The intense focus on improving building safety must prompt a fresh look at how the competence of individual refrigeration and air conditioning engineers is demonstrated
The UK will continue to mirror the rules set by the European F-Gas regulations to drive reductions in harmful emissions from refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, but we should take the opportunity created by Brexit to go further by setting up a national register of individual operatives.
This has long been regarded as the best way to stop unqualified people getting their hands-on equipment and refrigerant gas.
However, it was never a priority for the EU and was dropped from the original plans for the F-Gas regulations because most other European countries already had much stricter rules about who is allowed to set up a business in the first place.
Barriers to entry into technical professions are lower in the UK, which means pretty much anyone can set up a contracting business. Not actually being able to do a job has not stopped people winning a job in this country.
We can trace the competence of some individual engineers through the mandatory REFCOM register of companies, but the industry has a very transient workforce and operatives change employers frequently. So, we need a better process to safeguard the general public.
This is the best way to stop unqualified people getting their hands-on equipment and refrigerant gas
The fact that the UK will also continue to follow the HFC phase down programme established by the F-Gas regulation adds more urgency to this issue.
The market for HFC gases, such as 410A, has shrunk to just 45% of what was available in 2015, which represents massive progress in the campaign to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment, but there is growing concern that this means engineers will be working with many more ‘alternative’ gases including a number that are flammable.
Some of the new gases being used to replace HFCs are only very mildly flammable, but we are seeing greater use of propane (R290) in systems, for example, and this needs careful handling. None of the new lower GWP (global warming potential) substances represent a serious challenge to experienced and qualified engineers who have updated their skills, but the risk posed by untrained and uncertified installers is a real cause for concern.
Only between 3.5% and 7% of F-Gas certified personnel have received training on these alternatives, according to a survey carried out by the European refrigeration and air conditioning contractors’ body AREA. It found that just 7% of engineers working with ammonia were trained to use it closely followed by CO2 (6.9%). Hydrocarbons score 6.2% (small scale systems) and 5.3% (large systems). It also showed that just 3.5% of F-Gas certified personnel are trained on HFOs.
A simple solution
AREA, of which BESA is a member, suggests “one simple solution” to the issue by extending the existing mandatory F-Gas certification scheme to low GWP alternative refrigerants.
“This would provide a sufficient number of contractors with the necessary level of competence to ensure safe, efficient and reliable handling of equipment working with low GWP refrigerants. To this end, AREA is now preparing concrete proposals, including minimum requirements,” it says.
Many of the small units used in residential applications come pre-charged with flammable refrigerant gas and these are far too easy for DIYers and unqualified installers to buy – particularly online. A mandatory certification scheme would help because suppliers could only sell to those on the register.
The REFCOM Elite Supplier scheme shows how this can work. This is a voluntary register of responsible suppliers who will only sell to properly certified people and it is starting to make the system work better for the whole supply chain.
Creating a mandatory installer scheme would also underpin the push for higher professional standards and improved training across the sector. This would help to address the issue of qualifications being allowed to lapse.
Although City & Guilds qualifications do not require renewal on a regular basis in the same way that other types of qualification do, the underpinning knowledge and requirements of certification that drive the standards change over time. Without re-assessment and renewal courses there is the very real possibility of working practices becoming obsolete and outdated.
Many engineers have upskilled already by taking the BESA ACRIB Flammables training course, but there remain many thousands of engineers without the basic skills needed to transition safely.
The BESA Academy also offers an easy to access F-Gas Renewal course (six modules) online. The Association speeded up its availability during the Covid-19 lockdowns when physical test centres were forced to close.
All of this is aimed at giving clients more confidence in our sector and discouraging politicians from feeling impelled to impose stricter legislation on us. However, the system has another Achilles’ heel in that too few clients check for evidence of an engineer’s qualifications. This is even more unforgiveable when you consider how easy it is to do now thanks to the digital techniques we have including ‘smart’ skills cards and online checking systems.
There should be no reason for someone turning up to carry out maintenance work on a supermarket chiller, for example, not to be challenged to provide evidence that their F-Gas qualifications are up to date. However, we know that many engineers have expired qualifications that will not be revealed until their company goes to renew their REFCOM registration at which point the audit will pick this up. In the meantime, how many are working unsafely?
The pressure to address this will only grow in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the renewed focus on building safety brought about by the Hackitt Review. The resulting draft legislation, including the new Building Safety Bill, will impose much tougher legal demands on our sector to demonstrate its competence and compliance.