Microtrenching vs. Traditional Trenching: What You Need to Know

Society’s pent-up demand for data—not just instantaneous, lightning-quick data but also vast volumes of it—has manifested into surging demand for bandwidth in hard-to-reach pockets of our cities and communities, urban regions especially.
The digital infrastructure these pockets currently have either barely meet the current market and will soon fall far behind or are already severely lagging.
In some cases, no such infrastructure is there at all.
Consequently, carriers are scrambling to bring fiber-optic cable connectivity to homes, businesses, government facilities, and educational institutions to help revolutionize how these occupants live as well as work.
One problem, and it’s worth billions of dollars: Laying fiber, which remains the most expensive part of bringing broadband and wireless to underserviced areas.
Per the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average cost of laying fiber is about $27,000 per mile. For a building looking to get wired, costs can reportedly range from $1 to $6 per foot.
It adds up fast.
The substantial financial burden of fiber-optic installation has compelled utility contractors to discover alternative ways to speed up installation while trimming costs without disrupting surrounding communities. 
The solution, as many have discovered in recent years, is mircotrenching.
How is microtrenching different from traditional trenching?
Tradition trenching speaks for itself. Used primarily in soil, it involves cutting about 4 feet deep and between 4 feet and 8 feet wide.
Microtrenching, on the other hand, cuts less deep and less wide—about ¾ inches to 2 inches wide and a maximum depth of about 12 inches, give or take. Some attachments can go as deep as two feet. The sweet spot is 6 to 12 inches in-depth and up to 1.5 inches wide, which is commonly deep enough to get under the upper layer of the ground and more than shallow enough not to interfere with existing utilities.
In other words, you create a narrow, shallower trench.
As the emerging go-to method for fiber optic cable and conduit installation, streetlights, and parking lot lighting in some instances, microtrenching is used on asphalt—not soil. It has also been successful in an assortment of concrete applications.
Here are the core elements of microtrenching: carrier, microtrencher attachment, and a vacuum system to clean up the spoil. A reel carrier option may also be applied. The configuration permits increased versatility and utilization.
The technique can be used on open highways and sidewalks, parking lots, and driveways. Before microtrenching, these applications required digging and tearing up streets and landscaping to trench or bore several feet into the ground or climbing up poles to string cable.
Not anymore.
What are the benefits of microtrenching?
Because microtrenching necessities such as minor excavation, disruption to the surrounding community is little and short-term—a can’t-beat advantage for cities and well-developed areas where paved surfaces and heavy foot and vehicular traffic dominate the landscape. In these settings, tearing up substantial portions of the ground or pavement would be absurdly time-consuming.
Traditional trenching also triggers logistical headaches. You’ve likely experienced it before: Roadwork slows traffic to a snail’s pace. Rerouting is required, and access to buildings and businesses is blocked off—not just for hours, but for days, maybe even months. Surrounding commerce suffers, and small business owners are understandably up in the arms. You’re the bad guy, just for installing a critical piece of infrastructure.
Not with microtrenching, which shrinks these windows of profound inconvenience and interruption to near nil.
Mircotrenching also allows smaller crews with lighter equipment to cover more ground at a faster pace. Trenching productivity—in this case, defined as the number of feet trenched in a day—increases with microtrenching, which has a dramatically reduced environmental footprint. Consider this: With traditional trenching, it’s easy to nick a tree root or, perhaps worse, an underground utility. Thanks to its very shallow depth, microtrenching sharply reduces the chances of these budget-killing surprises with a clean cut.
In some situations, such as those where environmental restrictions inhibit installation in the right-of-way or the absence of right-of-way, microtrenching might be the only feasible solution. In essence, it can serve as a “bridge-gap between other forms of installation, such as directional drilling or plowing,” experts told Equipment Today magazine. Case in point: Consider a roadway through a national park where you need to connect two ends of a fiber network. The Forest Service would almost absurdly object to any procedure where the environment and soil around the roadway were disturbed. That eliminates traditional trenching—but possibly not microtrenching.
These benefits tie into the most talked-about advantage of microtrenching: It’s a cost-effective solution for installing fiber-optic cable, particularly along paved rights-of-way.
Take boring, a time-killing procedure that involves digging up to five feet deep, then sideways under the concrete with different equipment, escalating the chances of hitting an underground utility—especially when drilling away from public rights-of-way. Boring also requires significantly more labor.
In comparison, microtrenching—again, courtesy of its shallow trench—increases the number of feet that can be trenched in a day, reducing the cost per foot on projects compared to traditional installation methods. The fiscal reward? Faster production, a quicker rollout, and more time-efficient service, gift-wrapped with lower prices, and decrease disruption. Google Fiber reportedly reduced installation time from 50 homes in one month to 50 in just one day via microtrenching techniques.
Is microtrenching right for your project?
Decreases cost, a speedier project timeline, and less disruption to nearby communities—no doubt, microtrenching is a win-win for most projects and another instrument in a construction or utility contractor’s toolbelt.
But is it right for you?
Highly likely, but it depends on several variables. What’s directly underneath your road, and what materials did you use to create that road? What kind of conditions will we be working in during the project? What is the state of your subbase? Will backfilling be an issue? Will restoration? 
And what type of payment materials will your project include?
Lots of questions—some of which you might not have the answers to right away. Do your homework—and get a utility contractor who will do the same.
Posted: 6/25/2021 3:06:08 PM