Although new construction is still stuck in blah to neutral, the country’s demand for public and private utility services continues to increase and with that demand comes the need to repair and restructure the nation’s power, irrigation and communications networks.
“Hard-hit housing starts are lagging, so heavy first-dig trenching is slow,” says Greg Lawrence of Toro. “Renovation projects are the majority of our contractors’ business. And, because it is always easier to increase business with current customers than seek out new customers, contractors are looking for machines that will expand their opportunities to take advantage of current construction trends.”
With the shift in the market’s emphasis, contractors that were doing only irrigation or drainage installations several years ago are now buying trenching equipment that permits them to pursue more opportunities in other utility market segments such as light power line and communications installations. Because these projects are frequently surrounded by established residential structures and landscaping, the smaller and more nimble pedestrian trenchers can still reach a maximum digging depth of 48 inches, but with a less imposing footprint, they can maneuver around snug worksites.
(See specifications chart at bottom of this page.)
Vermeer’s product specialist, Jason Zylstra, says regional utility companies and contractors are also trending toward the midsize machines in the less-than-100-horsepower trencher lineup. Vermeer’s mid-compact RTX550 utility tractor with the optional rubber quad-track system addresses the needs of contractors doing secondary, short-run utility installations and service work in urban areas where power demands can’t outweigh ground pressures on sensitive jobsites and established turf.
“Our rubber quad-track system also gives contractors more working days with its greater flotation and ability to work in wet conditions, instead of sitting by the sidelines waiting for the site to dry,” he says.
Zylstra says their new TrenchSense system technology, exclusive to Vermeer, constantly monitors the RTX550’s engine rpm, sensing and reacting to any impediment that could cause an unexpected drop in engine speed and ultimately kill a warm engine. Upon sensing a sudden drop, the TrenchSense system automatically pauses the trencher’s operation, shifts into autocreep mode, and slightly backs up to allow the engine to recover, dislodge material and avoid a stall. “The TrenchSense system reacts faster than the operator,” says Zylstra. See the video.
In the commercial market, private-network communications providers and specialty contracting services that cater to communications infrastructure installations and maintenance are bringing their trenching jobs in-house.
“We’re seeing an increase in larger construction companies doing their own underground work instead of subbing it out in an attempt to capture all the money they can in this economy,” says Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Underground Contractors Association of Illinois.
As the demand increases for faster commercial and residential broadband communications, contractors specializing in service networks such as cable and fiber utilities that lay above deeper sewer and fuel infrastructures are looking at new microtrenching equipment and techniques as a way to control time, labor, materials costs, and environmental impact. Microtrenching is a less-invasion installation process that cuts a narrow, 3/4-inch-wide trench between 9 and 12 inches deep in which a fiber or other conduit is placed without damaging existing pavement or ground conditions. Backfilling and restoring the jobsite area requires far less time, material and inconvenience to surrounding businesses. Unlike traditional trenching methods, microtrenching doesn’t disrupt the road base’s sub materials or require significant patching, thus eliminating future pavement weaknesses and repairs.
Ditch Witch’s new MT12 MicroTrencher is designed to cut narrow, shallow trenches in asphalt roadways and is part of its new fiber optic cable installation system. The MT12 mounts on the rear of either the RT45 or RT55 and cuts a 6- to 12-inch-deep, 1-inch-wide trench. Jason Proctor, product manager at Ditch Witch, says using their FX60 vacuum excavation system to draw away dust and small debris leaves a pristine environment for direct or encapsulated fiber cable.
“This system allows contractors to cut below the typical 4-inch layer of asphalt, into the sub layer, and still be able to lay cable well above existing utilities,” Proctor says. “Because water is the enemy of fiber optic cable, the MT12 MicroTrencher offers an advantage because it is a dry-cutting process.”
Quanta Services, a provider of specialized telecommunications and broadband cable installations, says the system may reduce construction time to half and could reduce installation costs up to 75 percent.