What does an engineer do all day?

If you peruse through television channels (or streaming services) you will see some familiar scenes. A plucky lawyer, fervently defending her client. A doctor runs alongside the crash cart, deftly issuing science-y instructions to his team. But few channels, if any, show the daily labours of the engineer.

In fact, until I started working in engineering, I had no idea what an engineer even got up to on a daily basis. If the pamphlets for universities’ Engineering Departments were anything to go by, it must involve staring gormlessly at a colourful ensemble of machinery whilst wearing a hard hat. Job descriptions often muddy the proverbial waters by including ‘Engineer’ in anything vaguely technical; a “waste engineer” for a plumber, or a “Telecoms Engineer” for a BT technician. While these jobs are crucial and technical in their own right, an engineer’s job is distinguished from these by incorporating design.

Well, what does design look like on a daily basis? One example is calculating how much heat is lost from a block of flats. I use a spreadsheet to list out all the rooms, their areas in square metres, the outside temperature, the temperature that we want the inside to be, and some data about how thermally efficient the building is. I gather this data from architect’s drawings, weather data, and even (shock horror!) picking up the telephone.

After staring lovingly at my colour coded spreadsheet, adorned with clever and arcane formulae, I then use these heat loss figures to choose the right heat pump for the building. Or perhaps inform the architect that the building is too leaky.  Or even tell the developer that the boiler they bought from “Dodgy Dave’s Discount Boiler Emporium” wasn’t correctly sized.

However, cunning calculations aren’t the only way we can back up our technical answers. We sometimes have to leave the comfort of our heated office (or, in current times, kitchen table). This involves the exciting wide world of staring at things gormlessly (at least, that’s how I do it).

Let me set the scene: it was a sunny summer’s day in the south of England. A pair of engineers had driven to the site of a brand new laboratory, ready to inspect its shiny new drainage system and make sure it is ready for the client to use (a process called commissioning). Unusually for England, it hadn’t even rained in a couple of days. This compounded our surprise when we walked up to the laboratory building, as it leaked water from every available orifice.

“Fred”, a normally happy commissioning engineer, was looking miserable, standing in the doorway in oversized wellington boots, with water lapping at his trousers. He didn’t even perk up when my colleague praised him on his new “paddling pool”. It turned out that someone had forgotten to close a tap in the building. And with the drains sealed from the central effluent plant, and the high-spec laboratory building being fluid-tight, the water level had risen until “Fred” opened it up in the morning.

Our day of inspection quickly morphed into one of consulting (and consoling) as we figured out what work needed to be done to get the building back into the right condition. Waterlogged walls had to be replaced and all pipework re-inspected. A simple mistake ended up costing a five-figure sum to fix!

These are just a couple of examples of the daily deeds that an engineer gets up to. Far from being automatons holed up with a calculator in a dark room, engineers work with a menagerie of people to answer technical questions and design anything from a humble valve to a city-wide heat network.

-Written by James Charles