As professional registration schemes commence across Australia, practitioners in the refrigeration sector are looking for a clear statement from government on which parts of their work will fall under the new regulations – and calling for alternative qualification pathways.
On July 1, 2021, the Design and Building Practitioners Act 2020 came into effect in New South Wales, and Victoria introduced the Professional Engineers Registration Act 2019. The former initially only applies to Class 2 buildings, and the latter is being gradually rolled out across different engineering disciplines, with mechanical engineering due to come online at the end of 2023. Yet both acts bring the states closer to Queensland, where the Queensland Professional Engineers Act has been in operation since 2002.
In essence, Australia is moving towards a system where engineers must be professionally registered in order to practise. For some specific areas of engineering, however, it is not yet clear how the new rules will apply. One such area is refrigeration.
Refrigeration: in or out?
As National Sustainable Engineering Manager at Woolworths Group, Dario Ferlin, M.AIRAH, has been following the introduction of the new rules with great interest, especially in NSW.
“As the DBP Act presently stands, it would require any HVAC systems within a Class 2 building, or any building featuring Class 2 components, to have the HVAC system design submitted by a registered design practitioner with the NSW Planning Portal,” says Ferlin.
“Refrigeration systems in a Class 2 building – such as a ground-floor supermarket – would not be considered a ‘building element’. However, engineering work on a Class 2 building across a number of engineering classes including mechanical engineering must be undertaken by a registered professional engineer. So it seems the Act would require a registered professional engineer to sign off on design compliance (i.e., AS/NZS 5149, etc.) for the refrigeration system.”
Ferlin points out that this may pose a problem for many practitioners, because professional registration requires a Washington Accord degree in mechanical engineering.
“A significant proportion of professionals working in the NSW and broader Australian HVAC&R sector have come up through the ranks with a Certificate III qualifications,” he says. “While many of these professionals have acquired valuable experience and become respected industry stakeholders, most would not have tertiary qualifications, and so would fall short of Washington Accord degree recognition.”
According to Ferlin, the DBP Act offers an opportunity to strengthen the industry, but there are issues to address.
“For years the HVAC&R [industry] has effectively suffered from fragmented representation,” Ferlin says. “State-based licensing schemes are just one aspect. Another is a general lack of acknowledgement as an industry sector in its own right – it is often associated with construction, agriculture and automotive. The hope with the NSW Act and similar bills being passed in other states is that the HVAC&R sector is finally perceived as a stand-alone industry.
“But concern around these changes does exist in that many HVAC&R professionals, particularly in smaller organisations, may not be in a position to register as professional engineers owing to Washington Accord degrees appearing to be the minimum qualification threshold.”
Practitioners left in the cold?
David Bossom, M.AIRAH, is Senior Refrigeration Engineer at City Holdings, which holds a long-term contract to maintain refrigeration and air conditioning systems for Coles supermarkets.
Bossom agrees that educational backgrounds vary widely within the sector, including everything from university degrees to Certificate III qualifications, with paraprofessional courses such as associate and advanced diplomas in between. But he says that university-qualified refrigeration engineers would be in the minority.
“Very few Washington Accord-recognised mechanical engineering professionals are practising within the refrigeration industry in Australia,” says Bossom. “If they are, they are generally working for industrial refrigeration contractors or within consultancy firms that are engaged for industrial refrigeration projects specifically related to ammonia applications – for example, cold storage.”
“Within the commercial refrigeration sector, paraprofessionals and those with trade-based qualifications provide engineering design to supermarkets, general retail, pubs and clubs, and primary industry such as milk vats. These services are provided by employees of the major supermarket companies, refrigeration contractors and major industry wholesalers like Kirby, Actrol/Reece and Airefrig.”
Bossom anticipates little to no impact for those working in the industrial refrigeration sector, because they have been well regulated over a number of years given the requirements around the use of ammonia. But he says that given the scale of work in the commercial refrigeration sector, the requirement to hold a Washington Accord mechanical engineering degree could have a profound effect on the industry.
“The commercial refrigeration sector is likely to stall if the current paraprofessionals and experienced trade-based employees of companies are no longer able to offer engineering design work for projects,” he says.
For Bossom, the concern is not just a general one for the industry, but also personal. Despite holding a Bachelor of Technology – Refrigeration and Air Conditioning from Swinburne University, and having completed a trade-based apprenticeship, he does not meet the requirement of a Washington Accord engineering qualification.
“If I am deemed not eligible after giving 30 years to the industry, it may mean I need to find another role not involving engineering design,” he says. “The alternative is to vacate the industry altogether.”
Like Ferlin, Bossom sees a need for professional registration, but also has concerns.
“I am an advocate for the registration of engineers, and believe that going forward it will ensure that the quality and education of people coming into the industry is kept to an acceptable base standard given that we are moving into a new world with flammable and high-pressure refrigerants,” he says.
“But to be fair to the paraprofessionals and those with a trade background who have been working within the engineering design, installation and maintenance field of the industry for many years, a process with a set ‘grandfather date’ and a cut-off time for applications would be appropriate.
“We have a significant amount of talent within the refrigeration industry that should be used to provide guidance to the younger generation that wish to develop a career within this essential industry. Government and business will need to get on board and embrace all requirements to ensure that refrigeration continues to thrive into the future. Without this support, the progression towards net zero will be difficult to achieve.”
Industry making inquiries
AIRAH CEO Tony Gleeson, M.AIRAH, has contacted the NSW government to raise the issues above.
“AIRAH’s concern is that the refrigeration industry as it exists today will not be able to meet the qualification requirements for professional engineers set out in the DBP Regulation,” says Gleeson.
“Because of a lack of engineering degrees that specifically deal with HVAC&R – building services, mechanical engineers working in this sector have over the years obtained widely differing tertiary qualifications. Many leading professionals in this sector do not have a Washington Accord-accredited qualification in mechanical engineering.
“AIRAH is recommending that alternative pathways to registration be provided for these people. Otherwise, we risk losing a wealth of knowledge and experience from our sector.”
Gleeson notes that there are provisions in the Regulation for the Secretary of the Department of Customer Service to grant registration in other circumstances. It appears that this mechanism could permit suitably qualified and experienced professionals to obtain professional engineering registration, depending on the approach of the NSW government.