A Day in the Life – meeting Fundamentals’ ‘Fab Four’ Engineers

Fundamentals’ HV Engineering Team offers insight into the challenging and sometimes dangerous work of upgrading and maintaining the UK's HV infrastructure.

Sitting across from four of Fundamentals’ High Voltage (HV) engineering team, it is evident they are more than just workmates. Graham Mitchell, Jian Chamberlain, Steven Williams and Eddie Ramsden have been working together for between 10 and 25 years. They think alike, have shared the same work experiences and, most importantly, trust each other with their lives.

These four engineers are part of the wider Fundamentals’ Group’s 30-strong, multi-disciplinary site personnel who have been working for more than 25 years improving the health and performance of the UK grid.

According to South African-born Service Engineer, Eddie: “Working around HV can be a dangerous environment if things aren’t managed properly. We’re friends and trust each other and that’s carried us through the years.”  Fundamentals’ HV Project Engineer, Graham, adds: “You don’t know everything, so every job is a team effort. There are no boundaries of a job description. You rely on each other and know your strengths and weaknesses.” 

The making of a team

In fact, the four individuals share largely similar backgrounds. After leaving school at 16, they went straight into apprenticeships or college courses in electrical engineering. Graham was offered a Coal Board apprenticeship in North Selby and Stillingfleet mines. “I was offered electrical or mechanical and chose electrical because I didn’t want to get dirty. I was the only one that went down for a full shift and came up clean,” he jokes. “You can go on training courses, but there’s nothing like going out and doing it yourself; learning on the job.”

There was also a mining connection for Service Engineer, Steve: “My first job was with an ex-miner who had started a largely domestic electrical business. I had always enjoyed the mechanical, but electrics and mechanics go hand-in-hand so it was good to learn electrical skills.” He eventually moved into manufacturing, from machinery that built capacitors to DVDs.

Fundamentals’ Senior Service Engineer, Jian (pronounced Jan), went straight from school into an apprenticeship with the company. “I had a thing for hands-on stuff – mechanical or electrical. My Dad was very hands- on and I’d watched a cousin rewire a house which was an eye-opener. But it was still daunting for a 16-year old who had never set foot in industry before”.

Eddie emigrated from South Africa in 2008 with an electrical apprenticeship under his belt and experience in Durban and Natal’s power distribution industry. On arrival in the UK he joined one of the largest electrical engineering firms in the UK at the time.  

Variety is the spice of HV

Having all previously met and worked at the same company, the four moved together to join the Fundamentals HV team, setting about strengthening the relationship with Fundamentals’ largest clients. In particular, the power generators. Working from their home bases along the M4 corridor, Graham, Eddie, Steve and Jian now regularly travel up and down the country undertaking a full spectrum of HV and LV maintenance, repairs and refurbishments for transformers, tapchangers and other associated HV equipment.

All agree that the variety and problem-solving aspects are the most interesting. While many of the tasks are relatively small scale – oil sampling or gas checks – regular maintenance is critical and always throws up new challenges. “There’s so much different equipment out there over years of manufacture, that no two jobs are the same. So, you have to fall back on the basic principles,” Steve explains.

“For example, tapchangers work on the same principle, but there are so many different ways the same process is achieved.”

According to Graham: “One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is going from old to new types of circuit breakers. There’s much more electronics in new switches, which brings greater reliability and reduces size. But, we’re still working regularly on equipment built in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s which will last for another 100 years if it’s properly maintained.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s the large projects that bring back the strongest memories. Eddie and Steve recall removing a 22kV turret from a transformer in the Midlands to replace a gasket.  “It was a hugely complex operation because of the amount of dismantling and re-building involved,” says Eddie. “There was the logistics of lifting, removing the aluminium housing and making up the new gasket. You’re problem solving as you go along.”

Steve takes up the story: “This was the first of this type we'd ever had to take apart. Then two more came along almost immediately afterwards. By the time we came to the last one we were like an F1 pit crew. We managed to reduce the job time by one third!”

Let’s get physical

Working on such large pieces of plant is not for the faint-hearted. “It’s a very physical job and very demanding,” Eddie admits. “There’s plenty of heavy lifting and carrying, crawling through scaffolding and the recent long, hot summers also took their toll. I’m not getting any younger and eventually would consider working on the manufacturing or technical side in Fundamentals…but not yet!”

One particular project certainly helped keep Graham in trim. “We had to remove and replace a 600MVA transformer. The replacement was already owned by the client but it wasn’t new, so we weren’t sure how it would perform. The project came in on time and slightly under budget, but I lost about one and a half stones in six weeks!”

However, the life of an HV engineer is not only hands-on work. There are people skills needed too.  According to Jian: “The best jobs are ones that flow well and are ahead of schedule. On these projects you know you have the client’s full support and backing and their site engineers are on-hand to help you. That makes the job a great deal easier. Some sites are less relaxed, or the engineers less experienced, so sometimes we have to support them. Personal rapport and relationships are important.”

A new horizon

With power generation and transmission undergoing arguably the most significant changes in its history, Fundamentals’ engineers are looking at a new horizon – literally in the case of renewable energy.

For Steve, the changes present new challenges: “Windfarm technology is more localised to each individual generator [the wind turbine] so transformers are smaller with more individual components that need to be services. They’re compact and sat within the turbine itself which presents cooling issues and other problems to solve.”

Then there’s waste burners; a rapidly growing sector of the power generation industry and one in which Fundamentals is gaining expertise. “When you’re burning four million tons of waste, which isn’t going into the ground and with electricity as a by-product, that can only be a good thing,” Graham states. “This form of generation involves switchgear and transformers which Fundamentals are experienced in maintaining.”

Solar power is also on the agenda, as is the growth of electric vehicles and need for two-way distribution networks. Eddie, in particular, is no stranger to what happens if generation fails to meet demand: “In South Africa right now, there is regular load-shedding: taking large parts of the country off the grid in order to meet national demand. It’s a genuine eye-opener, but essential to prevent a total blackout. It shouldn’t be happening anywhere in the world given today’s generation technologies. I believe energy storage will be make or break for the industry over the coming years.”

One thing is for certain. With the power of trust and friendship flowing strongly between these four - and the other eight - members of the HV Engineering team, Fundamentals’ clients can be certain they are in safe hands for many years to come.