Ben Bartle-Ross reports on a CIBSE Roundtable that calls for higher standards for air conditioning engineers

We took part in a CIBSE organised roundtable last month focusing on Refcom and F-Gas and discussing what actually makes people qualified to install, commission and maintain refrigerant-based air conditioning.

Sitting around the table were the UK’s two largest air conditioning manufacturers, along with leading contractors, Graeme Wright, Chairman of FETA and a Board member of ACRIB, and the head of Refcom, Graeme Fox.

The discussion quickly focused on the standards involved in Refcom accreditation and whether the industry should find ways to increase the level of knowledge and training involved for engineers installing refrigerant-based air conditioning.

As a trainer you might expect me to be interested in this and it certainly mirrors some of the topics that are brought up by people attending our courses.

Poorly installed or maintained systems can have a major impact on both efficiency and carbon emissions

Ben Bartle Ross Ben Bartle-Ross Technical trainer

Dumbing down the sector

There are two different schemes that emerged after the introduction of the F-Gas regulations, and whilst it is now mandatory for anyone working with refrigerants to get Refcom F-Gas certification, the original, more rigorous Refcom Elite scheme, is voluntary.

The roundtable discussion felt that this means the sector has effectively been dumbed down and we now have people who are able to call themselves refrigeration engineers when they aren’t properly trained in engineering.  

Now I’m not saying for one moment that anyone without Refom Elite doesn’t know how to install or commission air conditioning – far from it.

I know thousands of engineers who have learnt their skills on the tools and who could run my training courses as well, if not better than me.

But equally, there are many air conditioning installers who haven’t had the privilege of learning on the job from an experienced colleague and who are now F-Gas certified and expected to know everything there is about every form of refrigerant-based air conditioning.

Reduced efficiency

Refcom F-Gas certification will verify that someone is competent to install, commission, decommission or maintain a system containing refrigerant, and that they are qualified in the safe handling of refrigerants and environmentally aware of the proper, auditable procedures. 

F-Gas Certification therefore allows an installer to work on the equipment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that person is qualified to understand how the system works, how to interrogate it to assess its energy efficiency or how to fault-find correctly – all essential skills.

Yet poorly installed or maintained systems can have a major impact on both efficiency and carbon emissions, so what is to be done?

It’s quite staggering to think that a poorly installed and maintained air conditioning system can result in a 20% to 30% reduction in efficiency of that equipment – How can that be good for anyone?

Additional training

What this all means for the industry though is that we have people who have been through the 5-day training for an F-Gas Certificate out quoting on the same jobs as people who have undergone years of training to achieve Refcom Elite.

At the same time, modern air conditioning systems are far more sophisticated than they were even 5 years ago, and making them work to the best of their ability needs a full understanding.

Whilst manufacturers such as ourselves provide full training on our equipment, there are too many examples where systems are not installed to the exacting high standards that match the sophistication and innovation of the equipment.

The effect of this is that the end customer has a system that may not be running to full effect and may actually have faults on it. 

Brand reputation

This is really, really important to us as a manufacturer because our ‘badge’ is on the box, which is why we are so hot on training people on our equipment ourselves, and why we have training centres all over the country.

Whilst Refcom F-Gas may well be suitable for people fitting smaller room air conditioning systems, the complexity of larger split or VRF systems means that it is much more important to get it right in the first place. We have too many examples from our customers of situations where they have been called to a site to correct systems that haven’t been installed or commissioned correctly by others and this will have led to higher running costs and more complaints than necessary.

Rather than qualifying someone to be able to handle refrigerants (fine for simple systems), we need installers to understand the fundamental engineering processes involved in what are advanced, powerful and complex systems.

Change the spec

One interesting idea that came out of the round table was whether Refcom Elite should be incorporated into the specification process.

This would help the consultant provide more of a guarantee to their end customer of the performance and energy efficiency of the equipment specified.

If the consultant has specified according to requirement and this has led to the decision to go with one brand or type of system, specifying Refcom Elite would mean that the installer would be suitably trained, experienced and qualified to correctly install and commission the equipment.

It would also mean that this high level of equipment, design, installation and commissioning could not be undercut to save a few quid somewhere along the way.

Supporting the best

At the same time, we need to look at any barriers that stop existing engineers from becoming Refcom Elite and find ways to support those skilled through on-the-job experience through the process.

Not only would this encourage more installers to go for REFCOM Elite (there are currently only around 300 out of over 6,000 Refcom installers) if it was part of the initial specifications, there would be a major drive for it, which would raise the standard across the whole contracting base.

This would still allow room for Refcom F-Gas qualified installers to tackle the less complex end of the market, but help increase the quality of larger systems all round.

Now who’s going to argue against that?

Ben Bartle-Ross delivers training courses on both air conditioning and heat pumps.