August 17, 2015
Think of an iconic Australian landscape and the image usually has a windmill in it.
At a time when there is a push towards renewable, green energy, windmills are making a resurgence however windmill technicians are not as common as they were decades ago.
Based at Bathurst, John White is the only full-time windmill repairer on the NSW central tablelands, plying his trade as far as Tibooburra, in north-western NSW.
The White family has been involved with windmills since 1920 when John’s father, Fred, left school at 13 to take on an apprenticeship as a coachbuilder with A R Fisher & Sons at Greenthorpe.
The business sold motor vehicles, operated a black smith, manufactured water tanks and sold and installed windmills.
A R Fisher & Sons closed during the Great Depression and young Fred went to work for a coachbuilder in Sydney.
He returned to Greenthorpe in 1932 to establish a blacksmith business.
He quickly gained a reputation as a general smith, machinery repairer, welder, tank manufacturer, bore pump supplier and installer, and was an agent for Comet Windmills.
Fred was joined by his son, Frederick George White, in 1948 and they worked together until Fred junior left to start a business in the Tullibigeal/Ungarie district in 1956.
“Dad continued his business until his death at 60 in 1967 – I had left school in 1965 and couldn’t wait to have a fantastic business with Dad,’’ John said.
“Upon his death, the business transferred to my mother Ruby and I worked for her until her death in 1977.’’
Today, few of the iconic windmill manufacturers have survived, with the exception of Yellowtail, Comet and Southern Cross.
John established Windmill Engineering Co in 1992, specialising in pumps, windmill towers, spare parts, repair and installation across NSW.
He refurbishes old towers with new heads but concedes many towers are left in a state of disrepair for too long to save.
“Most windmills around date back to the 1940s and 1950s, and their towers are still OK and usually just need the old galvanised pipe replacing with pro-pel pipe,’’ John said.
He uses a crane truck to lower the windmill to the ground for repairs.
“I use a safety harness when moving around on windmills at height but it is work where you’ve got to hang on,’’ John said.
“Lowering the windmill to the ground means less terror and more firmer.’’
He has serviced windmills measuring up to 9m across the fan but typically the majority of fans measure 3m across, while towers can be from six to 12 m in height.
“I sell a great, versatile windmill, formerly made in Western Australia, called Yellowtail, and put the heads on my own towers,’’ John said.
“Windmills only require a starting torque wind speed of 7-10km/hr and they will self-govern in gale force winds.
“Very few windmills have been damaged by storms, it is more likely to be neglect.
“They should be checked each time the farmer passes them followed by a thorough inspection and oil change annually.
“I have seen some well maintained windmills in good working order after 70 years.’’
The Yellowtail was originally known as the Metters “M” windmill and has been in production for more than 40 years.
A simple governing system automatically protects the windmill and tower in high winds, and it features a tension windwheel, which turns in the lightest breeze.
Carbide gear teeth ensure long-life, and pinions will not loosen or allow the large gears to work out of alignment.
The main casting of the gearbox is line bored and fitted with long-lasting replaceable bearings.
At 67, John is winding down towards retirement and is looking for someone else to take over the business.
“There is always a constant demand for windmills, not just in drought times, as stock and domestic water is essential,’’ he said.
“Windmills have been using the same basic pumps for the past 150 years so farmers can easily do repairs themselves.
“They quickly became a dominant part of the landscape as Australian farmers embraced wind power because of the remoteness and lack of electricity.’’
Windmill Engineering Co have been exhibiting at the Henty Machinery Field Days for the past five years.
“I have a permanent concrete slab at Henty and I erect a 6m tower and 10ft Yellowtail head,’’ John said.
“It continually pumps water, drawing people to the site – I often get follow up orders up to a year after the field days.’’
John attends Henty and the Australian National Field Days, where he is the only windmill exhibitor.
He still enjoys installing new windmills, refurbishing old ones and the interaction with property owners right from the western division to the tablelands country.