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Special Report-F-Gas: F-Gas Regulation could send industry into chaos

Never before has the refrigeration and air-conditioning industry faced so many legislative deadlines in such a short space of time. Ewan Rose sounds the alarm bell for contractors
Special Report-F-Gas: F-Gas Regulation could send industry into chaos
For a notoriously unregulated sector, 2007 is proving to be a real wake-up call for the refrigeration and air-conditioning industry.

Two pieces of hugely influential European legislation come into force and will change almost every aspect of a contractor’s day-to-day working life.

The combination of the Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) rules that kicked in during April and the F-Gas Regulation that hits the sector in July means that very few firms are unaffected. The trouble is too many of them do not realise it yet.

As far as the refrigeration and air-conditioning sector is concerned, ODS targets HCFC gases used as refrigerants, such as the highly popular R22, because of their ozone depletion potential and F-Gas is aimed at containing fluorinated gases, which have global-warming properties, and this includes HFCs used as refrigerants such as 134a, 404A, 407C and 410A.

HCFCs are gradually being phased out with no more virgin HCFC allowed from the start of 2010, and a total ban on their use in service and maintenance by 2015. Anyone handling HCFCs must hold a City & Guilds 2078 safe handling certificate (or CITB equivalent) to ensure safe disposal or recovery. This became law on April 9 this year and even the most conservative estimates suggest that something like 30,000 people are now handling refrigerants illegally – most without even realising it.

On July 4, the pressure ramps up again with the introduction of F-Gas Regulation. HFCs are not under the same sentence of death as HCFCs, but they also face an uncertain future. The new regulations are designed to help the European Commission meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to contain and restrict fluorinated gases. But if there is no discernible improvement in the leakage rate of these global-warming substances to the atmosphere, a total ban is likely to be the next step.

This would force the entire refrigeration and air-conditioning marketplace to find alternatives and convert its equipment in double quick time – a technically daunting and financially punishing prospect. So, the sector is under intense pressure to adopt the new measures, adapt to them and make sure they are enforced.

Many practitioners are daunted, and most are confused by the barrage of changes and the fast moving timetable. April 9 was the first deadline of 2007. And, by this summer, thanks to a combination of ODS and F-Gas measures, the industry will no longer be able to use new disposable refrigerant cylinders. All refrigerant handling and recovering personnel will have to be certified as competent. Leakage from systems containing HCFCs must be prevented or immediately repaired. Equipment carrying more than 300kg of any refrigerant will have to have automatic leak detection systems fitted.

Contractors will need to keep full and detailed records of all the refrigerant they handle, recover and dispose of. And equipment containing HFC refrigerants will have to be labelled so that any user can clearly see that it contains a fluorinated gas, and what type.

This is a lot to deal with, and looks like a massive challenge for an industry unused to such an onerous regulatory burden. But many senior figures within the sector see these developments as long overdue.

Ben Brown, president of the Federation of Environmental Trade Associations (FETA), believes the industry has put off dealing with the “6,000 tonnes of refrigerant that leak into the atmosphere every year” for too long.

“The new regulations are the first time we have been given a set of tools to help us tackle the mayhem in our industry caused by unregulated contractors,” he says.

“Some systems lose their entire charge of refrigerant in a year but continue to be topped up.

“Not only is this environmentally damaging, it is an enormous waste of energy, materials and labour.”

Industry estimates suggest that as much as 30% of the total refrigerant bank in the UK is used simply to top up leaking systems.

This clearly cannot be allowed to continue. And legislation is seen as the best way to force contractors to tackle the source of the leaks and not simply keep on treating the symptoms.

Feasible

The F-Gas Regulation states: “Operators of stationary refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment shall use all measures which are technically feasible and do not entail disproportionate cost to prevent leakage of HFCs and as soon as possible repair any detected leakage.”

Smaller systems with refrigerant charges of between 3kg and 30kg will have to be checked for leaks every 12 months; larger systems of 30kg and above every six months. And the very largest systems of 300kg and above will have to be inspected every three months.

Where a leak is found, repairs must be carried out immediately, and the system checked again one month later. Automatic leak detection equipment is required on all 300kg-plus systems and even the leak detection equipment must be checked every year. Hermetically sealed systems with less than 6kg of refrigerant charge are exempt.

Responsibility

All of this activity has to be backed up with full and comprehensive records logged and maintained by the operator and contractor.

Ultimately, responsibility lies with the end user or owner of the equipment. But they are totally dependent on the industry to provide the technical services to meet the regulations. As the full implications and possible penalties of the F-Gas Regulation become widely known, more end clients will insist that contractors take a responsible attitude and keep them on the right side of the law.

BOC's Barry Lyons


The UK government has already consulted on possible financial penalties with the figure of £5,000 for each offence widely touted.

There is, however, a worrying lack of detail about some of the central elements of the F-Gas Regulation, including how individual countries are going to tackle enforcement. The UK government has been characteristically vague, apart from the threat of fines, and seems intent on forcing the industry to police itself.

The European Commission is also still due to define the “minimum qualifications for both companies and personnel using fluorinated greenhouse gases” but this should be done by July 4 this year. Then each member state will have exactly one year to “establish or adapt their own training and certification requirements for companies and all relevant personnel involved in installation, maintenance and servicing based on the minimum qualifications”.

After July 2008, the responsibility falls on the “operator” of the equipment to ensure that the contractors employed to work with their system have the necessary certification “which implies appropriate knowledge of the applicable regulations and standards as well as the necessary competence in emission prevention and recovery of fluorinated greenhouse gases and handling safely the relevant type and size of equipment”.

We then move on another year, so that by July 2009 “member states must ensure that companies involved in activities affected by containment and recovery will only take delivery of fluorinated greenhouse gases where their relevant personnel hold the required training and certificates”.

This is potentially the most influential stage because there will, for the first time, be a restriction on who is allowed to buy refrigerants so cutting off the problem of unregistered people getting access to the gases at source. This is assuming it is enforced, of course, which will require the full co-operation of wholesalers and distributors. There is also still much to be done to clarify the training and certification requirements.

“We have discovered during our training courses that there are a lot of contractors out there who don’t know about the changes,” says Barry Lyons, business development manager for refrigerant supplier BOC. “This is not to say that the industry is not doing a great job to raise awareness about ODS and F-Gas but people are confused and the message is also not getting through to the unregistered firms – the great unwashed who operate outside of the main professional channels.

“Our trade bodies also cannot have much influence over the general service and maintenance firms, who are largely unaware that they fall into the F-Gas and ODS trap,” says Lyons. Many of these non-specialist firms are among the 30,000 people thought to be blithely continuing to use refrigerants without the C&G 2078 handling qualification beyond the ODS deadline.

The shortage of skilled engineers able to service the market leaves the door open for rogue traders to carry on damaging the reputation of the refrigeration and air conditioning sector.

HVCA's Graeme Fox


“There will still be a market for cowboys until end users are fully aware of their responsibilities under the new regulations,” says Graeme Fox, chairman of the HVCA’s Refrigeration and Air Conditioning group. “If we don’t up our game we will see a ban on all the refrigerants we currently use in five years’ time and that will be extremely expensive.” He believes sanctions may have to be set higher than £5,000 to be large enough to outweigh the benefits to the user of getting the work done on the cheap and that this can only be enforced anyway if we have mandatory registration of refrigerant handlers.

“The CORGI model that has been successful for gas safety could also work in our sector if the government gives us the tools to enforce it,” says Fox.

The next few months will show how serious the bulk of the industry is about tackling some of its wasteful practices of the past and the ability of legislators to get to grips with those beyond the ‘professional’ boundaries who just don’t care anyway.

“Most of our children don’t realise the heavy responsibility we now bear nor the implications for them if we fail to achieve the sustainability balance between what we use now and what we leave for them,” said Brown during a speech to FETA members last month.

“It’s up to us to provide our children with the future they deserve.”
1 June 2007

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