From Wings to Water

Eden Prairie’s Kevin Horgan made a fast transition from helicopter and airliner mechanic to leading a high-performing water treatment plant maintenance team.
From Wings to Water
Kevin Horgan shows off the new chlorine solution delivery system from Chlorinators that was put in place under his watch.

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When Kevin Horgan's career took a sudden detour, he wasted little time getting back on track. A little over six years ago, a strike cost him his job as an avionics mechanic with a Minneapolis-based airline.

Today, he leads the maintenance team at the water treatment plant in Eden Prairie, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb. He and three colleagues — two of them also former airline mechanics — take care of the city's 28 mgd (design) lime softening/filtration plant.

Horgan leads the team with a strong sense of pride and with gratitude for a city that took him on despite his lack of water treatment and utility experience and allowed him to move quickly up through the ranks. The arrangement has been mutually beneficial: Horgan has built a new career, and the city now has a team capable of handling most maintenance and repairs with far less reliance on outside vendors.

Surprising as it might seem, Horgan's background in avionics for airliners and U.S. Marine Corps helicopters has translated well to servicing the water treatment plant's equipment and systems.

Trained on aircraft

Horgan grew up in the Bronx — his father was an FBI special agent stationed in New York City. When Horgan was 13, his father passed away, and his mother moved the family back to her home state of Massachusetts. Horgan graduated from high school in Danvers, Mass., and joined the U.S. Marines in 1980.

For a year he studied at the Marines' avionics (aviation electronics) school in Millington, Tenn. He then spent four years at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, working on CH-53 heavy-lift helicopters used for ferrying cargo and troops, and UH-1N helicopters used for tasks including reconnaissance and carrying small groups of Marines in-and-out of combat.

After leaving the service, Horgan studied for two years at East Coast Aero Technical School in Lexington, Mass., earning a graduation certificate and Federal Aviation Administration Airframe Maintenance and Power Plant Maintenance licenses. "Those licenses essentially mean anything that flies, I am allowed to work on," he says.

In 1987, he took a position with Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis, staying for 18 years until the September 11 terror attacks sent the airline industry into turmoil. Ultimately his union went on strike, and he never returned to the airline.

"Minneapolis was a maintenance hub for Northwest, and about 10,000 mechanics were now unemployed, so there weren't a lot of people beating down the door to hire me," Horgan recalls.

"I found out that Eden Prairie had an opening for a heavy equipment mechanic. I put in for that job and didn't get it, but they looked at my qualifications and asked if they could put my application in for a utility maintenance job. I said, 'Sure.' It was in the maintenance field. It was up my alley. They called me for an interview, I did well, and they hired me as an entry-level utility maintenance technician."

Mister fix-it

In that role he was part of a crew taking care of the water distribution system and storm and sanitary sewers. It didn't take long for his skills to get noticed. "The radio in the city garage wasn't working as it should," Horgan recalls. "And somebody said, 'You've worked with radios. Can you fix this?' And I fixed it.

"And then someone said the pendant control for operating one of our crane trucks remotely needed to be rewired. I rewired it. Almost every time something broke, they pointed it out to me, and I started to fix everything." City leaders took notice, and after 14 months he was promoted to the water treatment plant's lead maintenance technician slot. Along the way he earned his Minnesota Class C water treatment license and is now working toward his Class B certification.

His team members are maintenance technicians Michael Comeans, Ronald Lundberg (both former aviation maintenance mechanics), and Dustin Bones, a U.S. Army veteran with a background in motorcycle maintenance.

Together, they care for a plant that on average delivers 22 mgd to the city's 60,000 residents (18,000 service connections). Groundwater from the Prairie du Chien and Jordan aquifers goes through lime softening, coagulation, pH controls, dual-media filtration, and disinfection. Three water towers provide pressure for distribution through 265 miles of water mains.

Driven by a philosophy

"The first time I walked through this plant, I remember thinking two things: This place is huge, and this place is immaculate," Horgan recalls. "It was reminiscent of walking into a Marine Corps barracks on inspection day. It was just beautiful."

He has strived not just to keep it that way but to make it even better. "I try to run a professional department," he says. "I want my team members to be technically proficient. I want them to be good troubleshooters and problem solvers. We don't just make repairs. We train. We hold regular training seminars where we get together and look at certain complex systems. As a group we'll go through these systems, how we would troubleshoot them for different kinds of breakages, and brainstorm ways to keep downtime to a minimum."

Not long ago, he took part in a LEAP Academy (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) presented for the city by Dakota County Technical College. It included an exercise in which Horgan was asked to write down what he would say to his subordinates if leaving for an extended time, to remind them what he valued as a leader and would want them to carry on in his absence. His response spells out his approach to leadership:

1. Place the highest priority on not interrupting the flow of water through our facility — especially due to our maintenance actions.

2. Finish today's projects today. If completion today is not possible, the project automatically becomes tomorrow's highest priority.

3. No individual in our department is finished with his work until everyone in our department is finished with our work.

4. Seek consensus on your courses of action before setting out to make a repair. ("Collaboration produces better results than any one person can produce," Horgan adds.)

5. Take personal responsibility for others' safety on the job. Remind each other often to use your personal protective equipment, call someone if you need help, and please be careful.

6. Hold morning briefings to establish the plan of the day.

7. Hold each other accountable for each person's individual actions on behalf of the department, bearing in mind that our personal reputations and the department's reputation are one and the same.

He also promotes a culture of mutual respect: "I don't tolerate petty rivalries. I don't tolerate any coarse language. We look at the work as professionals. We address each other professionally. We do things to affirm each other. I try to discourage those small nuisances that can turn into bigger things."

Transferring skills

With that foundation, Horgan and his team have set out to diversify their skills and gain the ability to handle the vast majority of maintenance and repairs in-house. The maintenance department was reorganized early in Horgan's tenure, and as a result his team members are his own hires.

"One thing I tried to do — as we needed people, I made it a policy that whoever we brought in would need to have some industrial science skills," Horgan says. "They would need to have completed an associate degree in some sort of a maintenance discipline.

"Our systems include electrical, mechanical and pneumatic devices. We've got pumps, piping, slakers, chemical feed equipment — we have quite a lot of equipment and building infrastructure that needs maintenance.

"Our biggest challenge, with our varied backgrounds, was to take what we knew and apply it to this industry. Actually, a lot of things in our backgrounds dovetailed very nicely with water treatment. In aircraft, a lot of flight-control surfaces are controlled using pneumatics and hydraulics, and it's the same with a lot of our valving in the plant. The industrial science principles we learned in the airline industry are the exact same principles that apply in the water industry."

More self-reliance

"It's a matter of getting familiar with new equipment," Horgan says. "We take full advantage of the maintenance manuals. We take advantage of Google and other Internet resources. Then we bring our unique qualities to the table from our backgrounds, and we can accomplish an awful lot of things that we used to farm out to vendors.

"For example, we used to farm out a lot of the controls and troubleshooting of our 4-20 mA systems. We made some equipment investments, and we do that kind of troubleshooting ourselves now. We have a signal generator we can use to test our building wiring. We can induce 4-20 mA signals to make sure our SCADA system is reading properly. We've got meters that can glean the 4-20 mA signals generated by our equipment, and they help us troubleshoot those systems without calling outside vendors.

"We do a lot of pump overhauls that used to get farmed out. We've got the equipment and expertise not just to rebuild a pump but to improve the mean time before failure. No one stewards equipment better than an in-house maintenance staff. I'm convinced of that."

In one instance, the team was struggling with rime ice formation on the exhaust outlets of the plant's four dual-diaphragm, air-operated sludge pumps. "Moisture in the air, combined with the local temperature drop around the muffler, formed ice that would impede the exhaust, so that the efficiency of the pump would suffer," Horgan recalls.

Bones came up with a solution: placing the exhaust outlets under water. The team plumbed a simple tank about half-filled with water so that the air exhausts into a manifold at the bottom. A small stock tank heater keeps the water from freezing.

"We tested it out, and it eliminated the rime ice," says Horgan. "But it also took the decibels in the room down from about 120 to about 75. The water provides just a hint of backpressure, so that when the stroke of the pump gets to the extreme left or right, it doesn't slam into a hard stop. It gently hits its stop before it strokes back the other way.

"So we got a threefold benefit. We eliminated the rime ice, reduced exhaust noise in the room, and increased the mean time before failure on the pump."

Ever improving

For the future, Horgan looks forward to taking advantage of a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) from Novotx that the Utility Division is phasing in this year. Horgan's goal is for the team to deliver an optimum combination of inspections and planned maintenance to prevent equipment issues, and broad and deep skills to correct issues that occur.

To that end, team members are teaching each other their respective specialties during lunch-hour sessions. "We all share our insights that make us special in any one area, so that we all grow together," Horgan says. "That way we're not hamstrung if I'm not here on a given day and there's an electrical problem that needs troubleshooting, and we're not hamstrung if someone with a different specialty is on vacation for two weeks. We're all equally versed in most of the equipment. It has taken time to get to that point, but we were deliberate in making that happen.

"It goes a long way when you have your own maintenance staff and they have the time to really look at the equipment. You can really effect some serious change in the way your plant operates."

Praise from the top

Rick Wahlen, manager of utilities for Eden Prairie, calls Horgan an employee who "performs about two levels above his pay grade. He and his team, with the skills they brought to our plant, have saved us enough money by doing work internally to offset the cost of adding an employee to the staff.

"Kevin also creatively finds ways to locate spare parts by working with local machine shops to fabricate items for which otherwise we would incur long lead times and high costs. When Kevin looks at a piece of equipment, he's not simply interested in fixing what's wrong.

"He's interested in applying his knowledge to understand its purpose and how the entire system is supposed to function, so he can repair it in the best way possible. He is living proof that there can be considerable value in bringing skilled people from outside the water industry into our world."


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