The answer to the age old question

Why do they need plumbers in Antarctica?

Whenever I speak with people about Antarctica the first question is usually, “What do you do down there?” After I respond that I’m a plumber the next question is always, “Why would they need plumbers in Antarctica?” Well, pull up a chair and let me tell you a bit about my job.

Although Antarctica has 90% of the world’s fresh water, it’s mostly frozen and people down here prefer it in its liquid form. This requires a heated building full of tanks and associated equipment to collect it and keep it that way, as well as an insulated, reticulated network of pipes to all the buildings.

When you flush a toilet down here it has to go somewhere and not freeze on the way there - that’s part of our job. We also think the local wildlife appreciates the fact we maintain a waste treatment plant.

The hot water we supply in the showers seems popular as do the washing machines and drying room.

It can get to minus 30°C on a winter’s day so it’s nice to go into a warm sealed building that has just the right amount of fresh air changeover. Getting air in and out of buildings in Antarctic conditions is not particularly easy and being the driest continent on earth also requires humidifiers in some buildings, which need regular servicing.

When you want the bins emptied you don’t just put them out on the street (they’d blow away anyway). You take them to the plumbers and they sort them for return to Australia, or burn what can’t be returned in a commercial incinerator.

The chef enjoys the commercial kitchen we maintain with its gas cooking equipment, but changing a cylinder of gas down here is a bit more work than your BBQ at home. We all love having a dishwasher, although no one loves cleaning the grease trap or the range hood. We take the good with the bad.

The doctor is also a frequent plumber user, with all the piped gases to the operating theatre and dental surgery (we also maintain the dental chair and equipment). We also come in handy to service the autoclaves used for cleaning surgical equipment.

Hydroponics is another popular spot to have a plumber on hand.

The fire team (which we are all part of anyway) is glad to have us maintaining the station's fire hydrants and fire pumps, as well as all the fire hose reels and sprinkler systems in the buildings. There’s a couple of hundred fire extinguishers spread throughout the buildings that are checked and stamped twice a year. The kitchen rangehood and powerhouse also have specialised fire systems that we maintain. Speaking of the powerhouse, we look after the water side of the cogeneration power system. This uses excess heat from the engines that produce our electricity, to heat water that is then used to heat the buildings around station.

The scientists like their labs and equipment kept at specific temperatures and are particular about waste management. They also have equipment that produces ultra-pure water, fume cupboards and gas equipment that all need looking after.

And if the coffee or soft drink machines stop working, we’re straight onto it.

When winter arrives, we winterise several buildings to conserve energy and then de-winterise them ready for the summer crew. We also maintain the diesel fuel lines, pumps and tanks that run to various parts of the station.

We obviously don’t have any shops, receiving supplies and equipment just once a year, so we fix things that break or work out a way around the problem until we can get parts.

Many of our systems are monitored and alarmed because if they fail during the night or in an unoccupied building, we need to know as soon as possible due to the unforgiving weather. It means that one of us needs to be on call 24/7. We can still sleep, but always keep an ear open for a text alarm.

Of course, we do all this work alongside the other trades and everyone on station does their part in supporting the work we do where they can.

There’s a lot more, but you get the idea.

So, when people ask me that question about plumbers in Antarctica, they usually wish they’d asked about the penguins!

- Shane Bilston (Casey winter plumber 2021 – 1 of the 4 of us)