Lights, Camera, action!
Winning the contract to work on Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura has meant new challenges for the team at SELECT Member firm Aeron Electrical, but it’s proved to be an unusual and fascinating project
Winning the periodic inspection and testing (PI&T) contract for Edinburgh’s iconic Camera Obscura & World of Illusions attraction has given the team at SELECT Member firm Aeron Electrical a new perspective on electrical work.
Unfortunately for them, there’s no time for fun with the mind-bending optical illusions at the world-famous venue as the team is working heads down during the night, busy checking circuits, sockets and fuse boards in a race against time to finish their inspections before the first visitors arrive to enjoy Edinburgh’s oldest purpose-built tourist attraction.
“The three annual inspections help us to pick up on any anomalies more frequently, allowing us to be more proactive in our maintenance programme”
Camera Obscura was established on its current site at the top of the Royal Mile in the early 1850s and drew the crowds to see the panoramic view of Edinburgh projected onto a table from an installation of lenses and mirrors. Today, it’s still going strong with visitor numbers predicted to be 350,000 this year, attracted by its fascinating optical illusions and fun interactive exhibits – that’s why the venue is open every day except Christmas, sometimes from 8am until 10pm in the summer.
Aeron Electrical won the contract for the building in 2019 as Camera Obscura’s Technical Manager, Ross Boon, was looking for a new approach to providing a continuous PI&T programme. Aeron Electrical’s Managing Director, Robert McShane, suggested to Ross the idea of breaking the three-yearly inspection down to three annual visits where his three-man team would check on a third of the circuits at each inspection and also draw attention to electrical maintenance issues.
Robert said: “We have carried out a lot of PI&T on commercial properties direct to clients or sub-contracting to facilities companies, and one of the things we have found on our many electrical installation condition reports (EICR) produced over the years is the overuse of the abbreviation ‘LIM,’ which stands for limitation and is something that is either not part of the inspection or there is limited ability to inspect.
“We break it down circuit by circuit, and when we finish one we go to the next fuse board”
“In my opinion, this is too much of a ‘quick and easy’ approach to not carrying out the necessary tests and Ross, who has an electrical background gained from serving an apprenticeship and working with ScottishPower, was of the same opinion. As a result, he decided that with our experience in testing commercial installations – along with the diligent and safety conscious approach we both hold for our work – we were given the opportunity to carry out the rolling PI&T by carrying out 33% each year and associated remedials.”
Ross agreed about the benefits of their approach. He said: “The three annual inspections help us to pick up on any anomalies more frequently, allowing us to be more proactive in our maintenance programme. Robert’s team have worked through the building as part of the inspection and testing regime and identified areas for upgrades. We tie this in with testing periods so we can get our maintenance, upgrades and testing done at the same time.
“The annual 33% PI&T can also be completed in a shorter time than once every three years. This is better for us in such a busy venue as it limits downtime when they are testing.”
The inspections take careful planning, as Robert explained: “The main complication about working at the Camera Obscura building is the opening hours, so we always plan the work for the least busiest times, which is either in the lead-up to Christmas or through January and February. Obviously, we have to work around the visitor hours so it’s either a night shift or back shift over a few days. Last year we were working from 6am-9am but this year we are working a back shift starting at 7pm and working through to 4-5am but sometimes to 7am – we are really working against the clock to be out of there before the visitors start to arrive.”
At each visit, the Aeron Electrical team inspects a third of the building’s circuits, checking on the integrity of the installations, any damage to sockets and switches and ensuring the property complies with the relevant regulations.
Robert said: “We break it down circuit by circuit, and when we finish one we go to the next fuse board. The building has a total of 14 fuse boxes so we test 33% of the circuits on each one during year one, and continue over the following two years until we have tested all the circuits.
“It’s a good way for the client to spread the cost over time and to minimise the potential disruption to the visitors, plus it helps us to identify any non-testing or maintenance issues with the electrical supply that can be fixed rather than not picking them up for three years.”
Another challenge for the Aeron Electrical team is parking: it’s impossible during the day but also an issue in the evening, so that means the team has to take all the tools and supplies they need for a night’s work with them because there is no going back if they forget something.
“Although the regulations did not insist on the venue using AFDDs, we have circuit breakers on the high load areas as well as RCBOs in areas where there are more issues with the old wiring in place”
Robert said: “There is a lot of walking the guys need to do, carrying heavy tool boxes and equipment up and down five flights of stairs. They are also working in relatively cramped conditions and they’ve also got to be careful not to damage the exhibits as well as being very security conscious.
“When we are working at night, the building has to be locked at all times and we are very much trusted with the keys and codes to ensure that we lock up behind us.”
When the pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, Ross and his team at the Camera Obscura took the opportunity for catching up on major and minor maintenance issues and, when the restrictions were lifted, Aeron Electrical found there were many jobs waiting for them to complete before the venue could open again. This work included the wiring and fitting out of new office space located in the basement, the wiring of air con supplies and the supply install and commission of electromagnetic door closures.
Some of Ross’s maintenance plans involved the replacement of old domestic boards with new industrial units, but Robert suggested that they put this work on hold until Amendment 2 to BS7671:2018 (IET Wiring Regulations 18th Edition) was published so they could be fully compliant with the most up-to-date regulations. Robert explained: “In advance of Amendment 2, Ross approached us to ask if he had to be made aware of any changes.
“As part of our 2021 remedial work, we advised him to change four fuse boards within the building so I had suggested we re-cost the work to include arc-fault detection devices (AFDDs) incorporating RCBOs on all circuits, as this will be our third and final year of our 33% per year PI&T being carried out. However, from our training and the literature we received from SELECT regarding the Amendment 2 changes, we both decided to proceed with the fuse boards as planned without the AFDDs as these units were not required in this venue under the new regulations.”
“You need to organise work shifts to fit around their availability, ensure the team has all their equipment and more to plan for every eventuality, and you have to stick to dates so nothing can slide: it’s very regimented”
Ross added: “I was very interested to see how Amendment 2 would affect us. From my ScottishPower background, I was very involved with notifications of what was going on in the network so I like to be forewarned of any issues. Although the regulations did not insist on the venue using AFDDs, we have circuit breakers on the high-load areas as well as RCBOs in areas where there are more issues with the old wiring in place.”
The original Camera Obscura building dates back to the 17th century, with the fifth and sixth floors added in 1850, so the building is listed and, as such, alterations to the exterior and structure are not permissible. This presents challenges for updating electrical circuits as Robert explained: “There are no dry risers and we are not allowed to drill through the stone work so we have to be creative: in one situation we had to drill through a window pane to get access for a new circuit.”
Ross is keen to replace some of the older wiring circuits that were put in 20-30 years ago and has developed new ways of recircuiting without affecting the fabric of the building. He explained: “When we renovated the fifth floor, we completely replaced the circuits but instead of cutting into the walls and replacing all the low-level socket-outlets, we put a whole new ring main into the gap between the fifth and sixth floor and then dropped sockets at high level, which has the added benefit of keeping them out of the reach of the public. This was ideal as we don’t have any unsightly wires or additional work of raggling and re-plastering. For us, time is of the essence so everything is in order for our visitors to have a great experience: no down time, no mess – that’s the way we like it.”
The electrical revamp of the building is a costly exercise but Ross appreciates the benefits of the investment against potential repercussions of not having it done: “If we had a board down it could close one of the floors for a couple of days or more, and that becomes very expensive very quickly. To minimise anything like this, we try to pre-empt anything like that happening, so good preventative maintenance is always the better option.”
Robert’s team has finished the last of their 33% PI&T testing programme at the Camera Obscura and he is looking forward to starting on a new three-year rolling programme in January 2024.
He added: “The valuable lesson from working on this project is the degree of planning you have to do. You need to organise work shifts to fit around their availability, ensure the team has all their equipment and more to plan for every eventuality, and you have to stick to dates so nothing can slide: it’s very regimented.
“I’m proud that we’re associated with this iconic building, particularly as you can see it for miles around. It pleases me that I’ve got a personal connection with a building I’ve visited as a kid and that thousands of visitors to Edinburgh also get to enjoy.”
Talented Suman’s got the knowledge
Robert McShane takes pride in the training that his 10 electricians have received under his guidance since he started Aeron Electrical in 2011.
Over that time he has instilled high standards in his team; some of them joke about his obsession with producing neat and exacting electrical installations where every wire and socket is level and true. His ethos is all about getting it right first time.
Robert has aimed to take on a new apprentice each year and in 2022 his latest recruit was 41-year old Suman Shrestha, who knows the Camera Obscura like the back of his hand as he was a former Maintenance Assistant working for Robert’s client Ross Boon until last summer.
Suman has electrical knowledge from working with transformers and telecoms in his homeland of Nepal and moved to Scotland in 2011 with his Spanish wife, who works as a research scientist at the University of Edinburgh. He had been working for Ross at Camera Obscura for the past five years but had always harboured an ambition of becoming a qualified electrician in the UK.
“The apprenticeship can be challenging at times as I’m both learning new techniques and also things I already know about but I’m learning to do these in a different way”
This opportunity came after Aeron Electrical took on the PI&T contract, as Robert explained: “While we were working at Camera Obscura, Suman shared with me that it was his lifelong dream to become a fully qualified electrician. At the time, I did not have an opening for an apprenticeship and, even if I did, I was a bit wary of taking an employee from a client. However, Ross knew of Suman’s desire to get an apprenticeship and told me he would not stand in Suman’s way of realising his dream.
“I was keen to help him as he was a good guy and really knew his stuff, so last year I approached SECTT about getting a space on their apprenticeship course.
“Luckily there was a late cancellation and I went to Ross to explain about the opportunity for Suman as an apprentice with us, and he said that’s fine, even though that left him short staffed for a while.
“One of the reasons I was keen to take Suman was his extensive knowledge of the Camera Obscura building.
“One of the challenges is finding your way about the building and the electrical infrastructure, so Suman is very much part of our team for the PI&T work at the venue.”
Suman is delighted with the opportunity. He said: “The apprenticeship can be challenging at times as I’m both learning new techniques and also things I already know about but I’m learning to do these in a different way. I’m keen to complete my apprenticeship as I can see there is a great future as a career as an electrician especially with new developments in electric vehicle technology and renewable energy.”
IMAGES: MIKE WILKINSON