The UK’s departure from the EU creates an opportunity to finally deal with the rogue operatives who continue to plague the refrigeration and air conditioning sector, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
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 Brexit gives it the freedom to go further by setting up a national register of individual operatives.
This has long been regarded as a way to tackle the problem of unqualified people carrying out sub-standard work by making it harder for them to buy 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.
“Our European partners never saw the need for such a register,” said BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox. “We lobbied for it in the early days, but most European countries don’t have the same problem we have because they have much stricter rules about who can set up a business.
“Here the barriers to entry into technical professions are very low, which means pretty much anyone can set up a contracting business. Not being able to do a job has not stopped people winning a job in this country,” he told a recent BESA webinar.
Some individual engineers can be traced through the mandatory REFCOM register of companies, but the industry has a very transient workforce and operatives change employers frequently.
The UK will continue to follow the step-down programme established by the F-Gas regulation to reduce the amount of global warming gas on the market and is expected to adopt further revisions that are likely to come into force at the start of 2023.
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 about the widening use of ‘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,” said Mr Fox. “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.”
Many of the small units used in residential applications come pre-charged with flammable refrigerant gas and BESA is concerned that these remain 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.
BESA also manages the REFCOM Elite Supplier scheme – a voluntary register of responsible suppliers who will only sell to properly certified people. “This is about enforcing the spirit of the regulation not just the letter of the law,” said Mr Fox. “It is a voluntary code of practice that makes the system work better for the whole supply chain.
“Regulations must be workable and be seen to be working. Clients can see how professional a contractor is if they can see they are audited to a required standard; politicians can also see that our sector is being responsible and trying to do the right thing. That will mean we are not over-regulated and have tough legislation imposed on us,” he told the webinar.
Online forums have helped the Environment Agency identify several instances of poor standard work and prosecute offenders, but currently the only register of operatives is a voluntary one run by the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board (ACRIB). Creating a mandatory scheme would also underpin the push for higher professional standards and improved training across the sector.
However, it is not just the rogue installers who present a problem, according to Mr Fox. Many qualified installers also need retraining and upskilling. This problem is shared by the rest of Europe with former EU partners equally concerned that the lack of skills will hinder the uptake of new lower GWP gases.
“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,” said Mr Fox.
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 sped up its availability during the last Covid-19 lockdown as all the physical test centres were forced to close.
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