While the lockdown imposed by the government has been essential to tackling the COVID-19 epidemic, for many people, businesses and services, it has not quite been as simple as just staying indoors. The healthcare sector has rightly been praised for its resoluteness in recent weeks and is one of many industries that has had no option but to carry on during these unparalleled times.
Key workers are defined as people whose jobs are vital to public health and safety, with the Government ensuring that they are able to carry out their responsibilities with as little restriction as possible. These include utility and construction workers, as well as those providing key public services like transport and national security.
There has been a tendency to suggest that the entire country has been at a standstill while the authorities advise on how best to prevent the virus from spreading. The reality, however, is somewhat different.
Throughout this period, gas, oil, electricity, water and sewer operations have been kept running, such is their intrinsic association with everyday life. Construction work has also been sustained in many cases, with several high-profile projects having to proceed during the crisis because of the safety implications of work completely ceasing.
We are very pleased to have been able to play a small part by supporting our vital industries and have been on hand to provide emergency assistance on a number of occasions when it has been required.
This was perfectly exemplified when a national water contractor got in touch with us during the middle of the night after a water main burst at Piccadilly Circus. There were valid concerns that the water could interfere with the area’s electricity conduits and cause severe disruption at the Underground station. With a swift response our top priority, we sent an engineer to the location immediately so that an overpumping solution could be installed to bypass the section needing repairs.
Piccadilly Circus is recognised worldwide for its iconic illuminations, and these have been switched off for an extended period only once since World War Two. It is also one of the busiest stations on the London Underground, with an average of 40 million passengers passing through its barriers each year. At the height of the lockdown, key workers have relied on significantly reduced transport services to get around the city.
The professionalism and speed of action by the contractor during this emergency was commendable and averted major disruption by containing the issue at source. The Underground was completely unaffected and, so too, were the dazzling lights that have become synonymous with that part of the capital.
During the same period, a military naval base on the South Coast sought our help after five docked warships underwent routine maintenance and repairs. Each ship is responsible for providing a vital form of defence by detecting, interrogating and neutralising enemy threats. These vessels are constantly deployed and must be kept in perfect working order even in the midst of a global epidemic.
When ships come into the docks, they shut down their independent power systems. This means they cannot use their internal fire main, which puts them at risk should a fire break out. It is, therefore, necessary for an alternative firefighting solution to be configured, prompting us to supply four different warships with high head pumps on hire for pumping water at high pressure. Our units were positioned on the dockside and connected to pump seawater into the ships’ own fire main to deliver an emergency firefighting capability.
A fifth warship was placed in a dry dock due to a need to carry out more extensive maintenance, meaning a slightly different application was designed. A 200-metre length of steel pipeline was run alongside the ship and connected to a UVO 150/100 pump sat dockside. Hoses were then connected to our pipework at three separate points to feed designated ring mains on board, ensuring that a standby firefighting solution could be instantly operational in an emergency.
The indispensable nature of the vital work being carried out by these warships and their crews understandably meant that the need for them to continue was non-negotiable. It is essential that all military personnel are in a position to carry out their normal duties, which is why our pump hire team were so keen to facilitate this.
Elsewhere, employees working in other business sectors have been encouraged to work at home wherever feasible as part of wider social distancing plans. Unsurprisingly, this dramatic change has had huge ramifications for power markets both on these shores and globally. The coronavirus has been blamed for the collapse in oil prices, which dropped to its lowest level for two decades at the beginning of April.
And while the demand for oil is directly linked to lower numbers driving on the roads, there is also a correlation between home energy usage increasing by 30% during the middle of the day and the volumes of people now working remotely. Overall, however, the country is actually consuming less electricity due to the closure of large, industrial users such as factories.
This temporary fall in demand has presented a Nottinghamshire power station with a perfect window in which to undergo routine maintenance so that it can continue operating safely if needed. The coal-powered plant is due to be decommissioned in 2025 but remains on standby as a reserve source of electricity generation. The company running the site has capacity market agreements in place, with planned maintenance a primary component of a contract aimed at protecting the UK power supply.
As part of this process, the management team asked us to survey the plant and formulate a specialist pump hire solution to assist with cleaning the upper sections of the cooling towers. The performance of a cooling tower is greatly affected by the efficiency of contact between hot water from heat exchangers and cool air being pulled or blown through the tower. When the structure is clean, the heat transfer is greatly enhanced and serves to better dissipate heat produced into the atmosphere.
To ensure the treatment was successful, we provided an MH150/100 high performance pump to draw water from the base of the cooling towers. High pressure hoses from the pump were fitted to a gantry of six metres to enable jetting and cleaning of the internal structures. Water from the operation was then collected and pumped by a Super Wispaset 150 to a suitable discharge point approximately 120 metres away. This pump rental solution was delivered towards the end of April and is still on site now, upholding a power station with the capacity to produce electricity for more than two million homes.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, a multi-million pound infrastructural project was underway at London City Airport. The development will see major improvements at the site and provide more space, see facilities upgraded and ensure a quicker and more streamlined service for passengers passing through.
As part of the plans, the engineering company overseeing each stage is working alongside a utilities provider to safely widen the runway all the way along. This process has necessitated that the contractor digs the entire length of the runway to install new drainage and an attenuation tank system beneath the tarmac.
The location of the runway – parallel to the River Thames and adjoining marinas – means that the groundwater levels are exceptionally high. This meant deferring the project until after the impact of the epidemic had subsided was both impractical and potentially unsafe, with work thus continuing.
We supplied the utilities company with several hydraulic submersible pumps on hire in order to control the groundwater during construction. What makes this assignment even more challenging is that all work has to be carried out at night, as the airport is operational throughout the day. All equipment used must be removed before the first flight of each day, with our pumps and a settlement tank deliberately located in trenches so that purpose-built steel plates can be placed over the top of these openings.
This complex arrangement was obligatory from a health and safety perspective as the runway had to be completely flat for aircraft landing and taking off. By utilising our pumps to reduce the water table, the lead contractor was able to begin excavating the intended area. At the Environment Agency’s insistence, all water removed from site was transferred through a settlement tank to remove silt and suspended solids before being pumped back into the Thames.
The prevailing climate, driven by a series of knock-on effects linked to the epidemic, has led to a decline in the availability of key resources required to confront everyday emergencies. This was particularly evident to us after a new housing estate in Cheltenham was left vulnerable to a latent build-up of sewage following a pumping station malfunction.
Due to the residential area’s remote location, it had not been adopted by the town’s main sewer line. Instead, a dedicated pumping station had been built by the site’s developers to transport sewage uphill several hundred metres until it reached the central system. However, an undetected blockage had caused the surrounding wet well to overfill.
Although the company that had built the original pumping station was liable to correct the issue, they estimated that they would be unable to respond for at least a week. Failure to address the problem before then would have left a large build-up of unsanitary waste and cause the sewer line to back up. There was a danger of contamination should sewage escape from the wet well.
One of our pump hire specialists received a call late on a weekday evening, where the urgency of the situation was reinforced. Our expert travelled to Gloucestershire early the following morning and proposed the installation of a 6” super silenced pump along with the relevant suction and discharge hoses.
By isolating the well, we were able to overpump wastewater directly from an adjacent manhole to the gravity sewer located 900 metres away. The choice of pump gave excellent solids handling capability at required heads of approximately 15 metres, with the silenced canopy ensuring the unit could be used on site 24/7 without disturbing those living nearby.
We were happy to have been able to assist a small infrastructural services company that had been left under pressure to rectify an error that had occurred through no fault of its own. The manager expressed relief at our quick response and willingness to provide support while other businesses are floundering under the intensity of the current market.
There can be little doubt that construction firms across the UK have faced unprecedented challenges in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, with their critical contribution to the country’s foundations and economy now plain to see – if it was not already. Over the last few weeks, companies have had to demonstrate a degree of pragmatism to find both short and medium-term solutions in order to safeguard the viability of the projects they are working on.
Striking a balance between contractual compliance and statutory health duties, and a need to preserve customer relationships and reputation, has left many in unchartered waters. The burden of completing a job on time wears heavily on the shoulders of senior figures in the industry and creates a separate set of difficulties.
One of the most high-profile ongoing developments is the rapidly advancing Ebbsfleet Garden City proposal, which incorporates the transformation of existing north Kent towns Northfleet, Swanscombe and Greenhithe. The successful tender has induced the formation of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation to speed up the construction of homes across a 310-acre plot of land.
Once completed in 2035, the scheme is expected to have provided 15,000 new homes and more than twice as many jobs. Of course, a task of this magnitude is implemented over many phases, with a local contractor currently building roads and other groundwork projects at the East Quarry opposite Bluewater shopping centre.
At present, a large lake fills much of the quarry, with the foundations laid for two roads effectively cutting the lagoon into three sections. A strategy was devised in which water in the section furthest right would be pumped into the central section, with another set of pumps simultaneously pumping water from the central section into the left lagoon. Sykes UVO high head pumps are then used to transfer water several hundred metres from the quarry into the Thames. Speed was very much of the essence, with the contractor eager to achieve a pumping capacity of 500 litres per second to ensure they could proceed with the next stage as early as possible.
As a company with decades of experience working alongside many of the key industries’ household names, we have a genuine empathy of the stresses contractors face every single day. It is for this reason that we are have taken the opportunity to step in and ease the load on those carrying the expectations of multiple sectors, many of which rely on prompt completion regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
Other scenarios may command immediate attention due to the severity of an issue and its likely consequences. This was certainly the case when a utility services manager called us early on a Sunday morning to explain that a sewer had collapsed in North West London. There was a distinct possibility that residents could suffer the effects of waste spilling out on to neighbouring roads, with the concomitant ground contamination a disastrous potential outcome for all parties.
While the sewer system needed urgent repair, it was just as important to prevent affected drains from flooding in the meantime. Fines associated with raw sewage polluting homes and other infrastructure could be expected to reach hundreds of thousands of pounds, in addition to the reputational harm of those implicated as being responsible.
The contractor was determined to minimise any impact felt by people in the vicinity and approached us for assistance. With the scale of the requirement explained in detail, we were able to provide four hydraulic submersible pumps on hire which were used to bypass the section of blocked pipe and redivert sewage to a manhole a few hundred metres away.
More than 200 lengths of hose were also required to complete the application, with the extent of the damage requiring a more intricate installation in order to tackle the problem without creating any disruption in public areas. Our solution acted as an essential stopgap that prevented an emergency fault from causing widespread danger and interference within a highly populated area – something we were glad to offer.
Sykes Pumps continues to acknowledge the role key workers are playing in helping the country overcome the coronavirus, at a time where geopolitics, mooted government bailouts and reduced consumerism contrive to impair economic growth.
Despite these conditions, the demand for many of our more understated services remains, and will continue to remain, underpinning a notion that they are an overlooked fulcrum of our society that is pivotal to keeping the country functional during these uncertain times.