Frustration grows over refrigerant handling issue

The Government’s new refrigerant law is welcome, but doesn’t go nearly far enough, according to the HVCA’s Stephen Crocker. If a straw poll of the industry was taken today asking people what they considered the most frustrating issue of recent years, the proposed mandatory refrigerant handling scheme would be right up there at the top.
The industry has been calling for an enforceable scheme for well over a decade and has even created its own voluntary model, but still we lack proper government and legal backing.

There is no more crucial issue than ensuring that the potentially hazardous substances handled by our sector are kept exclusively in the hands of safe and competent people. It’s a no brainer, but still the frustration continues.

The Government has eventually come up with a statutory scheme, which comes into effect this summer. It is a most welcome step forward, but it is very far from the comprehensive scheme we hope will (eventually) now come about in 2008 as part of the implementation of the European F-Gas Regulation.

The huge flaw in the proposed UK scheme for this year is that it excludes HFC refrigerants and only targets the ozone depleters – CFCs and HCFCs, which we are already phasing out.

It is useful that within six months of the scheme coming into effect i.e. by this December, anyone involved in servicing and dismantling fixed refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment containing CFC or HCFC refrigerants will be required to hold a statutory minimum qualification. This means one of the two existing voluntary qualifications: The City & Guilds 2078 Certificate in Safe Handling of Refrigerants, and the CITB Safe Handling of Refrigerants Certificate.

Employers using personnel without the relevant qualifications will be liable to an as yet unspecified fine.

Bare minimum

However, this really is only doing the bare minimum and has come about as a result of pressure from the European Commission, which had threatened legal action if existing minimum qualification requirements were not given statutory power. Failure to do so could have led to action against Britain in the European Court of Justice.

Government estimates say that 60-70% of existing technicians handling CFCs and HCFCs already have the appropriate qualifications, leaving between 5,500 and 8,000 who must take action to either get more training or be assessed.

This is all very positive, but it would be so much better if we could simply move straight to a comprehensive scheme covering all the gases handled by refrigeration and air conditioning firms.

The great irony is that the industry has had just such a scheme in place for 11 years now. The REFCOM voluntary register of firms competent to handle refrigerants is the model on which any mandatory scheme will be based. With a current membership of 124 firms, the register has been making a huge difference and helping raise professional standards.

However, it is another source of huge frustration that so many people will not act until they are forced into something by law. Meanwhile, the ‘volunteers’ are reaping the benefits and seeing their businesses thrive thanks to the advantages offered by being part of a nationally recognised quality assurance scheme.

Quite apart from the immediate benefits of the training it provides to raise standards among their workforce; the register creates a better business environment in so many ways.

Cowboys

One obvious benefit is that it makes it very difficult for the cowboys to get a look in, as they cannot offer the same level of service to customers. When the system does become mandatory they will be left very far out in the cold.

Far more than that, though, is the impact on the morale of your own workforce. Operatives with better training tend to be happier and more confident because they enjoy a better relationship with more contented customers. They have clear working procedures and processes; their professional ability is recognised and, as a result, they enjoy better pay and conditions with guaranteed future employment.

Customers are happier too because they are confident in the standard of system design, installation and commissioning they are receiving. This takes a huge weight off their shoulders in terms of meeting ever tightening health and safety and environmental legislation.

Working to high agreed standards improves profitability for the contractor, as there are fewer system breakdowns, fewer callouts for unscheduled repairs/maintenance, fewer warranty claims and reduced time is needed on-site for planned maintenance programmes. This also means less money spent on replacement components and additional supplies of refrigerant.

A criticism that is often levelled at our industry is the repeated failure to provide adequate information to customers and other members of the supply chain. A big feature of the REFCOM programme is easily accessible and understandable records of system histories and the compulsory use of logbooks to help end users get the most from their buildings. This is accompanied by easily accessed proof of competence and qualifications via the REFCOM register.

Waste

Last year the scheme was enhanced further with the launch of a refrigerant tracking database. This was developed to provide an accurate record of refrigerant movement between supplier, cylinder and plant – from commissioning/charging to subsequent recovery and final disposal. This again improves the contractor’s working systems and reduces waste, while also keeping an important record of refrigerant usage for the authorities monitoring environmental impacts.

It is as a result of these methods for driving up professional standards that members of such schemes can enjoy better working relationships with manufacturers and distributors. Having more streamlined systems also improves their ability to solve on site problems including being able to provide verifiable leakage rates for each piece of plant and system.

In general terms, it really is high time we as an industry and the Government embraced the concept of the refrigerant handling regime. Why must we wait until 2008?

It is the most effective way of advertising our competence and ability to work to harmonised quality standards. It is a vote of confidence in the profession as a whole because it shows we are prepared to be tested and have no problem about providing evidence of our competence. This is so important for the image of the industry and will become increasingly so as our clients get to grips with the ever enlarging pool of European and national legislation covering energy, the environment and social responsibility. They need specialist help to comply with all this legislation and must have confidence in our ability to deliver.

Stephen Crocker is Secretary of the HVCA’s Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Group and the REFCOM Scheme.

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