Smartphone Surveying

Survey photography has certainly evolved through the past few decades and I can even remember lugging a bulky Polaroid camera onto the odd site. The photos were of awful quality, but they were instant, and usually quite adequate. I still have that Polaroid camera proudly displayed next to now obsolete cordless phones and other museum pieces. Of course it wasn’t that long ago when we took hundreds of photos with film cameras and fed the industry that was photo processing. I have written about digital camera use in the past and I still roll my eyes when I think back to my first device – it was manufactured by Kodak (of all companies – wow they dropped the ball) – and it also took awful photos, was about as big as the Polaroid, and I gave it away before long.

Proper surveying usually means judicious use of a long tape measure, propelling pencils, erasers, clipboards and all sorts of other paraphernalia. The likes of which are generally tedious to use, and fairly dreadful on a November rooftop. Most of us have similar experiences where we are hoping it isn’t raining, and if we are lucky the wind is not going to take our hard work away. It was nearly ten years ago when I first realized that you could actually perform the survey function with not much more than your smartphone. By about 2010 they were equipped with perfectly acceptable cameras that if used effectively, could give you just about everything you need to produce acceptable record drawings. There are some provisos to this of course – such as existing drawings that already lock-in the position of equipment and your task is just to update the drawings. So my first such project was the replacement of some exhaust fans on laboratory roofs – and all I did was to take many photos, take some pertinent measurements of existing equipment (which I typed into my Memo app on the phone), and proceeded to produce the tender drawings. All of this without the inconvenience of handling a clipboard and mini-plots on a cold and blustery day.

Things have moved on considerably from that experience. I have been involved with NRC Building S-77 on Sussex Drive in Ottawa since the early 1990’s. This heritage multi-storey building was modelled on Buckingham Palace which explains its magnificent facade. It has been a Science building from the beginning, and when I first became involved, its roof was literally covered with centrifugal exhaust fans serving labs below, typically exhausting fume hoods. Of course there were also about five major outdoor air replacement air handlers at roof level, and nothing to recover any of the energy loss. It’s best not to think too much about how much this place was costing NRC to run.

Jump forward to about 2012 – Ameresco were engaged to manage a complete energy refit of the building that not only upgraded the fume hood situation, but replaced nearly all of the rooftop exhaust fans with an extensive collector exhaust system – involving multiple large exhaust air handling units equipped with energy recovery coils. This energy is now transferred across to preheat the incoming outdoor air, and the cost savings are immense. The ducting systems were designed by a local engineering consultancy, and they were expertly installed by one of Ottawa’s leading contractors. The design drawings were created at 1:100 scale (don’t get me started), and the final installation matched the design in concept, but not reality. Unfortunately, a requirement for “as-built” drawings was not included, so NRC did not have accurate records of the many changes that ensued in the labs, or indeed of the extensive system now in place at roof level.

NRC Science labs can be busy places, and it is common for researchers to request larger spaces, which sometimes make themselves available. However just because a space is there for the taking, it doesn’t mean that the existing building systems can accommodate your requirements. A big concern was that even though exhaust risers were visible, the records of what exactly was connected to each riser on each floor were inadequate, and certainly not trustworthy. This is where Rodders CAS was brought on-board and I was given a contract to survey all of the exhaust risers and create riser diagrams for each and every one of them (there are hundreds).   So I walked the site and marvelled at the extent of the exhaust upgrades on the roof, and decided there and then that what NRC really needed was a proper set of record drawings for the entire building, at 1:50 scale, that would show everything accurately such as the air valves serving the fume hoods, and the fume hoods themselves. This was not quite what I had been contracted to do, but it would have driven me a little crazy to have ignored the value of such drawings.

Back to Smartphone Surveying! It was of course late October, the weather was tending towards inclemency, and I didn’t fancy the idea of taking this on with a measuring tape. Of course I was able to survey all of the systems inside the building in comfort, so I started there. The answer was hundreds and hundreds of photos, and the golden rule became “keep snapping away” because digital photos are FREE. You soon learn that if you take a number of photos of the same ducting branch from different angles, you can locate it pretty well on the drawings. I had mini-plots of the original ducting layouts and marked these up as I went along. I kept wishing there was a way you could easily add a note to a photo you just took (never found one). I also realized early on that the first photo you take for a room system should be of the room number on the wall, outside the room. Otherwise you can end up with loads of photos and no idea what room they are from…

Eventually moving to the roof, and met with ominous clouds scudding across the sky, I set about recording the collector ducts. The riser duct penetrations through the roof were easy to accurately locate because the CAD for the floor below was trustworthy, showing the riser shafts. It took two survey sessions and almost a thousand photos; the roof is BIG, and it was fairly easy to lose your position, but a saving grace was that someone had thought to provide permanent metal riser tags that corresponded to the removed exhaust fan tag (thanks!). Taking photos from many angles was the key. Remember the client was not paying me to measure any of this – they wanted the riser diagrams. What they got was a full set of 1:50 as-built record drawings, and a separate 11×17″ PDF of each riser with all exhaust devices and an Excel table of (probable) airflows.


When finished I handed it all over and the client was more than happy. Back in the 90’s when I carried a pager, I used to say we need one device that does everything. My NRC S-77 surveys were achieved using a Samsung Galaxy S5, and I thought then that the photos were superb. Now I use a Google Pixel – and ducting never looked as good!

TMI Factory Visit – Montreal Quebec

Mid-February brought a little excitement because I escaped the Ottawa winter weather for a tour of the TMI Air Handler factory in Montreal Quebec. A recent project with NRC called for “better than your average” air handlers and TMI’s products fit the bill. Of course the weather in Montreal proved to be just as nasty as in Ottawa, but this was offset by my travelling companions. It was pleasing to make the journey in a brand new Ford F-150, big enough to tower over most vehicles foolish enough to come near. After a quick lunch on arrival in Montreal, we headed to the factory, where we were greeted by the top man for a background chat on TMI and its goals.


The factory itself is not very exciting from the outside, but the Meeting Room was delightful. After a very informative discussion on air handler manufacturing and background history (during which I did my best to ask many probing questions), we headed onto the main factory floor. It can best be described as cavernous. We were struck by the overall cleanliness of the working environment, and general lack of noise. I am currently reading the excellent “Arsenal of Democracy” by A.J. Baime, which recounts how the US retooled the automobile industry to produce military equipment during WW2. The efforts by the Ford Motor Company are well detailed, particularly the building of “Willow Run” – an enormous factory where they planned to build one B-24 Liberator bomber every hour, much like they were building cars. By all accounts it was a very dangerous and LOUD facility with huge metal presses and similar. The TMI factory is a far-better place!


I wandered about the factory generally impressed by what I saw – large computer-controlled machines, most of them from Italy. On the second photo above you can see a tower that has multiple levels for steel sheets of various gauges, and the computer simply grabs whatever sheet type is required and moves it to the cutter. I was reminded of how tailors cut out patterns, lay them on fabric and cut out the pieces – this is all done automatically by these machines and with as little waste as possible.


That large unit with the red doors is not an air handler, it is one of their spray booths, here looking rather like Battersea Power Station. Also I was a little amused by how the row of Plug Fan sections look like front-loading washing machines, which they assured me were not offered by TMI. I guess the engineering would be similar just the same. I was struck by how much planning it would require to setup a factory like this, there are so many stages in manufacture, leading finally towards large exit doors for shipping. I was also a little struck by how the factory differed from the Willow Run concept of assembly line manufacture, with more hands-on manual tasks than I expected.

The visit lasted about three hours, which went by fast because I was actually learning stuff. After a quick hotel check-in, we rounded out the day with an unforgettable 7-course dinner at Cafe Bonaparte in Old Montreal. I give my thanks to Master Group Ottawa for kindly including me on this trip. Did anything else happen on the trip you may ask? Possibly yes, but we all know that TMI actually stands for Too Much Information – and that would be telling.

Surveying 101 – Top Ten Surveying Equipment List

The following was first published in the February 2006 edition of the ASHRAE Ottawa Valley Chapter Capital Communiqué.

I have been surveying mechanical/electrical systems for twenty years now, and I seem to have spent much of that time on top of a ladder with my head stuck between a 24×48″ opening.  This has afforded me a vast amount of somewhat useless information that I will attempt to put into words here.  Following is the Rodders CAS Top Ten Surveying Equipment List:

  1. The first thing on the list is a high-quality clipboard.  I use one made of aluminum that was purchased for me from Lee Valley Tools, and besides the fact that it looks sexy, it also has a handy integrated storage box that can store many of the things listed below.  It should be light, make excessive noise when dropped, and not be too expensive.
  2. An absolute must is letter size photocopies or mini-plots of the survey area, typically an office or Lab space.  These should be plotted at 1:50 – surveys are virtually useless at 1:100 unless you don’t care about accuracy.  Plot out as many as will be required (including spares) between coffee breaks and store them in the handy storage box – refer to item 1.
  3. Our goal in this life is to make one self look as much like a geek as possible.  Therefore I make use of a “headlight” flashlight which generally straps around my enormous head and likens me to a coal-miner.  It is absolutely paramount that this flashlight is of high quality with an adjustable beam. This apparatus of course keeps my hands free to hold item 1.  Always have replacement bulbs handy.
  4. Item 3 leads me to state the importance of a large supply of freshly charged batteries.  Flashlights drink battery power like they are manufactured by the battery companies.  Wait a minute – my headlight says Rayovac on it!
  5. You simply must have a high quality tape measure on your person.  Don’t even think about those flimsy 1/2″ wide jobbies – they are rubbish.  It should be at least 25′ in length and 1″ wide.  And don’t believe it when the manufacturer states 20′ stand-out – that’s rubbish too.  When you have your tape, purchase a Magneto belt clip.  One minute the tape is on your belt, the next it is in your hand, no messing.  Your head is above a ceiling tile, you are holding item 1, your world is bright due to item 3.  You don’t want to fumble with item 5.
  6. Surveying with pens is for perfect people.  I am not perfect (not yet anyway).  Surveying with 0.7 and 0.5 projecting pencils is the way to go.  Keep plenty of spare leads in item 1.  You will drop the pencils.  Purchase Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers; carry two, both in item 1.  These erasers are typically left above ceilings.
  7. You will need a straight edge for making neat survey sketches on those letter size photocopies.  This straight edge should preferably be a clear plastic ruler with both imperial and metric graduations.  Clear plastic because you can see the lines you have already drawn through the ruler.  Store the ruler in item 1.
  8. A digital camera is a must.  When you walk into an office or Lab space with a digital camera you can create all kinds of interest from those flighty ladies messing with test tubes.  Keep the camera in a belt-pouch with a zip top.  This adds to your general geeky appearance.  The odd grenade and a web-belt will also increase the effect.  See item 4.
  9. Carry a ladder.  Preferably one that will get you above a standard 9 foot ceiling.  If you are lucky, the nice on-site guys will let you borrow one.  In which case a standard 4 foot step-ladder is always handy – the top makes a superb tabletop for item 1 when you are in a steamy boiler room with no clean surfaces.
  10. Maintain a healthy Mojo.  That is, be confident at all times in your ability, and proceed with purpose.  Enter rooms to be surveyed with a respectful look on your face, and state clearly what your intentions are.  I like the old stand-by “Hi there, I am here to check your pipes”.  That always gets them.  Another thing people love is when you simply stand in the middle of the room and gaze up at the ceiling as if there is something important happening up there (when there isn’t).

What to do with all of this equipment?  That’s the subject of a future editorial.

A Dialog about AutoCad Layers

I am anal about layers. I admit it. My drawings typically have up to about 300 of them, and if I have my druthers, they are mapped to the PWGSC (Public Works & Government Services Canada) layer standard. They don’t scare me – largely because I have customization that makes them easy to handle – and take advantage of.


The AutoCad Layer Palette

Translate this to the AutoCad working environment, and it can be a bit of a problem. Not so long ago, the boffins at Autodesk introduced the Layer Palette, which actively scans and updates while it is on or active – even while docked. It was one of those things that appeared magically with a new AutoCad version, and seemed cool at the beginning. Gradually I noticed how sluggish things were becoming during normal AutoCad operations, like switching between open drawings. I am currently using version 2015 with an Intel i7-based PC and high-end graphics card – and it seems to make no difference.  The way AutoCad was handling the layers seemed to be inefficient.  I could highlight some layers and try to change their bylayer colour – and wait for it to respond before it presented the colour dialog box.  I noticed that sometimes it helped if I closed down AutoCad and restarted it – flushing memory perhaps?

So I threw the question up on the Autodesk Forum – and soon the answer was forthcoming from a marvelous contributor: Dean Saadallah. He “reminded” me of the AutoCad variable LAYERDLGMODE (which I had never heard of) and advised that if I were to set it to zero, it would turn off the Layer Palette, and return my world to the CLASSICLAYER interface. And all of the problems went away. Selecting 40 odd layers at once to freeze them or whatever is now very fast – and I am happy. A downside is that you cannot dock the old layer dialog box – but I can live with that.


The Classic Layer Dialog Box

I can see why a live and dockable interface would be useful and funky – but it has to be written around efficient code – something that perhaps caches the layer information? Perhaps it already does that – but whatever methodology being used, it isn’t what I need it to be.


Life Experience via Cessna Citation

I often think back to March 2015 and one of life’s better experiences – the day I spent visiting the NAD Klima factory in Sherbrooke, Quebec. I received a call a week or so earlier from a good buddy Chris who works in the HVAC Sales trade – asking me if I would like to visit the factory (possibly) and oh: just so you know, we will be travelling via a privately leased Cessna Citation (absolutely). So early on the morning of March 19th I drove to Ottawa International Airport and headed to an area I had never been before – where the private jets reside. Entering the small office area I was greeted at a reception desk with smiles and a newspaper – you can wait in the lounge for the others to arrive. It was a bright and clear blue day and a glance out the window revealed our chariot for the day, all gleaming white in the early morning sun. After a short while my peers arrived and after a brief chat with the pilot and copilot, the six of use were able to walk out to the aircraft with a refreshing lack of security checks.


Having never been in a small passenger jet before, this was an exciting experience I assure you.  These aircraft are strikingly small in diameter, made very obvious by the way Chris didn’t quite fit into his seat without leaning a bit into the aisle. Another thing that was striking was the lack of any locked door separating us from the cockpit – I was able to turn around and speak with the pilot easily, his seat being only about 6 feet away from mine. And then there was the take-off – the thrust-to-weight ratio has to be experienced to be believed because this thing took off like a rocket – the take off roll was short and the ascent was steep and fast.


Getting back to business, we weren’t there just for fun and games – this was a trip to visit the NAD factory, and primarily learn about the NAD High-Induction line of diffusers. Before this trip I confess I knew little about these and was keen to see why I should use them. We were picked up from the tiny Sherbrooke airport and driven to the factory in a large SUV – and I was immediately reminded how driving styles differ in Ontario and Quebec. The Citation was not the only vehicle having impressive speed on this day. Soon after arriving at the factory we were settled into a fine meeting room decked out with product and multimedia. Seated around the large table, we were taken through all aspects of the NAD diffuser and what makes it special. I was impressed to hear about its virtually self-balancing characteristics, excellent performance at variable air volume conditions, and high customer satisfaction statistics. We were then shown around the factory which is cleverly kitted out with a number of test rigs at high level that demonstrate (with the aid of smoke generators) the induction and throw characteristics of the various diffuser models. By the end of our time in the factory, I had decided that there simply is no good reason NOT to use diffusers of this type – and my HVAC design work since then takes full advantage.

The drive back to the airport was equally hair-raising and on entering the Citation for the flight home, we were all happy when the copilot opened a cupboard that divulged all manner of in-flight goodies like shots of whiskey and a regular smorgasbord of snacks. This was a fine way to wind down what was a spectacular day out with my peers, some of whom are shown below on the flight home.



Let’s Edit PDF’s

For over a year now, I have been working on a contract with a local Crown Corporation to survey the waste pipe systems in nearly all of the buildings on their main Ottawa site. The waste piping below the site streets was installed in the mid 20th century and it is a combined sewer with both storm and sanitary effluent mixing before eventually heading east towards the main Ottawa sewage treatment plant. My client intends to replace all of this waste piping and split it into two dedicated systems below the roads, storm and sanitary. Each building on the site generally has sanitary waste discharging into one or two septic tanks, with (mainly) water leaving these tanks, and joining a main rainwater storm pipe leaving the building.

My task is to survey everything inside the buildings – to make sure that there have not been any potentially disastrous cross-connections over the years. The theory being that if the new sanitary piping leaving a building is sized based on potential usage – possibly NPS 6 – and a whopping similar storm drain is connected to that system inside the building – we could have a problem. You may be thinking “where are the record drawings” and quite rightly you have guessed that these do exist. The original building drawings date on average from about 1945, back when drafting was a profession – they are largely masterpieces of yesteryear. Gradually all of the drawings have been scanned to PDF – that wondrous file format that we tend to take for granted these days.

This being said, things inevitably get missed. Responsibility for updating drawings to “as-built” condition is rarely taken as seriously as it warrants, and companies cannot afford the luxury of technicians to perform this task. Often the actual designer gets handed a set of contractor marked-up prints about 3 months after the project is complete – and these sometimes get misplaced. SO anyway I have been studying thousands of original PDF’s gleaning what I can about the base building systems, transferring these to AutoCad, and then wandering through the bowels of the buildings with mini-plots at hand. Luckily back in the mid 40’s, the drawings were beautiful as stated, and contractors tended to install things exactly as drawn. Not like modern day when contractors often install systems in an entirely different (and perhaps more economical) fashion.

A prime example of a cross-connection was revealed last month when I was starting my surveys in the main boiler house on the site. I informed the guy in charge what I was up to, and he walked me across to the back of the main floor and pointed at a floor drain next to some menacing looking pumps: “Whenever we get heavy rain, water pours out of this floor drain, and floods this entire area“. Interesting I thought and sure enough, a day or so later of wandering around at high level revealed that a main rainwater leader drops about 40 feet down the building, only to turn horizontal below these pumps, and instantaneously become a sanitary drain. The one that the floor drain connects to. So 40 feet of head rushing down manages to go backwards through the trap, and floods the floor. Added to my list of required corrections as you might imagine.

This is leading me back to those thousands of scanned PDF’s. I have relied upon the excellent Adobe Reader (latest version at time of writing is DC) for years – because it displays a PDF quickly and allows you to zoom around it and pan it and mark it up with ease. However – it does not allow you to “tweak it”, which is often what I need to do. We have to remember that the person manually scanning thousands of original drawings is likely to get bored with the task, and might not always make sure that the drawing is “straight” in the scanner. Consequently there are many PDF’s that are a little skewed – enough to annoy me anyway. Also there are many PDF’s that have too much white space around the drawing border and it would be nice to crop them back a bit. Not with Adobe Reader DC.

After months of not editing bad scans, I eventually downloaded a trial of Adobe Acrobat DC, expecting it to do everything I needed it to do. Alas even with the monthly pricing plan to contend with, I was sad to find that I could only rotate a PDF by 90 degree increments – when I typically need to just tweak them about 2 degrees left or right. The trial version was rejected after about an hour. I am not trying to criticise what has to be a superb product here; I am just saying I could not get it to do what I needed.

So I went on the hunt for a full-featured PDF editor that would not break the bank. It turns out that these are not that easy to find and only a chance conversation at a friend’s office introduced me to PDF-XChange Editor. It looked promising so I did some research and this product proved to do everything I needed – and plenty more I don’t. The price is very reasonable, and it turns out that this software is produced by a Canadian company out of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Now it is my default PDF viewer, and anytime I load a (nasty) PDF that needs some cleaning up, I do that on the fly. It even allows you to customize the toolbars, and the printing interface is far better than what I had been used to – such as Print Current View being available from the main print dialog box (not embedded deeper).

PDF-XChange Editor

I highly recommend this product, cheers.

Hands Off My Digitizer

The Workspace

The Rodders workspace – in all its glory. Note the usual amount of stickies and other paraphernalia without which I could not function in this life.

So back in 1988 or so when I first experienced AutoCad, a typical CAD Station cost a whopping $5,000 CDN, and consisted of a 286 DOS-based PC (if you were lucky), an ugly and heavy monitor, a keyboard, and a Digitizer. Sometimes referred to as tablets, they were the de facto pointing device for AutoCad, which expected their presence. That’s one on the left of this photo. Instead of a mouse, you moved the “puck” across the surface of the digitizer, which assuming the puck was located correctly, also moved the crosshairs on the CAD monitor. It all made perfect sense and allowed for accuracy of movement on the screen.  Not to mention myriad possibilities for picking commands – but more later. AutoCad was DOS-based and from what I remember, it was very fast.

The Microsoft Windows environment evolved into its earliest practical forms and with this came the gradual adoption of a mouse as the default pointing device. Software developers started making their products more Windows “compliant” and added more and more icons, plus the standard set of drop-down menus we all come to expect in the Windows environment – FILE on the left and so on. Autodesk soon joined the masses and altered the AutoCad interface for mouse use – to the demise of the lowly digitizer. Soon there were piles of disused tablets to be found in CAD offices – relegated as scrap in the name of progress.

The Digitizer

So take a closer look at my digitizer.  It is 12×12″ in size, and has a 16 button puck. In the centre of the digitizer there is a rectangle that I designate as the actual “screen” on my monitor.  Everything surrounding that screen area is littered with actual commands to AutoCad – either simple commands like “LINE”, or calls to LISP routines I use on a regular basis.  The entire surface of the digitizer is actually programmable by the user and you can make any point on the unit correspond to any command you choose. That is actually an AutoCad drawing under the puck – a drawing I originally created back in 1988 – and have evolved steadily for more than 25 years.

So what advantage does it give me over mouse users? Ignoring the entirely customizable interface, I can achieve so many things with just one click with this device, that others might have to delve into screen menus to find. It could be argued that with the introduction of the “Ribbon”, all of this could be transferred to the screen. Like inserting particular blocks for instance. BUT I don’t want this stuff cluttering my screen space. It just isn’t efficient.

AutoCad still supports digitizers, but it refers to them as Legacy devices. This worries me because something tells me that any day now, they will drop support for them altogether.  Another problem is that while AutoCad recognizes the digitizer as a WINTAB Pointing Device, the drivers packed within AutoCad are not enough to allow efficient use of the device on their own. All of us digitizer users have been relying on drivers created by the now defunct Digitizer Technology – drivers that allow for the programming of individual areas of the tablet surface.  Without these, the tablet is just a pointing device. It turns out that the gentleman who wrote the drivers managed to patent them and had a virtual monopoly for many years. Recently he passed away and has left many of us wondering where to get drivers from… (I take great care of my Windows 7 PC and might need to keep it running for another few years unless new drivers appear – possibly Calcomp will produce something early in 2016).

I have been using AutoCad basically the same way for most of my career. It is a brilliant product and is largely responsible for giving me a good living. However, each time Autodesk releases the next version, I like many of my peers roll my eyes and wonder what they have changed this time – and what it will mean when I try to use my standard set of LISP routines. There have been so many releases of the product since 1988 that I have lost track – and certainly ignore a large amount of commands available – my world generally involving the creation of 2D drawings.

Perhaps by the time they remove support for the digitizer, I will have decided to put my feet up, and have a long nap.