In my childhood, my parents would admonish me to do my homework and get good grades at school because “you don’t want to be a “ditch digger” when you grow up!”. The implication was that the profession of being a ditch digger was low brow, low rent, and definitely not in consonance with my (supposedly) superior skill set.
Fast forward several years to an experience I had while I was participating in a simulated undersea battle as part of my professional education as a nuclear submarine officer. I was assigned a lowly position that is typically assigned to a junior enlisted person on a sub. The instructor told me to use my (supposedly) superior skills as an officer to come up with the correct answer to shoot the enemy submarine up its butt. Which I did. This was an important lesson for me because it taught me that there are subtleties and nuance in lowly tasks which can be leveraged to produce a superior result, provided that you pay attention. And use your (supposedly) superior skill set. Mom and Dad, I hope I made you proud.
One of the lowly tasks that I’m having to perform as part of this remodel is to dig ditches. This is very important because there are myriad underground services which are part of the infrastructure of the modern home. The list includes: water, sewer, electricity, cable/internet, site drainage, and irrigation. All of which require a “ditch digger”. It turns out that ditch digging has some subtleties and nuances that become more obvious once you actually have to start digging. In today’s world, most of the work of “ditch digging” is assisted by machines, which makes the profession of heavy equipment operator the parallel of the “ditch diggers” of yore. If you actually get to talk to one and show interest in what they do, you find out it’s much more of an art, like a sculptor of sorts. It’s just that you’re using big machines and the medium happens to be dirt. But sometimes it’s back to picks and shovels, especially when you’re digging around live electrical lines, and water and gas lines under pressure. And heaven forbid, you certainly don’t want to cut your cable or telephone service and be without football and Facebook!
Because I knew I would have to do some digging by hand anyway, I assessed the value of renting a trencher, which is a machine with a bunch of dirt scoops on a chain that loops around a digging bar — sort of like a chainsaw. But they aren’t cheap to rent and I would have trouble fitting it into the tight places I needed to. So I decided to do it all by hand. Heck, I needed the exercise!
So, what does a “ditch digger” have to do? Well, it’s as easy as 1-2-3!
1. Get the proper tools. OK, so a shovel is a given. But what kind of shovel? Flat? Point? …. Turns out that there are a lot of implements that are available to deal with dirt. If you’re trying to dig up a large volume of dirt, then a bunch of dirt, then a point shovel is what you need. If you’re trying to scoop up dirt from the sidewalk or a flat surface, then the flat shovel is best. If you’re trying to dig a deep hole with vertical sides, then use a post hole digger. Trenches are best attacked with a trenching shovel. If you have to deal with rocks and/or clay, then you’ll need a pick and/or a mattock. A hoe and a rake are also useful. For most jobs, you’ll end up using several tools, depending on the demands of the moment.
1a: Pick. Used to loosen up dirt (esp. clay) and dig out rocks. Wear safety goggles! 1b: Post Hole Digger. Used to dig, well, holes for posts. Also very useful when you have something deep to dig and want the hole to have straight sides. 1c: Trenching Shovel: Used to dig trenches (what a surprise). The technique involves starting the trench with one of the other tools, and then sliding the trenching shovel back and forth along the bottom of the trench. 1d: Flat Shovel. Good for skim cutting the ground for a nice flat grade, or for shoveling bulk material (e.g., gravel or sand). 1e. Point Shovel: Used for digging big holes and moving a lot of material.If the ground is soft enough, then you can jump on it and the blade will penetrate the ground. 1f. Hoe. You’d be surprised how useful this is. It’s good for spreading materials, gathering up materials, and cleaning up trenches. 1g. Mattock. This is used to break up the ground. It has a sharp point like a pick, and a blade on the other end that is really good for trenching because it allows you to break up the dirt in just the trench and leaves a nice clean cut.
2. Figure out where the services have to run to and from and mark out the layout. For me, this was relatively easy because I had to submit plans for approval, so I had it all on paper. Easy from a bird eye’s (i.e. “plan”) view. But you have to remember that there is the “up-and-down” dimension. Here are the plans for the drainage and irrigation:
3. Figure out the depth. Most underground services need to be buried a specified minimum depth. For my new 200A electric service, that turns out to be 36″. That’s pretty deep if you’re digging a ditch by hand! If you’re installing drainage, you need to make sure that gravity works for you, and thus need to make sure that the drain pipes have a slope of at least 1% in the direction you want the water to go. So now, you have to figure out a way to determine elevation. 3-dimensional space is wonderful, don’t you think?
Here is how I did it: To transfer the measurements from the plans to the actual drawings, I decided to use a system of lines that were centered on the trenches I needed to dig, and set at a constant, reference elevation. To do that, I used what are called “batter boards”. These consist of two upright stakes driven into the ground with a cross piece. You install this arrangement at either end of the trench, set the height of the top of the cross piece to the chosen reference height (I used the weep screed of the house), and then string a line between the cross pieces. Volia! A perfectly straight line at the reference height.
Here is a link to a really nifty video on how to run string lines.
The next step was to set the drainage basins in position, mark where they needed to be on the dirt, and dig a hole for each one. I would dig until I got the bottom of the basin to where it needed to be based on the plans. You may need to do a little arithmetic to get the answer for the right depth. For instance, I needed the top of the drain to be 4″ down from the reference (weep screed), plus 2% of the distance from the house, which was 2.5″ (10′ = 120″x2% = 2.4″), so 6.5″, and the distance from the top of the drain to the bottom of the basin is 12″, so 6.5″ + 12″ = 18.5″. Really no big deal (unless you are challenged by arithmetic).
Then you dig the trench between the catch basins, and you know that the depth of the trench will be correct because you’ve set the depth of the basins. With the string line, you can easily measure the depth at any point along the line to confirm that you’re digging to the correct depth. Here are some pictures of the finished product.
One of the things that I didn’t give much thought to was where to put the dirt. In my brief career as a ditch digger, I simply assumed that it would go next to the hole. However, this became problematic as progress continued with the “moat” I was digging around my postage-stamp size lot. This was complicated by the fact that ALL of the digging and installation of underground services must be complete so that the inspectors can give their approval before you cover it up. Towards the end, it became quite a challenge to navigate my way around the property between the high-wire walk along the trenches, and having to step over those batter boards.
Eventually, the inspectors came, gave me the thumbs up (yaay!), and I was able to start covering up stuff. You’d think that filling up a hole with dirt would be pretty simple. But yet again, there is nuance. You need to compact the dirt as you go because if you don’t, it will settle and at best leave you with gullies where the trenches used to be, and at worst, cause underlying structural problems with your concrete, or whatever you put on top of the dirt. Alas, the other realization I came to was that what goes out, must go in, and so the large amount of digging resulted in a large amount filling. That gosh-darned dirt seems to get heavier with each shovel-full!
The great news is that the outside of the place is never going to look worse than it does right now, and I’ve actually begun installing things instead of demolishing stuff and hauling away the detritus. Speaking of detritus, does anybody have any suggestions for getting rid of the rocks that harvested? People buy this so-called “river rock”, so maybe I can give it away. Too bad the Pet Rock fad is over. I’d be sitting on a fortune!
2 thoughts on “I Always Wondered What It Was Like To Be a Ditch Digger”
First and foremost an amazing project Frank! I can’t think of anyone else I know that would or could accomplish for the first time such a project without previous experience except an engineer. Keep posting.
Saved as a favorite, I really like your blog!|