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Fighting the good fight

In the last few months, there have been a raft of developments in the industry’s response to the Europe-wide F Gas Regulations, from training to registration to practical leak prevention measures.

It has been clear for some time that the F-Gas Regulations will prove of immense importance to the future of the rac industry, not only forcing everyone to reduce refrigerant leakage and therefore emissions but also driving improved standards through the engineering workforce. However recent events have seen the Regulations take on even more significance, as the major weapon against the clamouring European calls for a total ban on HFCs. The UK rac industry is now battling to win more time to see the impact of the Regulations, which it believes will prove that as an industry it can vastly improve its leakage rates.

The now infamous ‘Copenhagen Statement’ has raised serious doubts about the European Commission’s commitment to the still fledgling F-Gas Regulation. Following a summit meeting in the Danish capital, EC officials issued a statement calling for the industry to reduce its dependence on HFCs and seek low global warming impact alternatives.

This position is based on an assumption that greater use of HFCs, caused by the on-going phase out of HCFCs (R22 in particular), will necessarily lead to more leakage of HFCs and, therefore, a greater potential global warming impact. By implication, this suggests that they feel the F-Gas Regulation will not work.The European trade body for rac contractors AREA has already condemned this stance for ignoring the efforts being made by the industry to address refrigerant leakage and for failing “to take into account the concept of Total Equivalent Warming Impact (TEWI) of many HFCs in use”.

It says that much of the low carbon technology needed to reduce the environmental impact of heating and cooling equipment was “reliant on the properties of fluorinated gases to realise their low carbon potential”.

“The whole concept of the F Gas Regulation is to reduce and minimise emissions of HFC refrigerants,” AREA says. “The cost of additional training being carried out across the EU by air conditioning contractors has been seen as a necessary expense in order to improve working standards and practices generally, thereby improving containment levels.”

AREA estimates that it is costing European contractors more than £200 million to pay for training and certification requirements to comply with F-Gas. This is money they can ill afford in these difficult economic times so any doubt over the EU’s position on HFCs is less than helpful.

However, AREA’s own research, published here for the first time, which showed significant discrepancies in how EU member states are approaching implementation of F-Gas.

It appears we  now have a three-speed Europe where some countries have robust registration and enforcement procedures in place to support the F-Gas Regulation, while others are doing next to nothing, and some such as the UK, are stuck somewhere in the middle.

For instance, here in the UK, DEFRA has finally agreed to support a mandatory register of companies administered by REFCOM – a move the industry had been urging for many years – but it has rejected calls for a register of individuals. According to AREA’s survey, this puts the UK firmly in the second division.
For example, Austria has had relevant legislation in place for 40 years and already runs separate schemes for company registration and for training operatives.  Belgium also has a compulsory register for companies and a separate one for operatives, while the Czech Republic is in the process of passing a new law to penalise unauthorised handling of refrigerants.

Denmark is already fully regulated and has introduced a punitive tax regime to restrict the use of HFCs. In contrast, Germany still sees a long-term role for HFCs so it is enforcing the regulation with that in mind. Hungary has a plethora of arrangements in place to enforce the regulation and France’s company registration scheme came into effect on Jan 1 this year.

The Netherlands has often been referred to as having a model approach with its STEK scheme, which  has been in place since 1993. This covers both companies and individuals and has impressive leakage reduction statistics to back it up.

Norway is another that applies heavy taxes to HFCs because of their global warming potential – around six times the actual cost of the refrigerant – but it ploughs that money back into the industry to help with efforts to tackle refrigerant leakage and to support recycling and reuse.

Other approaches differ again: Italy’s chambers of commerce will run its registration system and they already have records of company activities; Slovakia is putting its faith in an electronic system of recording and tracking refrigerant sales and usage; while Sweden has had a register for companies and operatives in force for 20 years now.

Graeme Fox the UK representative on the AREA technical and environment committee, explains the disparity: “Most other countries do not have to write legislative statutory instruments as they already have company registration schemes. It is really only in the UK and Ireland where we have the freedom to start up businesses with little or no regulation. Basically any Tom, Dick or Harry can start a business and declare themselves a contractor.”

Mr Fox, who is also managing director of Dundee-based Specialist Mechanical Services believes the government need to see the European context here: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for small government and less regulation, but our civil servants and politicians need to understand that the only reason other countries aren’t putting new statutory instruments through their Parliaments just now is because they don’t have to. I’m not claiming that standards abroad are always so much higher than ours, but at least they have the mechanisms in place to deal with the cowboy element once identified,” he says, “One of the main reasons our industry has been so vocal in gaining mandatory registration has been for this purpose - ridding the sector of the cowboys.”

And Mr Fox believes that it is essential that this is backed by the government.

“Nobody listened when it was about quality, standards and money, but now with the added element of the environment suddenly we have a chance of achieving something with far reaching benefit for the whole industry.”

ACRIB (The Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Industry Board) is in regular dialogue with the three relevant UK government departments to the F Gas regulations, BERR, DEFRA and DECC, and is adamant that government should allow the regulations enough time to have an impact. The EC is legally committed to review the Regulation in 2011, but this date means that most countries will have less than 18 months of evidence on which to base any changes to the legislation.

ACRIB has now called for the three departments to press either for a postponement of the review or a dramatic scaling down of the review’s remit.

“It will be far too soon for them to start interfering with the legislation. If they must have a review in 2011, they should only consider how the Regulation is working and being implemented,” says Cedric Sloan, director general of FETA and a member of ACRIB’s F-Gas Regulation Working Group, “It would also be useful for them to consider again our call for a mandatory register of individual operatives.”

However, there is growing concern that the lack of evidence that refrigerant leakage rates are falling will play into the hands of the environmental campaigners who are lobbying governments across Europe for a ban on HFCs.

“We fear that government will consider a ban – just as they did in 2005 – without properly understanding the issue or appreciating the societal importance of HFCs in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment,” says Mr Sloan.

There are other concerns from within industry about the current scope of the Regulations. The recently announced compulsory company registration means that UK companies now have until July 4 to obtain ‘ interim certification’ from the REFCOM scheme if they handle refrigerants. After July 4, wholesalers will be prohibited from selling refrigerant cylinders to unregistered firms.

HVCA’s Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Group says it welcomes the measure to restrict sales of refrigerant gas cylinders to registered companies only, but expressed concern that this would not adequately tackle  air conditioning units.

“The F-Gas Regulation says supply of refrigerant must only be to competent people, but this only refers to refrigerant in containers and not in the units themselves, many of which are pre-charged,” says RAC Group chairman Karen Leader. “Small mini-splits are some of the worst offenders for leakage in the EU and these are freely available in supermarkets and DIY stores. We would like pre-charged split systems to be classified as ‘containers’ to close this loophole.”

She insists that the success of the registration system depends on proper enforcement and policing by local and central government.

“The REFCOM scheme contains all the elements required for the mandatory register, but that does not mean civil servants can now abdicate their responsibilities for enforcement to the industry.”

Many feel that the industry is  now just starting to get the measures it has been calling for to raise professional standards and tackle refrigerant leakage. It is, therefore, understandable that so many believe a review of the F-Gas Regulation in just two years time to be too much too soon.