What You Need to Know When Renting Trench Safety Equipment

United Rentals trench boxes

Productive. Safe. Economical. These are the reasons utility contractors regularly rent trench safety equipment rather than purchase it. While rental companies and manufacturer outlets are more than happy to provide the equipment, it is left to utility contractors to decide when, where and what to rent. Following are some considerations in making those decisions.

Why Rent?

“There are several strong motivations for renting, but the No. 1 factor for many contractors is avoidance of the capital cost of owning the equipment,” says Rob Correll, northeast district sales manager for United Rentals Trench Safety. Also, stockpiling and moving the heavy, bulky equipment requires more contractor resources than some managers want to dedicate to the task.

Efficiency Production trench boxSometimes the decision to rent or buy is pegged to regional attitudes — or the weather. Mike Ross, shoring specialist at Efficiency Production, says in the South and West contractors tend to rent everything. “Whereas in the North, including here in Michigan, contractors have such a short working season, they tend to buy. They don’t want to have to compete for available rental equipment. They don’t want to have to wait on anybody. They own it so they can control it. These are just different ways at looking at the world.”

Plus, projects are getting bigger. “With the increasing complexity and scope of excavations today, large-scale site-specific equipment sometimes is employed that may cost in excess of $1 million,” says Steve Barnhardt, vice president of corporate development at National Trench Safety. “For these contractors, it may be more cost-effective to rent the equipment to achieve the best fit for a project as opposed to undertaking a significant capital expenditure for equipment used infrequently.”

Frequency of use indeed has a bearing on the decision. “You can only justify owning a tool if it’s used repetitively,” says Ross. “A trench box is a good example. If a contractor doesn’t lay the same kind of pipe all the time or doesn’t have a contract to lay tens of thousands of feet of pipe, he probably should rent a box when he actually needs it.”

And what can a contractor expect to pay? That will vary, of course, from market to market and product to product. A trench shield 8 ft high and 24 ft in length might rent for $1,500 a month, according to Ross, a small repair box for $200 a day. This is pretty incidental overhead for a project budget of any appreciable size. “It is a fairly reasonable product,” Ross says.

Where to Rent

Products and service vary, of course. “As in any industry, product quality varies from one manufacturer to another and expertise levels are not consistent among suppliers,” says United Rentals’ northeast district manager, Jim Courtier. The company’s mid-Atlantic district sales manager, Chris Mautone, adds that with trench specialists in every office and in the field, United Rentals “can add value for the customer at every point of interaction.”

NTS trench boxBarnhardt, however, believes brands of equipment don’t vary as much as some think. “Generally speaking, most rental companies carry quality products,” Barnhardt says. “This is one area where the North American Excavation Shoring Association has been working to standardize requirements for the benefit of the contractor.” He adds that little things can make a big difference. “If one trench shield can achieve a couple more feet of depth than a competitor’s, that could be a key differentiator to consider.”

In any event, by the time a rented safety system gets to a customer, it may no longer be top quality even though it looks good — power-washing does wonders. Ross encourages renters to take a close look. “Does it appear to have been maintained, or is it bent? If it looks like it has led a rough life, internal components may be damaged.”

Because life in the trenches indeed can be rough on a safety product, a contractor should know the people on the other side of the rental counter. “How knowledgeable is the guy you are talking to?” Ross asks. “Do you have an acceptable level of comfort with his knowledge and how conversant he is about the equipment?” The answers to those questions should dictate where a contractor ends up renting.

Delivery? Most distributors offer boom-truck delivery of a rented system. A contractor who isn’t equipped to transport what is being rented should stipulate delivery going into a transaction.

Who Can Rent

The certified “competent person” on a trench project need not be a contractor’s point man for a rental. However, the onus is on that person if the equipment is subsequently deployed in a manner inconsistent with OSHA utilization standards. Load calculations are clearly spelled out in data accompanying every rented system and it is not the responsibility of the rental house should a system be used unsafely.

Nor are soil analyses or bore hole tests required of a rental customer prior to renting. “It’s not uncommon for us to help plan an excavation without a hole open on site,” Carroll says. Indeed, rental outlets frequently get cold calls from contractors needing equipment and nothing is known about a project.

Besides, says Ross, “bore holes are only good where you dig them.” He notes that utility contractors working in Michigan, where glacial fill shaped much of the landscape, sometimes come across peat moss and half-rotted trees 20 ft underground where the long-ago moving ice deposited the material. “Contractors never really know what they are in for when they start digging.”

And if a competent person wants a little more help as a project breaks ground, Barnhardt says experts can provide it. “For contractors who decide to buy a site specific plan, National Trench Safety engineers design a custom plan that aggregates the jobsite information supplied by the customer with technical product capabilities. The resulting plan bears the stamp of a professional engineer registered in the state where the project is occurring.”

What to Rent

When he enters a rental house, a renter should have with him as much project information as possible to match safety equipment to a job. It begins with how deep an excavation is planned. “The first thing is depth,” Ross says. “That is going to confine your choices of system.” He notes that most utility work is in excavations 10 ft deep or shallower, judging from statistics showing that most cave-in fatalities occur in ditches of that depth. Soil condition is the next most salient factor. The takeaway for contractors: Know your project.

Which system is best suited to a job depends on all of the above as well as the type of equipment-moving machinery to be used and the character of the project. Production pipe-laying frequently utilizes trench shields, for example, and road plates. Slide rail systems typically are deployed when lift stations or tanks are being installed. Water main work generally employs a box system of some kind.

Ross estimates that 10 percent of contractors or fewer try to get by without using trench equipment, and that number is shrinking. He attributes the decline to a growing understanding of the overall value of the “safety” equipment. “We look at all of our equipment as a production tool first, with safety as a byproduct.”

Barnhardt calls noncompliant excavation “one of the biggest competitors for any rental company. But as experienced utility contractors know, soil is unpredictable and it’s never a good decision to assume something won’t happen to us.”

Giles Lambertson is a freelance writer for Utility Contractor.

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