Written by Eamonn Ryan
RACA Journal met up with (at-the-time) incoming SARACCA executive director John Parry together with director of SAQCC Gas Eddie Cooke to discuss the latest strategy for the training of air-conditioning and refrigeration installers and artisans.
The following article was written a while ago but scheduled for issue this month, having in the July issue announced the retirement of Barney Richardson as executive director of SARACCA and his replacement with John Parry. That has all reversed following the untimely death of incoming executive director John Parry (see his obituary following in this issue), with Richardson now delaying his retirement to step back into the breach.
To date, out of about 6 000 practitioners, approximately 3 000 have been registered with SAQCC Gas to work in the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry. These are the people working directly on the pressure portion of the refrigeration circuit and consequently the ones who will influence the safety of the installation most. Training is consequently vital to the industry, as is registering with relevant associations.
It’s worth repeating that registration is a legal requirement. The Pressure Equipment Regulation 2 specifically states that the regulations shall apply to the design, manufacture, operation, repair, modification, maintenance, inspection and testing of pressure equipment, with a design pressure equal to or greater than 50kPa, in terms of the relevant health and safety standard in the Regulations under section 44 of the OHS Act.
SAQCC Gas as a committee comprises four gas associations for 100 gases: LP gas, compressed gases, the natural gases, and the refrigerant gases. It does the registration and certification for all the gas practitioners and controls the certificates of conformity (CoCs) required for new installations and maintenance.
Parry says, “CoCs are a legal requirement and anyone installing an air conditioner or gas hub without one is committing an illegal act.” Cooke adds that the association itself was formed out of a mandate that came from the Department of Labour. Within the OHS Act there’s a specific pressure equipment regulation, which mandates any gas system to be issued with a CoC. That means for design, installation, commissioning, maintenance, or any repairs, that system needs a CoC from a registered practitioner. That practitioner must be registered with and get training through one of the associations, depending on the gas type they work with.
Routes to qualify for matriculants to get into the gas sector
Parry explains that anyone interested in qualifying in air conditioning can enrol with a private training college and do an apprenticeship to become a technician through SARACCA. There are training providers in the major centres: Cape Town, Durban, Kimberley, Johannesburg, and Pretoria. This process is similar for the other associations, adds Cooke. He notes that each association has a different membership working in the different gas fields (other than refrigerants). “Matriculants or school leavers can also find a job with one of the industry employers, and with subsequent experience and training through their relevant association can get officially qualified in a specific gas industry.
“There are a number of technical schools and colleges where matriculants can get exposure to certain of these industries such as gas or refrigeration, just as with plumbing or electrical,” says Cooke.
He recommends interested people visit the SAQCC website for the minimum requirements.
In tandem with the energy crisis in South Africa and more people switching to using alternatives such as solar and gas, Cooke suggested this will logically increase gas job opportunities and demand for training and competency. “Some of our associations have already experienced a higher demand for training and to get qualified in this industry, especially in the LP gas household sector – rather more so than the refrigerant sector.” However, Parry pointed out that refrigerants also start playing a role where residential complexes are built by developers with limited Eskom supply and seek energy efficient hybrid solutions. These include alternatives such as heat pumps, which are essentially air conditioners which also provide heating of water, adds Parry.
Cook points out that SAQCC Gas looks at all gases equally, including gases in the medical or welding sectors, which fall under the Compressed Gas Association.
Like driving a car without a licence
The entire purpose of the association is to prevent anything from ever going wrong, says Cooke. “One of our roles is to lobby that the gas industry is a safe industry – if gas is installed in compliance with standards by a competent, registered installer. When consumers or businesses accept a gas installation without being given a CoC I would say it’s the same as driving a car without a license.”
Parry cautions that it’s the users and installers who cause gas problems – including with refrigerants. “If you abuse the pressures involved, you could get injured. When an ammonia installation is not maintained or installed properly, it can cause fatalities. That’s all part of the training supplied through SARACCA – to instil the understanding that it’s not the gases at fault, but the technicians. Training is all about health, safety, and pressure – how to look after yourself and your client,” says Parry.
“The safe handling courses are developed by the association. For instance, on the refrigerant side we get ACRA heavily involved, and it is approved by QCTO. There are many standards for the gas practitioners’ courses, for apprenticeships and more. SARACCA is involved from beginning to end.”
Cooke says, “A lot of modules in the different gas sectors were developed in the early 2000s under the old NQF system and are now seen as historic educational modules. However, a lot of those materials have long been used by the associations, alongside other guidelines widely used by multinational companies as best international practices. Many of South Africa’s training courses come from these multinational companies. Another source of training is the mandatory standards recognised in the country and which form part of regulations. The associations train practitioners based on those compliance standards.”
These include manufacturing standards, equipment standards, and process standards which the installers don’t necessarily get involved with when installing a system. Cooke points out that equipment comes with all the standards already incorporated within them.
Parry adds, “With refrigerant practitioners, it is module based with about twelve modules of two- to three-weeks duration each, with learners alternating between the employer and the college. This requires about six months in total throughout the apprenticeship at the college and the remainder getting practical experience in the field with an employer. After a minimum of two to two and a half years, the apprentice can apply to do the trade test, and if found to be competent they can become a gas practitioner – but will still need to do the course for SAQCC Gas.
“We encourage employers to employ apprentices and train them, because there is a shortage of qualified gas practitioners,” says Parry. He acknowledges that employers can get frustrated at getting employees to qualify, only for them to leave and work for somebody else.
The flip side of that, he argues, is that if everybody employed and trained apprenticeships they wouldn’t feel the need to switch jobs. “Apprenticeships require an investment by employers because they have to have the right workshop facilities to complete an apprenticeship, but poaching of qualified staff is a common feature of a free market – not just in the gas industry,” says Parry.
Cooke adds, “At other associations, a lot of their training is broken up according to the industry requirements of domestic, commercial, and industrial installations. A practitioner would have to get qualified and move through each from the bottom up. There’s also a lot of specialised training for instance in the medical or industrial sectors.”
Cooke highlighted two recent milestones (both profiled in the Cold Link Africa May issue). SAQCC Gas just celebrated its 15th anniversary and also recently during Covid moved into the digital environment. Previously, says Cooke, all practitioner identity documents were physical cards with CoCs paper-based in a triplicate form. “This is now done totally electronically via apps on a practitioner’s phone or tablet to issue the CoC. This was introduced mainly to reduce fraud – people duplicating CoCs, or they were not registered to issue one. Another reason was to go paperless.
“In addition, the website has a list of all practitioners making it easier for consumers to find a practitioner within each gas type in their area.”
On the 15th anniversary, Cooke says: “The South African pressure equipment regulation was adopted from the European pressure equipment directive. A lot of work was done since 2005, and by October 2009 that regulation was published and became part of the OSH Act. It required a body controlling these registered practitioners and that’s where our mandate came from to start the SAQCC Gas and all four associations.”
One of the major challenges facing the HVAC&R industry, as with all associations in SAQCC Gas, is unregistered, unqualified practitioners.
Parry explains that one of SARACCA’s primary focus areas is trying to formalise the sector and educate the public on the use of best practice relating to pressure equipment regulations.
“SARACCA has about 3 300 registered gas practitioners, while Australia with a smaller population than South Africa has something like 40 000 registered, which gives you an idea of how far we are behind. We should have about 20 000. One reason for our education drive is that many in the informal side of the industry say they’ve never been asked for a registration card or to issue a CoC – so why go to all this effort of training? Therefore, the consumer has to be educated to demand these items. Most don’t even know that a CoC is required on an A/C unit at their home – or in their car for that matter.
“Not even consultants, property developers and estate agents – who are accustomed to requesting an electrical CoC – ask for it. This suggests the scale of the educational drive that our associations still have to go.
“Anybody working with pressure should go on our courses to understand pressure problems or the dangers. Often a company will employ maybe twenty people to do an installation and only one person is registered. That one person can issue a CoC, yet the rest are all welding and carrying on with piping – so perhaps fifteen of that team for safety reason should be registered and have gone through the gas practitioner’s course,” states Parry.