Trencher Engine Maintenance Important For Contractors

Follow these tips to help avoid breakdowns in the field and expensive repairs.
Trencher Engine Maintenance Important For Contractors
Angel Delmoral uses a Ditch Witch trencher as part of site preparation for a new sewer line for a job in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Interested in Drilling?

Get Drilling articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Drilling + Get Alerts

You may think you’re practicing proactive maintenance by removing your trencher’s air filter after a job and knocking it on the side of a tire or blasting it with a high-pressure hose to remove dirt and debris. In fact, you’re putting yourself at risk of experiencing a severe engine failure, says Phil Holcomb, senior service specialist with Vermeer, manufacturer of trenchers and other off-road equipment.

“All our machines have air filter indicators,” Holcomb says. “We tell our customers not to remove that air filter until the indicator tells you to. You don’t want to take it out and knock the dirt off or blow the dust off with a high-pressure hose. If you do that, you run a big risk of possibly putting a hole in the filter, which would let unfiltered air through and cause serious engine damage eventually. It’s probably not going to fail that day, but it’s going to affect the life of that engine pretty dramatically.”

The bottom line is that your trencher is not going to be able to get the job done unless the engine is functioning properly. A few regular habits — like proper care of the air filter — can help achieve that, as well as ultimately prevent expensive engine repairs down the road.


Good engine maintenance practices begin with a routine, Holcomb says. “Before a job, do a walk-around. Establish a routine and a starting place. Try to start in the same place every time.”

Contractors will want to look for things that have changed since the last time a walk-around was performed — damp areas caused by oil or coolant leaks for example. The walk-around should also be conducted after a job is completed as well.

“You don’t necessarily have to do this in extreme detail,” Holcomb says. “Once you have your routine, you kind of know what you are looking for and you’ll notice things that have changed.”

Oil and coolant levels are some of the most important areas to check regularly to ensure optimal engine performance.

“The engine oil and coolant, that’s the lifeblood of the engine,” Holcomb says. “Keeping those full is really cheap insurance. I’ve seen $10,000 engine repair bills that are caused by $25 worth of oil.”

Another engine component that should be carefully monitored is the fan belt.

“That’s easy to check and adjust or replace, if necessary,” Holcomb says. “Look for strings or chunks. If it breaks, the machine has to sit until it’s repaired.”

As far as service intervals, the best practice doesn’t have to be any more complex than adhering to the recommendations of the operator’s manual, says David Campbell, director of engine and industrial design for Ditch Witch.

“The maintenance schedule that is in our manuals is broken down into a 10-hour, a 50-hour, a 100-hour, etc.,” Campbell says. “Typically, the daily — or 10-hour — check includes things like checking all the fluids, the tire pressure, the air filter restriction indicator, and then doing the daily lubrication, which would primarily be on the digging chain and boom.”

An example of a longer service interval would be changing out the engine oil. For most Ditch Witch equipment that recommendation is 500 hours. A contractor’s specific operating conditions should still be taken into account though.

“In places like Arizona, Texas or Southern California, for example, that quite frequently have a combination of hot and dusty conditions — or even places with extremely cold conditions — we don’t necessarily recommend servicing more frequently, but it certainly does make following the recommended service intervals more critical,” Campbell says.


Dusty working conditions come into play especially for maintenance of the air filter. That’s why the filter restriction indicator on many machines should be used as the gauge for replacement rather than an hourly interval. 

“In really dusty conditions, you’ll probably have to do it more frequently than the oil change,” Campbell says. “The filter might be good for about 200 to 300 hours. But in a less dusty environment, it could last significantly longer than the normal oil change.”

The most important thing to remember about the air filter is to leave it alone until the indicator signifies that it’s time for replacement. Campbell says to keep an eye on the air filter indicator on a daily basis, but don’t worry about replacing the filter until you’ve been given the official warning.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be changed immediately, but it probably needs to be changed at the next convenient service time,” Campbell says.

And always replace it with a new filter. Don’t attempt to clean it.

“By cleaning the filter, you run the risk of poking or tearing a hole in it,” Holcomb says. “You should always replace it with a new filter. Getting unfiltered air into the engine is a big deal. It doesn’t take long to ‘dust’ an engine.”


Maintenance on other parts of the trencher can be just as important to good engine health. The digging chain is one example. If it’s worn, the engine will have to work harder to achieve a certain level of production.

“It’s like using a chain saw with a dull chain,” Holcomb says. “You’re just putting extra strain on it trying to make it work right.

“Bad bearings caused by lack of maintenance is another one. If you don’t do your daily greasing there, as the bearings go out they’re going to put more load on the engine in order to keep them turned. Your digging chain adjustment is part of it too. If it’s too tight, then it’s going to be putting more load on the bearings, which will put more drag on the engine. If it’s too loose, you’ll be causing the engine to work harder to keep the chain working how it’s supposed to.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.