A Camera Became This Operator's Key Tool for Keeping Plant Equipment Well Maintained

Paul Crocker makes photography an integral part of asset management programs that keep water utility facilities functioning reliably and efficiently.

A Camera Became This Operator's Key Tool for Keeping Plant Equipment Well Maintained

Paul Crocker trained staff at the Nearman Water Treatment  Plant to use photography to aid troubleshooting and help others understand mechanical equipment.

It’s said a picture is worth 1,000 words. To Paul Crocker, a picture can be worth 1,000 operations and maintenance details critical to troubleshooting and maintaining important process equipment.

Crocker, formerly with the Kansas City (Kansas) Board of Public Utilities and since January 2022 a senior reliability engineer with ReliabilityX, has used photography extensively to document critical information about thousands of assets in the drinking water treatment process and distribution pumping stations. 

For that work, he won an Uptime Award at The International Maintenance Conference in 2016. “Taking pictures serves as a living notebook,” he says. “Photos are a significant improvement over written descriptions, which often are too general and not detailed enough.”

Crocker is more than a photographer. He combines a passion for water with a deep interest and grasp of asset management and maintenance systems. He is also an expert in software used by utilities and industrial organizations to improve reliability and reduce costs.

George Williams, CEO of ReliabilityX, observes, “Paul is a hero to all of us who have a passion for reliability. No one in my professional career has inspired me more than Paul to pursue excellence. He has driven change without fear, while learning to ask for help when needed. He is reliability in action.”

FULFILLING CAREER

Crocker has lived his entire life in the Kansas City area. In 1987 he completed a two-year certification program in automotive machine shop and parts at Kansas City Area Vocational Technical School, now part of Kansas City Community College. He learned the auto parts business and how to rebuild internal combustion engines at the same time.

He started at the Kansas City BPU in the 1990s, working in the micrographics and central supply departments. In 2003 he completed a bachelor’s degree in network and communications management at DeVry University, and then joined the staff at the utility’s Nearman Water Treatment Plant. He earned water treatment plant operator certification at Fort Scott Community College in 2006 and now holds Class IV Water Treatment Operator certification.

The Nearman Water plant draws water from the Missouri River aquifer into two of the country’s largest Ranney horizontal collector wells (Layne). Completed in May 2000, the plant can deliver 72 mgd to more than 55,000 customer connections. The facility has received a Gold Award for performance and reliability from the AWWA and has maintained its Partnership for Safe Water Directors Award since 2009.

At Nearman, Crocker quickly moved up to positions in operations, maintenance and management while continuing his education. At the University of Kansas, he received a certificate in maintenance management in 2012. He is also recognized as a Certified Reliability Leader by the Association of Maintenance Professionals and a Class III plant maintenance technologist by the Association of Boards of Certification, among other achievements.

His most recent assignment at the Nearman plant was supervisor of maintenance, leading a staff in inspection, repair, and overhaul of all control, mechanical, chemical feed, electrical and instrumentation equipment.

He was responsible for a $1.5 million annual budget, supervising safe handling of chemicals, writing specifications for new equipment and services, and administering and maintaining the plant’s enterprise asset management system. 

THE GADGET MAN

Steve Nirschl, director of water processing at BPU, went to grade school with Crocker and was part of the team that hired him. He calls Crocker the Gadget Man because of his interest in cameras and computers and his love of keeping track of work orders and assets.

“He liked taking pictures of projects and equipment as a way of implementing inventory processes and working them into the maintenance management system software,” says Nirschl.

Loyalty and dedication are Crocker’s strengths, Nirschl says: “He challenged those around him. Getting others to change can be challenging but Paul was a strong example for other utilities. He put us way out front of everybody else. The things he put in place will be here for a long time.”

Meanwhile, Crocker sought out opportunities to write and present about technology, computerized maintenance and water. In a 2017 LinkedIn post he asked readers to imagine a day without water.

“A day without water means no water comes out of your tap to brush your teeth,” he wrote. “When you flush the toilet, nothing happens. Firefighters have no water to put out fires; farmers couldn’t water their crops; and doctors couldn’t wash their hands.

“A single nationwide day without water service would put $43.5 billion of economic activity at risk. In just eight days, a national water service stoppage would put nearly 2 million jobs in jeopardy. A day without water is nothing short of a humanitarian, political and economic crisis.”

Efforts like those helped him earn a 2021 Operator Meritorious award from the Kansas Section AWWA.

MANAGING ASSETS

It’s not hard to understand Crocker’s affinity for EAM systems. His early certification in engine repair and parts and his time in the storeroom at the water plant prepared him perfectly for the advent of the EAM in the mid- to late 1990s. The Nearman plant opened in 2000, and along with new treatment equipment it implemented an EAM system running on the Maximo platform.

Crocker soon became an expert in the system’s ability to replace disparate systems, simplify team management, reduce costs, increase plant safety, improve inventory control and reduce maintenance costs.

“Water utilities must live within their means,” Crocker says. “An EAM is critical to helping them do that, because it keeps an accurate asset and location hierarchy, which is especially important when writing work orders. It lets the utility know what assets they have and where they have them, and enables them to plan and schedule preventive maintenance work.”

He adds that the system records when assets were purchased and contains vendor information, bill of materials and parts information. “Additionally, if the utility has done the work to set a criticality ranking on assets and put that data into the system, then the EAM can help direct maintenance work toward the most critical assets with the highest priority first. It can even help to justify increased headcount of both maintenance and operations staff.”

One things Crocker likes about Maximo is its wide use and flexibility. “There is always someone out there who has an answer for your technical question,” he says. “It is nimble enough that it can be configured by an administrator to match almost any business process without needing customized Java code. It can share information with other enterprise systems. It works across all modern web browsers, mobile devices and even cellphones in connected or disconnected states.”

A NEW CHALLENGE

His recent move to ReliabilityX seems like a perfect fit. The company focuses on improving the reliability of clients’ plants by offering training, tools and services. “I’m helping clients improve their business practices, and helping with coaching and mentoring,” Crocker says.

That includes training in areas like asset management best practices; maintenance management, planning and scheduling; predictive maintenance; and more. “I’ll be doing site assessment against our reliability framework, which includes assessments of maintenance, operations, engineering and reliability,” he says.

He’s working with a wide range of industries — food processors, universities, water and wastewater plants and power plants — which depend heavily on smart maintenance and asset management systems. Utilities remain a priority: “We have one wastewater client we’re working with now, and we hope to work with a drinking water utility in the very near future.”

POWER IN PICTURES

He hasn’t forgotten about photography. In his tenure at the Nearman plant he trained staff to use photography to troubleshoot and to help others understand mechanical equipment. Early on he used a 35 mm camera, but he now uses his cellphone: “It’s amazing the power of a modern cellphone. It’s always in your pocket and can take lots and lots of pictures.”

He used to have maintenance staff take photos of assets and nameplates, but their first attempts often turned out blurry or lacked the right perspective. He developed training to help them address the issues he was seeing, and their next photos were better. Lighting, composition and a steady hand on the camera are keys to taking good pictures, he says.

“I was looking for different views, the nameplate and model number, as well as the surroundings of the equipment — good composition of the scene. Having accurate nameplate information is really helpful in ordering replacement parts.”

He continues to employ the practice. In his new job he uses photography to verify the existence of assets so they can be put into an asset hierarchy for a new asset management system. “I always recommend using photography to help improve practices, for reporting on asset condition, for defect elimination, and for single-point lesson exercises for operators,” he says.

“I plan on writing a book on photography for maintenance and physical asset management, and I hope that’s something I can get done this year or next year.”

THE PERSONAL SIDE

Crocker has been married for 32 years and has three children and two grandchildren. He says nothing he has done in his professional life would have been possible without the help and support of his wife Michelle: “She’s the reliability engineer for my family!”

He enjoys MLS Soccer and watching his hometown team, Sporting Kansas City. The team won the 2013 MLS Cup, and Crocker was able to get the trophy on site at the Nearman plant for a day.

He’s just as big a fan of career opportunities in water. “Water and wastewater utilities are among the most economically stable industries out there,” he says. “They are absolutely critical to public health. Our water operators are the best. They are essential workers and very much deserve recognition and good pay for the work they do, providing the water we all need.”

Reflecting on his career, he emphasizes learning and development: “Every day presents new opportunities and challenges. Accept them, learn from them, grow, and bring others along with you. Be well prepared, never stop learning, and share all you’ve learned.”

Just as he has done.  



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