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Atypical Travel: Interview With an International Smokestack Tester

There are many ways to travel the world that go beyond backpacking to tourist sites or teaching English. The Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey features individuals who are living lives on the road but typically fall off the radar of what we think of when we say “world traveler.” This week’s installment features Adam Williams, an international smokestack tester.

There are many ways to travel the world that go beyond backpacking to tourist sites or teaching English. The Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey features individuals who are living lives on the road but typically fall off the radar of what we think of when we say “world traveler.”

Today we focus on Adam Williams, who is a traveling smokestack emissions tester. Where most people probably have the urge to run from these ominous looking towers pumping smoke into the atmosphere, Adam climbs to their tops, probes them, and finds out what is really coming out. What he knows about pollution may surprise you. Originally from the UK, Adam is currently working in Vietnam, making money and having a livelihood, while routinely experiencing new places around the world.

In the following interview, Vagabond Journey talks with Adam about what the life of a traveling smokestack emissions tester is like and what the state of air pollution in developing countries looks like from the front lines.

What exactly do you do?

My name is Adam and for the past 18 years I have been working as a ‘Stack Tester’. This means that I measure air pollution which is emitted from industrial process through chimneys, or stacks as we call them.

Simply put, in most developed nations in the world, industrial plants are usually required by law to report the levels of pollution which they emit to atmosphere. Typically, industrial plants contract private companies, like the one I work for, to come onto their site and test the levels of emissions from their stacks. We then produce a report which the plant then forwards to the appropriate regulator.

To carry out a typical emissions test requires a certain amount of planning and preparation prior to even turning up at the site and getting started. Normally, we have to climb up stacks and haul up our scientific test equipment, but there are many questions and sometimes only a few answers. So before we get excited and stick our probes in the stack we need to think about what pollutants we are testing for. There are different test methods and different measurement techniques for testing different pollutants. These decisions are usually contractual but sometimes I have to think about this a little. We have to think about the test location and how we access it. Is there an elevator or is it ladders or stairs? How hot is the gas? How toxic is it? Do you use a gas analyzer to give continuous emission data or use a ‘chemistry set’ to obtain a single set of emission results.

The very simplistic idea of a stack test is to obtain a representative sample of the flue gas, analyze the sample, and then compare the pollution level to an emission limit. In order to obtain a representative sample there are rules!

The laws of physics determine that a gas will occupy the all the space it can and the gas constituents will be evenly distributed at all points across a particular point, at a particular point in time. This means that when testing for a gaseous pollutant we can normally just put a probe in and sample the gas from any point. That’s all fine but when it comes to particulate matter, but solid phase or particle bound pollutants it’s a different matter. The dust levels across the measurement plane will vary dependent on various factors such as localized gas velocity, direction and particle size. This means we have to sample from multiple points across the sampling plane. We also have to sample isokinetically; this means we sample the gas at the same velocity as it is travelling in the stack. Suddenly this has got a whole lot more complicated! At this stage I’ll stop telling you about it, as it gets pretty complex.

After we have sampled the gas we have it analyzed. Again, there is a whole range of analysis techniques. Once we have analytical results we can relate this to the volume of gas we sampled to give a concentration. Concentrations of pollutants are normally converted and report to reference conditions which typically allow comparison to an emission limit, previous results and similar processes. We then submit our report to the plant who then submits the report to the regulating body (typically the EPA or such like).

This is a very simplistic overview of what I do but there are many regulations and guidelines which we need to comply with and where we do not comply, we have to justify our decisions!

Turkish Power Plant Testing

Turkish Power Plant Testing

How did you get into this work?

I started my working career in the UK working for a Scottish brewery. Belhaven Brewery is a small independent brewery (they make good ale!) and being small it was the ideal place for a young man of 17 to get one of the dream jobs ….a beer taster! Well actually I had other duties, I was employed as a quality control laboratory technician, so I honed my laboratory skills here.

After 3 years of drinking on the job I moved to England where I found work in an environmental research laboratory for a hazardous waste incineration company. In this job, part of my role was to undertake routine stack emission tests from the incinerator stack. The laboratory also provided a commercial emissions testing service to help subsidize the laboratory. And so there you have it… from beer taster to … stack tester!

Inside a UK Power Plant Stack

Inside a UK Power Plant Stack

How does this work take you around the world? Where have you traveled to for work? Are you always on the road, or do you have a home base to return to after completing jobs?

Stack testing projects typically last from 1 day to several weeks depending on the plant size, the number of stacks and the particular scope of work. Since I first started, pretty much I’m always back home at the weekends, barring international or remote projects where that is not cost effective.

Most stack testers will tell you of carrying out endless weeks of testing, being away from home most weeks and living out of a suitcase in some hotel in some not so pretty city. Getting back home on a Friday and heading off again on Monday. I am not so different!

Most of my stack testing career has been spent in the U.K. I started in 1995, wow a long time ago! When I first started it was great. I was staying in good hotels, eating good food and drinking beers every night. I tell you, as anyone who lives out of a suitcase will, that there is not much you can do every night but go to the pub. Not bad I hear you say but every night takes it out of you, especially when you consider what awaits you in the morning!

My career had progress somewhat, but in 2012 I was still doing stack testing, and after a year or so of discontent I made a decision, albeit with very little deliberation. I had decided to jump of the gangplank of the good ship Britannia and emigrated to Brisbane, Australia. I had found a stack testing company whose boss was willing to sponsor me to become their Quality Manager, whilst still carrying out stack testing. So after only about three months after my initial contact with my future boss I was ready to make the epic move. Actually, apart from travelling halfway round the world, the change in my life was minimal; it was like going on a permanent working holiday doing the same old job! But this was different, this was Oz! I had stack testing in the week but beaches and babes at the weekend!

So the stack tester had gone international! Well actually I had already been involved in a few overseas jobs whilst based in the UK. I have carried out some work in the Netherlands in a place called Groningen, which is in the North of the country. I remember that trip, it was great. There were five of us and we spent just over a week soaking up the Dutch hospitality. I remember our car nearly got ‘run down’ by a fleet of bicycles! I remember drinking a beer called Delirium Tremens, allegedly if you drink too many you end up hallucinating and see pink elephants! I remember having our van searched by the UK drugs squad for what seemed like an hour!

Another great trip was when some work cropped up out in Eastern Turkey. The place was called Elbistan and it was up in the remote mountainous region. We went in summer so it was really warm but that job was very interesting too. Basically my company sent out 30 odd engineers to carry out an assessment of a lignite power station as a sweetener for the company buying five of our parent company’s mining machines – word on the street was that each machine was about fifty million UK pounds!

Whilst working for my Australian company I’ve had two visits to Vietnam for work. Fly into Ho Chi Minh City and then travel through the Mekong Delta region…. amazing but very dire with poverty.

When I think of the places I’ve been, most are grubby industrial towns and cities. I’m thinking of places like Birmingham and Tilbury in the UK, Gladstone and Karratha in Australia. However, some are very beautiful like Kinlochleven and Inverness in Scotland, the Snowy Mountains in Australia and how could I forget Groningen in the Netherlands and even Eastern Turkey had a desolate beauty about it. Vietnam has taken me by surprise; I’m intrigued by the place and the people who live there. I aim to make many visits to this truly wonderful county.

Wow, it’s been an interesting ride so far. Sadly I’m spending more and more time in the office these days but I still look forward to working away; particularly places I’ve never been to before. I do like seeing the world, even though I’ve only seen a very small number of places I feel I’ve been lucky to see these places — all paid for by the polluters… I’m not sure if earlier I said that the polluter pays… so true!

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Is this work dangerous?

Dangerous! Hell yes, but then no at the same time. Statistically, due to the relative very small number of people carrying out the work, it is one of the most dangerous jobs there is.

When you think about potential hazards that we encounter: work at height, relatively unknown places of work, chemicals, gas cylinders, exposure to flue gases quite often at high temperatures, heat stress, general fatigue due to long working hours, frequent travel, and the physical nature of hauling equipment up stacks, climbing ladders and stairs frequently — yeah, you can see why things do go wrong.

The reality however is that most stack testing is carried out in a safe manner and it’s no more dangerous than the average industrial job. In 18 years I’ve not had a major incident, I’ve had a very small number of minor ones and a few that could had been ugly, but nobody is dead or been majorly injured because of me!

Australian Paper Mill Stack

Australian Paper Mill Stack

You’ve probably been able to take a view of the countries that you’ve worked in that goes far beyond the general tourist’s experience, could you elaborate on this? Could you tell us a story?

To be honest, I’ve not travelled to many different countries for work but I have many stories; I’ve had lots of unique experiences and I’ve spoken with some very interesting people. Most of my experiences revolve around getting drunk with locals but I’ll tell you a little about a couple of places, the first was following a recent visit to Vietnam and the second is of probably the most exclusive experience I’ve ever had, though in my home country of the UK.

Last time I was in Vietnam for work my colleague and I were very fortunate to be invited to a locals dinner / drinking party. The said locals happened to be workers at the industrial plant we were testing. The group consisted of normal workers plus a few section managerial types. The night started off slowly with dinner and a few bottles of the local brew but as the night progressed we were introduced to the local rice wine; a nasty tasting liquor drunk rapidly from small ‘tea’ cups. After consuming a few cups of wine we were then introduced to the practice of drinking 50/50 with best friends. The idea was that someone drank 50% of the drink before handing the cup to their new best friend who then proceeded to drink the remaining 50%. Needless to say, I made many new best friends that night. The best or the worst thing (you decide) was that we all had work the next morning. This was an exceptional experience which I will never forget, I am unable to convey into words how I felt that night. Yes, before you ask, there were some very sore heads the next morning.

Later on in that visit we had the opportunity to visit a very poor family which our host had befriended. I won’t say much as this is a particularly hard subject for me to come to terms with but let’s just say they lived in very poor conditions…. but at least they were smiling all the time so must be happy!

One final story I’d like to tell you occurred back in 1997 I guess. I was sent to do some work at a metals refinery. This place is located somewhere in middle England but I’m not allowed to tell you because this is not just any ordinary refinery; this place refines gold and silver and produces gold and silver bullion!

So, we turned up at this place and immediately it was obvious we would have major issues with security. We wanted to take a van full of ‘miscellaneous’ equipment into a place where they make gold and silver bars! The security guard was not going to let us in on the grounds that there was no way they could check the van for ‘unauthorized goods’ on the way out. After he made a long telephone call to the site manager we were let in on the grounds that if we couldn’t test then they would have to shut down for breaching environmental legislation. Before we passed through the metal detectors we were told a story by the guard. I’ll cut to chase but this is the just of the story, a member of a film crew was observed picking up ‘something’ and wrapping it in paper. When he was about to leave he must have got cold feet as he dropped it on the ground, this was also observed and when he got to security he was invited to go back and pick up his ‘rubbish’! No doubt he got a very stern talking to from the security guard.

Anyway, back to my story. Once inside the gate it was like prison: metal detectors, x-ray machines and cameras everywhere. We had to x-ray all our equipment… all except one item which didn’t fit and they couldn’t metal detect it cause it had a dirty big pump inside it… and so a plan was hatched! A plan which was only thought about but never carried out. Right, this place makes gold bars. We had a bit of equipment which they could not x-ray or metal detect… I think you can work out the rest of our plan!

The highlight of this trip was that we were shown the bullion storage area… man, if you have seen the Italian Job it was like that… stacks and stacks of gold bars…. and then silver bars… there was like 10 times more. They even allowed me to pick up a gold bar… wow, it’s heavier than you think! Now that’s what I call an exclusive experience.

Australian Cement Plant

Australian Cement Plant

There seems to be a good deal of misconception about what constitutes pollution from power plants, could you explain the different types of discharges from smoke stacks, what the risks are, and how to tell them apart?

In my view power plants are pretty ‘clean’ polluters. Yes, they produce a lot of emissions purely because they tend to be big plants, but there are fewer ‘nasty’ pollutants that come from power plants than from a lot of other industries. Additionally, power plants tend to have very high stacks, therefore the emissions are generally more effectively dispersed.

Below I have summarized the major constituents of the flue gas from a coal fired power plant and their basic effects on humans and the environment. Obviously there are a small number of other pollutants emitted from power plants but these are relatively insignificant, so I’ll not talk about them here.

Particulate or dust
Very fine dust particles of approximately less than 10 µm in diameter that cause damage / disease of the respiratory system. Visible dust which falls to earth and covers property in large amounts is normally described as a nuisance; but causes no direct harm to the environment.

Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx)
NOx causes smog and acid rain formation. Acid rain causes damage to environment. Smog and acid rain can cause disease of the respiratory system.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
SO2 causes acid rain and acidic particulate (SO4 particles) formation which can cause damage and disease of the respiratory system.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
CO2 is a major greenhouse gas and some might say causes global warming, but that’s not for me to say. CO2 is harmful to humans at high concentrations but it’s unlikely that you will ever be exposed to a high enough concentration to injury you (unless you sit there breathing flue gas with extremely high CO2).

Carbon Monoxide (CO)
CO is toxic to humans at relatively low concentrations (in our industry this is a major concern since CO is colourless and odourless). CO has influence on other pollutant formation but does not directly harm the environment.

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Are there any other misconceptions about smokestacks and pollution, etc . . . that you would like to dispel here?

Yes, the main one is often when people see a visible plume they normally regard this as pollution. This is just not always true. Typically, when people see a ‘billowing white plume from a stack the flue gas typically contains a large volume of stream (water vapour), yes there is likely to be some pollutants being emitted but the whole plume is not pollution. Steam produces the distinctive white plume which is mainly evident in direct sunlight and typically most plumes are just air (mainly Nitrogen and Oxygen) and steam.

UK Waste Incinerator Testing

UK Waste Incinerator Testing

What are your thoughts on different types of energy options that are available for developing countries, are there any types that you feel are better than others?

Many countries still rely on their natural resources for their energy production over and above importing costly but potentially cleaner fuel. For me, it’s simple: if a country has a plentiful supply of a particular fuel then they should be free to use it before importing other fuels.

There are a number of different types of fuels and generating methods, very briefly I’ll talk about them.

Combustion with Fossil Fuels
Fossil fueled generation is a well established, reliable and relatively cheap form of generation. Yes, coal and oil can be ‘dirty’ with gas being the cleanest. Building a gas turbine power station is very quick and easy, dependent on the overall complexity of the plant but in their simplest form you only have a gas turbine engine with a generator. A coal or oil fired power station is a little complex and so takes a bit longer dependent on the overall size.

Nuclear
Nuclear power is obviously ruled out for developing countries due to the cost and issues relating to waste disposal and security of the plant and fuel.

Renewables
When looking at ‘renewable’ energy we have wind, solar, geo-thermal and generation from water (hydro). Renewable energy tends to be expensive per unit of electricity and sometimes unpredictable. I don’t believe some of the large scale renewables are viable; they appear to have become popular to keep the greenies happy and to satisfy renewable generation government targets.

Wind
Wind turbines can be on-shore or off-shore and the relative high cost (very high for off-shore) per unit generated coupled with individual low generating capacity and unpredictability limits the suitability of large scale wind generation for developing countries.

Solar
Large scale solar generation always appealed to me and on paper looks like a good option too but there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm for which I don’t know enough to comment.

Geo-thermal
I don’t have much experience with this type of generation but it basically uses heat from the earth’s core to turn steam turbines, often a heating system is available for communities. I’m not sure what the requirements are for the suitability of these plants but overall a nice renewable energy source.

Water
Under generation from water we have conventional hydro power, pumped storage hydro and generation from tidal streams and waves. Hydro generation is clean and is a good way to go if a country has viable resources. One issue is that conventional hydro plants and some pumped storage plants require the building of large dams. Building dams is not really environmentally friendly. First the cost of energy to build them but also with the loss of land for the reservoir for the power station’s water supply. Pumped storage systems tend to be used for peak generation since it is usual to return pump the water used in the generating process back to the storage reservoir overnight. Tidal and wave generation is not at a viable stage and wave generation is likely to be unpredictable.

Energy from Waste
Community based small Energy from Waste (EfW) plants could be a way forward. EfW plants address three issues in one. Waste is disposed of in an incinerator, hot water and hot air heating can be provided where necessary, and with generating capacity on the back end a cheap local supply is available. The other plus is that there would be reduced waste going to landfills. I know people don’t like the term incinerator but people don’t like a lot of things, and sometimes these things are a part of life. Incinerators had a bad reputation from the old plants with limited pollution abatement and control systems; modern plants are very clean and well controlled. I’ve tested many modern incinerators in the UK, and these plants are the real deal.

Micro-Generation
I do believe that where possible, every house (particularly new builds) should be fitted with micro-generation to fit solar panels and a wind turbine. Obviously this is not always possible and would be dependent on the location and if the build was a home build or buy corporate company.

And finally whilst on about micro-generation, and this is a wacky one which came out of a long road trip, how about home-micro-hydro generation! Micro-hydro is currently used by land owners with small streams running through their properties on a similar scale to home solar. But I’m thinking, what about using the streams of water within the home which has the potential to generate very small amounts of electricity. So, how about having a micro turbine on every flow of water from taps, sink drains to the toilet outflow, this could be used for powering low energy appliances like LED lighting, radios and other such like appliances. I don’t know if this may be possible but it might be worth a go! While we’re at it, connect the exercise bikes and hamster wheels up as well!

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

As you’re on the frontlines of the coal power issue, what’s your take on this form of energy? What are the problems? Why is there such a reliance on coal in countries like China and India? How could it be used cleaner (and why isn’t it)? What do you think is the future of this energy source?

As I said earlier, if a country has the resources then they should be able to use it. What should be happening is developed countries should be offering assistance to developing countries to allow them to build / modify plants to reduce emissions and not just saying “stop burning coal” etc.

The requirement for cheap energy is a must, particularly in developing countries. Therefore again, if a country has a vast resource of its own then this is likely to be cheaper that importing in other fuels. This is the case in India and China, these countries consume vast amounts of energy and what cheaper method than burning the vast resources they own?

To make power generation from coal cleaner there are a number of established methods of emission abatement for different pollutants.

Particulate – easily reduced through a number of methods. Electro-static precipitators with optional SO3 injection, bag filters, cyclones, wet scrubbers.

NOx – reduced through Selective catalytic reduction (SCR) and low NOx burners.

SO2 – reduced by using low sulphur coal or through Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD).

CO2 – this is where the big problem arises! CO2 is a product of combustion and the only way to reduce it is by reducing the carbon in the fuel or by making more efficient power plants, so more energy per unit of CO2. Alternatively, capture the CO2 prior to entering the atmosphere. CO2 capture is very difficult and very expensive and we are only just starting to develop ways of capturing it. Then we have the problem of what to do with it? How do we store it? Where do we store it? Lots of questions and very few answers!

The main issue for power generators is that the cost to capture and store CO2 costs more than the profit made from generating electricity. Until we accept that CO2 reduction means very large electricity bills then nothing will change much, unless the scientists come up with a new solution!

My thoughts are that coal will continue to be burned at an incredible rate in places like India and China, and why not? But they should be looking to reduce emissions in a manner which is without excessive cost.

Whilst the majority of developed countries accept the responsibility to quantify and at least try to reduce emissions, I would hope that for most developing countries would be measuring emissions and looking at solutions, without excessive cost, to reduce emissions. I would hope that most people would agree that pumping out pollutants is just not acceptable, not for reasons to limit climate change but for the well-being of the local residents!

Finally, there are obviously bigger issues but each and every country has their own way of dealing with their energy / pollution problems. I would think it is unfair to say that people don’t care, even in developing nations. I may be wrong though!

Additional Photos

Turkish Power Plant Rooftop

Turkish Power Plant Rooftop

Emissions Test Gas Analysis Equipment

Emissions Test Gas Analysis Equipment

Emissions Test Equipment In Stack

Emissions Test Equipment In Stack

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Australian Power Plant Stack at Alumina Refinery

Australian Paper Mill Stack

Australian Paper Mill Stack

Australian Paper Mill Stack

Australian Paper Mill Stack

Australian Cement Plant

Australian Cement Plant

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

View from a Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

View from a Vietnamese Cement Plant Stack

Turkish Power Plant

Turkish Power Plant

There are many ways to make a life traveling the world, make money, live well, and the Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey aims to take a look into many of them. Each Thursday look for a new interview with an atypical traveler right here. 

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Filed under: Atypical Travel, Jobs and Professions, Pollution, Vietnam, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3212 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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