Follow these steps to using a power auger, or power post hole digger, without an unwanted incident.
A power auger may be the fastest route between you and a hole in the ground that needs drilling, whether you’re installing a fence or planting a tree. But before using an auger, learn the steps to doing it safely and efficiently.
An auger uses torque to create holes in the ground. A hand auger consists of a handle and a threaded shank that looks like a giant screw. On a power auger or power post hole digger, the shank is driven by an engine, which makes digging much easier. Engines can be battery powered, gas powered or hydraulic powered. Gas augers are the most common and typically have more horsepower than electric augers.
One-man augers are smaller and less powerful than two-man augers, which require two strong people to operate. How hard is it to use a one-man auger? Harder than you might think, especially if the soil is rocky or made of heavy clay. Ergonomic handlebars designed to reduce vibration and fatigue help. But even when using a one-man auger, you may want a partner to help.
Some machines come in different drilling depths, and the bits come in different diameters.
What is an auger used for?
A small auger with a 2- to 3-inch diameter bit can be used to plant bulbs or install small poles. A one-man auger with a 6-inch auger bit can be used to dig holes for steel fence posts.
A one- or two-man auger with a 10-inch bit can be used to dig holes for a 4 x 4 wooden fence post or larger plants. (The extra width creates room for maneuvering the post or adding concrete.) Bigger augers and bits are used to make holes for deck footings or foundation piles.
How deep can an auger dig?
If you’re wondering how deep can a post-hole digger dig, the answer depends on the application and the tool. Most augers dig about 3 feet deep, but an extension rod can be used to gain another 12 inches of depth. Deeper holes are required for deck footings and for footings on structures located in colder regions where the frost depth exceeds 3 feet.
How to use an auger safely and efficiently
At least two days ahead, call 811, the Call Before You Dig line, to have the utility company check for buried utilities and mark them so you can avoid hitting them. Then you’re ready to start digging.
- Put on safety gear including safety glasses, hearing protection, gloves and steel toe safety boots. Using an auger puts you close to a noisy piece of equipment, so don’t skip the ear muffs or plugs. Wear close-fitting clothing. Loose clothing can get caught in the spinning bit, with potentially deadly consequences.
- Familiarize yourself with all controls.
- Mark the locations for your holes. You can use stakes to mark the exact center of each hole, a critical step if you’re building a fence.
- Dig shallow pilot holes with a shovel or clamshell post hole digger to create a good starting point for the machine.
- Place the auger bit in the pilot hole.
- Brace yourself before starting the engine. If you’re using a one-man auger, brace your left side near the left handle, against the counter-clockwise torque. If you’re using a two-man auger, have one person hold the machine steady while the other person starts it.
- Start the engine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In most cases you’ll need to pump the primer, set the choke to “run,” press the ignition switch, squeeze the throttle and pull the start cord.As soon as the engine is started, you’ll feel the force against the handle.
- At first, squeeze the throttle just enough to engage the bit in the dirt. Then you can throttle up.
- Let the weight of the machine do the work. If you hit a rock or if the auger gets stuck, release the throttle immediately. Dig out any obstruction before proceeding.
- Stop the bit and lift the auger occasionally to clear the dirt out of the hole.
- Measure the depth of the hole to know when it’s sufficiently deep. When it is, you’re done.
Auger safety tips
Augers are extremely useful, but they can be dangerous if you don’t follow safety precautions. In 2020, two people were killed in auger-related work accidents.
To steer clear of an OSHA accident report, keep these safety tips in mind.
- Clear the area. Make sure there is no loose material on the ground, such as landscape fabric or another permeable weed barrier, that can get tangled in the shaft.
- Respect the torque. The auger has enough torque to throw the operator off balance if it hits a root, rock or other obstruction. If you anticipate hitting any obstructions, throttle down to ensure a faster release of the clutch. Keep yourself braced in case of kickback. Don’t drill too close to a wall or other structure that kickback can throw you against.
- Use your legs, not your back. You’ll be constantly wrestling with this powerful machine while digging. It’s a common mistake to overuse back muscles. Remember to lift and absorb shock with your legs.
- Know where the shut-off switch is. You need to be ready to stop the machine in an instant.
- Keep the auger upright when taking a break between holes. Leave it standing in one of the finished holes to keep the fluids from flooding the motor.
By following these how-to steps and auger safety precautions, you have a better chance of drilling the perfect hole and, more important, going home at the end of the day without injury.
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Mark Hagen is a former magazine publisher and is currently a senior manager at a construction company. He enjoys writing about construction, equipment/tools and woodworking.