The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

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!


{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!

{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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