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Industry needs to get to grips with training for low-GWP gases

From our May issue: Training is vital for next steps, experts told RAC’s Round Table Debate 

The cooling industry needs to grasp the fact that the next generation of low-GWP refrigerants will be mildly flammable and start training their engineers appropriately.

But at the same time, the message that the new refrigerants ‘are here to stay’ needs to be driven more forcefully and urgently down to the ‘high street’ convenience stores, the contractors that service them and their employers.

That was the consensus from RAC’s latest Round Table discussion on the future of refrigerants, the latest in a series of debates sponsored by Chemours.

The debate this time brought training specialists, component firms, refrigerant experts and retailers together to hammer out the practical issues regarding the ‘new generation’ of refrigerants.

The theme that emerged clearly was that these refrigerants, namely R32 and the so-called ‘ultra-low-GWP’ HFO blends – required a distinct approach to accommodate the fact that they are mildly flammable. While in practice, the operational changes are not major, engineers – and significantly those who employ them – need to be properly trained in handling and servicing them.

The fact that current F-Gas training often only addresses flammability of refrigerants in at best a theoretical fashion was underlined as a major issue by delegates. Shaun Creech, refrigeration lecturer and assessor at Eastleigh College said: “The fact is, the industry missed an opportunity to put specific practical flammables training on the new F-Gas courses.”

Refrigerant groups are now lobbying the government in a bid to make training on flammables mandatory for all F-Gas engineers. There is equally a fear that the ‘mild flammability’ of R32 and some HFOs is still not properly understood by the Health and Safety Executive and other safety regulators, who view the refrigerants in the same way as much more easily ignited products such as hydrocarbons.

The trainers stressed that dealing with flammables was an issue that was not to be feared, but required a distinct approach.

Kelvin Kelly, training director for Business Edge (pictured, right) said: “The risk from flammable refrigerants is only one more element in the risk assessment, so shouldn’t be seen as a major issue. But naturally it is vital that the risk assessment is approached properly– there is a concern that risk assessments are seen only as a tick-box exercise by some companies.”

The European Commission is also looking at speeding up the development of standards in flammables, commissioning consultants to ‘fast-track’ regulations around all levels of flammable refrigerants, from HFOs to hydrocarbons.

However, the Round Table delegates warned that European rules take a long time to reach fruition, and that the UK industry shouldn’t wait for Europe.

Martyn Cooper, commercial director of FETA (pictured, left) said: “The review of EN378 is set for 2021. It won’t be any sooner, because however much the EC want to speed up approvals, the issues with flammability are around safety, so the process has to be handled properly. You can’t impose a timescale on safety.”

Mr Kelly said the practical element of flammable training was vital, but required an investment that was not always valued by employers. His company provides flammables training, but it requires engineers to be available for two days - and their employers to make the financial investment.

He said: “The emphasis should be on the practical element of flammables work – it is about making the industry safe. The risk assessment element has been around since 1997, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the industry needs to take it more seriously.”

The delegates urged the industry to redouble its efforts to get the message of lower-GWP through to the smaller contractors – the so-called White Van Man. Mike Marsden, business development manager for compressor manufacturer Emerson said: “This is about convincing smaller contractors that they need to make the change. They are used to sticking with what they know, but we need to convince them that there really is a change in refrigerants required – and that it is not a myth or a conspiracy. More importantly, we need to convince their bosses, who have to make the investment.”

The importance of reaching the smaller contractors was underlined by Mr Creech. He said: “95 per cent of our students come from companies that employ under 10 staff, so these are the people that we need to reach.”

Kevin Glass, managing director of compressor manufacturer Bitzer UK agreed: “What is going to drive these people is the increasing cost of higher-GWP refrigerant.” 

See the debate in the nex issue of RAC.

These themes and others relating to the F-Gas regulations will be discussed in RAC’s F-Gas Question Time on May 17. See separate story for more details

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