The concept for the Refrigerant Drivers License (RDL) came out of discussions during a breakout session at the Milan Centro Galileo Conference in July 2013, resulting in myself being invited by the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) to address the first Global Supply Chain conference in New York, alongside the 2014 AHR Expo in New York.

I was invited at the time as president of the Air conditioning and Refrigeration European Association (AREA) to address the conference and discuss the concerns surrounding the safe and responsible use of alternative refrigerants, including the impending proliferation of A2L (mildly flammable) gases. In particular, there were concerns over R-32 and the lack of appropriate working equipment.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) attendees in New York were particularly concerned about this issue and the lack of knowledge globally surrounding the peculiarities of working safely with the A2L refrigerants.

While here in Europe and in North America there are standards that are adhered to — albeit not always rigorously enough — the concern was that there are many areas of the world where standards don’t really exist. When these areas begin using alternative gases, especially in retrofits or field repairs, serious safety and environmental concerns will follow.

Accidents and/or fatalities anywhere in the world naturally undermine the raising of standards and professionalism, and from a commercial point of view, undermine public and consumer confidence in the equipment itself — even when the cause is lack of knowledge.

The RDL concept is meant to set a minimum standard of competence for refrigeration and air conditioning technicians working with all refrigerants. It will naturally fall at a lower level than that of Europe’s own F-Gas technicians or U.S. North American Technician Excellence (NATE)-certified technicians, but we at AREA and AHRI believe, as the standard bearers and drivers of industry improvement, it’s right that we lead from the front in developing and improving the skill levels of everyone working with refrigerant gases.

Just as many here have pointed out, having an F-Gas qualification doesn’t make someone a refrigeration engineer and neither will having an RDL. What it will do is ensure that technicians working with potentially dangerous refrigerants in the third world or the developing world have some basic knowledge of how to handle and work with all refrigerant gases and an understanding of the specificities of different refrigerants in relation to flammability, toxicity, pressure, etc.

Indeed, the work carried out by AREA for the industry in developing and determining the competency levels for the F-Gas Regulation and EN13313 over several years will be the starting point for setting out the competency needs for the RDL as we move forward.

The difficulty in driving this forward will be in persuading people in the wider industry of the benefit of carrying out this project. As the project is being run by American and European contractors and manufacturers, there is a natural concern the RDL could result in another tier of legislation when we’ve just gone through another round of F-Gas standardization that hasn’t even been implemented nationally as of yet.

However, the RDL is aimed at parts of the world where there are no trade associations, no real working standards, and little or no enforcement of safe working practices. Introducing flammable gases to these parts, regardless of how mildly flammable or not a refrigerant gas is, is potentially lethal.

By ensuring that technicians working with these gases have an understanding of the potential hazards, it’s hoped that we can avoid many of the inevitable accidents from occurring in the first place, thereby saving lives. As our level of certification will be higher than that set for the RDL, it’s anticipated the RDL would be automatically approved to an F-Gas by a NATE technician, should that engineer want one or goes to work in one of the countries or areas where the RDL is necessary. But, this is one of the many issues that still needs to be discussed and determined.

It may be that different levels of RDL are set in the same way that a driving license here [in Europe] allows you to drive a car or a small van up to a certain level, but to drive a bigger van or a motorbike requires some further testing or qualifications. It’s early days in our discussions, and there are a number of big issues to iron out before the project starts looking at any conclusion.

From an environmental perspective, I’ve long argued that keeping systems leak-tight is essential, not only to maintain efficiencies but also to minimize emissions of greenhouse gases. With the introduction of alternative gases, and the likely downward trend of global warming potential (GWP) levels for gases resulting in ever more flammable gases in general use, keeping these gases in leak-tight systems is even more important.

These gases can cause fires or explosions before they even get a chance to reach the upper atmosphere and potentially contribute to global warming if they leak out.

The RDL concept is an exciting and truly international cooperative project. It naturally follows on from the work that AREA has been involved in with UNEP for some years now, where the organization’s vice president has been travelling widely to discuss training needs from Kazakhstan to the Sudan, and we look forward to working closely with both UNEP and AHRI in developing this concept to fruition.

Publication date: 8/29/2016

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