Pat Burke’s 60-year history in the HVAC industry reflects on the transformative power of technology and the challenges faced along the way.

From the exciting beginnings of air conditioning in the 1960s to the present-day focus on energy efficiency and environmental considerations, the industry has evolved significantly. As technology continues to shape HVAC systems, professionals like Burke will remain at the forefront, adapting and innovating to meet the ever-changing needs of a dynamic industry.

Barry Wallett, RPM Engineering Group managing director. Image supplied by RPM Engineering Group

Barry Wallett, RPM Engineering Group managing director. Image supplied by RPM Engineering Group

Burke has spent more than 30 years leading RPM Engineering Group, a company known for its expertise in maintenance consulting, consumer refurbishment, and retrofits. As Burke prepares to retire from his role as CEO and step back from the industry to split his time between Johannesburg where the head office is and Cape Town, he entrusts the future of RPM to Barry Wallett, his son-in-law, and a distinguished figure in the industry in his own right. With Wallett’s expertise and extensive network, he is poised to continue Burke’s legacy and drive the company to new heights.

As the days wind down to his ultimate retirement, Burke intends to devote at least a portion of his time to documenting the company’s journey and expertise through writing articles, while still consulting to the firm whenever his knowledge is required.
As he approaches the end of his career, Burke reflects on the evolution of that industry, shares his personal journey, and ensures that exciting innovations are on the horizon that promise a brighter future for cooling technologies.

Throughout his career, Burke witnessed remarkable advancements in the air conditioning industry. He remains as enthusiastic as ever, embracing cutting-edge technologies that have the potential to revolutionise cooling systems.

“During the 1960s, air conditioning experienced a surge in popularity, with innovation and new products emerging from the US. This was an exciting time when everything seemed new and full of possibilities. Companies like Airco evolved into AC&E, later splitting into Associated Air which became Improvair, which remains an influential player in the industry. Everybody knew each other back then through Friday night parties, close-knit relationships among suppliers, and the HVAC community thrived on camaraderie and shared knowledge,” says Burke. There wasn’t the proliferation of small contractors and companies as there is today, but a concentration of larger corporates.

As the industry expanded, the 1980s brought economic tightening amid the fallout of sanctions, which impacted many companies. The industry saw the proliferation of small contractors and companies, often formed by retrenched individuals from failed enterprises. “This influx of smaller players strained the industry financially, relying on wholesalers as their primary source of support. With intense competition and undercutting prevalent, it became a challenging period for all involved,” says Burke.

In the early 1980s, Burke was transferred from Durban to Cape Town, where he discovered a more honorable business atmosphere with a smaller but respectable refrigeration market. His experience remained within the realm of cold rooms, refrigeration, and related systems. However, seeking a change, Burke transitioned to the maintenance sector as he joined consulting firm Hill Kaplan Scott, with the focus on multidisciplinary services.

Throughout his career, Burke witnessed technological advances. One notable change, he says, was the rise of unitary and split units, which gained popularity due to their efficiency and affordability. The market for Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) systems, often referred to as split units on steroids, also expanded, primarily catering to office environments and smaller buildings. While VRF systems offer advanced technology and energy efficiency, their installation and maintenance require specialised expertise.

Consulting offered Burke the opportunity to utilise his in-depth knowledge of HVAC systems and provide valuable guidance to clients. The experience further honed his skills and prepared him for future endeavors in the industry.

Pat Burke, outgoing Group CEO of RPM Engineering Group. Image supplied by © Eamonn Ryan | RACA Journal

Pat Burke, outgoing Group CEO of RPM Engineering Group. Image supplied by © Eamonn Ryan | RACA Journal

“The HVAC industry faces both challenges and opportunities in the present era. One of the most significant challenges is the energy crisis and environmental concerns.” He acknowledges that addressing global warming, reducing CFC emissions, and improving refrigerants are paramount issues that require urgent attention. However, he emphasises that the industry has demonstrated a strong commitment to tackling these challenges, with ongoing efforts to improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

“As environmental concerns grew, refrigerants played a crucial role in HVAC technology. The development of new refrigerants that do not harm the ozone layer or contribute to global warming became a significant focus. With an estimated 17% of worldwide electricity consumption attributed to air conditioning, there is a heightened emphasis on energy efficiency.”

From a technological standpoint, Burke believes there are no major challenges hindering the HVAC industry’s ability to innovate and adapt. “Scientific and engineering advancements have made it possible to create sophisticated HVAC systems capable of meeting
diverse requirements. The industry’s focus lies in harnessing these advancements to develop more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly solutions.

“Despite the industry’s potential and the demand for skilled professionals, a significant challenge persists in attracting and training new talent. There is a concern regarding the lack of proper training and qualifications being offered, not only in South
Africa but worldwide. In my youth a five-year apprenticeship was a standard requirement, ensuring technicians received comprehensive training. However, today, the HVAC industry struggles to attract and retain skilled individuals, leading to a widening skills gap.”

Burke’s 60-year journey in the HVAC industry has been characterised by remarkable experiences and encounters with challenges and opportunities. From his time in consulting to his globetrotting adventures, he has witnessed the industry’s evolution and played an active role in shaping it. While challenges like the energy crisis and skills shortage persist, the HVAC sector continues to push boundaries and innovate to overcome them. Burke’s extensive knowledge and passion for the field have made him a witness to the industry’s resilience and its unwavering commitment to providing efficient, sustainable, and comfortable environments for people around the world.