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Why tradition can be a killer

It’s time for the industry to shake the dust off its boots and embrace new technology and approaches, says Mike Creamer

Tradition can be a great thing, and I’m all for it - up to a point. On the positive side, it can bind people, families and industries together, and give a sense of shared identity. It can also have a downside and create obstacles to new ways of doing things that can be, literally, life threatening.

There is a classic animal experiment that illustrates how once-useful, but now outmoded behaviour can become entrenched and block all progress. You start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage, a banana is hung high up on a string with a set of steps beneath. Before long, an ape will go to the steps and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as the ape touches the steps, all the apes are liberally sprayed with cold water. After a while, another ape has a go, with the same result - all the apes are soaked with cold water. Once this pattern is established, you can do without the water altogether, because if an ape tries to climb the steps, the other apes will leap up and prevent it.

At this point, you remove one ape from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new ape sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. But, to his horror, all of the other apes attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be set on by the others. At this point, you remove another of the original five apes and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the steps and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Now, the final phase. Again, a third original ape is replaced with a new one. The new one makes it to the steps and is attacked as well. Two of the four apes that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest ape.

Finally, after replacing the fourth and fifth original apes, all the apes which have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? “Because that’s the way it’s always been done around here.”

There are, of course, some painful parallels in our industry. Attitudes to refrigerant leakage are, despite high-profile campaigns, deeply entrenched among many of those at the sharp end. Ask the refrigerant suppliers how much gas is being returned for recycling and destruction. The uncomfortable truth is, the amount is negligible compared with the large quantities of refrigerant being sold into the market. The majority of this continues to be used to top up leaky plant. This is despite the threat of further controls – or even a ban – on the use of the industry’s preferred refrigerants (HFCs), unless leakage can be brought under control.

For generations, leakage has not been seen as a priority. (At least, not unless you work with ammonia plant, where the imminent risk of death tends to sharpen one’s attention on the issue). The received wisdom was - and to a large extent still is: “Plants leak and need periodic top ups.” Closely followed by the unspoken words…“Because that’s the way it’s always been done around here.”

The new F-Gas training courses being rolled out are excellent and address head-on this “negative tradition”, if I may so call it. It is the right way to go. But, there are already questions being asked as to whether the industry can achieve the reductions in leakage required to meet the F-Gas targets in the time available.

There is also a big dollop of “this is the way it’s always been done” at the heart of the new guidance for those carrying out the important inspections of air conditioning, under the Energy Performance of Building Directive.

The detailed requirements, contained in CIBSE Technical Memorandum TM44, spell out for consultants and air conditioning assessors how they should approach the task. It takes about 20,000 words to describe the complex methodology. If carried out diligently, it would take days rather than hours and still produce results lacking sufficient quantitative rigour to enable them to be used as an objective basis for comparison with other buildings.

The guidance is based on a traditional approach that tries to take account of a wide range of building and system issues – but without an objective, quantitative measure. It fails to take account of the existence of new technology that can help achieve this - and more - quickly and much more accurately.

That the instrument in question was recently acclaimed as Refrigeration Product of the Year is testimony to its effectiveness and potential impact. Yet, it remains officially unacknowledged in one of the areas of greatest challenge and opportunity facing us – delivering efficient buildings.

So, I’m all for fish and chips on the beach and roast turkey at Christmas. I’ll also happily join you for a sun-downer on the poop deck after a great day’s sailing. But at work, don’t let tradition get in the way of progress, or we will all be on the endangered species list.

As someone wiser than I once said, when tradition becomes as explanation for acting without thinking, count me out.