Thinking Outside The Box

On June 2 I turned 51. Being that it was my birthday I left out a bit later than usual as I was not going directly into my Kingston office, but was instead heading to a meeting with a Government consultant who is working on the development of a new engineering workflow for a new government statutory body. Continue reading


Memoirs of an Engineering Student | Stirling Engines

The Stirling Engine was first conceived in the early 1800’s

I met our new engineering intern for the first time last week. Continue reading

A Case for Solar Energy

Solar Energy

The Jamaican policy-makers are nowhere closer to finding a lasting solution to the energy crisis that the country is currently facing given the fact that the 381 MW project has ran into another road block.  The Enterprise Team announced by the Government as part of the strategy to move the process forward was only this week cleared by an Act of Parliament to begin its work.  Continue reading

The Engineers Role in Infrastructure Development

Engineers play a critical role in the development of any country’s infrastructure. Therefore, it is incumbent on society to maintain its engineering capacity to engender growth and economic prosperity. Continue reading

Substantiating the Value of Engineering


Engineers are having great difficulty substantiating the value of proposed fees to potential clients. With more than twenty-two years in the business, I still face each request for a fee proposal with a certain amount of trepidation.  The million dollar question is will the client accept the proposal? This trepidation is born out of the fact that I may be forced to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that the proposed service is value for money

Tertiary engineering education did not prepare me adequately for this reality, as my first few positions as an engineering graduate were far removed from the reality of business.  Would any one readily question GE about their value for money?  After all GE’s tag line was “We bring Good Things to Life”.  Goodyear Jamaica was the sole tyre manufacturer and as such could determine the price of their tyres, and the consumers was left with no choice but to purchase their brand or brands that they offered.  The Caribbean Cement Company was void of competition leaving  consumers with no choice.  The practicing consulting engineer on the other hand has to work in earnest to receive confirmation of an accepted proposal.

I have practiced my craft in several jurisdictions and the reality that I faced in each jurisdiction as a practicing consulting engineer is the same.  Multi-lateral agencies such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank, all have a healthy respect for the practice of engineering and the value an engineer brings to the projects they funded in the public sector.

The private sector on the other hand, is a different scenario, specifically in jurisdictions where regulation of the profession is not strictly enforced.  Jamaica, for example, has an Engineering Registration Act, the Professional Engineers Registration Act 1987.  The Republic of Trinidad & Tobago also has similar registration legislation, however, the enforcement in both jurisdictions is nothing compared to the requirements in Florida.  The Registration Board in Trinidad encourages citizens to use a Registered Engineer for construction design or works, but their legislation does not effectively prevent non-registered engineers from practicing.  The local authority does not insist on signed and sealed design documentation.  In Jamaica it is slightly different, as the Registration Board can prevent unlicensed engineers from practicing.  The problem is local authorities do not require mandatory signed and sealed construction design documentation.  This does not apply in Florida, where the signing and sealing of design documentation is stringently enforced.  Registration Boards in defined jurisdictions are mandated to ensure public safety from sub-par engineering designs and works.

Furthermore, apart from the  public safety issues, engineers add value, which is one of the most important intangible products. The homeowner whose cut-stone retaining wall failed the moment it was backfilled placed trust in his construction workers, void of a design executed and supervised by an engineer. This is just one such avoidable and costly catastrophe.  The operator at the water treatment plant whose plant suffered a total shutdown on a ground-fault failure event, because the electrical protective devices where not properly coordinated by an engineer, is yet another example.  The business owner, who having taken the decision to expand his operation and belated discovered that the cost of the electrical infrastructure needed to support this expansion is not affordable, as the earlier electrical distribution system was not designed by an engineer, but rather installed by an electrician devoid of expansion capacity.  Engineers bring value to the table by ensuring that designs have the necessary capacity for current and future needs. Thus the failure to use design professionals can be costly.

The number one barrier to accepting the necessity of engineering consultancy is the fee. Clients usually pay attention to the magnitude of the fee proposal and not the tasks as outlined in the proposal. A client’s first reaction to an engineering fee proposal many times is “This is expensive!”.  However, on careful analysis it becomes patently clear that the cost of using engineering services as a percentage of the project construction cost is a mere 4%.  The logical question that an engineer hopes a client would then ask is can I afford NOT to use this professional input?

Variations can and will occur on construction projects whether or not there is a professional engineering input.  However, the variations are significantly more costly to the client when incomplete designs are used in the absence of the required engineering services.  As a consequence clients are left with the only option of paying significant premiums during construction by way of variations.

Using consulting engineers from project conception to implementation gives clients the best value for money.

Is there a Shortage of Engineers in Jamaica?

While going through the Jamaican Daily Gleaner on Monday, March 10, 2014, an article caught my eyes, “Shortage of Engineers”.  During the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee of the Jamaican Parliament on Tuesday, March 11, the Executive Director of the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo), Denis Hickey stated that the agency was only able to spent $94M of the $600M allocated in the 2013-2014 budget, while at the same time paying well over $300M for salaries, wages, & administrative expenses.  The question that crossed my mind is how are these two items linked?

TPDCo is primarily responsible for the development of tourism related infrastructure in the country and as such utilises the services of architects, urban planners, quantity surveyors, and engineers on a continuous basis.  The Executive Director in his presentation to the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the agency lacks the capacity to execute its mandate effectively, hence the low project spend during the fiscal year, which works out to be 30 cents for each one dollar of input cost.  The bottleneck created by the current Government of Jamaica Procurement Processes is also one of the biggest contributing factors.  Therefore, the end result of this low project spend is the non-engagement of the requisite building/infrastructure professional services that is required to design and supervise the implementation of these projects. 

Prior to the onset of the recession in 2008, most private engineering consulting firms were just barely surviving having not fully recovered from the financial sector crash of the late 1990s.  The 2008 recession was the final nail in the coffin for most engineering firms.  Coupled this fact with the decline in the mining and the manufacturing sectors of the economy, the migration of engineers, especially to Canada where the recession had minimal impact, further depleted the engineering capacity in the country.  The policy-makers never saw this as something to worry about, as solving the country’s economic troubles took precedent.

Now we are at the point where the cry is engineers are short.  However, what I do not hear is what are we going to do about it?  Firstly, the policy makers must realise and have an appreciation that without indigenous engineers being at the core of any development model, the sustainability of the development model is at risk.  Government agencies such as TPDCo and the National Water Commission, whose project financing is funded from dedicated sources, must be charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the country as a whole maintains its engineering capacity by keeping local engineering firms financial viable.  Spending only 30% of its allocated budget, the TPDCo is moving in the wrong direction, especially in light of the fact that most building consulting firms are under severe financial pressure.  National Water Commission sitting on its $5B K-Factor fund and not spending it effectively is also moving in the wrong direction.  The only way an economy can grow is unless investment takes place. Building  Engineering capacity takes time and is not achieved overnight.  As such the Professional Engineers Registration Board (PERB) should be given the necessary resources to be the driver in rebuilding this capacity as Jamaica seeks finally to set its economy on the right path.Image

Optimal Electrical Distribution Design Reduces Energy Costs

A properly planned electrical distribution design can reduce energy cost in the medium to long term while allowing for future development and growth.  St. George’s College, located in Kingston Jamaica is an example of a high school campus which has expanded over the last three decades without the electrical distribution system being optimised. One of the strategies that should be first employed is the optimisation of the electrical distribution system prior to the implementation of any alternative energy solutions.

The 8.1 hectare (22 acres) campus of St. George’s College in 1975 when I was a first former, consisted of the following buildings:

  1. The newly constructed Adrian Chaplin Industrial Arts Building,STG
  2. Dinand & Collins Lower School Blocks,
  3. Jesuit Residence (later renamed the Quinlan Building)
  4. The Faculty Building,
  5. Biology Lab,
  6. Chemistry Lab,
  7. Physics Lab,
  8. Fourth Form Block & the Headmaster’s Office,
  9. O’Hare Building,
  10. Emmet Park and Club House,
  11. Winchester Park,

After my departure in 1982, the following buildings were added or building use modified over several years:

  1. Abe Issa Auditorium & Canteen/Computer Lab Building,
  2. The Samuel Carter Library,
  3. Archbishop Lawrence Burke Building,
  4. The rebuilding of the Fourth Form Block damaged during Hurricane Gilbert which now houses the Student Development Centre,
  5. The converting of the Jesuit Residence (two floors) into an expanded Faculty and Administration (Quinlan) Building.

Furthermore, the school population grew from approximately 600 boys in 1975 to over 1400 students (since girls are now admitted to sixth form) presently.

The moot question is, was the existing (1975) electrical distribution system upgraded over the last thirty-nine (39) years to accommodate the growth in the size of the school plant? With each new building added, except for maybe the rebuilding of the original Fourth Form Block, more than likely, new electrical meters were added.  As the school evolved, the electrical distribution system evolved without proper planning which has contributed to rising operating electricity costs.  With expansion St. George’s College has ended up with multiple electricity supply meters instead of one single point of entry for its electricity supply.  It is a contributing factor to a monthly unsustainable energy bill totalling close to J$1M per month.

In order to mitigate the effects of the high monthly energy bill school administrators are looking towards the implementation of alternative energy solutions.  Steps have been taken where the some of the traditional street lights on the school campus are solar powered lights.  Although this is a laudable green alternative, it still does not solve the bigger problem the school is facing.  What if the school’s electrical distribution system instead of just evolving was planned as each expansion in the school plant took place? Would the monthly energy cost be at the current level?  Probably not, as the school’s energy rate category would have been either a Rate 40 or 50, depending on the designed Kilo-Volt Ampere (KVA) Demand. This would have attracted a lower energy rate, with a time of day option, instead of the current energy Rate 20 category that each meter in the school is now access.

Since the electricity provider’s responsibly ends at the line side (input) of the meter, it is then the responsibility of the customer to ensure that the downstream system (i.e. beyond the meter) is capable of carrying the demand load.  The Government Electrical Inspector does not provide design services. They only inspect the installed system to ensure that it is safe to be connected to the electricity provider and thereafter issue an inspection certificate.  Therefore, the efficiency of the design is not taken into consideration by either the electricity provider or the Government Electrical Inspector.  The efficiency of the design is the sole responsibly of the end user, that is, the customer.

For example, a school  plant which has three individual electricity meters, with an average Kilo-Volt Amperes (KVA) demand of 18 KVA each, at three phase, 220 volts supply, would have a total demand of 54 KVA.  Since the total demand for each individual meter is less PVthan 25 KVA, the rate category for each meter would be assigned Rate 20 service, which is the small commercial category that attracts a non-fuel charge of J$12.42 per kilowatt hour. There is no demand charge and the customer is billed solely on the amount of kilowatt hours consumed during the billing cycle. However, if the school was to combine the three electrical meters into one meter, with a single point entry, and a properly designed power distribution system, then the rate category would now be Rate 40 that attracts a non-fuel charge of J$3.54 per kilowatt hour; a saving of J$8.88 per kilowatt hour or 72%!  Although the rate 40 would attract a demand charge of J$1,332.84 per Kilo-Volt Amperes (KVA), the customer would be able to manage the KVA demand of the school plant with the implementation of demand reduction strategies, such as power factor correction, once they are enjoying a lower non-fuel energy rate.

Secondary schools do not have the required resources, financial and otherwise to undertake the necessary planning needed for an expansion in the school plant, unless it is being undertaken by the Ministry of Education.  In this case, the Ministry would ensure that POVthe necessary required resources are allocated to the expansion project.  However, in most cases the Scope of Work is limited to just the expansion for all the building consultants involved and excludes the existing buildings on the campus.  Whereas this limited Scope of Work (SOW) will be adequate for the engagement of the architects, civil/structural engineer, this is not the case with the electrical engineer.  As in the case with the expansion of the Annotto Bay High in St. Mary under the ROSE II project, the Scope of Work was limited to only the expansion for all the consultants, which resulted in a second electricity meters being installed instead of a consolidation into one cost effective electricity meter for the entire school plant.

An expansion in the school plant will always result in an increase in the KVA demand, which would necessitate an analysis of the existing electrical distribution system.  This by its very nature, even when engaged directly by the Ministry of Education is very expensive and as such is not included in the Scope of Work (SOW).  Where the schools themselves undertake the expansion, it is normally done at reduced fees by the building consultants and with the same limited Scope of Work.

If the Scope of Work include an evaluation of the existing electrical distribution system, then a comprehensive electrical distribution design, modular in nature, that will take care of the current and future expansion needs of the school can be executed.  This design at its core would be to optimise the power distribution to ensure the following:

  1. Efficiency – distribution transformers and cables are sized correctly for current and future  load growth requirements,
  2. Reliability – distribution system is 99.999% reliable with nuisance tripping of circuit breakers almost non-existent and current flow to load is properly balanced,
  3. Modular – Power take-off points are consistent with any developed school plant master plan.  This would mean that future expansion would only necessitate marginal spending on the electrical distribution system,
  4. Robust – The designed system would grow in tandem with any expansion of the school plant
  5. Adaptable – Alternative energy solutions would be easily implemented and at minimal modification cost,
  6. Manageable – Energy uses at the various load take-off points could be monitored and demand reduction strategy easily implemented.

Therefore, the first step that is necessary in reducing the monthly energy bill is to evaluate the electrical distribution system to ensure it is optimised for the current and intended uses.  This would make the implementation of the recommendations of any energy audit undertaken easier and more beneficial.  Furthermore, the implementation of any alternative energy solutions would be less expensive, since the electrical distribution backbone would have been properly designed.

It is time we forego short term gains and replace them with those that have long term well thought through benefits.

Courtney O. Currie P.E has over the past twenty-two years undertaken electrical distribution design projects for educational facilities in Jamaica and Barbados.  He also served on the Board of Governors for St. George’s College, his alma mater, between 2006 – 2009 and specialises in the design of power distribution systems and the integration of alternative energy solutions in existing facilities.

Goat Island, Coal and Economic Development


The Government is very close to signing off on the Goat Island development.  The Works Minister, the Honourable Omar Davies made the announcement in Parliament this afternoon.  His announcement was routine as he outlined the steps that are to be taken and what China Harbour Engineering is intending on doing.  However, one aspect of his announcement had to do with the type of fuel that will be used in the power plant, which is coal.

So coal is back on the agenda and the environmentalists will and are going to have a field day, as they have been provided with new ammunition to attack this project, but will they be successful?  I think not.  I have argued previously that given where Jamaica is right now in its development cycle, alternative energy solutions such as solar and wind cannot provide the push necessary to drive the economy to the growth levels required to move our people out of this quagmire. The simple truth is to move this economy to where it can compete effectively in World trade, energy must be cheap, and the cheapest fuel source at this moment is coal.  The downside to coal is the harmful effects it can have on the environment if its use is not properly regulated.  Beijing is just one prime example of a runaway economy growth fueled by cheap energy, coal, and the harmful effect the city is currently experiencing with smog.  Furthermore,  Caribbean Cement Company does use coal in its operation, and the coal receival yard is passed everyday by commuters traveling west into or east leaving the City of Kingston and the air is relatively easy to breathe.  This is unlike the situation at the Riverton Dump where unplanned fire can smog up the entire western side of the city to include the Portmore Municipality.

Coal is like any other fossil fuel.  It can be safely used without causing unnecessary harm to the environment. What we have to ensure with the proposed Chinese built coal plant is that we put in place the necessary measures to ensure the plant maintains the agreed environmental standards prior to its construction.  So, with coal there is nothing to fear, but fear itself.

Chinese Investments – Roles of Construction Professionals


Nain Early Childhood Institution, Nain St. Elizabeth

Fifteen years ago, and five hundred years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus on our shores, a second Spanish Invasion took place.  Five years before the start of the “invasion”, the country was warned about the impending investments, and that the pipeline was filling up at a rapid pace. The Minister of Development at the time, Dr. Paul Robertson was aptly titled Minister of the Pipeline.

The pipeline opened up, and the Spanish investment in the tourism sector started flowing like a river during a hurricane.  Sadly the expected economic impact did not materialize for the construction industry sector.  Architects, engineers, and quantity surveyors were left standing on the sidelines, not participating in this investment boom.

I am not sure what took place during the negotiation phase for these investments by the Government agencies and the Spanish investors, but a critical sector of the local construction industry was left behind, that is the architects, engineers, and quantity surveyors.  Ignoring the roles these construction professionals play in the local construction industry resulted in numerous accidents, such as collapsed slabs during the construction of these hotels.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the same mistake is about to take place unless the policy makers do and think otherwise, and more so respect the Laws of the land.  On the just concluded official visit to China by the Honourable Prime Minister, it was announced that the Chinese would be constructing two new infant schools, one in Tower Hill, in Kingston and the other in Morant Estate, St. Thomas.  These schools will be gifts to the Government and people of Jamaica.  The Press release from the Office of the Prime Minister stated inter alia:

“Under the agreement, the Chinese government will assist in constructing the classrooms, playing rooms, auxiliary rooms, outdoor corridors, outdoor playground and other facilities. The Chinese will also be responsible for the design of the project, supplying the necessary construction machinery, equipment, materials and dispatching the necessary number of Chinese technical personnel to Jamaica to organize construction.”

If one should take this announcement at its face value, then it would be safe to conclude that there is going to be absolutely no work for any Jamaican construction professionals, as the Chinese will be dispatching technical personnel to Jamaica to design and execute the construction.

When I read this I was appalled, because I wondered where are the Jamaican construction professionals in the scheme of things as it relates to both these schools, and the much bigger Logistics Hub investment?

Two out of the three named construction professionals are regulated in Jamaica under an Act of Parliament.  The architects are regulated under the Architects Registration Act 1987, which was amended in 2005 and the engineers under the Professional Engineers Registration Act 1987. These two Acts of Parliament require all architects and engineers intending on practicing in Jamaica to be registered and issued with a practicing certificate much the same way as doctors and attorneys-at-law.  The Quantity Surveyors are self-regulated through the Jamaica Institution of Quantity Surveyors.

Fifteen years ago, the construction professionals were left behind because these two Acts were in their infancy.  These two Acts are now considered mature and it is my hope that the two Boards entrusted with the Regulations and the Administration, act  accordingly in the public’s interest and of the professionals who they regulate.  After all, the Chinese are international investors, and we must ensure that they abide by the rules as laid down by our Sovereign Parliament.