From rail electrification to data centres, working with transformers is an everyday occurrence at WCS. As well as managing the complexities common to all these projects, we’re also experienced in overcoming the specific challenges and considerations each unique project presents.

Nick Lowe, Associate Director at Whitfield Consulting Services (WCS), discusses why working with the right design engineer makes a difference for the client in terms of cost, safety, longevity, and relationship with the community.

Transformers – the heart of any substation

Electrical power leaving the grid must be progressively stepped down in voltage; whether you’re electrifying rail or powering a data centre or residential development, the installation of transformers and the substations to house them is a critical part of each of these projects.

Working with the electrical and civil issues transformers present is very familiar to those who deal with them again and again, but the unique factors that each project and site brings often demand creative solutions, whether that is because of access constraints, planning restrictions on noise, or mitigating for increased rainfall.

Our role is to facilitate for clients, anticipating needs and problems based on experience, and finding the most cost-effective solution that is robust and compliant.

Tendering – every journey starts with a single step

We’re often asked to support a tender with preliminary design and documentation alongside other consultation. At this stage, knowing procedure can be as important as knowing the engineering. Bodies we work with regularly, such as National Grid and Network Rail, have processes and expectations we have learned over the course of our varied experience with them.

Certainly, there can be technical challenges also; on one substation project, the access road cut through a row of buildings via an arch. Space was so restrictive it was unclear whether the large transformer could be moved through. We used photogrammetry, converting photos into a precise 3D model, and were able to formally verify that we could proceed.

Bringing in design consultation from the earliest stages means tenders are robust, offering certainty that the project is deliverable and preventing unexpected costs.

Installation and temporary works

As that example shows, installation can present as many challenges as operations may. A super grid transformer, taking power directly from the national grid, might weigh 300 or 400 tonnes. We’re not involved in haulage issues, but once the equipment reaches site, the responsibility is ours. We need to verify that everything can physically fit along the planned movement paths, and also that anything underneath what we’re moving can bear the weight involved. Smaller transformers might be finally hoisted into place by crane, but for the larger sized, skidding in might be required – the term for sliding the transformer in on strong supporting steel beams.

Swept Path Analysis (SPA) software is often used to confirm vehicle paths are correct, and we may need to complete ground or condition surveys, as well as loading calculations. Condition surveys can be required for another reason – to establish the pre-works state of nearby structures, in case of subsequent claims or disputes.

Ensuring safety and compliance

Much of our work centres on the safety requirements and regulations that will apply once operations commence. We have to plan for all eventualities – however unlikely – like a blast. We plan for construction materials and the thickness of walls, but also design elements that dissipate pressure, such as vents. Firewalls and other safety equipment can often also form part of our design.

The substation involved may be new, but often the project is an upgrade to existing infrastructure. New equipment tends to be heavier, so we may have to reinforce existing structures or building elements, and perhaps strengthen or extend the concrete plinth the transformer will rest on.

In a 300-tonne transformer, 100 tonnes might be the weight of the insulating oil within. If that were to leak, we need to control where it goes, so we then have to design a bund, a reservoir. If this is external, we would also account for rainwater entering the bund, or even surface flooding, and how to remove the water while preventing any possible oil contamination.

Life cycle planning

Our proposals are whole-life designs, considering installation, operation, maintenance and end-of-life issues. The working life of a transformer might be 30 years, but structures will last a century or more, so we need to plan for replacement.

If we lay down brass studs within the concrete, for example, to aid the sliding in of heavy equipment, we’ll note that in the documentation and drawings. Thirty years later, if someone else needs to replace equipment, they’ll quickly be able to find that these are still present.

Relationships with local stakeholders

Transformers aren’t silent: they constantly hum while in operation. Planning or other restrictions may require us to complete acoustic surveys, and our design can require acoustic wall panels or other noise mitigation strategies.

On some occasions other requirements present themselves. One project, near Maidenhead, involved a new substation adjacent to beautiful woodland. There was concern about the visual impact of our project for those out enjoying the natural environment. The decision was taken to install an acoustic wall, but not for sound; we found one that looked appropriate to the concerned council, for use as a simple visual barrier.

Tip of the iceberg

These are just a few of the issues we might have to consider. Every project involves its own challenges, but they are variations on that which we have encountered before, because we have completed many of these projects. Whether it’s a new structure, an upgrade or just a preliminary design, the whole team at WCS will take an interest, and will approach every project with confidence born of their experience.

From new urban developments, to data centreswind farms or rail electrification, WCS provides civil engineering support to electrical engineering projects.

To read more about how we operate or to view some of our recent projects, head over to our portfolio page or drop us a line.