December 2016 Vol. 71 No. 12


Trencher Tractor Care Often Overlooked

Trade magazine articles and online content about maintaining trenching equipment often focus on the digging components of the machine.

Certainly, failure to maintain trencher drive and digging chain and teeth limits productivity, can cause excess wear of tractor components and risks costly breakdowns. However, properly maintaining the tractors that power work components and provide mobility is equally essential.

Representatives of two primary providers of utility trenching equipment – Vermeer and Ditch Witch – discussed steps needed to keep trencher tractor units in good operating condition.

What routine, scheduled maintenance is recommended for these tractors (engine, hydraulic system, etc.)?

Vermeer, Phillip Holcomb, senior service specialist –
Vermeer maintenance manuals include routine maintenance schedules made specifically for each model of equipment. The maintenance intervals are specified in hours and corresponding calendar units (days, weeks and months).

Vermeer trench tractor

Regular maintenance intervals can vary in length with equipment size. Engine maintenance intervals are provided in the engine operation manual that comes with each engine. We provide routine maintenance recommendations for nearly every moving part on the tractor and attachments. For the engine, we list engine oil and filter change intervals, along with fuel filter changes. Also for the engine we list engine coolant testing and coolant changes, engine drive belt and cooling fan inspection intervals, and various other engine inspections, depending on engine model.

The hydraulic systems have recommended oil filter change and oil change intervals listed. We also list recommended intervals for driveline maintenance, which include regular fluid level checks and periodic drain and refill. Each attachment has its own maintenance schedule.

Ditch Witch, Steve Seabolt, product manager, heavy-duty trenchers –
We recommend to always follow the OEM operator’s manual for routine maintenance needs for each utility trencher. A great deal of effort goes into these manuals to ensure they contain all necessary information needed to maintain equipment.

A daily walk around is very important. Recommended daily maintenance includes: checking fluid levels and looking for signs of potential leaks; inspecting battery and charge; topping off diesel and diesel exhaust fluid when appropriate; inspecting filters, pre filters and filter minders; examining belts or chains for wear and proper tension; greasing zerks; checking tractor and attachments for damage; inspecting wear items, including ground-engaging tools; checking for loose or missing hardware, pins and bushings; ensuring all covers and shields are in place; verifying all machine markings, including decals, are in place and in good condition; examining tires for proper air pressure and wear; and looking at indicator lights on all electronics for positive signs or any potential error codes.

Safety should always be a first priority when performing maintenance. Unless otherwise instructed, all service should be performed with the engine off, and all attachments lowered to the ground. Proper personal protective equipment should be used at all times.

What periodic maintenance relates to a specific number of hours of operation?

Holcomb – At 10 hours/day, we advise to check fluid levels and grease the machine and attachments. This is a daily opportunity to walk around the machine and look at the tires or tracks, look for loose hardware, leaks, etc. At 100 hours/month our maintenance manual lists inspections such as service brake and secondary brake check, tires and rims or tracks and idlers inspection, track tension inspection, and testing the operator presence system.

Engine maintenance generally starts at 10 hours daily with the oil level check. Initial oil and filter change will be at 250 or 500 hours, depending on the engine, then every 500 hours after that. At the 500-hour interval, there will also be many other engine-related inspections listed in the maintenance manual. Hydraulic system maintenance starts with the initial hydraulic filter change at 250 hours per three months. After that, hydraulic filter change interval is 500 hours per six months. Hydraulic oil change interval is 1,000 hours yearly. Driveline maintenance is checking fluid levels 250 hours per three months then draining and refilling axles and planetary hubs, and transferring cases every 1,000 hours/yearly.

Seabolt – At predetermined intervals, the engine OEM requires diesel engine oil and diesel engine antifreeze/coolant to be inspected and replaced. Match viscosity of engine oil to the ambient temperature range where the machine will be operating. Moving joints typically are lubricated with a multipurpose grease or extreme pressure grease. Most differentials, planetary wheel ends and gearboxes will require a multipurpose gear oil. Tractor hydraulic fluid is used in most hydraulic systems; however, power shift transmission fluid is used with some mechanical trenchers. Use OEM parts, filters, approved lubricants and approved coolants per the machine and engine OEM owner’s manuals to maintain performance and preserve machine warranty.

Does how a tractor is being used (trencher or plow, front-mounted attachments) affect how the machine should be maintained?

Holcomb – Yes. Rear-mounted attachments generally create more heat in the hydraulic system than a front-mounted attachment such as a backhoe. The heat is generated by the load on the trencher while digging or plowing, and the load on the ground drive system as it works to pull the plow blade or trencher through the ground. Another consideration while trenching or plowing is ground conditions. Dusty and/or grassy conditions will generate grass and dust that can plug the hydraulic cooler, causing the hydraulics to run hotter than normal. Excessive heat in the hydraulics can deteriorate the hydraulic oil.

Seabolt – Service intervals found in operator manuals generally are the minimum requirements. Extreme heat, cold, even dry/dusty conditions, necessitate owners service their machines more frequently. Filters, for example, need to be checked and cleaned or replaced much more frequently when operating in dusty conditions. Maintenance needs also vary by attachment type. Saws and some trenchers generate more dust than other attachments. Vibratory plows create extreme vibration by design, and require owners and operators to inspect machines for loose fittings, joints and hardware on a more frequent basis.

The ground engaging tools, bits and cutters require maintenance too.

How do undercarriages differ for wheel and quad-mount machines? 

Holcomb – On Vermeer ride-on tractor machines, the same type of axle is used for tires or quad tracks. When tracks are installed in place of tires, a complete track assembly is mounted to an adapter on the wheel hub, or a track drive sprocket is mounted to the wheel hub and the track assembly is built from that.

Seabolt – Track units have additional grease zerks, and track tension must be checked and adjusted as needed. Owners should inspect track rollers and drive sprockets for any wear, and also inspect the track itself for any damage.

How do maintenance requirements differ?

Holcomb – Traditional wheel/tire installation is relatively simple. The wheel is bolted to the axle drive hub. Inspection mostly consists of making sure the lug nuts are tight, looking for cracks in the wheels and inspecting the tires for correct air pressure and damage.

Drive tracks are more complicated. Depending on the type of track drive system, the drive sprocket will bolt to the axle hub in place of the wheel or to a spindle/hub mounted to the track frame. There will be four to six rollers supporting the track and a grease cylinder or mechanical linkage to maintain the track tension. The rollers all have bearings that should be inspected. The tensioning device must be inspected to ensure it is keeping the track tight. All of the attaching hardware must be inspected and kept tight.

What maintenance procedures are most often neglected?

Holcomb – I believe the hydraulic system is neglected most. Informed operators are familiar with how engine life is affected by delayed oil change intervals, so those operators try to maintain the engine. With hydraulic systems, clean oil is even more important. By the time the hydraulics are working slow, or not at all, an oil change probably will not fix it.

Seabolt – The following procedures seem to be the most often neglected:

  • Failure to use proper, approved fluids or filters.
  • Using tap water instead of distilled water in coolers or batteries.
  • Welding on machines without disconnecting sensitive electronics.
  • Spraying electronics with high-pressure water.
  • Ignoring engine exhaust cleaning reminders and procedures.
  • Using improper diesel or improperly stored exhaust fluid.
  • Failing to inspect safety devices.
  • During walk arounds, not checking for missing covers, damaged seat belts, bypassed safety devices, missing decals.
    Not checking indicator lights on their GPS/telematics module to ensure the device is functioning and connected to a network.
  • Not maintaining good maintenance records.

Studies confirm that well-maintained machines last longer and retain value better than poorly trained equipment. Comments?

Holcomb – Well-maintained machines definitely last longer and can bring a higher return on trade-in. By following the recommended maintenance intervals, wear items can be replaced before they fail and potentially cause other issues. Regular oil changes extend component life by removing wear-causing oil contaminants. Keeping good maintenance records can also add to the value.

Seabolt – Well-maintained machines last longer and retain value better than poorly maintained equipment. Cleaning also helps keep machines in good working order. We recommend washing equipment thoroughly, being careful not to spray electronics directly with high-pressure water. For optimum performance, clean all coolers. Tier-4 final units may have processes for the internal cleaning of engine exhaust systems that must be followed. Failure to follow engine OEM recommendations can result in a de-rated or damaged engine.

Other comments?

Seabolt – Equipment owners should consider leveraging the expertise of local equipment dealers. Considering the importance of proper maintenance, investing in a planned maintenance program with an OEM dealer is a smart investment. It also frees up an owner’s time and attention to other aspects of the business.

Ditch Witch, (800) 654-6481,
Vermeer Corp., (888) 837-6337,

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