Diary of an engineer: In the cold snap

Submitted by AWL on 16 February, 2021 - 6:15 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

February’s snow storm is colder and dryer than January’s. The snow is fine and the wind is biting, but it doesn’t stick to the gritted roads for long. I set my alarm early each morning to check the roads are clear for cycling, then snooze for an extra half hour. I find if I get dressed rapidly and layer up, I can get out the door and on the road before I feel the cold.

The bakers in my back yard start work at midnight, and give me a second heads-up on the roads. “Be careful,” M says, “It’s clear but it’s icy in places – just be careful.” At the plant gates, someone has drawn a smiley face in the snow on the roundabout island, which is quickly buried.

Right off the bat we’re called to a fault with an Air Cool Condenser (ACC) – one of the huge fans that cools the steam to water after it’s been through the turbine. One of the fans is pulling too much current and tripping. Walking across the plant the temperature is constantly changing: warm switch room, cold pump room, warm ACC corridor, icy cooling area.

J touches the bearings on the motor to feel for heat or grinding, L checks the oil pressure on the gearbox – it’s high, and the oil is frothy and thick. Beneath us the fan pulls up snow in gusts from outside to cool the steam in the finned pipes high above our heads. I grease the pump and motor bearings, and we speculate: maybe running the fans slowly isn’t generating enough heat; the oil is too cold and it’s thickening, creating friction in the gearbox, and friction in the bearings. In the end, we instruct the Control Room to start and stop the fan a few times, picking up speed slowly. It doesn’t trip again.

I’ve been trying to teach myself how to listen to gearboxes and motors, the way J and D can feel the bearings stop grinding when they’re greased, but I still find it impossible to distinguish the sounds of greased bearings from all the other mechanical noises and vibrations nearby. I apply grease liberally and hope for better hearing.

On the roof of the ACC building is an air conditioning unit which would normally belch steam, but today the spill has created spectacular icicles that reach all the way down the side of the building. Some parts of the plant are particularly sensitive to the cold. One morning a pipe bursts by the effluent pit, exploding water everywhere. Once we’ve patched it (with lousy PVC pipe fittings) the once-hot water has covered the steel gantry with ice and frozen the acid lines.

J returns to the warm fitters’ shop to make a drink and finds the water frozen in his taps. The water in the women’s toilet in the yard freezes in the bowl. Midweek I get a message from an apprentice friend at a steel rolling mill – although there is molten metal in the building next door, his workshop is full of snow.

Thankfully the Control Room is always cosy. The two tallest and friendliest operators – S and P – are on shift together. P hands me and L coffee, and we cup our hands over the mugs and blow to warm up our noses; P laughs: “What have you got there, a secret drink? Looks like you’re talking to someone in the mug.”

While we run checks on the emissions’ gases, S picks up the phone to a wagon driver requesting waste clearing from the tipping apron. S radios the assistants and asks for a tidy-up, and gets a “No worries, I’ll get to it” from K. Five minutes later B, K’s line manager, comes running to the Control Room in a sweat:

“I just heard the call. I was just down in the tipping apron but I had to go to the toilet, you see. I’ll be down there just after I go to the toilet.”

B disappears, and everyone in the Control Room looks at each other and laughs.

S: “Don’t hear the call, go to the toilet, then help K – come up here, tell us that, go to toilet and then get on the apron! Oh my days.”

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer at a Combined Heat and Power plant

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