Feedback: your letters

Thrashed out on the virtual round table of truth that is the E&T letters page are the knotty problems of green motoring, Trading Standards' war on digital, Lego's lasting legacy, foolish advertising, the wonderful world of trains and whether advice constitutes coaching. My advice: read on!

Green motoring problems

I have recently experienced something which I hope may be of interest to readers of E&T. It is part electronic, part mechanical and part chemical, but should also concern automobile engineers.

As an environmentalist I was keen to set an example, but problems arose when I invested in a tank of biodiesel.

Being of a cautious nature, I used one-third bio and two-thirds diesel, but that seems to have caused a problem. A gel formed (similar to what happens in my plum wine due to pectin) and I can only assume this was because of a reaction between a mineral and vegetable oil. (This has nothing to do with fish and chips as the bio was produced to BS 14214).

My Toyota Corolla, overtaking at about 60mph, suddenly went engine dead without warning, leaving me without power on the wrong side of the road. This is where the electronics take over: the AA rescuer simply plugged in his computer and said: "You have a fault P1229 which is not on my list so you must consult your garage."

The garage said it was not on their list and, as the AA man had cleared the evidence they could do nothing, even though the dashboard had indicated a filter icon and a computer icon.

We were left with a potentially dangerous fault that occurred on two more occasions before the garage informed us that the diesel pump had failed and would need replacing. (They had found fault P1229 on "another" list.)

It was only after they had fitted a replacement pump and found the fault recurred that they checked and found a blocked filter. After draining the tank and changing the filter, I was presented with a rather large bill.

As many people are experimenting with biodiesel, there is a good chance that others may well be faced with similar problems. Hence, I feel it is important to bring it into the open and stimulate discussion. Three separate issues arise.

The garage owner stated that when the onboard computer detected a serious fault it should cut the engine immediately, and that this is a legal requirement for all manufacturers.

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency has since told me that the computer should cut the engine to a 'get home' mode with speed limited to 30mph or so. In my case, the engine cut dead three times.

Biodiesel mixed with mineral diesel seems to have problems, though the producer has run a fleet of buses for three years on 100 per cent without trouble. I feel some research should be done into the mix problem since, so far, I have found no reports.

The AA, RAC and other breakdowns use the international diagnostic test for locating faults. Manufacturers and garages use the same test, but appear to have a separate fault list. Is this ethical?

Alan Clarkson MIET, Criccieth, Gwynedd

Digital or not?

A friend of mine called in a panic to say that he had received a formal communication from his local Trading Standards to remove the word 'digital' from his advertisement for the fitting of 'digital aerials'.

The model he fits is one that is benchmarked by the Confederation of Aerial Industries, who have a scheme to lay down minimum standards for the technical performance of UHF TV aerials based on the specific requirements for satisfactory DTT reception and publish the voluntary list.

If such an aerial is benchmarked then its design performance is specifically aimed at DTT reception with a balun and/or provision for an MRD (margin raising device) for active impulse noise reduction. So, can an aerial, for which the primary design and benchmarking is DTT reception, be called a digital aerial? There is no argument that it will satisfactorily receive analogue transmissions for which a Balun or an MRD are not essential requirements, although the construction or operation of the item itself is not 'digital'.

Trading Standards argue that it is for clarification purposes that they make the request so that customers are not confused. Let us not forget that FM aerials are now called 'DAB aerials' or audio headphones are described as 'digital headphones'.

I suppose that in any advertisement the text should read as 'benchmarked for CAI Standard 2 Digital Terrestrial Television reception aerials', but I think that 'digital' is more to the point as an adjective to describe the aerials primary design criteria. Obviously, Trading Standards do not agree. I wonder who advises them?

Steve Beeching IEng MIET, Newark, Notts

Lego's influence

It was fascinating to read of the link between toys and the engineering profession in E&T Vol 4 #3. From around 1947 onwards, my own progression included a 1930s electrical construction kit inherited from an uncle, Meccano with two clockwork motors, a chemistry set, a Juneero construction kit, and the Eagle comic with its exploded views of planes and so on. An EMI correspondence course on electronics at the age of about 13 culminated in the construction of a two-valve mains radio with 'reaction control'.

From all of this I graduated, with help from Practical Wireless and Wireless World, to experimenting with early Mullard transistors; transmitting very low-fi music optically (to an OCP 45) across the family living-room and building ever more complex transistor radios. How much of this qualifies as playing, I don't know, but it was all for fun and very much hands-on.

With a brilliant secondary school physics teacher, no wonder that an electrical engineering degree followed - including vacation working at AEI in Manchester and Northern Electric in Montreal - and a career which progressed via Ferranti Computers, GEC, robotics, the commercial field, university industrial liaison, and a strategic knowledge transfer role.

How can one tell whether the 'toys' stage led to the adult career or whether the choice of toys was simply a foretaste of my natural bent? Whichever it was, I have had fun for over 60 years.

Adrian Hill MIET, Swindon

I was passionate about Lego from an early age, but eschewed the bespoke models and preferred to make my own, which were usually aircraft, helicopters and spacecraft. Although my parents did not have much money, Christmas and birthdays often involved some contribution to an ever-expanding 'bin' of Lego pieces.

I am now a lecturer in the Structures Group at Cmabridge University, where my own research specialism is in aerospace structures - hardly surprising. I can count the influence of Lego upon shaping, not only my aspirations, but my interrogation and technical skills and the development of my creativity.

I've now encouraged my own five-year-old son to take an interest in Lego, too.

Keith Seffen, Fellow and director of studies, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge

Bad ad

I have been struck recently by an error in the latest British Gas advertisement that seeks to promote offshore wind farms.

A cartoon 'home planet' is shown being connected to a cartoon 'water planet' on which we see a wind farm. The problem is that the lead carrying the power from the turbines is fitted with a three-pin plug that is then seen to be connected to a socket at the home. This makes the wind farm appear to be an appliance powered by the home rather than vice versa.

Clearly, whoever designed the advertisement was not aware of IEE codes of practice and is presumably also oblivious of the danger posed by a plug with exposed contacts fitted to the supply side of the mains.

JMH Chambers MIET, Newport, Isle of Wight

Railway reminiscences

The article on Margate's scenic railway (Vol 4 # 3) reminded me of the three months I spent as a brakeman on 'The Scenic' in 1960, between leaving school and joining the RAF. Catching the rope on each of the two ascents was indeed tricky, and we took pride in making this as smooth as possible. My training consisted of two runs sitting behind the chargehand who showed me how to do it; then
two runs with him behind and me doing it; and finally a solo run. That afternoon, 30 passengers were entrusted to my new-found skill.

Health'n'safety had not then been invented. There were no seatbelts, just a handrail for the passengers; and the brakeman sat on an old metal tractor seat between the first and second cars, with only the 3ft-long brake lever to hold on to. The chargehand would get very annoyed with those who would ride with just one hand on the brake (or occasionally none) in order to impress the screaming girls behind us.

It was a very enjoyable introduction to the world of work. Not many chartered engineers are able to claim that they have 'driven' a listed building.

John Bentley CEng FIET, Buckden, Cambs

It's good, but is it coaching

I have enjoyed reading Janet Wright's 'On the Coaching Couch' articles in E&T and on the IET website, but here is the point: coaching and advice are two completely different things.

Coaching is about helping coachees to find their solution to their issues. Coaching starts with the assumption that the coachee has the knowledge and power to make progress, and it is the coach's job to help the coachee find the way forward. The coach will typically ask many questions: What are you actually trying to achieve? What are the important facts? What could you do to move forwards? What other options do you have? What would be the consequences if you do that?

The process encourages the coachee to really think about what there are trying to do, what the real facts are and, then, to think laterally to find a good solution. Thus, the coachee not only finds a solution to the particular problem but also learns how to tackle other problems.

Let's be clear: there is certainly space to take advice and learn from other people's experiences, but it isn't coaching.

Andy Hilton MIET, Shap, Penrith, Cumbria

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