The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

It was an interesting summer, work-wise. There were so many projects that are at the front-end study or concept design stage that it has meant I’ve had the opportunity to get involved in lots of different types of projects. There’s been food, pharma and waste, large & small scale, clean and dirty. Plus, not only has there been plenty an opportunity to be involved in different areas of industry but also in different aspects of projects, everything from proposals, calculations & design reports to research, bid analysis and costing. So, in terms of loving new experiences and job variety it has been a brilliant summer.

But (well it’d be a bit of a dull post without a but…no-one can take *that* much sunshine & lollipops), the trouble with summer is that due to holidays, taken by the client, senior management and members of project teams, workload can be very disjointed. Clients take longer to take decisions as they’re never all in the same place at the same time, which can mean that the wait between project phases can take a while. With senior management on holiday too it can mean that during workload dips (or peaks for that matter) there is no-one to turn to for some assistance balancing the load. Colleagues’ holidays can also give rise to workload peaks as you dive in to cover their absence. Now a certain amount of those peaks & troughs have to be accepted as a way of life, they say the course of true love never runs smooth and I think the same is true of engineering.

There are few things I dislike more than being bored in the office, so the quieter times this summer have had me thinking about how we could balance things out better. Part of the problem, I think, is the incurable fact that everyone works at a different pace. Projects however are planned, and resources scheduled, on the basis that a report will take X days & a drawing will take Y hours. I don’t see a way of getting away from that, you have to use averages to make long term plans. But what about the weekly or even daily plan? When the project workload is fluctuating notably on a short term basis is there a way we could react faster to individual’s workload fluctuations so that those who are snowed under could rapidly be assisted by those who are twiddling their thumbs? In my mind’s eye I envisage gauges hovering mystically over people’s heads displaying how busy they are. A slightly less far fetched, but still probably far distant, version is perhaps some kind of mass log of individual’s to-do lists with all the deliverables assigned to them. This would be accessible to all so that if you’re getting low you can pro-actively offer help to those with a list as long as their leg. I know neither of these solutions can be implemented with any immediacy, but I do think there must be a way, in a workplace full of dedicated pro-active people, of balancing workload that doesn’t leave senior management constantly spinning plates.

In places like air traffic management there have been studies using measures like ‘instantaneous self assessment of workload’. In that incredibly fast-paced & stressful situation it’s more about ensuring no-one has so much work that they give themselves a heart attack or direct planes into one another. On a smaller scale though maybe there is something to be learnt from such vastly different workplaces, we’ll only be avoiding a site clash rather than a plane crash perhaps, but this is surely still of value. I wish I had a bright idea about implementation to conclude this blog, particularly as I’d love to see the pressure taken off some of my more frazzled colleagues, but I don’t – any ideas from you wonderful folk would be much appreciated though!


{November 8, 2010}   Is this thing switched on?

In the facility I am currently working on, part of the process is to spray the product with a fine mist of 70% Isopropyl Alcohol, ‘IPA’. As you can imagine, that poses something of a hazard. To paint a picture of how much of a hazard, here are a couple of facts:

Lower Explosive Limit of IPA = 2%
[i.e. only 2% of the air volume needs to be IPA for it to still be flammable]

Flash Point of IPA = 12oC
[i.e. the room temperature only needs to be 12oC for the gas to vaporise & be ignitable]

Image credit: bruce7 from istockphoto

So, as it’s critical to spray the product with this hazardous substance, how do you go about making sure the operators don’t get blown up? Well there are a variety of different ways, so to name just a few;

  • Minimise the amount of spray used
  • Ensure all equipment within the hazardous zone created is safe for that environment (i.e. it is non-sparking / intrinsically safe / ATEX rated)
  • Provide extract ventilation to keep the amount of IPA in the room below the lower explosive limit

Well as a building services engineer, and thus a designer of ventilation systems the latter is the most relevant to me. So off I went & designed the ventilation to remove the IPA and protect the operators. Brilliant, Chloe saves the day…just one problem though…how do we know it’s working? And if it’s not working, how do we stop the machine from continuing to spray IPA into the room? Aah. Yes. Well…best do something about that hadn’t we.

So to make sure the machine doing the spraying knows that it’s safe to spray, we’ve included a flow sensor in the extract duct. The machine receives a signal from the sensor to say there is air flow, and then it can safely spray the product with IPA. We can all breath (an IPA free) sigh of relief. But no…what if the sensor is broken?! Okay guys…we’re getting into double jeopardy here, but as it’s for safety then the more the merrier, what do you suggest?

A couple of process engineers later and to ensure we have a double layer of protection to check the ventilation is working we are installing a sensor on the fan motor – that way we know it’s running. If the fan motor isn’t running then you know it’s not safe to spray the IPA.

I can’t help but thinking though, just because the fan motor is running doesn’t mean that there is extract ventilation…the fan or drive shaft could be broken. A little bit of me thinks that a few ribbons (perhaps that’s giving way to my girly side though) around the ventilation intake would be a visible indicator of the extract working that could never give a false signal. It would be reliant on the operators stopping the machine from spraying though, as ribbons can’t give a signal directly to the machine!

Image credit: The Seattle Times

{September 22, 2010}   5, 4, 3, 2, 1…lift off!

Today I attended the launch of the European Construction Institute (ECI) People Taskforce. It was started after the ECI “Futures Taskforce” identified that people and collaboration are, and will continue to be, vital to the future success not only of the engineering construction industry but also to society as a whole. It was decided after that, to conclude the Futures Taskforce by starting two new ones; People & Collaboration. I’ve been one of the 6 or so core team members since the People Taskforce first began back in spring 2010.
It has been an interesting journey so far, defining the remit of the Taskforce, and doing some research into what is already taking place. It was this research in fact that lead me to getting involved with Engineers Without Borders, and the local colleges’ Engineering diplomas as well as finding out about the Ingenious Women project that lead to me starting this blog.

Our final decision on the remit of the People Taskforce was to identify best practise, create new knowledge and support its use in order to:-
attract and recruit people
train and develop people
appraise and reward people
in the European engineering construction industry to enable the effective delivery of projects.

Today though the Taskforce really spread its wings by engaging with various organisations, from employers at all stages in the supply chain, to academic institutes, training providers and of course STEMNET. It was fantastic to be in a room full of people who all care about attracting people into engineering/construction and then training and developing them. It’s very motivating to know how much interest there is in making sure companies are following best practise when it comes to getting the right person into a role and them making them the best that they can be. It’s also very inspiring to be part of a team of people who have had some very interesting experiences in their engineering careers (like being a female project manager on site in Saudi Arabia).

The day consisted of sharing the story so far, including the results of some research into project management continuing professional development, sharing some examples of best practise, and then essentially brainstorming about what the issues really are. This brainstorming was then distilled through further discussion into a few priority issues, and some ideas on how the attendees wanted the ECI People Taskforce to address these issues so we have an agenda for the year to come. I’ll share exactly what the agenda is once its been published, but I was certainly pleased to see that one of the priority issues we’ll be addressing is how to attract more young people into engineering construction. So, keep a look out for ECI member companies sending STEM Ambassadors or mentors to a school near you…or possibly even offering work experience places if you (or a teenager you know) want one!

et cetera
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