DO you remember those early days at school when your teacher asked you what you wanted to do when you achieved adulthood? Astronauts and train drivers were usually the most common ambitions among the boys, while with the girls looking after sick animals always seemed very popular.

Moving on (to avoid getting drawn into gender stereotype arguments), I happened to bump into an old acquaintance earlier in the week. He was driving a huge wagon, an ambition he had held since he was in shorts. Names like Mack and Volvo were festooned across his haversack and it was obvious where he was headed. There he was in the cab, admittedly a good deal plumper, but I thought to myself, “Good luck to him.” What better way to spend your life than doing something you really want?

This encounter brought to mind others from the past whom I’d bumped into over the years. One in particular’s sole ambition was to get rich quick and thereby have access to all its trappings – fast cars, a huge house, beautiful women... Alas, it all came to nought!

In my own case, it was slightly different as I started cutting sticks to earn some money to put food on the table. Out of this grew a passion for working with wood. Whether it’s a saw bench, a chainsaw or even a big commercial mill, I still get a buzz out of it. Hence the empathy I felt for the old acquaintance I met last week as he grinned down at me from the cab of his Scania 620.

Like him, I never really expected to have great riches in a material way, but by slowly building the business over the years I’m doing OK and am probably a lot better off than some of those whose sole aim was to get rich quick. I’ve lost count of those people who have either ended up bankrupt or spent some time at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Can you imagine, therefore, when, for a few crazy hours last week, everything I had worked a lifetime for appeared to be about to disappear before my very eyes?

I’ve never claimed to be the brightest firework in the box, but I’ve always struggled with the supposed clarity of officials. They tend to see the world and its workings in black and white. Those of us at the sharp end know this isn’t the case and that, in truth, there are many grey areas. It’s one of these grey areas which has caused this recent distress.

Over the years, I’ve bought several second-hand machines, all driven by three-phase electric. Some of these purchases arrived disassembled and I’ve tried in vain to get electricians to wire them up. I can get an electrician to put in the cables, but struggle to get them to wire up a control panel or switches, relays and joysticks. One guy who came announced he was off to the local shop for some lunch, never to return! So, necessity being the mother of invention, I’ve learned over time how the electric control panels work and have wired them up myself.

This is the grey area. I’m not an electrician and while it is illegal to work on domestic supplies, I can work on industrial supplies provided it’s done to a competent standard. ‘Competent standard’ meaning that it’s safe and no-one gets an electric shock. Understanding how it all works has probably resulted in a higher standard of safety throughout the yard and an ability on my part to spot a problem before it develops into something more serious. I carry out regular safety checks every month, which involves using a tester to check on electricity going to ground.

Against this backdrop I started to worry when faults began to show up, then disappear. The guys in the yard began to report mild intermittent electric shocks. The more I searched, the more puzzling it became, and then the brand-new diesel generator began to turn live, turning the antifreeze into battery acid. I came to think I was the proud owner of two faulty generators. The problem came to a head in this recent stormy weather when the whole sawmill turned live. Touching any metal with bare hands was not recommended and so I took the decision to shut down the mill. I’m not connected to the grid, so with the generators off I’d be able to isolate the problem, which I assumed would be a broken wire touching an earth cable or even water ingress.

I decided to start with the main control panel and, as I touched the metal doors, the force of the electric shock threw me backwards. I approached the panel much more cautiously with the tester and, to my amazement, it showed negative. I put the shock down to a build-up of static and decided to go through the electrics systematically.

Forestry Journal: This brand-new metal strip from the treatment tank shows evidence of electrolysis.This brand-new metal strip from the treatment tank shows evidence of electrolysis.

The generator, despite being old, proved 100 per cent perfect. Each phase was the correct voltage, with no leakage to either the neutral or the earth. I then worked through the overload, the fuse box, trips and control panel, but when I got to the neutral it started to fizz. I had no idea how high the voltage was, as my tester only goes to 240 volts, but the neutral was so live I was convinced that it must be wired to a live cable. I checked, double-checked and treble-checked every wire, but still couldn’t isolate the fault. I was at a complete loss as to the cause of the problem.

I don’t usually get stressed, but my head was doing cartwheels. With the yard closed and quiet, the phone just seemed to keep ringing and ringing, adding to the pressure. Had I explosives, I would have certainly blown the damn thing to smithereens! Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a fleet of vans came screaming into the yard from the electricity board. A guy leaped from the lead van and walked up to me, announcing, “We’d like to test your electrics please.”

For some time now, there have been major electrical problems in the hamlet next to the mill. Gates have turned live, water pipes have turned live and caused bursts, a farmer’s cattle crush turned live and even bed frames have provided a tickle. I explained to the gentlemen that I was off grid, to which he quickly retorted that the problem could still be with me, as it could travel through the ground. The word ‘scapegoat’ suddenly began to flash in huge red letters in my already crowded brain. I knew for a fact that damages in the village due to the problem were already in excess of £100,000 and rising. What if I had caused the problem? Suddenly, everything I’d spent a lifetime working for started crumbling to dust. Apart from becoming ‘public enemy number one’, would my insurance cover any of this? A simple mistake with wiring would probably invalidate my insurance as I wasn’t a qualified electrician. I felt physically sick and dark scenarios filled my mind.

Everything was testing perfectly, with no leakage from the ground. Realising there was nothing I could do, I decided to take generator about half a mile away. Installers had earthed it incorrectly, resulting in the current running through water pipes into my premises and, from there, it had continued through the machinery. The intermittent nature was down to the wind. Only when it blew did the problem occur. Fortunately, the electricity board had come out at the height of storm Dennis when the problem was at its worst. So, while storm Dennis was good in the sense that it proved the problem and removed any sense of liability on my part, the surge of power caused wires in the control box and one of the starters for the main saw’s head rigs to blow. You can imagine, after everything that had gone on, how nervous I was to tackle these repairs. I’ve become a little paranoid about touching anything metallic. Either by skill or luck, I’ve managed to get everything fixed and the mill is back up and running. I was talking to a couple from the hamlet very recently who had experienced an unusual consequence of the wrongly earthed windmill. The electricity was travelling all the way up through their bed frame. “We wondered why we were tingling in bed,” they said. But only when the wind blew! out the wagon and deliver some orders. This would provide a service for customers and give me some thinking time. It was 4pm and storm Dennis was in full flow. With about three hours of driving in front of me, I set out literally in the eye of the storm.

I have to say, I was completely unaware of storm Dennis or the journey as my mind was still trying to work out the problem and imagine any consequences. At one point, I almost pulled in to bang my head off the ground in frustration. About two hours into the journey, it came to me. I’d spent days now worrying. I shut down the mill. I’d spent every waking hour following the wiring tracks of earth cables going to ground and been unable to find the fault. That’s because there wasn’t one! It was coming up the earth rods out of the ground. Suddenly I couldn’t get back to yard quick enough. I imagined the electricity board pinning the blame on me and erecting hazard notices and ‘no entry’ signs across the gates.

I needn’t have worried. After battling through floods and gale-force winds, I pulled into the yard. It was with some trepidation I approached the group of guys from the electricity board. The fault was nothing to do with me. It had been traced to a small wind generator about half a mile away. Installers had earthed it incorrectly, resulting in the current running through water pipes into my premises and, from there, it had continued through the machinery. The intermittent nature was down to the wind. Only when it blew did the problem occur. Fortunately, the electricity board had come out at the height of storm Dennis when the problem was at its worst.

So, while storm Dennis was good in the sense that it proved the problem and removed any sense of liability on my part, the surge of power caused wires in the control box and one of the starters for the main saw’s head rigs to blow. You can imagine, after everything that had gone on, how nervous I was to tackle these repairs. I’ve become a little paranoid about touching anything metallic. Either by skill or luck, I’ve managed to get everything fixed and the mill is back up and running. I was talking to a couple from the hamlet very recently who had experienced an unusual consequence of the wrongly earthed windmill. The electricity was travelling all the way up through their bed frame. “We wondered why we were tingling in bed,” they said. But only when the wind blew!