Conservation from the Kitchen Table

02 April 2020


02 April 2020


During the Coronavirus outbreak we have shut our gates to keep the public and staff safe. But when it comes to conservation, the show must go on. Ship’s Conservation Engineer Nicola Grahamslaw is keeping the ship safe from home during this difficult time.

As the Ship’s Conservation Engineer, it’s my responsibility to conserve the hull of the SS Great Britain for future generations. Normally I’d do this working with a team of technicians on site, so the current lockdown has presented us with a new challenge to think about how we can utilise modern-day engineering technology to do this, as much as possible, from home.

SS Great Britain Dry Dock conservationThe SS Great Britain was famously the world’s first iron-hulled ship, but in a damp climate like Bristol’s, iron quickly deteriorates, turning into brittle rust. In fact by the mid 1990s, engineers predicted that without intervention the ship would soon become structurally unsafe. To keep her ship-shape, the SS Great Britain now has a pair of custom-built dehumidifiers, which circulate very dry air to both the inside and the outside of the ship’s hull. There’s a glass ‘sea’ sealing the top of the Dry Dock, keeping the air surrounding the ship at 20% relative humidity, as dry as the Arizona desert. By removing the metal’s access to water, we can prevent the iron from rusting, effectively slowing down time to protect the ship for the future.

The dehumidifiers themselves are made up of pumps, filters, heaters and vents, all working together and controlled by a computer system run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can remotely access this system, which uses sensors connected to the ‘internet of things’ ( a network of devices connected together via the web). These sensors record temperature, humidity, and air flow in different locations within the dehumidifiers and around the ship, so even when working from home during the lockdown, I can monitor and adjust the equipment and keep an eye on any essential maintenance needs.

The dehumidifiers are generally very reliable, but just to keep us on our toes, we had a rare occurrence this week of one of the components shutting itself down overnight. To restart it, I needed to collect data to help understand the problem and work out how to fix it. This meant looking at readings from some of the different sensors and doing a few calculations.

With the data on my screen at home and Paul, our head technician, making a brief visit to site, between us we identified which part of the system had failed, what time it happened, what might have caused it, and any knock-on effects.  Often the problem can be fixed remotely too, but this time we needed a physical repair, so I adjusted the controls to minimise the impact, keeping the humidity as low as possible in the meantime. Thanks to our remote monitoring and control system, I was able to do all of this while still sitting at my kitchen table.

Following a recent upgrade of the software and sensors, I can now collect more accurate data from further parts of the ship, which will be analysed over the coming months to improve the way the dehumidifiers are controlled. This will also help us to minimise energy use – a priority for us as we address the ongoing climate emergency.

Because we are an independent charity and receive no government funding, we rely on ticket sales to conserve the SS Great Britain and Brunel’s legacy. During the current situation, our income is heavily impacted, which affects how we pay for energy, replacement parts and the maintenance of our equipment.

Here’s how you can support the SS Great Britain Trust at this time:


Make a donation. Your support provides crucial help at this time.


Buy a ticket now, visit later. Your ticket will be valid for a year from the first time you use it to visit, so you can look forward to future adventures with us!


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