same trench, gas, water, and sewer need to be in separate trenches due to different depths required (in-case of repairs)
secondary service <600 volts to be at 36" depth 6"of sand, then conduit (conductor rests at 30" + -),
>600volts 42" depth never allow deeper than 48" depth because osha requires trench boxes w/ emergency egress routes.
 
I have quite a bit of trenching experience. I trenched and installed 1200' of french drains around my property. Trench. Dig ditch wider with mini excavator. Trim roots by hand. Dump in some #2 washed stone. Lay down geotextile fabric. Install pipe. Add some stone. Close wrap. Fill till level. Repeat 300 times.
On hills. Next to driveways. And through the woods. Pretty harrowing stuff for a newbie and working almost completely alone. My soil is almost completely clay and rock. Horrible stuff to work with. So heavy!

The primary workhorse was a skidsteer (Bobcat) with the trenching attachment. I rented from Sunbelt rentals. Pay the extra. Get the one with tracks NOT wheels. If it gets wet, wheels are useless. I had them come pick the wheel version and take it right back almost right after they delivered it. It wasn't cheap, but I didn't get hurt one bit. It also clawed through roots without issue. I needed my trench to be about 12" wide, so I came through with the mini-excavator and dug the remaining bits out and removed large rocks and stuff.

It rained almost every day. It was a miserable project w/o the weather cooperating. At the end of 9 days, I slept for almost 15 hrs straight.

And I still remember coming out and putting the track back on in the mud!!!
 
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Hey Greg. I remember you man. You did a great job.

I'm glad that project is behind me. Sunbelt was very good to me for the rentals.
 
I have quite a bit of trenching experience. I trenched and installed 1200' of french drains around my property. Trench. Dig ditch wider with mini excavator. Trim roots by hand. Dump in some #2 washed stone. Lay down geotextile fabric. Install pipe. Add some stone. Close wrap. Fill till level. Repeat 300 times.
On hills. Next to driveways. And through the woods. Pretty harrowing stuff for a newbie and working almost completely alone. My soil is almost completely clay and rock. Horrible stuff to work with. So heavy!

The primary workhorse was a skidsteer (Bobcat) with the trenching attachment. I rented from Sunbelt rentals. Pay the extra. Get the one with tracks NOT wheels. If it gets wet, wheels are useless. I had them come pick the wheel version and take it right back almost right after they delivered it. It wasn't cheap, but I didn't get hurt one bit. It also clawed through roots without issue. I needed my trench to be about 12" wide, so I came through with the mini-excavator and dug the remaining bits out and removed large rocks and stuff.

It rained almost every day. It was a miserable project w/o the weather cooperating. At the end of 9 days, I slept for almost 15 hrs straight.


Just curious why you laid down the french drain? I live half way up a 1,000' elevation hill and theres quite a bit of ground water running down the hill. Well my house is a ranch and the previous owners added on an addition. During construction they hit ledge so instead of adding a full foundation to an already full foundation they installed a footing and left it a dirt crawl space. In this space they installed a dry well with a sump pump that runs about once an hour! I really want to remedy the ground water issue. I was thinking of doing some sort of french drain not at the base of the foundation but in a horse shoe shape surrounding the house on the property deflecting it away from the house as it comes down the hill. The land slopes nicely so the water could drain easily to the other end of the property. We just moved in so I'm just weighing my options. Another option would be to pour a floor and seal everything off but I would be afraid of issues down the road. Getting ready to get some professionals in and get some quotes and discuss the best route.
 
I would dig a test hole on the old side of the house to see if there is an existing weeping tie drain in place. Newer homes run corrugated black pipe, older homes will have the tile, if you hit the tile then call a plumber and have it scoped out.
If you do this work yourself the main points are right trench depth, good pitch, washed 3/4 stone, select back fill, good landscape fabric for the trench, then wrapped corrugated pipe, if you have a good incline you may consider running the drain to day light, but be responsible for your water, don't create a problem for a neighbor.
 
Just curious why you laid down the french drain? I live half way up a 1,000' elevation hill and theres quite a bit of ground water running down the hill. Well my house is a ranch and the previous owners added on an addition. During construction they hit ledge so instead of adding a full foundation to an already full foundation they installed a footing and left it a dirt crawl space. In this space they installed a dry well with a sump pump that runs about once an hour! I really want to remedy the ground water issue. I was thinking of doing some sort of french drain not at the base of the foundation but in a horse shoe shape surrounding the house on the property deflecting it away from the house as it comes down the hill. The land slopes nicely so the water could drain easily to the other end of the property. We just moved in so I'm just weighing my options. Another option would be to pour a floor and seal everything off but I would be afraid of issues down the road. Getting ready to get some professionals in and get some quotes and discuss the best route.

French drains are ideal for when you want to lower the water table without a great deal of surface (run-off) water. My property has a good grade to it and looking back, I really over-killed with the french drains in many of the areas. But, it worked, and my only mistake was picking #2 washed stone when I should have gone with something much larger for he grade. I had much of it wash away because we had a flood of Biblical proportions...but that was only on one section. The rest has been working awesome.

I think you are on the right track. I used my french drains and made a barrier around the home with them. It improved the dryness in my basement immensely. My driveway used to be a swamp when it would rain and now it is dry as a bone even after a huge downpour.
I had some difficulty going from french drain to solid pipe. I couldn't find much online as to how to do that transition. I ended up just packing dirt around the pipe and 'daming' the system so that it was forced to travel through the pipe.

You will get sticker shock if you have this job quoted. I did this job myself because no one would touch it for <$12k.
 
French drains are ideal for when you want to lower the water table without a great deal of surface (run-off) water. My property has a good grade to it and looking back, I really over-killed with the french drains in many of the areas. But, it worked, and my only mistake was picking #2 washed stone when I should have gone with something much larger for he grade. I had much of it wash away because we had a flood of Biblical proportions...but that was only on one section. The rest has been working awesome.

I think you are on the right track. I used my french drains and made a barrier around the home with them. It improved the dryness in my basement immensely. My driveway used to be a swamp when it would rain and now it is dry as a bone even after a huge downpour.
I had some difficulty going from french drain to solid pipe. I couldn't find much online as to how to do that transition. I ended up just packing dirt around the pipe and 'daming' the system so that it was forced to travel through the pipe.

You will get sticker shock if you have this job quoted. I did this job myself because no one would touch it for <$12k.


12k ??? Ouch!
I've already gotten a quote at $3,500 for the trench, gravel, drain pipe, and back filling.
I was hoping to buy a tractor with in the next year or two and do the job myself.
 
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