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Mark Davidson, Team Manager, SGN Natural Gas

It’s not every day you meet someone with a qualification in rhinology as part of their job spec, but then again assessing gas odours is no ordinary job.

Mark Davidson, Team Manager with SGN Natural Gas, is one of only a few people in Northern Ireland with the specialist qualification which ensures any leaks can be readily detected.

Rhino comes from the Greek for nose and rhino-analysts use their uniquely sensitive sense of smell to make the final check before natural gas goes out into the local mains network.

A native of Scotland now living in Northern Ireland, Mark is a member of the project team overseeing the development of the SGN Natural Gas network which is currently being extended into eight key towns in the western area. The multi-million pounds investment is one of the biggest energy infrastructure projects to be carried out in this region.

While natural gas leaks of any significance are uncommon, testing and commissioning the network is meticulously monitored to ensure regulatory standards are maintained. If there is literally even a sniff of a problem, the rhinologist will detect it and rectify accordingly.

As natural gas is both odourless and colourless, it has to be odorised to provide it with a warning odour, so that any leaks may be readily detected. The process of adding sulphur compounds to natural gas is known as stenching – but it smells bad for a good reason!

A harmless odorant is added to give the natural gas a distinctive pungent smell which is often compared to rotten eggs or smelly socks. This process helps detect even the smallest amount of natural gas leaking into the air, ensuring any faults are rectified within a specified period of time.

Mark explained: “This aspect of my job involves assessing gas odour intensity, which is usually done at the extremities of the live network. Using an odorometer, I assess the intensity of the gas odour using my olfactory senses – in other words I sniff the gas!”

An odorometer is a portable instrument that can be used by gas companies to check the odorisation of the gas being distributed. It contains a sniffing funnel for the human nose as well as the calibration equipment.

The odorometer provides an easy method of determining the odour intensity of a gas stream at any convenient point in the gas distribution or transmission lines. It is also a faster method of determining odour levels at high or low gas-air concentrations than the room-test method.

Dominic Scullion, Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Manager with SGN Natural Gas, is also qualified to carry out the procedure which necessitates direct access to the underground pipeline through which natural gas will flow into town gateways and is then distributed directly into connected properties.

While assessing gas odour intensity is part and parcel of the job, it is definitely one of the more unusual skill sets.

Mark Davidson added: “Sniffing gas for a living is not something I tend to bring up in conversation outside of work as people understandably find it a bit odd. However, it is all part and parcel of helping to ensure that we deliver natural gas safely and effectively to homes and businesses.”

SGN Natural Gas will be providing natural gas mains, meters and services to around 40,000 customers in Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry over the next 40 years.

The towns initially include Strabane where a number of homes and businesses are already connected to the new network, with Omagh, Cookstown, Coalisland, Dungannon, Magherafelt, Enniskillen and Derrylin all scheduled to follow in due course.

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