Rock Trenching The Right Way

Got utilities to bury in extremely hard, rocky conditions?

If the job is in the southwest region of the lower 48 United States, the number to call is (512) 864-7455, suggests Steven Morris. The call will reach the Georgetown, TX, offices of Custom Trench Inc. where Morris is project and business development manager.

“We are a mass rock excavation specialist,” said Morris. “We do private and public utility trenching along with trenching for telephone and fiber optic systems, oil and gas pipelines, wind farms, sewer and water mains, work for road and detention for milling and mining operations and ‘collective’ trenching. We have trenched for as many as 48 separate lines, single-placed in a trench 24-feet deep and 6½-feet wide.”

Morris says he doesn’t segment work by individual market.

“Our name ‘Custom Trench’ defines what we do – when the need for trenching arises, whatever it may be, we’re ready,” he explained. “Work by market category changes from year to year. For example, in 2011, 75 percent of our jobs were for pipelines. Last year, we were 50 percent oil/gas/fiber and 50 percent utility/sewer/water mains. We average one wind farm job a year – we may go a year or two without one, then all at once we’ll knock off three in a row. Over the years, we have done about every kind of excavation, including manholes, service lines and deep wet wells. Name it, and we’ve probably done it.”

Custom Trench was founded in 2008 with the establishment of a relationship with a company that was interested in moving out of the trenching business. It provided Custom Trench with trenching equipment needed to begin immediate operations. One of its first jobs was a 50-mile long, 16-inch pipeline project in Kansas.

“We started with one estimator, one mechanic, one haul truck driver and four operators for eight machines,” Morris recalled. “The first year the plan was to grow, but 2009 and 2010 were difficult – not much work and the jobs we got came cheap. Then we started digging ourselves out of the hole we were in because of all the start-up expenses.”

Today, the company has 22 trenchers ranging in size from a 125-horsepower wheel-mounted rock saw that weighs 10,000 pounds to a track machine weighing 300,000 pounds powered by an 875-horsepower diesel engine. Other equipment includes two rock wheels and two dirt bucket wheel models. The other units are chain-type track machines.

Sub works

Custom Trench works 95 percent of the time as a subcontractor that limits its services to excavation – someone else installs product.

“In some situations,” said Morris, “customers ask us to jump on their equipment and backfill, and we’re fine with that. We do carry a few contracts directly with owners. This year we have the work that could justify adding a couple of more operators, but we don’t want to get overextended. We are taking care of customers with what we have.”

Most of Custom Trench’s excavation is done with trenchers – they can produce substantially more trench per hour than is possible with an excavator.

“We have occasionally used excavators in two types of conditions,” said Morris. “If we hit wet clay, a trencher’s brakes come on and production can drop over 50 percent. It takes wet clay a while to dry enough to stop sticking to digger chains. That is a good time to bring in excavators with buckets.

“The other condition is if the rock becomes so abrasive that we can’t achieve production to cover the cost of the trencher teeth being used. We bring in our 10,000-pound hammer mounted on an excavator to fracture the rock. Then we bring the trencher back in to finish the job.”

On a recent project for the expansion of a residential subdivision, Custom Trench crews dug nearly 18,000 feet of trench for the water, sanitary sewers, storm drain, electrical, and gas utilities. Pipe and conduit installed was reinforced concrete in diameters from two inches for electrical duct to 60 inches for storm drains. Trench depths ranged from six to 18 feet, widths from 12-inches to 13-feet. Soil near the surface was clay with some small rock, said Morris.

“When we got 12 to 18-inches deep,” he continued, “it became abrasive and hard with limestone and layers of flint rock. This made it important to find the right teeth to make the job cost effective and to have enough equipment to stay on schedule.”

Five Trencor trenchers were employed on this project: three model 1260HD units powered by 425-horsepower diesel engines, one 1460HD with a 630-horsepower diesel engine and one 765HD, powered by a 250-horsepower diesel engine. All are track machines with mechanical digging chain drive and conveyor spoil removal systems. Trench width and depths of each depends on set up of the boom, chain and teeth.

As on most jobs, a welder was on the site throughout the project.

“These machines are put in extreme conditions, and eventually tooth holders get ripped off and have to be welded back on, or frames get stress fractures and need repair,” he explained. “Welders also are sometimes needed for fabrication, “In addition, our field mechanics have welding experience.”


There was an existing cross country pipeline through the site that had to be avoided. An unexpected complication was an underground void encountered while digging 14-foot-deep trench. Collapsing soil created a 15 by 15-foot sink hole.

“We had to relocate 500 feet from that area,” said Morris. “Near the end of the job,
after a geologist inspected the site and the hole was filled in, we were allowed to go back to that area.” Excavation was completed in six weeks.

Danny Morris, Steven’s father, is Custom Trench operations manager and his brother David is office manager.

“My father’s job is to ensure our work is done in an efficient, safe and ethical manner which are essential for remaining successful,” said Steven Morris. “He has been working around rock saws and trenchers since the 1970s. He has been a salesman for two trencher brands and always was actively involved in his customers’ work. As a regional sales manager for Trencor, he got to know work conditions all across the lower 48 states. After that, he worked for a trenching construction company.”

Custom Trench is the beneficiary of all Danny Morris’ years in the trenching business – performing demos, selling, training customers to operate equipment, and pricing and executing trenching projects.

“Our company has experience and the reputation for being honest and getting the job done,” said Steven Morris. “My father always reminds us the customer has a choice, and we have a good record of repeat business. Once customers do business with us, they usually come back with other work.”

Looking ahead, Morris believes Custom Trench’s business specialty of custom trenching for anyone needing trench in hard-rock conditions will continue to be successful.

“For the next four years, we anticipate growth in all the markets we serve,” he concluded. “Our business plan is simple. “We understand that if we don’t take care of business, customers will go somewhere else and they will recommend those who serve them well.”

Custom Trench, (512) 864-7455,
Trencor, (419) 869-7107,

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