Brett Smyth, general manager, Ideal Industries EMEA
Becoming a heating engineer not only involves a significant amount of academic study and practical training, it also requires regular renewals to ensure compliance and up-to-date skills and knowledge. Those mandatory requirements are there with good reason. Any issues with an installation could potentially cause performance and efficiency issues with the heating and hot water system, or even damage to the property. More importantly, safety is critical, particularly when the installation involves gas.
Despite this thoroughness of training, safety and compliance, however, there is a significant gap in the mandatory training requirements for heating engineers. Not only is there no electrical element to ACS training and qualification, but there are no electrical courses available specifically designed for heating engineers either. As a result, the choice is between investing time and money in a full electrical course and qualification, or relying on experience and on-the-job skills to fill the gap.
Experience and on-the-job skills are invaluable on site but the big issue here is not quality; it’s safety. While the view of awarding bodies for both electrical and heating engineering qualifications may be that the electrical elements of a heating installation should be done by a qualified electrician, in the real world, that’s not usually the case.
The reasons are varied. The electrical connections for gas heating systems generally make up 10-15% of the work involved: significant enough to pose a safety hazard for anyone unfamiliar with electrics but not sufficient to be an attractive job for a busy electrician. While, in theory, it makes sense for an electrician to complete the electrics, it’s often impractical and involves an additional cost or even delays in completing the project.
As skilled tradespeople, heating engineers often pick up the skills required to complete the electrical connections for heating systems early in their career. The two trades are relatable and skills are passed from one colleague to another, enabling heating engineers to gain competency and confidence in completing electrical connections without any formal training. The problem with this approach, however, is that, without formal training, the safety hazards associated with electrical connections are often overlooked.
Every year in the UK, there are almost 400 fatalities or injuries from electrical distribution caused by contact with live currents. Often this is due to electrical networks being inadvertently switched to live while someone is still working on them. The way to prevent this is to isolate the electrical supply safely; a practice that’s just as important for heating engineers carrying out electrical connections on a heating system as it is for electricians working on electrical networks all day long.
Safe isolation best practice involves testing for mains voltage and locking out the isolation so that it cannot be inadvertently switched to live. By using a safe isolation kit, which enables the isolation to be verified, locked out and labelled, heating engineers can keep themselves and others safe.
It’s a best practice approach already adopted by some, such as Jason Andrews, a heating engineer who always uses an Ideal Industries Safe Isolation Kit when completing electrical work on installations. Despite his ACS qualification and proprietary training from boiler manufacturers, he has never had formal electrical training but believes self isolation kits are a must for any heating engineer.
“Homeowners often return to their property and switch the electrical supply to live at the consumer unit,” he says, “potentially putting their heating engineer in danger without realising it. That’s why I decided to invest in a safe isolation kit for myself and my employee; it could literally save our lives. I’d advise any heating engineer who does his own electrical connections to do the same.”