The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{October 5, 2010}   What’s behind door number 3?

As I’ve said on this blog before, it’s really important to keep pharmaceutical facilities clean. That means that when they are in production you can’t take down any of the ceiling tiles, and if you take one down outside of production hours then there must be a full clean down afterwards…which can take as long as 3 days, which is a lot of expensive lost production time. That might not sound like a particularly big problem, after all how often do you need to take a ceiling tile down? If you design the facility well, and keep items requiring maintenance out of the ceiling void wherever possible then there’s usually no need. Until you decide to refurbish or upgrade the facility that is. “What’s the problem with that?” I hear you cry – “Surely if you’re carrying out a refurb you’re going to stop production & take down the ceiling tiles anyway?!”. The problem is with doing the design.

Of course most facilities have “as-built” drawings of all the services that are in the ceiling void, so you should already know what is up there, and that is what you base your design around. More often than not though, until production is stopped and construction begins there are no opportunities for a full survey and there are almost always a few surprises along the way. Sometimes it’s little things like a cable tray where you didn’t expect one, sometimes the ducts or pipes have taken a slightly different route than is shown on the drawings. Or perhaps you just can’t find the smoke detectors, or the control panel for the doors. All of these things result in needing to tweak your designs, and tweak them fast…you probably have 3 months worth of work to fit into a 6 week shutdown (if you’re lucky) and now your lovely, simple, quick to install designs are out of the window.
That though, for me, is when things get exciting, I love a bit of a challenge, I enjoy solving problems…and when the team pulls together, and everyone from the client, to the contractor and ourselves in between is trying to make something new work as quickly as possible it’s actually quite a thrill. It’s even more pleasing when your fast maths and new layouts are being approved, then installed and before you know it you’re watching them operating successfully.

Yesterday morning the unexpected find revealed was an entire fan coil unit, moving over one thousand metres cubed of air each hour. By the afternoon I was busily working on the maths for a new solution, this morning the layouts were completed, now I’m working on client approval and getting contractor buy-in. It may only be a matter of days before the design is being installed, and right now I have a huge smile on my face.


{September 28, 2010}   Reasons to be picky, one, two, three

We’ve all been there, stood in a shop we’re bored of, next to someone we normally care about but right now is driving us up the wall, wondering when we’ll be able to leave….all because someone likes that chair but thinks it’s not quite right because they’d like it to have a straighter back, or a lamp paler shade, or a heavier door knocker or more stripy wallpaper…or some other tiny detail that you think is utterly unnecessary but they’ve become obsessive over.

If you’ve ever thought that your parents, wife, flatmate or anyone else taking on some interior design were being overly pedantic when picking an item have you ever discussed with them why that detail is quite so important to them? It may be that they’ve got spinal problems so need a very upright seat, or are struggling to see well enough their evening hobby of embroidery so need a brighter light, or they’ve started to go a little deaf so need a door knocker that makes a louder noise. Or perhaps it’s just that they really like stripes…or have low ceilings that they want to appear higher.

You see sometimes it’s the very fine details of an interior that are the most important aspects of the design as a whole. I’m currently working on a pharmaceutical project, and we’ve gotten to the stage of selecting the “finishes”, and it’s a very prolonged process over which people are very exacting. That’s not because we’re working with fussy people who want a precise shade of magnolia to match their cream leather sofas, it’s because the finishes in a pharmaceutical facility play a vital role in its cleanliness. Of course there are many other aspects, such as good air-conditioning systems supplying well filtered air, good control systems and well trained staff, to name but a few but right now I’m working on finishes.

When you’re talking about whether a wall covering, flooring or ceiling tile contains crevices in which dirt can gather it suddenly becomes very important to specify exactly the right product so that you know you’re manufacturing in a truly clean environment…after all, you wouldn’t want dirty drugs. To maintain this clean, safe facility there are a lot of very exacting standards that the finishes must live up to. Not only must they be smooth and crevice free now, but they need to be robust enough to keep that finish as they are subjected to years of trolleys and people moving over them, or bumping into them. They must be sufficiently waterproof and chemical resistant to withstand the arduous cleaning regime, which includes everything from floors to ceiling lights. It’s also really important to be very precise about details like light switches and door handles to ensure that there are a few horizontal surfaces for dust to settle on as possible.

It’s a very time consuming decision making process, but it’s one that is hugely important and, albeit indirectly, lives depend upon…they’ll certainly be adversely affected if you get it wrong after all. So maybe next time your parents or partners are dragging you into the 5th DIY shop of the day, searching for that perfect kitchen cabinet door because they want to be able to clean it easily, you’ll have a little more patience…I know I certainly will. I’ll also be thinking along very different lines when I’m next getting the kitchen re-fitted!

et cetera
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