Diary of an engineer: Pipe bending

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2020 - 6:35 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

As the Outage begins [the plant’s annual 14-day shutdown for maintenance that can’t be carried out while it is running], I team up with A and T from Sulzers, a hydraulic systems contractor. A is tall, slender and bald, with a big gap in his teeth and a really expressive face. T is very young, chatty and capable – both are great to work with, despite the fact they dislike each other.

We’re fitting lengths of stainless steel pipe to a cooling system for the turbine lubricant. Oil is pumped into the turbine to support the shaft, and if it becomes too hot it looses its lubricating properties. The new system we’re fitting checks the temperature of the oil with a thermostat, and pumps it downstairs to a cooling fan once it goes over 50 degrees.

The route for the pipes isn’t long but it’s complicated; we need to send them from the fan inlet and outlet through the ceiling into the “Wendy House”, which is the structure around the turbine and generator. From the Wendy House floor we need to snake the pipes around the turbine and all the other pipes and into the lubrication pumping system.

T can stig weld effortlessly, which is impressive. He sits cross-legged on a metal railing and casually melts metal onto the brackets which support the pipe – we can’t watch him directly because the arc light is blinding. He laughs and rolls his eyes at me when A asks him to undo the welds and move the brackets, twice.

“I’ve worked with A for six months – it gets tiring. I want to work on oil rigs really. I’m looking to qualify as a ‘trician too.”

A holds pipe up and marks it with a sharpie, then I follow him downstairs to bend it. The pipe bender has two pulleys with concave grooves around the edges where the pipe sits. One pulley is attached to a lever which pulls the pipe against the other pulley in the direction you want to bend it. Despite making no notes except brief tape-measuring, A is an expert at bending the pipe exactly to size, far from the place it will be fitted. “It’s not as if I know what I’m doing” he says often.

We’re interrupted when a truck driver − G − arrives to take the crane grab away for refurbishment. A pulls faces as he hammers out the shackle pins forcefully, then says “Ow, that hurt” in a deadpan when he smashes his thumb.

The grab is lowered to the ground with its petals closed into a bulb-like shape. It seems impossible that it won’t tip, but it doesn’t. The mechanics assure me it’s impossible, and then nag each other for fitting new petals that are slightly different sizes. A is the one trusted with the crane, and it’s his hammering, raising, lowering and guiding with scaffolding boards that finally gets the huge machine to tip slowly onto its side.

“Well done. Wow.”

“Well, my careers teacher told me this is all I was good for − so this is what I do.”

“What a bastard.”

• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice in a Combined Heat and Power plant

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