Quietly Capable

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities’ Don Gariepy humbly excels as a mechanic while building skills and furthering his education toward an engineering career.
Quietly Capable

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Former football coach Lou Holtz could have been talking about Don Gariepy when he said, "Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it."

Since June 2007, Gariepy has worked for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Utility Department (CMUD) as a mechanic at the Franklin Water Treatment Plant. In that time, he has turned strong mechanical aptitude, a can-do spirit and commitment to serve others into an award-winning career. He was named 2010 City Employee of the Year for his work at the plant and his support for troubled young people.

"Don is dedicated to continuous improvement and has earned a reputation for going above and beyond, both off and on the clock," says Barry Gullet, CMUD Director. "He's passionate about his job and is committed to helping others improve so they are at their best. Don successfully completed some of the most technical preventive maintenance courses offered and has taken a leading role to implement process changes that have saved the city money and materials."

Solving problems

A 48-year-old city tradition, the City Employee of the Year award acknowledges an employee whose efforts, ideas, suggestions and courtesy merit special recognition. Gariepy prefers to deflect the praise: "I attribute the things I've gotten credit for to the leadership here in Franklin. They're the ones who've driven the way things get done. I've just been able to do it."

Maybe, but Gariepy does just about everything maintenance-wise at the 62-year-old, 181 mgd water treatment plant. For example, he installed new machined valves in the plant's air compressor system, ensuring that there will be less exhaust air when the valves are positioning between opened and closed. The system reduces the amount of exhaust air produced, and that saves money, since the plant doesn't waste energy by running compressors unnecessarily.

The plant uses actuators that hold open the position of the modulating air valves that control the filters. Although they're continually fed air, the valves leaked a fair amount of exhaust air. So, the leadership team came up with a design that reduces the amount of exhaust that escapes, then took the valves to a machine shop where they were re-machined and honed to a completely different shape.

"We're still using the same type of valves that have been around about 100 years," explained Gariepy. "But instead of replacing them, we found a way to machine them and make them more efficient."

Outside the box

Before joining CMUD, Gariepy worked as a machinist for 12 years at five companies, the latest being Mid-State Machine in Mt. Ulla, N.C. Each job involved programming and operating milling machine tools. He began his professional training in Meadville, Pa. (Tool City USA), at the Precision Manufacturing Institute.

During his interview with CMUD, officials asked him to consider finishing his bachelor's degree, since he had already earned a two-year degree in manufacturing engineering. He enthusiastically agreed, and in 2011 got his degree in mechanical engineering technology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Gariepy points out that his employer has generously allowed him to further his education. "I've been fortunate since I started here," he says. "The city has been flexible with my hours, so I've been able to work full time and take classes when I need to."

Water treatment was a new world altogether, and he looked at it as a challenge. Besides, having been laid off three times in private industry, he found the water business more secure and stable.

In his first two years on the job, Gariepy shadowed the Franklin plant's chief mechanic, Mike Miller, who showed him how to do oil analysis, vibration analysis and other predictive maintenance. Gariepy has done laser aligning of pumps, repaired motors, and pulled apart and fixed large vertical pumps.

Part of his job also involves working with his boss, maintenance manager Terry Homan, on getting purchase orders written and coordinating contractors on projects too big for the Franklin plant's six-member crew to handle. Gariepy takes bids, evaluates them, then coordinates orders and parts, making sure the contractors have what they need to do the job. He's been able to juggle these tasks around his schooling and regular duties by doing much of the work using email, phone or Internet.

'Gi-normous' equipment

Maintenance wasn't really Gariepy's interest, but he had run lathes and mills in his previous jobs and had to do his own cleanup and repair. He had never done anything in the realm of pumps and motors, especially with what he calls the "gi-normous" pumps at the Catawba River pumping station. The pumps at the river station push water uphill four miles to one of the city's largest treatment plants. The Franklin Water Treatment Plant is the largest of the three plants where Gariepy works.

Being certified to work on all of the plant's pumps and motors, he monitors their inboard and outboard bearings and does trend data tracking. Since the predictive maintenance program began 20 years ago, there hasn't been a catastrophic failure because the maintenance team can track the bearings and change them out if need be.

Gariepy and his team stay plenty busy maintaining pipes from 6 inches up to 10 feet, plus all the other equipment vital to keeping the water flowing to North Carolina's largest metropolitan area, with a 2010 population of 1.7 million. "We have more than 4,000 miles of water distribution main in the ground, and Charlotte's system adds about 100 miles of pipe every year through development and annexation," he says. "Our growth slowed in recent years but it sure hasn't stopped," he says.

The Maintenance Department runs lean. It consists of eight mechanics, a chief mechanic and a maintenance manager. Typically, three two-member crews run maintenance at the three water treatment plants, six booster stations and 12 elevated tank sites. Gariepy and his co-workers monitor and maintain about 2,500 pieces of equipment in the system. They work 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week and are on call on weekends.

The utility's divisions are organized as Water Treatment, Lab Services, Environmental Management (wastewater treatment), Field Operations (maintains water and sewer lines), Engineering, Administration and Customer Service. Field Operations works with Water Treatment, Engineering and Lab Services to isolate and repair leaking or broken lines, then flush and chlorinate the pipe before bringing it back into service.

Keeping it flowing

The system features significant built-in redundancy. If a booster station is taken offline, crews can open and close different valves to provide water from elsewhere. And, if a pump goes down, there is another next to it to take up the slack. Such backups are essential for an agency serving more than 788,000 customers daily.

"There are a lot of people depending on us for clean drinking water," observes Gariepy. "That's one thing I like about the water treatment business. You can take a lot of pride in your job. When we have an emergency, it's usually due to weather — an ice storm or hurricane. When Hurricane Hugo came through, a lot of utilities were knocked out. I feel good that while the electricity and natural gas might not have worked, people in Charlotte still didn't lose their water. I think that's pretty cool."

As for the Employee of the Year award and the accolades that went with it, Gariepy takes it all in stride. He feels grateful for the opportunity to work at the Franklin plant. "It's a great place to work, a great atmosphere," he says. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We just keep it going.

"The City of Charlotte has an excellent tuition reimbursement program and is committed to training and retaining employees. Right now, I'm comfortable as plant mechanic working in the Maintenance Department. When the right position opens, I'll be ready to apply my engineering degree."

His humility and dedication to service bring to mind another quote, this one from former President Harry Truman, who said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit."


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