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Scottish B&ES chairman seeks perfect answers

Ventilation is finally coming out of the shadows, says B&ES Scotland chairman Duncan Sibbald

Ventilation used to be relatively mysterious with its inner workings hidden from the general public. However, Duncan Sibbald - managing director of Stirling-based Perfect Service Solutions (formerly Kitchen Perfect) and chairman of the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES) Scotland - is pleased the industry now has a higher profile.

'In the past what we did was out of sight out of mind, but now you even see extraction fans on TV - they are a prominent feature of the Dragon's Den studio, for example,' he says.

His company has only been in existence since 2006, but is already one of Scotland's foremost ventilation and ductwork hygiene contractors with an annual turnover in excess of £500,000 and employing 20 people. Scottish Enterprise has also selected the company for development support via its 'high growth pipeline' because of its potential role in improving local skills and providing stable employment.

Offers maintenance package
The company is unusual in that it also employs ductwork engineers so that it can offer a full maintenance package for ventilation systems as well as cleaning.

'We clean from canopy to discharge, which comes as a culture shock to some people as most are trained just to create a fire break by cleaning the filters and what's visible. That approach leaves grease in the ductwork, which is a serious fire risk,' says Duncan.

The company's engineers also regularly find fire and smoke dampers fitted into kitchen extracts, which is prohibited on safety grounds.

'They add to the problem by giving grease somewhere to accumulate. Turning veins are not a good idea either, but we regularly come across them and they are usually blocked. Once we clear these the airflow improves immediately and people see instant benefits including the fact that the customers' clothes no longer stink of grease!'

PSS works throughout the food industry and for clients such as NHS Trusts; local authorities; large FMs - and at Scotland's high profile Faslane & Coulport naval base.

'At that level of organisation, there is good awareness of the importance of ventilation hygiene,' says Duncan. 'They have a clear understanding of their responsibilities under health and safety legislation.

'Local authorities also have properly structured planned maintenance strategies, but with smaller clients there is a significant and alarming knowledge gap. Many are not that well organised and also, frighteningly, they are prepared to take a risk to save money.'

He points out that the implications can be extremely serious citing the recent closure of Glasgow Central Station because of fire in the ventilation ductwork of a nearby building.

'Tenements with takeaway restaurants on the ground floor are in particular danger because extract ducting is routed through the chimney stack - right through where people live,' adds Duncan. 'This is a major fire risk; and there is no way of getting access to the flues because they are inside the brickwork.'

Could be more flexible
Planning authorities are reluctant to allow ductwork to be run outside the buildings because they are unsightly, but Duncan believes they could be more flexible by allowing installations behind tenements.

'This has to be sorted out because you can't clean out grease that accumulates in these systems with brushes - you have to have access. Grease also doesn't need a naked flame to ignite in ductwork; it only needs the temperature to be high enough for a fire to start.

'I think we would get movement on this issue if it was properly explained to the families living above these restaurants. They have no idea the risk they are being exposed to.'

This type of issue reflects the expanded role of modern specialist contractors and their broader responsibilities. As a result, Duncan's company decided to change its name at almost the same time the HVCA became the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES).

'Our sector has become increasingly complex with the emergence of renewable and low carbon technologies alongside new ways of working like Building Information Modelling (BIM),' he says. 'In specialist areas, B&ES guidance like TR/19 (Internal Cleanliness of Ventilation Systems) and DW172 (Specification for kitchen ventilation systems) are becoming more high profile and more significant.'

Several Scottish local authorities insist on B&ES membership as a pre-qualification criterion because of their focus on skills and competence in these critical business areas.

However, this improved status has not solved many payment problems. Retentions, in particular, remain a serious threat to contractors' livelihoods.

'If I eat in a restaurant, the owner expects me to pay 100% of his bill, but if I clean his ductwork he might only pay me 90% and hold onto the rest for a period of time - even if the work has been done and certified. How can that be fair?' asks Duncan.

'Our own debtor days position is not too bad at the moment, but we are still owed tens of thousands of pounds. This is money we are entitled to receive as our work has been done and signed off.'

However, there is hope. The Scottish Government's review of the country's £2 billion worth of public construction contracts may well bring about the end of retentions - at least on public sector projects.

Eddie Myles, chairman of the Specialist Engineering Contractors' (SEC) Group Scotland, believes the financial experts leading the review understand the waste and inefficiency this practice causes.

Eddie, who is Scottish Regional Manager for prominent B&ES member company Skanska Facilities Services, said the Government representatives also recognise that 'some Tier One contractors are using retentions to boost their own profits at others' expense'.

The review was launched in October 2012 and is due to report back to the Scottish Parliament in April.

'Reforming payment practices would improve collaboration in the supply chain leading to savings and greater efficiencies,' says Duncan. 'If you employ a competent company, you employ them because you are confident they will do the work you have asked them to do - so why should you need a retention?

'If you withhold payment you restrict a company's ability to invest in technical development and recruitment - that is damaging for the economy as a whole.'

However, there are some tentative signs of improvement in the skills picture in Scotland. The number of building engineering services apprentices in training has just started to edge up again - with just short of 300 in the industry in total. This includes 102 who started last year, which is up on the 91 who started in 2011.

'These are not huge numbers and we are still some way from our heyday, but the increase is encouraging,' says Duncan.

In the case of his own company, PSS tends to 'grow their own' because of the difficulty of recruiting people with the appropriate skills: 'We train our apprentices in the full specification of a ductwork system so our guys can give the client a full report on the state of the system. We like to go further than just cleaning so that needs a particular type of training.'

Colleges continue to struggle
However, he is concerned that further education colleges continue to struggle with many specialist courses closing due to falling numbers of applicants. 'Once those courses are gone it is very difficult to get them back,' he says. 'We could end up with a lost generation of skills - and when we do come out of recession, who will be around to train our future engineers?'

The public sector may need to rescue some of these courses to keep them available until such as time as the industry can supply healthier numbers of trainees. In the meantime, there is a job to be done promoting the profession.

'New people bring fresh ideas and new energy - that's the industry's lifeblood. It is not a glamorous profession, but if offers real job satisfaction and a clear career path,' adds Duncan.

'As a family business we are committed to providing job security and a good lifestyle for our employees, but we need to get the right attitude and commitment in return.

'Today's celebrity culture has given young people the impression that success just happens, but it doesn't - you have to work hard and be committed to get the rewards.'
16 April 2013

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