The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{May 9, 2012}   Happy Happy Joy Joy

The irony of blogging is that when you have things worth blogging about you’re too busy to blog, and things have been pretty busy for me lately. After about 8 months of working on oil & gas projects as a project engineer, and a couple more months working on technical audits & quality procedures, I’m now back in the familiar territory of pharmaceutical HVAC. I can’t talk specifics as, like so many other pharmaceutical projects, it’s confidential. What I can say though is that I’ve loving it, I’m back being involved in my favourite part of a project: identifying all of the requirements, and starting to find concept solutions.

The last couple of weeks have been jam-packed (not literally, it’s not a preserve factory) with site visits to discuss the client’s needs, reading through URSs (User Requirement Specifications) to glean as much information as possible about what we need to provide and going over Part L of the building regulations and the BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Energy Assessment Method) guidelines with a fine tooth comb to ensure our designs will be compliant. It makes for a steep learning curve on every project to get the whole team up to speed with what the purpose of the project is, what the client wants and what the constraints of the site and the funding is, it can be (and certainly has been on this occasion) quite an intensive time.

ImageFor me though, it’s a happy time, I like working out a precise brief, and I really love figuring out how we’re going to meet that brief. Also for this project I’ve had the mixed blessing of working with both a highly experience Pharmaceutical HVAC consultant, and having an equally highly experienced Sustainability & HVAC lead engineer. I say it’s a mixed blessing because though I’m benefitting hugely from their knowledge, they’re never in the office at the same time. This can be an interesting problem as they both approach the project from very different view points so I’m not just an engineer – I’m the diplomat & go-between for our talented founts of information. Hopefully though, by having my consistent presence to play the go-between role we’re able to take on board both knowledge sets, giving us a final solution that is both pharmaceutically sound and environmentally friendly – ideal since that’s the career specialism I aspire to!


{March 28, 2011}   It’s not easy being green

Earth Hour 60 at the Eiffel Tower - Credit: © WWF / Nina Munn

Last weekend I took part in Earth Hour. We had a fantastic time throwing a ‘pot luck dinner’ where everybody brought a dish, and we ate dinner, drank and chatted all in the warm, flickering glow of candlelight. Now I give you, though we weren’t using the lights or the oven during Earth Hour we had used the oven to cook the food earlier in the day and paraffin candles are not exactly a ‘green’ alternative given the amount of carbon they release and given they’re made using oil. So we probably did little, if anything, to reduce our carbon emissions for the day, and it’s likely that no-one else did either. This is a topic that had gained a certain amount of bad press for Earth Hour, with bloggers like Ross McKitrick writing about why they’re not taking part in Earth Hour because it ‘demonises electricity’. I have to say though, that I really don’t think that’s the point of Earth Hour.

In fact, going without electricity for an hour or so, and thinking about all the places that cannot possibly do so (like airport runways or life support wards in hospitals) is a fantastic way of celebrating the importance of electricity. When you realise how vital electricity is to maintaining our quality of life then you realise why it’s so important to ensure our power sources are sustainable. I for one certainly don’t want us to run out! The purpose of Earth Hour is to make us all more aware of sustainability issues, and make our voices heard when it comes to telling global leaders that we want them to address environmental impact. With millions of people taking part each year it just goes to show how many people think that these topics are important.

Power is not the only important aspect of sustainability though, and last week also saw World Water Day take place, as designated by the UN. The purpose of World Water Day is to communicate the important of the clean water supplies that so many of us take for granted. So many people are still living without easy access to clean water and sanitation. Again, this is a topic that individuals need to care about before our governments will pay attention to them and assist those that need it. It’s still an important topic in our own homes as well with the increase in water metering and the financial & environmental costs of water treatment. Perhaps with a little thought as to those who have no clean water at all we’ll stop pouring so much of it down the drain and start thinking about recycling water or just using less of it.

Sainburys certainly seem to be thinking about that this week as they’ve taken World Water Day and Earth Hour to heart by handing out free Littlefoot Energy & Water Saving Packs. These contain flush bags to put in your toilet cistern to reduce the amount of water per flush. They also contain a widget to reduce water consumption by your shower thus saving both water and the energy used to heat it up and pump it. I’d love to see more companies helping their customers to think green, but hopefully most of us will be able to take the initiative and reduce our energy usage without that push.

My husband and I are currently trying to buy our first house together, so we spent this weekend looking at houses. By the end of the weekend we’d chosen the house we’ll hopefully manage to buy and we’d discovered that we truly are construction & energy geeks.

Whilst the estate agent showed us around, pointing out the ‘delightful neutral décor’ or the ‘brand new carpets’ or occasionally, at their peril, a room that ‘would be perfect as a nursery’ James and I were ferreting around checking the energy performance and pondering what energy-efficient upgrades we could make.

Of course the compulsory energy performance certificates (EPCs) are a big help these days, they let you know all the basic details about standards of construction, insulation and heating. They also tell you a few areas you could make improvements in, for example a fairly standard EPC comment is ‘install energy efficient light bulbs’. But EPCs are intended for the general public to understand and be able to act on…they wont give you the full potential of what could be achieved.

So, with heads stuck in loft space, peering through ventilation bricks and stomping over gardens we discussed a variety of ‘new’ technologies we’d consider installing in any of the 1930-1950’s houses we were looking at. A couple of our favourites were:

– A ground source heat pump coupled with underfloor heating. This would reduce the energy bills, and by using this heat we could actually gain money from the Renewable Heat Incentive. It would also mean we wouldn’t need any radiators so we’d gain floor/wall space, and they’re something rather lovely about pottering around barefoot on a heated floor in my opinion.

– A mechanical heat recovery ventilation unit, these draw hot, humid air from areas like kitchens and bathrooms and use it to heat fresh air from outside before delivering it to other rooms like bedrooms and lounges. Most houses lose heat through bathroom fans and kitchen extract hoods, and many houses have no fresh supply except through leakage which reduces as we install better doors and windows. People need oxygen to live and generally 8-12 litres of fresh air per second is recommended to be supplied to occupied rooms in order to keep people feeling awake and comfortable. So, instead of losing the heat from the kitchen, we would be re-using that heat whilst still getting nice fresh air into the building, like this:

With so many ideas bouncing round in our heads we can hardly wait to get into a new house and start saving energy!

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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