Pumps, Turbines and Other Engineering Mysteries

This post was going to be about how my experiences so far in my internship (though interesting and enjoyable) have shown me that almost nothing I’ve learned in school is preparing me to actually be an engineer. Which is true. However in the course of discussing this idea with a friend, the conversation turned into an argument wherein I was told to stop complaining, pick up a book or search the internet and learn these basic engineering skills that I say I’m so sorely lacking.


So which is it? Should I expect to be taught engineering fundamentals in school where I’m paying thousands of dollars a year to be educated or should I suck it up and teach these things to myself at the library and with guidance from Professor Google? As with most things in life, I don’t think the answer is black and white.

There’s a lot of equipment in a power plant. Motors, turbines, pumps of all shapes and sizes, compressors, condensers, fans and more. I know, in concept, what all of these machines do. I’ve taken classes where I’ve calculated the results of their work. How high can a pump lift a column of water? I have calculated that. How much power can a turbine produce given the inlet steam temperature and pressure drop? I’ve done that as well. But how does the pump lift the water? How does the turbine extract energy from the steam? At a basic, mechanical level, how do these machines work?

Some kids grow up exposed to these things. They work in their uncle’s garage or their dad (or mom) is a repair technician, so they see these things from a young age. Maybe they love cars and have been tearing apart old engines since they were twelve. That’s great. And that gives them a big advantage, but what about us kids who didn’t tear apart engines or take apart washing machines as kids?

When I took my thermodynamics class and the professor drew the Rankine cycle on the board, the turbine was represented by a rectangle. There. That’s the turbine. It extracts energy. Okay.

That red/purple box to the right of the number "3." That's a turbine. Enlightening, right?

That red/purple box to the right of the number “3.” That’s a turbine. The little box between “1” and “2” is a pump. Enlightening, right?

When I took my Fluids class and worked through a pipe flow problem, the pump was represented by a little circle on the paper. That’s the pump. It gives energy to the water so the water will go uphill. You can calculate how far the water will go uphill if you know how much energy the pump will give the water. Okay.

And I would sit there thinking, but what is a turbine? What does it look like? Where does the steam go and how does it turn the shaft? How does the pump suck up the water and push it up the hill? What is actually going on inside that circle to make that happen? And therein lies my dilemma. Should I expect the professor, or the textbook, to take a moment out of the “big picture theory” and explain, real quick, how these rectangles and circles actually work? Draw a quick sketch? Nothing elaborate. Or should I accept that professors and universities have better things to do than teach undergraduate engineering students how basic machines work, when a big part of their future careers may involve detailed knowledge of these exact things?

For the record, I have spent countless hours on the internet Googling these topics and I am certain I will spend many more. I do know how a pump works now. I tagged along on a vendor visit a couple of weeks ago where one of the plant’s vertical pumps was being overhauled. I got to see the whole thing taken apart and lying on the floor and got a great explanation of how each piece works and how it can fail. They explained what “runout” is and a little bit about tolerances. The experience was extremely helpful, it only took an hour and it was free. Remind me again what I’m getting for my almost $500 per credit hour?

Drawing of a vertical turbine pump like the one I saw overhauled. Photo courtesy of Neptuno Pumps.

Drawing of a vertical turbine pump like the one I saw overhauled. Image courtesy of Neptuno Pumps.

Here‘s a cool animation of how a pump like the one above is put together.

I acknowledge that engineering is an incredibly vast field and it would be impossible to teach every student the nuances of every type of project they could ever have in any industry. Every engineer I’ve talked to has said how much they learned on the job (a lot) and how long it took them to learn it (a year or more at each job). Learning how to learn is one of the skills you do learn in school. Engineering is about curiosity, exploration and problem solving. Those features are precisely the reason that almost everyone I’ve talked to at my internship has said they never, ever get bored. Engineers who have worked there for thirty years say they still learn new things at the plant all the time.

But all that being said, an engineering degree can be a ticket to a lucrative and challenging career. Employers swarm college campuses hoping to find smart, skilled new engineers. I think universities have some obligation to give them graduates who not only have good theoretical knowledge, but also have a basic knowledge of machines, dimensions and tolerances. Make it a two-credit class that meets once a week. That’s fine. It’s not complex information. But it is important. I know I’d rather hire someone who took that class than one who I just hope has spent a lot of time online Googling “how does a pump work?” and “what is runout?”


5 thoughts on “Pumps, Turbines and Other Engineering Mysteries

  1. I’ve already told you how little practical knowledge I learned prior to graduation. There may be programs where you get the exposure that you feel is lacking, but I bet that overall your experience is the norm. That’s the benefit of co-op programs that require several assignments of real world exposure to a technical workplace, or with internships such as yours. They make up for a lot of what isn’t covered in school. The engineering education makes it more possible to understand and learn these things on your own by exposure on the job, or by doing the research you feel you need when you get a new assignment in an area with technology that is new to you. I think that you’ll find it satisfying when you finally find yourself being very comfortable with a new technology, only after investing a lot of time studying it or by interacting with it first-hand.

    • Oh I don’t doubt my experience is the norm for a university education. I do think it’s a shame that these basics aren’t taught. It’s frustrating as an intern or a new employee walking into a job and feeling like you are in the dark about basic information you should reasonably be expected to already know.

  2. Pingback: Machines Aren’t Magic | Extra Credit Life

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