As a child, I would love watching people mend, make or create. I would stand in awe for hours in the local carpenter’s workshop or blacksmith’s forge. How a plank of wood could be turned into furniture or bars of iron into bespoke shoes for a horse was simply magical. But it was not just the artisans themselves that fascinated me, there was also something special about the care and precision with which they used their tools. Even now I can see the blacksmith’s anvil, tongs, hammer and his long leather apron. Those elements of observation and discovery have not changed, and this blog tells of my most recent ‘indulgence’, as I have watched and questioned three gas engineers as they have replaced the pipes in our road.
For years there was the occasional smell of gas outside our front gate. After much badgering and to my delight, a team from the gas company dug a hole, found and sealed the leak and then made good. Before leaving they told us that steel pipes like ours, which could well be a hundred years old, were now falling apart and that further leaks were inevitable.
As predicted, new gas smells were soon detected, but now the response was more radical – the company decided to overhaul all the pipes in the street. Letters arrived telling that major engineering works were planned adding that the work would cause noise, grime, dust and inconvenience, and would last around three weeks.
With my love for watching people at work, the prospect of having gas engineers digging holes, changing the mains and re-connecting the new piping to each house, was exciting. While leaflets did not make clear the true magnitude of the work, all was revealed when, a few weeks ago, lorries delivered the materials that were going to be needed. Apart from umpteen tools and gadgets, there were two large, walk-in metal ‘sheds’, one for storing equipment, one for ‘welfare’ (pee and tea!); a caterpillar excavator (digger) with all the extras for attaching to its arm; a dumper truck; over a dozen massive steel plates for covering excavated holes and around 160 metres of wide plastic tubing in 6-metre lengths. For some, the morning’s delivery would have heightened concern about the impending disruption; for me the array heralded pure delight.
When the work began I soon got to know the team who I discovered lived in the West Country and would come to London each week to work. The team leader, Mike, graduated from university with a degree in finance and business, but then decided to work as a gas engineer. With him were his father, Gary and a longtime colleague Lou. Between them they had over a hundred years of gas engineering experience and had accrued the same number of diplomas covering all aspects of their work. Their know-how and skill were soon obvious and, although they were not happy with my description, I referred to them as artisans. Interestingly, as is common with artisans, they were happy to let me watch the work and to answer my questions.
Now, for the work. The problem pipe – the 20 cm (eight-inch) wide steel main – runs down the centre of the street around a metre below the surface. Running off into each house – and there are twenty – are the smaller supply pipes.
The team’s first, and key job was to decommission the old steel mains. To do this they threaded 160 metres of a seven-inch ‘replacement’ plastic pipe down its length (see illustration). Next they had to reconnect this new pipe to our houses. At every step the challenges were enormous: the escape of gas had to be avoided, the supply of gas in the area had to be maintained, and the risk of explosion kept infinitely low. Moreover, in principle, their work should be good for a hundred years. With so many demands, tensions were high. But all was made possible by the ingenious use of bypasses, of manoeuvres to seal off gas-laden pipes and of gear that could cut through steel without risking sparks.
Seeing the team marrying new technology with the oldest of tricks was a delight. So at one moment on the kerbside they were using a special device to fuse together the shorter lengths of pipe to make the two, 80-metre airtight replacements. At the next they were checking for gas leaks by wetting the joints with soapy water and looking for bubbles.
Watching three artisans at work mending the gas mains outside our house has taken me back years. The pleasure of being allowed to be an inquisitive child again has far outweighed any inconvenience that the work might have brought.
The illustration shows a key stage in the gas repairs when the tip of an eighty-metre stretch of new yellow plastic pipe – here painted red and with a metal cap (on the right) – is about to be threaded into the valved, cut end of the now defunct old steel pipe (on the left).
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Garry, Mike, Lou, Rohan and Vivien.