Europe facing shortage of natural refrigerant technicians

EUROPE – Low training uptake is creating a long-term shortage of technicians trained to operate natural refrigerant systems and ultimately making it harder to deliver the EU’s f-gas phase-down, warns an upcoming European Commission report.

Low training uptake is creating a medium- to long-term shortage of technicians sufficiently well-trained to operate natural refrigerant systems, making it harder to deliver the EU’s f-gas phase-down targets, according to a draft European Commission report to be published under the EU’s F-Gas Regulation on reducing HFC consumption in Europe.

“It is clear that the currently known uptake of training is too low to match the medium and long-term requirements of the HFC phase-down,” says the report on the availability of training for service technicians regarding the safe handling of f-gas alternatives.

The EU executive surveyed 22 member states, a figure which represents over 91% of the EU population. According to the survey, Ammonia training is available in only 71% of them, despite the fact that this natural refrigerant has been in use for decades.

“Availability is much lower for other alternative refrigerants,” the report warns.

The report – set to be formally published by 1 January 2017 – reveals that just 0-2.3% of f gas-trained technicians in the 22 countries surveyed are also trained to use natural refrigerants such as CO2 and hydrocarbons. Indeed, the report revealed that CO2 training is available in just 52% of the 22 countries surveyed whereas training on small hermetic hydrocarbon systems is on offer in 48% of European countries, while just 35% offer training on using hydrocarbons in larger systems.

In some regions, the lack of trained service providers is having the direct consequence of pushing some end users to opt against converting from HFCs to alternative refrigerants – and particularly to the use of CO2 for commercial refrigeration.

The Commission cites uneven geographical distribution of training centres and the fact that “micro-enterprises are so dominant” as being some of the principal factors among other barriers to wider training in CO2 and hydrocarbons.

“It is relatively hard for very small companies to fund the training required in the wide range of alternatives that are becoming available,” the report states.

Despite reporting “good availability” of materials for theoretical training, the Commission identifies “a considerable shortage of practical training facilities for hands-on training on relevant equipment in some regions”.

To help solve the issue, the Commission calls for the introduction of ‘train-the-trainer’ programmes to address geographic imbalances. It also stresses the key role to be played by big end users like supermarkets, for example by requiring only trained technicians to work with their systems.

The report also suggests that national authorities could fund training programmes in an effort to rectify the imbalances in the system.

Despite the EU executive’s bleak assessment, some manufacturers of natural refrigerant systems and components have been actively training technicians for some time now, such as Carrier who have opened a training facility for CO2 refrigeration, the CO2OLacademy, in the German city of Mainz in March 2015. Similarly, and once more  in Germany, the compressor giant Bitzer inaugated the SCHAUFLER Academy, an international training centre located in Rottenburg, in February 2016.

Kim G. Christensen, the managing director of the Danish CO2 system manufacturer Advansor – which also conducts training – refutes the notion that a lack of training is a barrier to wider uptake of CO2 solutions in particular, declaring

“The story that there isn’t enough CO2 training capacity is a lie.”

Mr Christensen instead urged retailers and contractors in areas without access to local training to visit existing facilities elsewhere.

Alongside the training organised by Bitzer, Carrier and Advansor’, he cites courses at universities in France and Belgium and refrigeration schools in Denmark and Sweden among the options currently available.

The Commission report, meanwhile, concludes that measures in place governing the use of HFC replacements are sufficient to ensure their safety.

“The legislative framework complemented by existing standards at the European level appears appropriate to assure safe handling of such equipment where these rules are followed,” declares the report, before ending with the conclusion that further EU legislative action is “not appropriate at this time”.