The life & times of an HVAC Engineer











{July 9, 2012}   Working 9 to 5

9-5 Clock by Jonathan Aspinall Design

I get to work every day at between 7.30am & 7.45am, and leave at 4pm. I always try and leave my desk for lunch as I genuinely believe I am more effective in the afternoon if I’ve taken a break away from the office environment. Many of my colleagues work the same pattern as me. On occasion, when deadlines or site visits require it we work a few more hours. A significant proportion of my colleagues however, most of whom are in the higher echelons of seniority, work more hours than I do (more hours than they are paid for), every single day. They are an admirable, passionate, dedicated core of employees, whose sheer quantity of hours spent in the office is very impressive, and which I am sometimes a little cowed by.

These impressive folk are, to an extent, placed upon pedestals for their dedication to their work & the company. But (and I mean no disrespect with this comment, so please forgive me super-dedicated-colleagues) do they actually get any more work done than those of us who merely work our hours do? Or, is the respect they are endowed with based upon presence (and possibly stamina!) rather than a measured output. Do we even measure output, or is it just hours? More worryingly it seems that this additional ‘commitment’ is something that is not merely admired, but is something that the business has come to rely upon and expect in order to function & generate profit. Certainly it has been said to me that I will need to “give 110%” and “expect to have to give up” some of my STEM activities, which are mainly done in my own time, when I get to a senior level.

I know that beyond 8 hours I am not as effective as I am at hour 2 or 6 of the working day. It’s not just because I know I’m due to be at home, but because I’ve used up my brain’s capacity and focus for the day, I need to go home & rest, relax and eat. With the way that extra hours at the top seem to be the norm I had started to wonder if that need to rest was just me being weak and would damage my career. I did a little reading though, and it’s not just me. There are some great articles out there, this being one of them, which brilliantly summarise the research that has been done proving that workers, particularly knowledge workers, are just not as effective when working longer hours. Way back in the 1890’s employers found that by decreasing the working day to 8 hours, productivity per worker increased. Somehow we seem to have forgotten that.

I think certain industries, engineering consultancy being one of them, have an issue with machismo regarding hours worked. Also it’s a lot easier to measure hours worked than quality & quantity of work output & the impact that work has, but that’s a whole new blog post. I don’t know what the answer is though, except possibly for us dedicated “9-5ers” to infiltrate the top ranks (if such a thing is even possible!) and grow understanding around the benefits for all parties in folk only working an 8 hour day.

But until that happens, if you’re reading this in the office, past home time, then stop ‘demonstrating your company commitment’ and go & show your family & friends some commitment instead. Then come back in tomorrow morning & show how amazing you are after a good evening of rest and relaxation.

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{November 23, 2011}   Sisters are doin it for themselves

Doin' things for myself

I’ve achieved a lot over the last 28 years, and I’m very proud of it. I’ve worked really hard & done some good things. I’ve designed useful engineering solutions, been a STEM ambassador and won awards – I could very much agree with the lyrics of ‘Sisters are doin’ it for themselves’. In fact perhaps I could agree with them a little too well since even when notionally the things I’ve done have been for the good of others, it has always primarily been for my own development, my own satisfaction, my own pleasure.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, there is no way you’re going to do the best you can in academic studies for anyone but yourself. I’m reaching something of a transition point in my career and life though. I can now only achieve so much, and get so much further, if I’m doing it for me, also my bonds with those around me have grown and strengthened, so it matters more to me how well they do.

Think about it; how much time does a good senior manager spend looking after their own development compared to the development of their staff, the growth of the company or the progress of their projects? I guess some end up in that position because that’s where you must focus in order to progress, and some end up there because the development of others/projects/the company interested them more & more and their focus on this meant that they grew into the right person to promote.

Personally I love a technical challenge, and to play a part in the development of others. Those two things can also give other individuals, the company and society, the means to grow. So that (taking on a technical challenge & developing others) is what I’m going to do whenever I can, and that’s what I’m going to aim to do in the future too.

That means changes like not just being a STEM Ambassador myself, but potentially rolling it out as a means of development & motivation for more of the company, including training others in how to make the most of it. I’ve benefitted massively from the mentoring I’ve received, and from the secondment I’ve had, so I want to make sure others get those benefits too. Currently I’m creating a ‘Project Engineer’s Handbook’, and am reading the WSP University mentor training; perhaps I should also be writing some ‘Bloggers Tips’? I want a role, eventually, where I can guide our projects to technical success and our people to personal success.

All this of course comes with the caveat that I still matter, much like it’s necessary to have a good work-life balance it’s also necessary to have a good me-world balance…and in neither context does ‘good’ mean all of one & none of the other.

It feels good to finally know my own mind, and not to feel like I’m missing something obvious any more. So, onwards & upwards to see what happens when I focus my desire for progress on the people, company and industry around me!



My vision for the future of our business, & engineering generally, is to have a more engaged workforce who are excited by what they do and can share this excitement with school children to reinvigorate our communities with a thrill for what can be achieved through engineering. And I want to be a part of making that happen, that’s something I’m very passionate about.

As a separate but related fact, I am in love with being an engineer, or more specifically with telling people I’m an engineer and with the feeling I get from their reaction to that. All over the world, but particularly in countries where women are not so free to pursue a career, the level of respect and sometimes even awe, you get from saying “I’m an engineer” can be as addictive as a drug.

I am now faced with a very difficult decision. I’m coming to the end of my secondment in project engineering & I need to choose a career path. Do I go back to building services engineering, to the technical details & calculations that I enjoy, and the respect I’m addicted to, or do I stay in project engineering, with the people factors and organisation I enjoy and the potential to grow into a role where I will have the influence to shape my vision? The likelihood of me obtaining the authority and sway within the business to grow my vision on a grand scale seems much greater if I go the project engineeringproject manager – business stream manager – director route. But if I depart from being an engineer do I loose authenticity and influence in the classroom when trying to get young people being interested in being an engineer?

Another factor that clouds my decision even further is the rather negative view many people seem to hold of project managers. Whilst discussing project managers with colleagues, friends, family or even when reading other blogs you get so many comments like:

“project managers are failed engineers” “project managers don’t do anything” “project managers are useless/don’t contribute”

Now, whilst these comments are true of a few individuals, on the whole they’re not true and perhaps that’s something I’ll go into in more depth on another blog post. For now, let’s just assume that it’s a false view, but none-the-less is the opinion of project managers amongst the many of the people I know & care about as well as many of the strangers I meet. The trouble with this view existing is that I don’t know if I can bear to place that stigma upon myself…not when I’m so addicted to the drug of engineering respect, and not when I’m unsure of whether it’s right for me anyway.

So, despite time still ticking away at my secondment, I remain undecided…do I pursue my love or my vision? To be a building services engineer or to be a project engineer. That is the question.



As you may have read in my previous post about getting chartered, my goal for a very long time was to be a chartered engineer. The problem, however, with achieving goals is that you either need to have another goal lined up before you manage it, or you end up feeling a bit lost after the initial elation. It didn’t even occur to me to think about ‘what next’ before I got chartered…so I fell off a bit of a cliff in terms of knowing what I want from life. So since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want out of my career.

I had been working in building services, but due to the type of work we currently have in the business there was no immediate opportunity to move into a lead/senior role, and no new challenges on the horizon. Thankfully I’m a part of a company who recognizes my need for challenge, development and change and now I’m on secondment in project engineering in the chemical side of the business.

But, like some of the students who have just received their A-Level results, or many of the 2011 graduates, I now have the combined puzzles of ‘what do I want to do next?’ and ‘how am I supposed to figure that out?’. It’s an age old question that people ponder over time and time again through out their lives, and it’s one that certainly doesn’t have a correct answer!

For me, unlike the students picking degree courses & so on, the question is not much about what the content of my work is, or the technical subject, but what do I find rewarding about it? I know I enjoy engineering, particularly building services and particularly the process industry. I’m also enjoying a lot of what I’m doing as a project engineer, which is what makes it so hard to pick between them and to come up with some long term career goals. For me the rewards are overcoming a challenge (I love problem solving), making the world a better place (which is why I like pharmaceuticals & talking in schools) and being recognised for what I’m doing (who doesn’t appreciate a pat on the back after all).

The former two can find satisfaction in many different roles and at my level & age recognition is relatively simple. There are lots of managers I report to, or folk who are keeping an eye on what I’m doing & they can give me a pat on the back, or a thank-you/well done & that means something to me. There are also still visible promotions in reach. There are also lots of award schemes out there for people at my level. But an interesting dilemma is how do you balance out the desire to progress upwards within the company/industry with the need for recognition? The higher up you are, the less managers you have, and then the less people there are to tell you that you’ve done a good job. Again, there is no simple answer, other than that as you go up the ladder, you increasingly need to recognise your own achievements and set your own standards & goals…and there were we are back at goals again.

So when considering your future career, what will you want from it? To be a technical expert? A senior manager? To earn lots of money? To have freedom over your time & how you do your work? To have lots of interesting challenges? Do you want recognition? Will you become an entrepreneur? Is family your highest priority? Or do you really want to make the world a better place & serve society? It’s certainly worth considering as whatever it is that makes you tick, satisfying that will make you a lot happier than having picked the right academic topic to focus your career on. Perhaps that’s what school career advisors ought to be focusing on rather than which subjects to pick.

I’m happy with the subjects I picked, and I’m happy with the career I have right now, but I do need to get myself some new goals. Fortunately all the thinking I’ve been doing lately has at least allowed me to pin down what it is that I really love, and that is engagement. I really enjoy getting people excited about engineering, getting clients on board with the idea of using sustainable solutions, getting team members interested in the project work and their own career development, getting teams to be part of a positive health & safety culture and getting the company to buy into people development. All of which are about getting people & teams engaged in something, and it makes me smile. I guess many of those things can be done no matter what role I end up in, lead building services engineer, project manager or whatever else. But it would be interesting to know what roles people think would be ideal for me & my love of getting people ‘engaged’ – although if anyone says matchmaker I will not be impressed!



When I chose to do a degree in engineering I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with it, but what I hoped was that it would get me behind the scenes of the engineering feats and factories that fascinated me. I wanted to travel, see new places – especially places that the general public don’t get to see, and get an understanding of ‘how stuff works’.

Well, if that was the definition of what I wanted out of my career then last week certainly hit the nail on the head. In my new role as a Project Engineer I travelled down to Dorset to visit some of the BP sites that my company is working on.

Whilst I was there, in my high-vis orange fire retardant boiler suit, I felt like a little kid visiting Disneyland. Everything looked so exciting, from the Princesses Castle (aka the drilling rig), to the rollercoasters (all the massive lengths of pipework) and the even Animal Kingdom Park (otherwise known as the Site of Special Scientific Interest that is Furzey Island).

I loved the isolated beauty of Goathorn Peninsula, and I was really impressed by how discretely BP have hidden their wellsites amongst the landscape, having as little environmental impact as possible. It was great fun to be driven around the lovely little forest lanes to discover well sites. Once we were safely checked into them, having given up our mobile phones, cameras, cigarette lighters and anything else that could possibly act as a source of ignition, it was amazing to walk around the network of pipes each wider than my shoulders, it was also great to get up close to the big ‘nodding donkeys’ – i.e. beam pumps.

Less beautiful, but equally important and very striking was the oil terminal at Hamble. The tanks there, where they pump all the crude oil before sending it away to be refined, are absolutely immense. I mean truly enormous. The diameter of just one of these is about the same as the length of an Olympic swimming pool! In addition to this they are about twice the height of a double decker bus!

By far my favourite place of last week though was Furzey Island, anywhere you have to get on a boat to get to has to be exciting surely? I found it really quite incredible to be able to look in one direction and see a manor house, big old trees, lots of little birds and a red squirrel:

And then to turn around 180 degrees and see some of the biggest machinery I have ever seen in my life. Well you don’t get that kind of experience many times in your life. On the island one of the current projects is to re-drill and refurbish one of the existing wells to turn it into a water injection pipe. BP maintains the pressure in the oil reservoirs by replacing the oil they’ve removed with water. To enable them to do that there is currently a drilling rig on site, it looks sort of like a smaller version of the Blackpool/Eiffel/Tokyo Tower – tall with lots of structural steel! Never mind the size and height of the tower though, the amount of associated equipment it needs is stunning, especially given the size of it – just one of the tanks was probably big enough to fit my old flat in.

Yet – apart from the temporary drilling rig – unless you were looking directly at it you wouldn’t know it was there. BP have done a sterling job of creating bunds to protect the surrounding environment, keeping all of the tanks and pipework below the level of the trees, keeping machinery quiet and painting everything ‘Van Dyke Brown’. So that made it all the more of an exciting insight into this essential corner of oil drilling and production.

Yes, all of these things need to be treated with a lot of care and respect because the flammable nature of oil and gas means that you need to pay attention to the safety measures to keep things safe. But to me that just makes it all the more awesome…and I mean that in the true sense of the word, it all fills me with awe.

I feel very lucky to have my job right now, and very glad that I worked so hard to get to it!



Since getting chartered I’ve decided to play a more active role in my professional institute, CIBSE. After e-mailing the chairman of the local committee, and attending my first meeting, I’ve now been appointed the role of ‘Education Liaison Officer’ (or ELO) for CIBSE in the West Midlands. I’ve also got a seat on the committee itself.

I was only elected to the role a week ago, but since then I’ve endeavoured to get in touch with as many of the other engineering institute’s local committees as possible. Where they have one I’ve been getting in touch with other Education/School Liaison Officers, and where they don’t I’m getting in touch with the chairmen or secretaries. In less than a week I’ve already received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Every person I’ve spoken to is really enthusiastic either about sharing the knowledge and experience they already have regarding school events & engagement, or about getting involved with joint events with CIBSE. It’s so inspiring to be speaking to such passionate, interested and motivated individuals. It really makes me excited about what it may be possible to achieve together.

In my experience school pupils don’t have enough opportunities to see and hear about what engineering is, and what exciting engineering is taking place around them. Then we (that’s both ‘we’ the engineering industry, and ‘we’ British society) are surprised when not enough young people choose to pursue careers in engineering. The engineering population is aging, and unless more graduates and apprentices enter the industry we will be left with a serious lack of staff and knowledge in 10-15 years time. That’s not just my opinion, but something that companies such as Centrica are sufficiently concerned about to have commissioned surveys around the topic.

One of the ways to change things for the better is simply for engineers and engineering companies to go into schools and explain what they do, why it’s important and what is exciting about it. Hopefully in my new voluntary role as ELO (Education Liaison Officer, not Electric Light Orchestra) I’ll be able to take part in, and facilitate, lots of opportunities for students to meet engineers. Who knows, perhaps this is the start of a West Midlands movement to re-engage with schools and students and inspire a new generation of engineers…



{February 14, 2011}   At last…

I’ve not written a blog post for a while, things have been very busy with getting documents ready to issue for construction, being interviewed by Radio 4, and taking a week off to go skiing. But most significantly, to my career at least, I was preparing and attending my presentation and interview to become a Chartered Engineer and Member of CIBSE
So, for those of you who are not engineers, what does it mean to be a Chartered Engineer?

In the most basic of terms it means that you have gained the appropriate qualifications and experience to prove that you’re a competent and respectable engineer…that you can, amongst other things, innovate, negotiate and calculate. In the words of the Engineering Council UK (the body that regulates the professional competence standards):

“Chartered Engineers develop appropriate solutions to engineering problems. They may develop and apply new technologies, promote advanced designs and design methods and introduce new and more efficient production techniques, or pioneer new engineering services and management methods. The title CEng is protected by civil law and is one of the most recognisable international engineering qualifications.”

Becoming chartered can potentially mean a promotion and an increase in pay, as many companies set the bar for becoming a Senior Engineer as chartership. It means you can put letters after your name (well it’s always nice to get a higher score in scrabble), and those letters get you a certain amount of professional recognition and respect. Use it right and it can get you access to learning, get you the European title of Eur Ing (letters you can put in front of your name for recognition in more countries), improve your career prospects and give you a greater influence within the industry.

For me though, becoming Chartered is all about pride, self-respect, and hopefully shaking off some of the assumptions I get about being a secretary or ‘just a little girl’. It’s something I’ve worked very hard for since before I even started my degree. When choosing a university course one of my main criteria was that it had to be accredited by the Engineering Council as without accredited qualifications becoming chartered can be very difficult. That’s not to say it’s easy as it is of course! I worked hard through my degree and when I started work I was always careful to keep a log book and a training record. I’ve also tried to use the competency criteria that are used for assessing you for chartership as a guide for my career development. During appraisals I tended to push for opportunities that would get me the experience I needed to deepen my knowledge in areas where I was lacking.

All of that effort has made for an exciting, fast paced, and sometimes really exhausting few years. But, as I found out today, it has all been worth it as I’m now a Chartered Engineer. Hurrah!



I was asked recently, as part of the Ingenious Women project & being a STEM Ambassador, to give a talk to FE lecturers so that they can engage & motivate their own students studying STEM subjects and encourage them to consider STEM careers.

My briefing was: “You will have 15-20 minutes to talk about your own career and the barriers you had to overcome. What were/are the good things you have experienced and what inspired you to become a scientist/engineer?

I really want to do a good job with this seminar as it will enable others to inspire far more pupils than I can reach alone, so I’ve been putting a lot of thought into it. I’m sharing my answers here as they might be of interest to more folk than just the Birmingham FE lecturers. Though if if you’re from Matthew Boulton College you might want to stop here or you’ll be reading spoilers!

So what barriers have I had to overcome?
– Technical understanding: I found Further Maths very challenging at A-Level, but I’m so glad I took it because when I got to university and found I was studying the same things in the ‘Advanced Engineering Mathematics’ module it all just clicked into place in my head & suddenly it was (comparatively) easy…everyone else around me was really struggling though, so I was glad to be able to help! Engineering isn’t easy, but once the difficult bits start clicking into place it’s very interesting and personally I found the technical challenges very enjoyable.

– Sexism: Even in this day and age there is still something of an obstacle to women progressing in engineering, and as such we’re few & far between. On the whole I find it doesn’t matter to most people what my gender is, but occasionally I come across real corkers. I think my most painful memory along those lines occurred at my Grandfather’s funeral. I was in my early twenties, studying engineering at university. I was stood next to my Mother when one of my Grandfather’s old gentleman acquaintances said to her “I don’t know why you’re letting her study engineering, she’ll never get anywhere with it, she’s a girl”. To be honest though, comments like that tend to spur me on to prove them wrong rather than being a true barrier…though pay disparity can still be an issue.
– Work load: Engineering degrees, and engineering jobs, are not an easy ride, there’s a lot of work to be done. Sometimes that can be very tough, for example; when all of your friends at Uni are going out & having fun or spending time relaxing whilst you’re working away in the labs or in lectures. Even sometimes just getting up in the morning for lectures while everyone else is having a lie-in seems very unfair, but I do love the level of knowledge and respect that the hard graft has bestowed upon me.

image credit: LorenGul on IgoUgo

What are the good things I’ve experienced?
– Having a positive impact: I love opening the bathroom cabinet to get out a medicine & being able to say “I made the factory that made this” – it’s very rewarding
– Problem solving: There’s something deeply satisfying about coming up against a technical challenge & finding a good solution that everyone (from clients to construction workers) is happy with. Or spending weeks tweaking a building & all its services so it passes validation just in time for an audit! Phew – what a relief!
– Seeing interesting places & finding out how things are made: For example I really enjoyed spending time in Cadbury’s research & development labs/kitchens in Bourneville – mmm chocolatey! I’ve also had the pleasure of travelling to Paris for meetings, and heading back to the airport from a Swiss meeting via a boat trip on Lake Geneva – I do love a bit of travel, I love coming home again too, but you can’t beat an all expenses paid trip to Paris!

image credit: racecar engineering

And what on earth inspired me to become an engineer in the first place?
– My Grandfather (he wanted to be an engineer, and had a fantastic workshop in his back garden where he made the most incredible working scale models of trains, boats and traction engines, he also volunteered on the Welshpool & Llanfair light railway)
– Exciting engineering projects like Formula One, I used to watch races with my parents as a kid & I so wanted to know how it all worked
– I’ve always loved solving problems and getting my head round how things work…if I get to be creative & use some maths & physics on route then so much the better!

A few more things also confirmed to me that engineering was what I wanted to do:
– Going on a Headstart course (a week in a university engineering department)
– Older friends who were studying engineering or working as engineers (you may not like to admit it Mr. Farmer & Mr. Prestwich, for reasons of age or ego, but it’s true)
– A couple of my teachers who spoke to me about my aptitude in their subjects (maths and design technology) and encouraged me down the engineering path (thank-you Ms. Maginnis & Mr. Harrison)
– The respect that people I knew had for engineers

So that’s why I’m an engineer…what influenced your career choice(s)?



In my attempt to drag my recession-sodden career onwards and upwards I do my best to take on new challenges and take ownership of my part of a project wherever I can. Late last week was a perfect example of that, and now I suddenly find myself responsible for the ‘consequential improvements’ for the project I’m working on. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but none-the-less it did and I’m rather pleased.

The ‘consequential improvements’ (or CI) are a particularly gratifying bit of the project to be part of in my opinion. Contrary to popular belief that’s not because I’m especially fond of long words & tongue twisters, it’s because CI is all about energy savings, and I’m a big fan of sustainability.

As of 2006 Part L of the building regulations means that if you change or extend a building over 1000m2 in the UK you must spend at least 10% of your budget on making the existing building more energy efficient. That could be anything from installing solar panels, to upgrading the windows to have a better level of thermal insulation to using the waste heat from an industrial process to heat the offices, the canteen kitchens or even changing processes to eliminate the heat use altogether! I think this is a brilliant way of changing our energy gobbling grey 1970s monstrosities that we don’t have the funds to replace into lean green manufacturing machines.

So at the moment I have about £300,000 to spend, and I’m researching a huge variety of different energy saving possibilities. So far I’ve looked at using heat recovery from the compressed air, as typically 80-93% of the electricity used in compressed air is ‘wasted’ by being converted into heat, and compressed air often accounts for around 40% of a plants electricity bill – that’s a lot of wasted electricity! I’ve also been looking at using variable speed drives, these mean that when you don’t need all of a service such as hot water, steam or compressed air you can turn down the machine generating it and use less power. Think of it like using a dimmer switch to get just the right amount of light – if the light isn’t on full you’ll be saving electricity. I’m also looking at economisers, which use the heat in the exhaust gases of a boiler to pre-heat the water coming in, as well as energy efficient lighting, improved insulation and many other options.

Considering that part of the reason that manufacturing has reduced in the UK is not just labour costs but also energy costs – perhaps Part L and the Consequential Improvements (said like that it almost sounds like a band name) will not only help to save the planet but will also help to save engineering in this country!



et cetera
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