The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{August 1, 2011}   Everybodys talking at me

I’ve never been the most girly of girls, for years I’ve lived in fear of the ‘hair styling’ aisle in Boots. Every time I go to the hairdresser they seem to do something incredible with my hair, and when I ask what I need to do to recreate that look at home they say strange things to me like ‘GHD curls’ or ‘use some product’. ‘Product’?! What ‘product’?! What does it mean? But asking what ‘product’ merely gets you a brand name, not that you realise that till you’re standing in the middle of the dreaded Hair Styling Aisle, staring at a thousand little bottles wondering whether you need mousse, gel, spray, tonic, or balm, and whether you want ‘strong hold’, ‘natural feel’ or ‘flexibility’. And what if I want to let my hair dry naturally, will the lotions & potions whose instructions say ‘and then blow dry hair as usual’ work if I don’t use a hairdryer? It’s at this point that I inevitably exit Boots with no ‘product’ and a confused look on my face. I don’t understand the difference between all the offerings, I have no idea what my hair needs and even if I did I wouldn’t know how to apply it. I give in, another boring pony tail it is.

I’ve recently discovered that my lack of ability to speak Girl (perhaps they should do GCSEs in this alongside French & German) extends further than the salon. My Mother has loaned me The Complete Guide to Sewing so I can take up making my own clothes. I figured that with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering I ought to be able to follow a pattern and technical instructions in order to use a machine to create something. How very wrong I was, though I have now successfully made myself a skirt there were nightly phone calls & many trips to one another’s houses so Mum could explain to me the meanings of words like ‘selvage’, ‘crosswise’ & ‘plackett’. These are not words that are in common use, so what does that make them? Are they technical language, jargon or just nonsense?

Dilbert does jargon

As an engineer I use a lot of technical language, particularly when I’m speaking to my engineering colleagues, and I’m by no means the only one who does. In fact it’s really quite hard for me to even know which of the words in my vocabulary are ‘jargon’ because they’re so familiar to me and because they’re well accepted and understood by my peers. A few to pick out would be ‘get it cadded up’ (i.e. get the designer to draw up a sketch using the Computer Aided Design software), ‘P&ID’ (i.e. a process & instrumentation diagram, a line drawing of the process, accurate in terms of connections & direction but not in terms of routing or size – much like London Underground tube maps) and even my own job title ‘Building Services Engineer’ (i.e. an engineer who designs air conditioning systems and piped services like water, steam & compressed air).

You don’t have to be an engineer to use specialised words and language though – we almost all use jargon, often without even realising we’re doing it, like the sewing book authors and hairdressers. Sometimes it’s not vocation/discipline specific, sometimes it’s generational (innit, emo, LOL) or regional (batch, roll, bun, cob, bap, breadcake, barm cake). So essentially, in one way or another we all use some slang or jargon. What effect does it have on the people arround us though? It all depends on your audience really, use technical language in the appropriate context, like around colleagues who have a similar background and training to you, and you’ll probably impress and/or manage to clearly communicate very precise pieces of information. Use it around people who don’t have the same technical background though and you’re more likely to alienate people, you may confuse them or make them feel like you’re trying to show off about your knowledge. What you certainly wont do is communicate clearly. The same goes for slang & colloquialisms. Tell your Gran that her cooking is ‘wicked’, and she may not take it as a compliment. Tell your interviewer that you’re ‘down with that’ and you may not get the job. Equally by using the same slang as your peers you and they will feel like you belong, it’s almost a means of bonding.

So both slang and technical language have their purposes…just try and save them for the right places. If technical language is a necessity, such as in a specific book or work place then maybe consider developing or including a glossary, it can really help your audience to understand you, and make newcomers feel like part of the team. Unless of course you prefer leaving people with a certain sense of je ne sais quoi


{February 21, 2011}   Here’s one I made earlier

When I was picking my degree course I chose engineering, rather than something more theoretical/’academic’, because I like to get hands on. I like to apply my knowledge to something real and, occasionally, I like to get a bit grubby. I’ve always been like that. When I was little I shunned pre-made toys in favour of playing with scissors, glue & felt tips to create something. When I was in primary school I was the goalkeeper for the girl’s football team not because I had any real football talent but because I was one of the few girls who didn’t mind getting muddy. At secondary school I delighted in subjects like ‘resistant materials’ because I got to use my maths skills to work out the dimensions for something real, and then go & use my hands to actually physically make it real.

These days, though the maths and drawings I create do finally end up being made into a building it’s not me that gets to go and lay the bricks or install the ductwork. Most of the time that’s fine, I still take great pleasure in seeing a building or system that I was involved in the design of, being installed. There’s something truly satisfying about seeing your designs working hard and being useful. But sometimes I feel like I missing something…and that something is getting hands on. Last week though, was a week where there was nothing missing and where I was working with a huge smile on my face. Why? Because I was crawling around on the floor sticking down carpet tape to mark out the full scale dimensions of a cold work area I’m designing.

Part of being a good engineer is being able to communicate clearly to other people, and when those people aren’t engineers it’s important to find ways of getting information across to them in ways they can really understand. As I’m in the middle of designing something that will be completely new to out client, something unlike anything else they have, now is a particularly vital time to get the communication right. One of the areas that people who aren’t familiar with looking at drawings can sometimes struggle with is scale. As we all know from looking at a map it can sometimes be hard to get a realistic sense of size from looking at a scaled down image.

So, I spent last Thursday afternoon creating this:

It’s a full scale outline of a ‘cold work enclosure’ which is essentially a giant fridge, the diagonal lines are the doors. The squares within the big rectangle show where the weighing scales and table will go. The little square in front shows where there will be a column within the room. On the right, making our model 3 dimensional, is the existing piece of equipment which will go into the space next to the cold work area once it has been build.

Laying the equipment out full size like this meant having to calculate all the little clearance sizes that are needed to make sure everything fits in together without clashing, and allowances for construction tolerances (as few things of this kind of size are ever made millimetre perfect). It gave me a brilliant opportunity to give some very in depth thought to the detailed design of the equipment, and to be able to reflect on it once it was complete. It actually resulted in us changing which direction one of the doors opened as it became obvious once it was laid out that the column was less of an obstacle that way.

Most importantly though, it has given our client the chance to get a feel for how big the area will be and whether they will be able to fit and operate all the necessary items into it. Doing that now means we’re far less likely to run into issues once it equipment has been made and it’s too late to change. Also, clambering around on the floor and playing with sticky tape reminded me hugely of my Blue Peter loving days…so I had a lot of fun!

et cetera
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