LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Tom Merrell, Lakewood Ranch's new utilities supervisor, knows the ins and outs of the 17,500-acre master-planned community very well.
He began his partnership in the early days of Lakewood Ranch, working for a landscape architect who assisted the developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, in the design of the community. Then, in 2010, Merrell joined the Inter-District Authority's Operations Department as landscape manager, a position he successfully held for three years.
The 43-year-old St. Petersburg resident and father of two, left briefly, but the lure and growth of Lakewood Ranch drew him back. Now, Merrell has assumed the newly-created position of utilities supervisor. He has hit the ground running, knee deep in a preventive maintenance assessment, the community's Irrigation Initiative, an LED streetlight changeover and other projects to help save the department and the community money.
"It's been a comfortable transition back," Merrell said during a casual interview on Thursday afternoon at the new Lakewood Ranch maintenance facility. "I have extensive knowledge of the property and the operations of Lakewood Ranch, and I know a lot of people on the neighborhood committees and the board."
His first order of business is a comprehensive preventive maintenance
evaluation of the department's assets to inspect and identify all the equipment, from irrigation piping, monitors and valves, to streetlights, their underground wiring, and the inlets where the storm water falls. Merrell plans to do this with the help of GPS monitoring technology.
"Utilities are often reactive. You don't anticipate any break in the main lines or the water lines until something happens, so what's important is to have everything ready to go in case of an emergency," Merrell stressed. "Preventive maintenance will get us out there working so a problem doesn't occur."
Merrell will begin working immediately on Phase 1 of the Lakewood Ranch Irrigation Initiative, testing the water, collecting irrigation mainline pressure readings and assisting with neighborhood water pressure analysis, which has been a sporadic problem despite the community's slight decline in water usage last month and a spike in rainfall. Lakewood Ranch's irrigation water is supplied by Braden River Utilities.
Because there are no specific standards in place to monitor a drop in water pressure district wide, the IDA is working with Manatee County to address the issue, and a suggestion has been made to switch from a battery-operated to an automatic and waterproof valve in the underground monitoring boxes so they can withstand round-the-clock operation.
"Something is going on, and it's unexplainable, but I don't know what it is," commented Alan Roth, IDA treasurer and District 1 Vice-Chairman, about water pressure issues during a meeting this week. "Hopefully, now that we have someone assigned to this, we will figure it out."
Merrell has also been given the task of researching equipment for maintaining the automatic valve turners, since there are thousands of valves to maintain in the community and they need to be working at optimum efficiency.
His to-do list also includes assisting Lakewood Ranch in what might be a future switch to energy-saving LED streetlights, which are environmentally sustainable, have an immediate payback and require little maintenance due to their long lifespan, officials said.
Merrell is considered a huge asset to Lakewood Ranch's operations team because he knows the community so intimately and has gone through the learning curve, says his boss, Ryan Heise, operations director.
"Tom likes new challenges, and he's extremely organized, so he's the man who can manage our assets and make all that yet-to-be-compiled information usable."
"Ultimately, what I like is making a difference," Merrell said when asked about his return. "If some of my ideas are implemented, I will get fulfillment in that."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.