By Eamonn Ryan
Outgoing SARACCA executive director Barney Richardson is in the process of handing over the reins to John Parry, though his articles will continue to appear in RACA Journal. He offers some reminiscences from the past 21 years, in addition to his personality profile which appeared in June.
Richardson notes that there are fewer of the big air conditioning contracting companies today, as a result of the trend towards split room air conditioners which dominate at present. “The big central systems are still around, but the contractors capable of doing that work are fewer.
“When I joined SARACCA it was in a bit of trouble with little money in the bank as a result of falling membership as well as some weak management through the 1990s. My first challenges were consequently to provide some stability by strengthening its financial position and to grow the membership base. Once that was accomplished, the focus then shifted to skills training, in respect of which we subsidise hands-on training of our membership companies.
“Then there are new challenges. At the moment, the whole construction industry is in dire straits compared to 10 or 20 years ago, with so many of the big companies gone or a shadow of their previous selves. The HVAC sector performs in parallel with the construction industry and is consequently also under-achieving. The result is that the air-conditioning contractor at the moment just does mostly small split unit work rather than large installations with lots of ductwork and the like. It’s not the highly skilled work of a big central plant, skilled pipework on chilled water systems, engineered ductwork and design work, electrical, installation and controls elements.
“The industrial segment of refrigeration is still performing fairly well because the food chain always requires a lot of refrigeration and new installations, and there are some good contractors around doing that work. Other changes are the growth of supermarket refrigeration, and more recently the HCFC phase out and HFC phase down of refrigerants in favour of the natural refrigerants. This latter trend is changing the emphasis in the refrigeration industry, particularly when it comes to carbon dioxide and ammonia,” says Richardson.
The way ammonia is being applied is changing
The old ammonia systems were all ”very big with large volumes of ammonia gas”. “The market is now evolving to smaller ammonia systems with technological changes. That’s mostly for refrigeration – not many have been applied to air conditioning as of yet. You can’t use ammonia directly, you can only use it to produce chilled water, which is then used in the air-conditioning system. It requires a certain amount of skill to install and to maintain – there are some horror stories about how older systems have been maintained over the years.
“Maintenance requires a lot of skill and that’s SARACCA’s current focus – to lift technicians to a high skills level so as to properly maintain equipment whether it’s a simple air conditioner or a centralised system. Chillers also require a certain amount of specialist training, and there is strong demand for that training. We are about to introduce ammonia training as a collaborative effort involving Hennie Basson, Grant Laidlaw and SARACCA – for which there is also a lot of demand.
“As a result of these activities, SARACCA today is stable financially and operationally and has grown its membership – though much more needs to be done. When I joined there was only me, and a part-time bookkeeping function which was done manually. Today we have three fulltime employees: an association secretary also looking after the financials; one for registrations with SAQCC Gas; and one in charge of membership.”
I also served terms as a board member of Master Builders South Africa and the JBCC while at SARACCA
Richardson lists a highlight of his period with SARACCA as being registration with SAQCC becoming compulsory under law, written into the OSH Act in 2009. He notes the pressure regulations were updated to specifically state that people working on pressure systems had to be registered as an authorised person. “Compliance is not across the board as yet, but policing of this is becoming more stringent with the Department of Labour having recently appointed a further 500 inspectors and asked SARACCA to train them. There remains a lot of resistance to registration, with technicians frequently asking us to register them ‘quickly’ when caught out – which we of course refuse, as to do so counters the entire basis of membership.
“We have a marketing company to drive the registration process through various channels such as advertising and social media.
“The biggest change in the industry at the moment is undoubtedly the new, natural refrigerants. Soon we’re going to have air conditioners with R290 in, and this means the equipment is now designed to be spark and flame proof. Practitioners need to be training in the handling of flammable refrigerants and equipment.
“A lot of the current synthetic refrigerants are ozone depleting and many contribute to global warming. “My message to the HVAC sector is to get yourselves qualified, get yourselves up to speed on the pressure equipment regulations, and also be compliant with the SANS engineering standards,” concludes Richardson.