Friday, 28 October 2011

Who Knows?

As part of making Nottingham's Chemical and Environmental Engineering degrees more industrially relevant, I have had to consider what practical engineers know, and how they know it.

A degree in engineering can only put you at the point where you are ready to learn the things you need to know to be a practising professional. Graduate engineers are unlikely to be able to design a plant which works. There is a great deal of knowledge of the essential fine details of design which is not taught in Universities. I learned it largely from my colleagues in contracting companies, equipment suppliers and plant operators. I refined it by observing the effectiveness of different approaches and troubleshooting the consequences of bad design choices over a couple of decades.

Now I can usually diagnose problems and design solutions which work without much conscious effort in very short order. I don't have to do pages of advanced mathematics, or institute a five-year research programme. I may not have seen it all before, but I've seen a fair bit. I don't consciously use the stuff I learned in University very much, but it underlies all I do - it isn't just a matter of experience.

For example, by the time I am called in to look at problems on small sewage treatment plants, it is usually the case that people with lots of experience but no degree have been there before me.  Their experience is often of driving tankers to desludge such systems, then doing the simple maintenance jobs which keep them running, and after following the manufacturer's troubleshooting guide they start trying to invent their own fixes.

They don't know what they don't know, which makes them overconfident in their abilities. The people they work for usually have some sort of go-faster accessory for plants which misbehave, which gets offered every time to people with package plant problems. To a man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As our former tanker driver (or in some cases soldier) has no scientific or mathematical training, it never occurs to anyone to test the performance of the plant before and after making a change to see if it has made things better or worse, and as anyone looking into magnetic water softening will find out, it's very easy to kid yourself. It is however not so easy to kid the Environment Agency, which is where I come in.

So where is the knowledge of how to design and troubleshoot water and effluent treatment plants held? It isn't generally speaking in Universities, and neither is it held by tanker drivers, however long they have been pumping sludge or playing at engineers. Most of it is held in contracting and operating companies, and most of that in the heads of a few key individuals.

Most consultancies have rooms full of bright young graduates, who never get to design anything which gets built. Contractors have to politely and quietly redesign the outline designs originating with these beginners which they are given in tender documents so that they will actually work. They will not tell the consultants what they got wrong, so they never learn how it is really done. Similarly, the contractor will keep to themselves critical details of how to commission a system.

Some of this stuff may get written in design manuals of varying degrees of formality within the contracting organisation, and smart client organisations may also learn from experience, and may produce their own design manuals intended to crystallise their operational experience and constrain the design choices of the contractor to maximise chances of success. Not all clients do this, but an expert client's knowledge of the operational consequences of design choices is an essential part of the expert's knowledge.

So the things you need to know to go from being a green graduate to being a competent engineer are not to be found in a book. You ideally need guided hands-on experience and feedback about the results of your choices. Can this process start within a degree programme in such a way as to accelerate the post-graduate progress from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Package Plants : Again

In addition to the Acorn Environmental/Bord Na Mona plant we have just finished uprating, we looked at an overloaded Titan/Entec/Kingspan plant last weekend, as shown above.

The evident maldistribution of effluent to the top media bale in the pic is as a result of the cack-handed attempt by another company to reset the airlift flow rates. This and other inexpert interventions cost the client £750 ex VAT for two hours of work, and resulted in his effluent going from a just failing level at 30:30:20 (BOD:SS:NH4) to a threat of prosecution 300:300:40 standard.

As is so often the case, the monkey passing himself off as an engineer failed to get to the bottom of the problem, which is a combination of biological overloading, a problem with one of the airlifts, intermittent and very high pumped flows, and high levels of untreatable solids being put to drain on the site.  Other than the biological overloading, these were all fixable on a one-day visit.

British Water's guidance for users of package plants should be given to all new and existing owners - my advice on what do do if your package plant misbehaves is also worth reading. Better yet, read them both before you buy a plant, and avoid problems in future.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Twin Track

I've just accepted an Associate Professorship in Environmental Engineering at Nottingham University. I'll be starting there soon, but I intend to continue to provide consultancy services via Expertise Limited just as before.

I'm working this weekend, producing a boiler water treatment plant specification, and investigating the sufficiency of design capacity of a proposed package plant.

This second issue brings up the lack of standardisation of the supposed British Standard BS EN 12566-3. It doesn't mean what people think it means. It only means that the unit removed a certain percentage of pollutants for a given flow of domestic sewage under test conditions. Capability in dealing with variations in flow and load, its reaction to extended periods off-line, and many other things it would be nice to know about cannot be inferred by the granting of such a certificate.

This British version of what is intended to be a harmonised European standard is inferior to its German and even French versions. As ever, buyer beware!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

EA negotiations

Another good ammonia lab result, client is about to start negotiations with the EA to start discharging to river from the fixed package plant.

Then we can get on to phase five of the seven phases of a project, which are reputedly:

1. Wild enthusiasm
2. Disillusionment
3. Confusion
4. Panic
5. Search for the guilty
6. Punishment of the innocent
7. Promotion of non-participants

I usually get called in around stage 4...

Thursday, 8 September 2011


Laboratory results in from the upgraded package plant: SS 10mg/l BOD 2mg/l  NH3 2 mg/l vs. consented values of 30:20:10. Quality!

Is our water evil?

...or is bottled water a mug's game? asks

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Business more or less as usual

I'm off down to look at the upgraded package plant today - other than that things are quiet at the moment.

The plant's performance seems to have stabilised (despite the amateur attentions of tanker drivers and others)and hopefully it will be in a condition to start discharge to environment soon. If this is the case, there will be one last confined space entry to check the new discharge pumps over, and set the maximum flow to the consented value.

I found the relevant person and information for UU, and put something in place, but now I am waiting on the inertia inherent in the systems of large companies.

I'm preparing for an interview for an academic job, which I will (if I am successful) run in tandem with my work for Expertise Limited.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Tweaking, Teaching, Training, and Tankering

The tweak applied to the package plant seems to have worked, performance is now at or close to compliance with BOD and SS consents. The tanker company are however still fighting a rearguard action, so information on how much treated effluent they are removing and when is not forthcoming.

I received a call from United Utilities about problems they are having with a plant built for them by the now-defunct Invent Water treatment. Their former staff are scattered to the winds, and those I know the locations of cannot help them. I may end up helping them myself- as Invent went bust owing us money, It would be a kind of justice.

The dairy effluent training course went well, though if I were to give it again it would be on the site with their effluent treatment plant so that we could get a bit more hands-on, and have a bit less in the classroom.

I got my PGCHE certificate yesterday, and have started discussions with local Universities about next year's teaching commitments.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Package Plant Problems II - TheTanker Driver

The package plant under the playground has developed a new problem, floating sludge on the final tank. I went down last night to tweak the plant to address the problem to find that it has snapped another drive-belt due to excessive back-pressure, in turn due to the tanker company not removing the treated effluent as requested. This is our third drive belt in nine weeks, with consistent cause.

It seems almost to be a defining characteristic of sewage tanker drivers that they think that they know better than professional engineers. This is merely the latest of countless occasions where I have found that unless you actually stand over a tanker driver and watch him, he will do whatever is easiest, or whatever he thinks is best.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


There are so many offers out there at the moment that I'm a bit in limbo, waiting to see what happens before I make a move.

I'm ticking over with the forthcoming training course, commissioning of the refurbished package plant, and our Indian client, but I'm a little impatient for a few things to resolve themselves.

On the teaching side, I'm now a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy-FWIW.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Legal Issues and Training

I'm putting the finishing touches to a bespoke training course on water minimisation and effluent treatment for a well-known dairy today.

The package plant under the playground story rumbles on, and now looks to be going legal, with a mission to assign blame on the basis of the various problems with the job. We seem to be the only people involved who are not being sued at the moment.

The Indian client who had to be told that things were not as he would like them to be saw that the data did support my conclusions, though it was a little touch and go...

Monday, 6 June 2011

Remote Troubleshooting

There was a difficulty last week with ongoing attempts to remotely troubleshoot problems with an effluent treatment plant in India. I always like to troubleshoot things in person if at all possible, and the difficulties we are having remind me of why.

The essence of this particular problem is that the client organisation believes that certain interventions have clearly improved matters, when the little data they have collected suggests otherwise.

It's always tricky to tell a paying client that they are mistaken, especially when you are telling them that the truth is less favourable than their version of events. It is however in my opinion a professional duty not to allow them to live in a fool's paradise.

It is always better when troubleshooting to take nothing for granted, to establish the validity of every important parameter personally. Experience suggests that somewhere in the pre-existing set of assumptions is the duff one which has prevented resolution of the problem prior to your arrival.

Teasing out the bad premise is as often as not the troubleshooter's most difficult task. This is often not difficult technically, but it can be politically troublesome. No-one noticed before you arrived something which can seem obvious with hindsight, and as no-one wants to look foolish, getting the data you need can be very tricky.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Busy Again

A real spike on enquiries early in the week, with two overseas water treatment design jobs (one of which is huge) and a UK training course. With commissioning of the upgraded package sewage treatment plant under the playground next week, it's a busy month.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


Got my PGCHE last week, so now I'm a fully accredited University Teacher. I've been doing a fair bit of teaching this week, as well as producing the AutoCad sketches for that Iraqi job I did last weekend.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Iraq: Hydraulic Design

Picked up a bit of emergency hydraulic design for an Iraqi contractor this weekend. It's interesting looking at routing pipelines through places I'd only looked at on the news before, but Google Earth is still so much safer (and quicker) than a site visit.

Nice to dig out all of my standard hydraulic calculation sheets, and glad now that I had them all verified by an independent third party, so that when I'm under time pressure like this, I'm just plugging the numbers in without having to worry about whether the calculations are error-free for the basics. There's a surge/ water hammer analysis to do on this job as well though, so there's new stuff to accommodate too.

Other than that, lots of teaching (get my PGCHE result next Tuesday), including supervising one strand of a week-long field exercise for Nottingham University's Environmental Engineers near out Wirksworth base.

The final M+E commissioning session of the package plant under a playground (delayed by waiting for 3-phase power to be brought to site) is due later in the month-then we will see if our aeration system upgrade will bring the plant into consent, as it did for a similar plant a couple of years back. There's a plan B if it doesn't quite make the grade....

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Package Plant Problems

We were on site last week with our confined space trained staff to upgrade an undersized package plant (installed under a kid's playground!) in a new housing development.

As with much of the work we do, everyone cheaper than us had been given a go at fixing it first, resulting in much wasted money.

In this case, a local tanker company had established a division specialising in taking money from people for their inexpert meddling. The company employ no qualified engineers, and consequently have no professional indemnity insurance. Before hiring someone unqualified and uninsured, you might want to ask yourself why insurance companies will not cover them for the work you are thinking of asking them to do.

As you can see from the condition of our staff's overalls, they left a mess behind them.

We undid the damage they had caused, and got the plant ready for commissioning in our programmed three days.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


We are getting lots of new enquiries, both for training and for engineering. Due to complete upgrade to the malfunctioning package plant next week, which required myself and a couple of our technicians to obtain confined space entry "tickets" a couple of weeks back.

I also became an associate member of the Higher Education Academy this week, which I hope to upgrade to full membership when I submit my portfolio next month to get my PGCHE.

I'm doing a fair bit of teaching now, makes a pleasant change from wading through dirty water in the middle of the night, as we ended up doing until 5AM last Sunday on an emergency call-out.

Kuwait job has gone a bit quiet again, though the Indian industrial effluent treatment job has come back on-line.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

A Busy Time

I'm uprating an undersized package plant this week, then teaching, then back here, then off to Kuwait hopefully. I've picked up another couple of little jobs to do on the side as well. Not worked this hard in years!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all. We've had a busy holiday season with quite a number of emergency callouts to frozen and thawing plants.

Kuwait course has been postponed, but looks to be going ahead, and Uni. teaching starts again next week

Package plant upgrade about to commence, and we got a new package plant problem enquiry yesterday.

It's busier than it has been for a long time...