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 Company, Inc. (Brennan), a 100-year-old marine construction contractor out of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“We get the Hitachis working out on the water,” said 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 said. As for his interest in the work, he said, “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 excavators. Their maiden voyage consisted of working from barges, dredging and backfilling sediments on over a 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 clean-up projects where time is of the essence.
“Having a machine that has very little downtime is crucial for us,” Crawford said. “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.”
Versatility to reach the river bottom. Efficiency for the bottom line.
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 Manufacturing to modify the machines and with Hitachi dealer Nortrax on the order.
“Each machine is equipped with aftermarket long reach fronts and additional counterweight,” said 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 said. “The more reach a machine has means 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 said.
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 said. “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 an ease of transportation along with these modifications was paramount.
“The versatility is huge for us,” Crawford said. “Having a machine we can transport quickly, and get it 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.”
The importance of reliability.
With each modification made to the machines, they become more specialized. They also become irreplaceable.
“For a typical earth-moving contractor, if their machine goes down, they 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 said. “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 clean-up jobsites. 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 said. “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 said. “The ability for a machine to handle the wear and tear of cold weather and harsh conditions is crucial for us.”
Hard work and pride
You can 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 said. “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 said. “And I think there’s definitely pride in what we do.”
With many multi-year projects, Brennan crews bond as they work for months in various locations across the country. Crawford said a lot of the Brennan crew have commonalities, like a love of working outdoors. But he did admit that 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 smiled. “But who knows?”
J.F. Brennan Company, Inc. is serviced by Nortrax Inc., New York.