The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{December 5, 2011}   A little of (y)our time

It's not for girls!

I’ve seen a lot of schemes & read a lot of articles about women in science, engineering & technology of late. The articles are all about how only 7% of engineers in the UK are female, why this might be and what could or should we be doing about it.

In my humble opinion, much of it is about perception. Teachers, pupils and parents perceive our industry to be dirty, dangerous, boring, unethical or just plain Not For Girls.

But this perception doesn’t just put off young women from entering the profession, but also many of the best young male minds as well. Whether or not you agree with the positive discrimination taking place to entice girls into STEM careers, the danger is that if we don’t do something to address the image of engineering then very few youngsters will have any interest in joining it; whatever their gender, race, religion or socio-economic background.

Thankfully perception is relatively inexpensive, albeit time consuming, to change. But in order to do so we need engineers to talk to the public about what they do, why it’s important and what makes it exciting.

As Sir John Parker , President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says of engineers: We are not automatic seekers of publicity, maybe we should take responsibility […] to explain our profession

There are loads of engineers and scientists who are willing to do just that, there are over 29,000 STEM Ambassadors for starters! As individuals many engineers can see the need for, and the fulfillment to be had from, school & public engagement. The problem that they, and other willing volunteers, face though, is that they can’t find the time to interact with schools.

Wherever I can I make time, I’ll do evening, weekend or online events, or I do short events during the school day & then make up the hours at another time. When I can’t make up the time my company is generally very supportive and allows me a certain amount of leeway. This is hard won and wearing though, and isn’t plausible for everyone currently. Companies need to recognise the need for the profile of engineering and engineers to be raised. The need for a career in engineering to be seen as respectable, desirable and most of all: exciting!

So I throw down the gauntlet. If companies genuinely are interested in having a diverse workforce. If they want to ensure that there will be enough young engineers to fill the places of those who will be retiring over the next 5-15 years. If they want to be able to grow their businesses with new ideas and new people…they will have to commit to not just allowing but encouraging their employees to spend company time on engaging with the public, especially with schools.

So what will you, and your company, commit to?


{September 5, 2011}   Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

I spent most of the bank holiday weekend dressed up as a wolf. And I was working. For WSP CEL. This, I assure you, is not my usual work wear. However, I was still engineering. No really, I was!

You see over the bank holiday weekend Coventry Airbase hosted the 2011 Imagineering Fair. I love the Imagineering Fair, it’s all about getting kids excited about engineering. All sorts of different companies turn up, so as a professional engineer you get to meet a whole load of engineers that you would otherwise never see. The companies then put on activities for the kids to get hands on with engineering problems. I love that part for two different reasons

– one, because seeing the kids’ faces when they build something successful is massively rewarding and is definitely worth working through the weekend for
– and two, because kids are so much more imaginative than we adults are. All our training, all that education we have – it’s brilliant because it teaches you efficient solutions to standard problems and it teaches you the maths & theory & material properties you need to know to be able to calculate whether your answer will work. But, the other thing it does is make you forget to imagine, forget that trial & error is ok, forget that weird & wonderful untried solutions can sometimes be even better than answers that have been developed & refined over decades. I think that’s very worth being reminded of on a regular basis. Perhaps we should get kids into the office sometimes.

But that’s an aside. Why was I dressed as a wolf? I was in fact the big bad wolf. The WSP activity was constructing paper towers to keep the 3 little pigs out of the wolf’s reach. Of course the paper towers then also had to resist the wolf’s huff & puff…otherwise known as a desk fan.

The pigs had lots of adventures, and a fair few tumbles, but on the whole there were a lot of amazing solutions to the task. Over the weekend a large pig city rapidly built up around our stand. It really was something to behold – the sheer variety of different approaches. I certainly found it very inspiring, seeing all that imagination. One thing it’s reminded me of, and a learning I will take back to the office, is that there is never just one right answer.

For the last 10 weeks, every Tuesday we’ve had a sixth form student visiting the office for work experience. I’ve very much taken her under my wing, and have found her things to do, arranged meetings & work shadowing with various different departments, helped her improve her CV, and talked to her about what she wants to do after her A-levels.
Initially she came to us through the IChemE as she wanted to do a degree and either be a Chemical Engineer or a Teacher.

10 weeks on and she’s now far more aware of the massive amount of different options that are available within engineering. That means that in many ways we’ve actually made her decision more difficult, but at least she’s more likely to make a decision that is right for her.

As a learner who enjoys real life context & getting stuck into the world of work, as one of several siblings, and as one of the first cohort to be subject to the £9000 university fees, one of the decisions she’s now looking at is whether going straight into uni after her A-levels is actually the best option. With such large costs for university, and with enjoying work based learning it may not be, so we’ve spent alot of time discussing the pros and cons of apprenticeships vs degrees. It has been a learning curve for me too, since I did a degree and never even considered qualifying in any other way. With that in mind, before I get into the pros & cons that we ending up discussing, here are a few disclaimers:

1) There is no wrong choice. Both apprenticeships amnd degrees are superb qualifications but as with many things in life you will only get as much out of them as you are willing to put in.

2) I am by no means the fount of all knowledge when it comes to qualifications and career paths, there are some brilliant resources on the internet though and these are a few I would recommend:
The UK government’s apprenticeship website
Cogent’s careers website
The ECITB’s careers website
Magasine & report articles such as page 10 in here

3) Apprenticeships and full time degrees straight out of school are not the only options. You might also want to consider a Year in Industry, or an Engineering Training Programme; National Grid offer a particularly good one. Some other large engineering companies offer similar things.

So, those resources & disclaimers aside, what conclusions did we come to? What are the advantages of each? Well in my opinion:

Degrees (done full time straight from A-levels): Generally a faster means of getting into engineering management, with a higher starting salary, pretty much the only way to get into engineering academia & research, particularly good if you like academic classroom learning, reading & reseach. Some companies hold degree qualified engineers in much higher regard than those with apprenticeships. It’s also much easier/quicker to become a chartered engineer, especially if you do a Masters degree.
But it’s expensive, you start learning later, your knowledge is less directly related to what you will be doing in your career and you will have to prove your practical knowledge to colleagues who have a greater respect for apprenticeships

Apprenticeships:You start younger, and you earn while you learn (albeit not very much initially), after doing an apprenticeship with a company many of them will sponsor you through a degree part time so you can get into most of the same job roles as any other graduate (though generally a few years later) , many companies have more respect for engineers with the practical background that an apprenticeship gives and you wont have student debt. Particularly good if you prefer contextual/hands on learning. However, you may have to prove your more academic skills to degree qualified colleagues, and some companies hold degrees in higher regard.

I think if I had my time again I’d still want to end up degree qualified, but I think I’d also like to have gained a bit more practical knowledge…so perhaps I would have done a year in industry or one of the engineering training programmes. Equally though, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve achieved & how I’ve gotten to where I am, so perhaps doing a degree straight out of uni was the best option for me after all.

{April 4, 2011}   Gimme gimme good water

Starting last week, and carrying on for the next few months the Science Council’s careers website, future morph (which, incidentally is a brilliant resource for anyone considering a career in science/engineering but wants a bit more inspiration about what sort of jobs they could actually do), is running science Q&A forums. You can read & join in here. If you’re with the Orange mobile network you can also join in via your iPhone using the ‘Do Something Good’ app.

There have been some fantastic, intriguing, and occasionally slightly worrying questions, here are a few examples:

If we drink the water that has been running through the mountains for millions of years, why do manufacturers then stick a sell by date on it?
How far away are we from exploring the deepest of the worlds oceans?
With fresh water resources becoming more scarce, what can be done to make desalination plants more sustainable e.g. using renewable energy?
How much water would you need to put out a fire the size of the moon?

And last but not least (and I’m very thankful that this question isn’t in my area of expertise):

How much water can you get into a human being before he explodes?

I’ve been really enjoying putting my knowledge to use in answering questions from enquiring minds of all ages, the majority of the people asking them are 14-19 though, so hopefully these are the first tendrils of interest that will grow into fully fledged careers in science & engineering. Certainly my favourite questions relate to being more environmentally friendly which, as the first theme is ‘Water’, there have been a fair few of. Those questions & answers are well worth a read for anyone who wants to help reduce water wastage or for anyone who pays metered water bills! So, in the interests of saving the planet or reducing your bills, here are a few water saving tips gleaned from my Future Morph answers:

An appealing way of saving water

Showers & Baths:
A ‘traditional’ shower rose uses up to 20 litres of water per minute so could be using 200 litres for a 10 minute shower…making it about equal with the amount used for a bath. You can save water by using a modern shower head, these generally use around 12 litres of water per minute. Saving in a 10 minute shower = 80 litres of water + 18p
Using ‘water widgets’ to reduce the water flow or choosing a water efficient shower head can reduce this down as low as 6 litres of water per minute so you’d only be using 60 litres of water in 10 minutes. Saving = 140 litres of water + 32p
Of course spending less time in the shower would also save water, as would sharing a bath:

Toilets: Traditional toilets use about 13 litres of water per flush but modern water saving ones can use as little as 6 litres. Saving: 7 litres + 1.6p
You can reduce the water used by traditional toilets by filling an old drinks bottle with water putting the cap on & then putting it in the cistern. The water saved per flush will be the same volume as the volume of the drinks bottle. Saving: 2 litres + 0.05p

Sinks: A standard tap uses around 0.15 litres per second where as a tap with a spray head/aerator uses around 0.03 litres per second. So by fitting spray inserts you could be reducing the water use by around 80%. Saving: 7 litres + 1.6p per minute

Gardens & Cars: Watering the average garden with a hosepipe takes 540 litres of water. By using a watering can instead or by at least fitting a nozzle with a trigger you can significantly reduce this…often down to as little as 50-100 litres. Saving: 465 litres + £1.06
Washing the car with a hosepipe also uses 400-500 litres of water, instead you can use a few buckets of water and reduce the need for water down to around 32 litres. Saving: 418 litres + 96p
Also recycled or ‘grey’ water can be used for these jobs, which reduces your water demand even further. Saving: 500 litres + £1.15

Recycling Water: It’s very easy to direct gutters into a water butt and use some of the 85,000 litres of water that falls on the average UK roof each year. This water can be used for flushing toilets, watering the garden and cleaning the car without any need for treatment. You can also use the water from your bath, shower & sink to flush toilets or wash the car. This can give you a saving of several 1000 litres of water per year, which could certainly save you a few quid!

Wasting Water: Water companies estimate that around a third of all the water used in the UK is just run straight into the drain. This is done when you brush your teeth without turning off the tap, or wait for the water to run cold before you get a glass of water or wait for it to run hot before you wash your hands. Make sure you always turn the tap off when you don’t need it , for example when you’re brushing your teeth. Saving: 15 litres + 3p When you’re waiting for the water to run hot why not run it into a jug, then you can use this water to water the house plants. Rather than waiting for the water to run cold you could just keep a jug of water in the fridge. Also, make sure you fix leaking taps, these can waste up 26 litres of water per day! Saving: 26 litres + 6p

Ok, so a lot of these savings may not sound like a lot, but they’re each for doing one activity once. Think about how often you flush the loo, wash your hands, have a shower & brush your teeth. Add them all up and you could certainly afford to treat yourself to something with your savings by the end of the year, and as the costs of water go up it will become even more worthwhile!

[Savings calculated using water costs of £0.8/m3 & waste costs £1.49/m3, as it is only usually clean water that is metered I’ve made the same assumption as the water companies & that clean water into a house = waste water out of the house]

Over the last six months I’ve been part of the UKRC & RAEng‘s ‘Ingenious Women’ project, all about developing and publicising the career’s of young female engineers in order to encourage more women to follow our career paths.

So, as part of the project I’ve been unashamedly having my face and my story splattered all over every website that would have me. For your delectation, and in celebration of 2500 visits to my blog, here they all are:

My first foray onto the internet, the website of the Ingenious Women project.

After that I volunteered to be a case study on the careers website of the ECITB (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board). Be warned, it takes a bit of searching for me on this one, as there is no direct link.

Then I was contacted by STEMNET to be a case study for some of their STEM Club resources.

I was also lucky enough to receive a training grant from Cogent. Since this was a huge help to me I couldn’t say no when they asked if I would feature in one of their articles.

Last, but by no means least I’m taking part in the ‘hidden science app’ where you can get science questions answered. This has led to be being featured on the Science Council’s ‘Future Morph’ careers website, a brilliant resource for any students considering science/engineering careers…or for parents & teachers trying to persuade them to!

I hope you enjoyed them. There are a few more that are still in the making, I’ll post the links to them when I have them.

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…

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)?

I came to the realisation recently that engineers are very good at thinking everyone knows what they’re talking about…and I’m sure that criticism can be applied to me too. For all I write about what I’m thinking and doing as an engineer I don’t always remember that most people outside the process industry have never seen the innards of a process facility, and people outside of engineering generally haven’t had the chance to stick their head into any ductwork. So, for many folk their only experience of what an air-conditioning system looks like on the inside comes from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil or even Homer & Bart escaping from Willy after stealing grease in the Simpsons. Now those scenes are not entirely accurate, though there was an escape from Alcatraz that utilised the ventilation shafts, but they can still be very helpful in explaining a few fundamental bits of ductwork design. So, without further ado, let me begin the Die Hard School of Ductwork Design:

From an HVAC engineer’s perspective it’s really important when designing ductwork layouts that you ensure air flows are as smooth as possible. The smoother they are, the more energy efficient and quieter the system will be…and the more likely the system is to work properly! The same goes for designing the ductwork from Bruce Willis’ perspective though. After all, whatever gets in the way of air is bound to get in the way of Mr. Willis, no matter how much of an action hero he is! So…if you were clambering around in air-conditioning ductwork, trying to escape from the bad guys, what might get in your way?

1) Corners

Right angles bad, curves good

Obvious as it may seem, it’s still worth a mention. It’s never really possible to lay all the ductwork out in straight lines with no corners, so they are a necessary evil. However, putting yourself in John McClane’s shoes (or lack thereof), how would you like the corners to be designed? Personally I think a nice gentle curve would be alot easier to get around than a sharp right angle, and from the look of this I think Mr. McClane agrees:
It’s certainly the case that airflow is alot smoother around a curve, which means it looses less pressure so less power is needed to get the air to wherever its going.

2) Joints

Internal flanges bad, smooth insides good

Anything that gets in Bruce’s way, and makes his life more difficult when navigating buildings via the ventilation will get in the way of the air. So when joining the lengths of ductwork together it’s best to put the joints on the outside. The same goes for any other obstructions in the duct work – if Mr Willis would have to put in extra effort to squeeze through then so will the air.

3) Access Hatches

Obstacles bad, access good

When trying to sneak up behind the bad guy through cunning use of ductwork the last thing you want is to be stopped by some impassable obstacle. So to make it possible for Bruce Willis/John McClane to out manoeuvre his enemies you should always put in an access hatch nearby. These access hatches are also rather essential for maintenance staff to keep everything in order without having to take down the duct work to access moving parts – in this instance a damper.

You can also help Bruce, Milla, Tom & Homer out by making ducts large with nice smooth inside surfaces. The less of a squeeze it is for Hollywood stars or air then the less energy it takes, and the same is true for keeping the friction low.

So if you’re ever asked to design some ductwork, bear Bruce in mind and think “What would John McClane want?”.

[Artwork created by my fiancé James Agg from my terrible sketches]

{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!

{September 10, 2010}   I blog therefore I am

Yesterday was the launch of the Ingenious Women project at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. 20 young female engineers gathered to learn about the project and various forms of media, and to meet 12 rather interesting “media mentors”. I am fortunate enough to be one of those 20 engineers, and this is my first foray into the world of blogging.

I hope, through this blog, twitter, and any public engagements events I can possibly get involved with, to raise the profile of engineering, to share my passion and excitement for what I do…and hopefully to inspire more young people to go into engineering. Please be patient with me though – I’m by no means an expert in communications!

I plan to blog about the engineering projects I get involved with, interesting engineering I see or hear about and the events I get involved with on the Ingenious Women project. I’m also happy to chat about my career and answer questions generally, or even to blog about a specific topic if there’s something I’m involved with that interests you – just leave me a comment or send me a message.

If you like what you read in my blog as time goes by then please share it with your friends, with anyone who you think has an interest in engineering, and especially with anyone making career/university/A-level/GCSE choices. But for now, just wish me luck…

et cetera
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