How cold is too cold to dig a trench?
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    IndianaJim's Avatar
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    How cold is too cold to dig a trench?

    Hi all.
    Ive had a trench project that kept getting put off by rain, and a few other things, but with Winter upon us, I am just wondering how cold is too cold to dig in?
    Ive got a 260B on the 2025, and while I see no problem operating the tractor or backhoe in low temps, I can see it being an issue if the ground is frozen solid.
    Around here, it generally doesnt get that bad until mid January, and then its temp dependent. If its been fairly mild, it could never freeze too solid. I guess what I mean by that is that Ive dug holes in January and February, about 2-3 feet, with not much trouble with a shovel before, so I guess Im just wondering, from those of you who have experience with this sort of thing, is there a point where I should not attempt this?
    I assume Id know pretty quick with the backhoe if its too hard to dig, but dont want to damage anything.
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    Quote Originally Posted by IndianaJim View Post
    Hi all.
    Ive had a trench project that kept getting put off by rain, and a few other things, but with Winter upon us, I am just wondering how cold is too cold to dig in?
    Ive got a 260B on the 2025, and while I see no problem operating the tractor or backhoe in low temps, I can see it being an issue if the ground is frozen solid.
    Around here, it generally doesnt get that bad until mid January, and then its temp dependent. If its been fairly mild, it could never freeze too solid. I guess what I mean by that is that Ive dug holes in January and February, about 2-3 feet, with not much trouble with a shovel before, so I guess Im just wondering, from those of you who have experience with this sort of thing, is there a point where I should not attempt this?
    I assume Id know pretty quick with the backhoe if its too hard to dig, but dont want to damage anything.
    I'm sure you can get through a couple inches of frost with the small backhoe without too much trouble, but if you monkey around too long before you backfill, you will have piles of frozen boulders to deal with.
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    Quote Originally Posted by arlen View Post
    I'm sure you can get through a couple inches of frost with the small backhoe without too much trouble, but if you monkey around too long before you backfill, you will have piles of frozen boulders to deal with.
    That would be my first response also - unless you backfill the same day you might be dealing with huge clumps of frozen dirt.

    Other than that only you can tell - do a test dig. If it digs then go ahead and dig.
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    Quote Originally Posted by arlen View Post
    I'm sure you can get through a couple inches of frost with the small backhoe without too much trouble, but if you monkey around too long before you backfill, you will have piles of frozen boulders to deal with.
    My plan was to dig and fill in one day, two at the most.
    Its not a problem to let it sit either, but I need to get the trench dug and conduit laid in, and wires pulled sooner rather than later.
    Only one portion of this trench needs to be filled ASAP, as one of my trails runs over it, so that will get filled first.

    Heck, the way things go around here, 25 other things will come up before I get a chance to get started on it anyway, so it will likely get left until Spring with my lucK!
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    Quote Originally Posted by arlen View Post
    I'm sure you can get through a couple inches of frost with the small backhoe without too much trouble, but if you monkey around too long before you backfill, you will have piles of frozen boulders to deal with.
    This would also be my primary worry. But if as you say-you intend to backfill the same day-or that it can wait until thaw you shouldn’t have any issues.

    You’ll find out rather quickly if there is any frost and if your Bh can do the digging you want-if there is much over an inch ( my educated guess) you won’t be doing much digging. Frost is surprisingly difficult to excavate through-it takes much larger and more powerful equipment with specialized frost teeth to get through it in the construction world and it is not easy digging even then.

    If you do run into a bunch of excess time and really have to get that trench dug with frost in the ground there are options. Place tarps down and a thick layer of straw then another heavy tarp or plywood, etc to hold things in place. Give it a few days or a week and the insulation you placed should allow the ground to thaw and you’ll be able to dig if you can do it before it freezes back. Panels of rigid insulation or insulating blankets (used by contractors) placed in the same fashion as the straw will also work. I don’t recommend fire or water-as each are only effective in small areas (contradictory to a trench) or will cause more issues with digging and backfilling later (mud).
    Last edited by balrog006; 12-05-2018 at 04:25 PM.
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    I just did this at my Dads place. We needed to replace the insulated piping from his outdoor boiler to the house, which is about 200'. We watched the weather and although we got some rain, the temperatures were just right so that it wouldn't freeze up once we opened the ditch. I started using an older 2wd JD backhoe, but the ground was muddy and I ending up spending a lot of time trying to get it unstuck, so I parked it and tried the loader on my 2320. It worked a lot better. When we originally put the piping in, we backfilled with sand, so digging it up again was pretty easy.

    The snow cover we have kept the ground soft. It was a little too muddy, but with 4wd and steering brakes it was fine.

    I would suggest looking at the upcoming weather and pick a time where you have a couple of days where it's warmer and dry. Our temps were just around freezing with colder temps at night. With a backhoe, you will be fine.
    Last edited by ctrider; 12-05-2018 at 05:15 PM.
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    If it will dig and you back fill within a day or 2 you should be fine. If it doesn't dig fairly easy, you are done right away or you'll be buying parts. If it's not sub zero while the dirt is piled you should be fine. Otherwise you'll need to warm the ground as stated above.
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    Do you have a ripper for your back hoe? On larger machines I’ve gone through 2’ of frost. Although it is much slower it can be done with the right equipment
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    You will know if it is froze , right away . Start digging , you are going to make a mess anyhoo . Backfilling is usually the problem .
    Last edited by kevin37b; 12-06-2018 at 10:57 AM.

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