Disregarding engineer’s advice is foolish economy

22nd July 2011 By: Terry Mackenzie-hoy

I have been a qualified engineer for 33 years. Apart from a few months here and there, I have done nothing but engineering as a profession all that time.

To be cruel, one might say I have one year’s experience repeated 33 times, but this is not so. I have worked on many different things. An arbitrary selection of knowledge that I have would be that (in no particular order) I know: how buildings are wired up, how uninterruptible power supply systems work, how synchronous frequency changers work, how to rate cables in trefoil, how colour temperature of lights influences colour rendering of objects, how harmonic filters work, the Ferranti effect on long-transmission lines, how to calculate fault levels in three-phase networks using symmetrical components, how to draw sagging curves from aluminium stranded steel-core conductor transmission lines, how a TV works, what harmonics one can expect if a waveform is periodic and symmetrical, periodic and asymmetrical, nonperiodic and nonsymmetrical; how to set generators so that they share reactive and real power; the H constant of a rotating machine; ward Leonard mine winders; Koepe mine winders; the South African Navy’s codes of practice relating to things like liquefied petroleum gas installations, hazardous areas, lighting, noise, switchboards; what decibels are; what a ten minute Leq is; and so on.

I could go on and on for the whole page and still have topics I have not listed. What I am saying is that, when it comes to electrical engineering, I know my stuff.

Why then do I end up having to counter the arguments of the hopelessly unqualified and inexperienced to my clients? Typically, my clients call me and say, hey, we want you to look at this, come to site. I meet them and am shown the electrical installation. This varies from very poor to lethal. Damaged switchboards, illegal cables and lights. Normally, quite awful. So, I say, wow, you are lucky to get away with this until now. And I go away and work out a cost to replace and (if possible) repair the building’s electrical system.

When my client sees this, there is always a sense of shock. And, as tsunamis follow earthquakes, the client will go, behind my back, and ask an electrical contractor for an assessment of the situation. Two weeks later, I am called (always urgently) to meet my client and I find I am in a discussion with a contractor (who, in some cases, is not even an electrical contractor) with whom I am now required to debate which of the rubbish electrical system should be replaced and repaired.

The contractor has one idea – to get the job and make profit on extras which are ‘discovered’ after the job has been awarded. The contractor, thus, tries to convince my client, in a subtle way, that I am some sort of ignorant university-trained buffoon who has never jointed a cable and who has put an inflated budget together for the sake of getting good fees, and that the contractor has a better idea. Does my client throw the contractor out? Nope. The debate must go on and, so, I sit in front of my client and I feel like an orthopaedic surgeon being made to discuss and justify a medical procedure to the hospital administrator, who thinks that the probationary nurse has better ideas.

It always stuns me that this happens, but happen it does. Even more strangely, my practice does quite a bit of work for insurance companies, in particular, assessors. If there is an electrical fire in a building, the assessor wants to know: Was the installation safe? Was a certificate of compliance (CoC) issued for the work? What they are really asking is: Is there a way we can repudiate this claim? One sure way is to not do repair work properly. One sure way to make the assessor happy is to issue incomplete CoCs and not get a professional engineer to sign the CoC as being responsible for design. Why do clients allow this to happen? Simply, to save money. And, in the long term, this is foolish economy.