Contractor Works With Manufacturer to Get What It Needs in Equipment

Customized excavators help contractor take care of projects on the water throughout North America

Contractor Works With Manufacturer to Get What It Needs in Equipment

Sam Crawford, project manager for J.F. Brennan Co.

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When you think “excavator,” images of digging dirt and rock on land may come to mind. However, that’s not the case for J.F. Brennan Co., a 100-year-old marine construction contractor out of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

“We get the Hitachis working out on the water,” says Sam Crawford, project manager for Brennan.

With specialties in environmental dredging, wetland remediation, habitat restoration and more, operating heavy equipment out on the water is definitely not uncharted territory for the firm.

“Brennan has been a leader in inland water environmental cleanups for many years now,” Crawford says. As for his interest in the work, he says, “I’ve always had an interest in environmental remediation, specifically on waterways.”

For a recent river remediation project in northern New York, Brennan purchased three new ZX470LC-6 Hitachi excavators. Their maiden voyage consisted of working from barges, dredging and backfilling sediments on an over 7-mile stretch of river. And in the mere 1,200 hours that the excavators have been operating, they haven’t seen any downtime. That’s important for cleanup projects where time is of the essence.

“Having a machine that has very little downtime is crucial for us,” Crawford says. “Our machines are worked very hard, and quick cycle times are an important factor for us. This enables us to maximize our efficiency when removing contaminated sediment or when restoring the river bottom with clean material.”


With the majority of Brennan’s work happening on the water, the machines required some unique fabrications to make each excavator as efficient as possible. The company worked with Pierce Pacific Mfg. to modify the machines and with Hitachi dealer Nortrax on the order.

“Each machine is equipped with aftermarket long-reach fronts and additional counterweight,” says Paul Berendes, Brennan’s director of asset management. “The long-reach fronts and added counterweights give us the ability to handle 2.5-yard custom environmental buckets at a maximum reach of 60 feet and a dig depth in excess of 40 feet.”

The long arm reach is also efficient from a cost perspective. 

“Moving the barge, or marine plant, is a time-consuming and costly process,” Berendes says. “The more reach a machine has, the more work can be performed in a single area before having to relocate the entire marine plant.”

In addition to the long arms and counterweights, Brennan added a small deck outside the cab of the machines that allows for simple collaboration and training.

“It’s essentially a platform next to the operator’s cab that allows management personnel to talk with the operator, give them instruction based on results of GPS surveys, or even train a new operator,” Crawford says.

Brennan’s river remediation project also called for some custom attachments — from clamshell buckets to custom hydraulic dredge buckets.

“Our custom dredge bucket has what we call an environmental lid,” Crawford says. “It’s a 60-inch-wide solid steel plate that hydraulically closes over the bucket and secures the sediment within it. This minimizes the resuspension of the material as you bring it out of the water.”

The unique river remediation application requires modifications that increase the machine’s versatility. But, retaining ease of transportation along with these modifications was paramount.

“The versatility is huge for us,” Crawford says. “Having a machine we can transport quickly and get on a barge where it’s capable of doing many different tasks is critical. The Hitachis have lived up to that goal, with the ability to seamlessly transition from removing material with the dredge bucket to placing material with the clamshell bucket.”


At each barge or marine plant, Brennan uses a five-man crew that assists in the excavation and moving of material. Depending on the job site, there can be several of these barges operating at once.

The crews consist of an operator, who runs the excavator and directs the crew; a spud operator, who raises and lowers anchoring spuds to move the barge back and forth to progress through an area; and a utility support person, who assists with changing and securing barges, maintaining the turbidity curtain to minimize the turbidity in the river.

There is also the tugboat operator, who transports material back and forth from the loading plant to the barge to be placed in the waterway and moves the plant from one area to the next, and finally the deckhand, who assists with guidance for loading and securing barges and monitors surrounding river traffic while the barge is in tow.


With each modification made to the machines, they become more specialized. They also become irreplaceable.

“For a typical earth-moving contractor, if its machine goes down, the contractor can just pull one from a rental lot. Our machines are specifically tailored to marine applications, and it’s very difficult to find something of this size and with these capabilities on a rental lot,” Crawford says. “Having these reliable machines with such little maintenance has been very beneficial for us.”

Not only are the machines modified to work even more efficiently, but they’re also tweaked to be environmentally cautious as they work on sensitive cleanup job sites. Every action they take is considered from an environmental perspective, right down to the machine’s hydraulic fluid.

“All of our water-based equipment is flushed of the standard hydraulic fluid and replaced with an eco-safe hydraulic fluid,” Crawford says. “That way, in the off chance there is a spill, it’s environmentally friendly and easy to clean up.”

As an all-season contractor, Brennan’s machines must be prepared to work in tough environments, especially during winter months on a waterway.

“Some jobs might require the machines to break ice for operations that are running all winter long,” Crawford says. “The ability for a machine to handle the wear and tear of cold weather and harsh conditions is crucial for us.”


It’s easy to tell that Brennan’s employees have pride for the work they do. Not only do they feel like they’re making a positive impact, but they work hard and embrace the constantly changing work conditions.

“With many of our projects, we’re dealing with different scenarios and facing challenges together,” Crawford says. “You have to be willing to work long hours in harsh conditions. But you’ve got to have a good attitude and work as a team.”

The culture at Brennan revolves around safety, efficiency and innovation.

“It’s a great company to work for,” Crawford says. “And I think there’s definitely pride in what we do.”

With many multiyear projects, Brennan crews bond as they work for months in various locations across the country. Crawford says a lot of the Brennan crew members have commonalities, like a love of working outdoors. But he admits it takes a special type of person to work in the industry year after year.

“They say people in this industry are always a little bit crazy,” Crawford says. “But who knows?” 


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