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Opinion: Mario Balen on national licensing

HyChill General Manager Mario Balen, Affil.AIRAH, shares his views on national HVAC&R licensing in Australia.

The HVAC&R trade is widely regarded to be under-recognised, poorly regulated and, on average, inadequately trained. Attempts have been made for many years to address some, if not all, of those shortcomings, with little success so far. The end result has been higher costs for customers, often outdated plant and equipment, and larger-than-necessary CO2 emissions.  

While TAFE and to a lesser extent VET organisations have been doing their best to meet to the ever-increasing demand for training and recognised professional certifications, one significant impediment has been in the area of licensing.

There are three licensing schemes currently operating in Australia:

  • The Australian Refrigeration Council (ARC) licensing scheme, which operates under the auspices of the federal government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE). The mere fact that the environment has been rolled in with agriculture and water demonstrates that the environment itself is not terribly high on the priority list. The ARC scheme has been instituted with the sole task of regulating the purchase and use of those refrigerants that are listed under various international protocols as ozone depleting and/or global warming agents, termed greenhouse gases (GHGs). That immediately leaves out all natural refrigerants as well as many of the newest HFO refrigerants with low global warming potential (GWP). There have been various attempts by the ARC to expand the scheme by imposing onerous qualification requirements and even by asking for voluntary licensing of natural refrigerants, but the scheme remains shackled by its original mandate as well as by inflexibility of its founding structures.
  • Hydrocarbon refrigerants licensing scheme operating under the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy. Arguably, this is the most archaic and ideologically driven scheme, operating under the same Act that regulates petroleum and gas exploration and, seemingly, with the sole purpose of restricting, if not prohibiting, the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants in the sunny state of Queensland. Again, various attempts to re-regulate the situation (some even driven by relevant ministers) have failed at the barricades of trusty public servants who are defending Queenslanders against untold evils of using an energy-efficient alternative!
  • State-based schemes such as the licensing scheme recently introduced by the Queensland government. While being a step in the right direction, this scheme attracted a lot of criticism from the profession for not recognising all aspects of HVAC&R as an independent trade and perhaps for setting the thresholds somewhat low.

It is obvious that the licensing schemes above serve only specific purposes. We therefore need a new licensing arrangement that will be in service of the HVAC&R sector and its customers. The new push has been recently started by AIRAH, the industry body that published its policy and is now widely canvassing views. In my view, any new scheme MUST satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Enhance and protect safety and wellbeing of the trade, customers and public
  2. Be, on balance, in the general interest of the public and society
  3. Improve rather than merely regulate the outcomes
  4. Be outcome-based and technology/materials agnostic.

Any focus on a particular type or group of refrigerants (be they synthetic, GHG, flammable, natural, etc.,) is misguided. Indeed, I believe that a focus on refrigerants in general is equally misguided.

Such focus has traditionally been influenced by two factors. First, a long-running conflict between the synthetic and natural refrigerants sectors. Second, the ARC scheme (and other similar schemes around the globe), which is refrigerant-centric due to its specific purpose of controlling GHGs.

I firmly believe the focus must be on the outcome, and that industry qualifications, refrigerants, regulations and the rest are just tools in achieving world-class, safe and effective results in design, installation, operation and maintenance of HVAC&R systems. In fact, it is difficult to think of any other regulatory framework (e.g., electrical or plumbing trades) where the regulatory focus is on materials or tools rather than on the training and outcome.

Expanding from the above, an ideal (yet realistic) licensing system should: 

  1. Be state-based, for obvious compliance, enforcement, and legislative reasons. 
  2. Be tiered, to adequately cater for a wide variety of requirements, technical sophistication, hazard levels and size/cost/complexity of installations and designs. It makes little sense to require someone performing a relatively routine task of installing self-contained, highly engineered domestic AC machines to be under the same licensing onus as, say, a designer or installer of an industrial-size refrigeration plant. In addition, some trade sectors, such as automotive air conditioning, should be completely exempt from the licensing requirements, due to the relative simplicity of systems, high level of technical aptitude in the sector, and, more pragmatically, due to the robust resistance to any licensing impost likely to be offered by that sector. The model introduced by the Queensland government incorporates such an approach. 
  3. Have each project/job over a certain threshold (expressed in either dollar value, kilowatt of installed power or volume of refrigerant) should be required to be certified by the (licenced) installer for compliance with relevant standard(s) or codes of practice. In such a way, the full circle of training-licensing-certification-compliance would be closed and easy to follow. 
  4. Pass a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the red tape does not stifle innovation or unnecessarily add to the cost of doing business. 

The added benefit of implementing such a scheme would be that it would allow the ARC scheme to be stripped of its unpopular requirements and complexities and become once again what it was originally intended to be – a scheme for control of greenhouse gases!

As for the Queensland hydrocarbon scheme, only a popular revolt (note the recent petition against the legislation) can discard that absurd piece of legislation.

Having said all that, it can be argued that the impact of non-existence of a licensing regime on emissions, energy use or efficiency is quite low, if not negligible. Licensing by itself does not impose any requirement for a better environmental, energy use, efficiency, or cost outcomes. These elements can only be improved through developing appropriate national standards and codes of practice. Only then can a licensing regime be successful in driving the progress.

At present, to my belief, in an industry riddled with commercial interests and imported technology, we are lacking in those areas, and any licensing regime will be hampered by not having the adequate support.  

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