There is a debate raging currently in the European HVAC community about the burden regulations have placed on the operators of cooling and heating equipment. The legislative landscape for the HVAC sector in Europe already pretty punitive — operators have to deal with the various demands of building regulations, emissions controls and energy efficiency goals, which all require compliance and attendant degrees of administration.

For much of the legislation, the fundamentals are demonstrating individual and corporate compliance, via accreditation and the necessary training. In the case of cooling, the F-gas and ODS regulations require a burdensome regular inspection, monitoring and record keeping.

Experts believe the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. Just ask Graham Wright, the newly appointed president of U.K. manufacturers' and distributors' body HEVAC. Wright referred this week to how the HVAC industry has been "bombarded" with legislation, from safety standards to performance criteria, through to rules on equipment disposal.

"While manufacturers and others have worked extremely hard not only to ensure compliance, but also to support and help influence government policy the situation is unlikely to get easier, with new challenges and more rules and regulations coming in the next few years," Wright said. "It is therefore crucial that industry continues to provide resources to tackle the skills shortage and comply with new regulations."

But the argument that is troubling many is not the requirement to comply — for instance, the importance of recording and leak-checking is clear if the industry is to reduce direct emissions and overall greenhouse gas but rather the fact that compliance is not being properly enforced by the authorities.

Compliance comes at a cost, an investment both in money and time. If compliance with the regulations is not enforced, the argument runs, then those who cut corners are actually able to gain an advantage.

Daimler's defiance

At its most high profile, the lack of "teeth" in enforcement matters can be seen in the continued defiance of car-making giant Daimler over compliance with the European Mobile Air Conditioning Directive. Daimler has been refusing to shift from R134a, despite the MAC Directive, which has required a lower-GWP alternative since January 2013.

The automaker has thus officially been "out of compliance" for 18 months, yet it still has not seen any form of sanction. The remaining automakers and some policymakers are adamant that Daimler is using the deadlock to gain a financial advantage by using the cheaper R134a instead of the currently required alternative R1234yf.

The EC has threatened to penalize the German authorities for its infringement of the rules, but when and whether that devolves down to Daimler is anybody's guess. But the cooling industry is wondering, if the EC can't make its flagship policy stick, then what hope is there of other regulations being reinforced?

Building performance

Because lack of enforcement is an ongoing issue for the cooling industry, particularly in the U.K., where the national government appears distinctly unwilling to penalize those who contravene the regulations it has transposed from Europe.

A running sore for the U.K. air conditioning fraternity is the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD), an EU regulation which has been phased in since 2009. It has the laudable aim of drawing attention to individual buildings' energy usage, and thereby encouraging the market to step in to improve the bad performers a sort of shaming effect.

The EPBD has three basic elements:

  • an energy performance certificate, required for when the property was sold or rented to new tenants
  • a display energy certificate for public buildings, a summary of operational energy required to be posted up in the building for all to see
  • an air conditioning inspection, requiring a report on the energy performance of all cooling systems over 12 kW.

Naturally, the air conditioning industry leaped at this opportunity. Not only could experts train as inspectors, but the reports would show up the woefully old systems still operating, which owners would be shamed in to replacing with new efficient kit.

While all this was mandatory under the EPBD, the problem was that it wasn't enforced, so alarmingly few building owners bothered to comply. Figures published in 2011 showed just 5 percent compliance with the air conditioning inspections, while compliance with the other certificates ran at 70-80 percent.

In 2010, building services body Cibse was moved to run a campaign highlighting the need for enforcement, on the basis that no enforcement means no energy reduction opportunity. The "noncompliance costs" campaign certainly raised the profile of the problem. Unfortunately, it did little to change the regime, and still to-date the inspection requirement is woeful in its lack of compliance.

People have complained that the penalties on offer for not having an inspection around 300 pounds are inadequate, as it is often equivalent to or less than the cost of having an inspection. With local authorities having more pressing matters to worry about than breaches of this regulation, the penalties are rarely levied.

The farcical nature of this situation was underlined last year when the U.K. government was forced to pay compensation to the company it put in charge of the managing the inspections because the work was far less than the company had been promised when it was awarded the contract.

"Apart from the potential legal penalties, building owners and managers are missing out on the energy efficiency benefits that are flagged up by the inspections," Bob Towse of the Building and Engineering Services Association said last year. "Very few building owners are even aware of their legal responsibility, while local authorities who are charged with enforcing this law are not doing a great job of it."

Towse said he feared that the inspections would suffer as government looks to cut what it regards as "business red tape." B&ES also noted that insurance companies are reported to be offering policies to cover building owners and operators who might be caught out by the scheme.

"It is complex, time-consuming and not at all user-friendly," Towse said. "Under compulsory lodgement, it should be easier to trace buildings that are failing to comply with their legal obligations, but there is little evidence that this is being done and local authorities do not appear to have the expertise, resources and/or inclination properly to take on the challenge. However, if the regime is allowed to die, so will a central pillar of the country's strategy to reduce energy waste in buildings and to help businesses cut their running costs."

Refrigerant regulations

Into this already frustrating climate comes two refrigerant-based regulations. Most pressing is the requirement to phase out supply of HCFCs (principally R22) under the ODS regulations by the end of this year. Add to that the new F-gas regulations, which bring with them a tighter regime of leakage inspections, and the first-ever refrigerant service bans.

Industry observers are increasingly worried. There are plenty of reports of R22 still in systems throughout the U.K. that won't be able to be topped up from the end of the year. Or rather won't be able to be legally topped up.

Yet with no history of successful prosecuting for any kind of refrigerant-related misdemeanor since the first F-Gas regulations came into force in 2007, many worry that firms will continue to ply R22 without fear of prosecution.

There is thus a clamor from industry for the regulatory authorities to "make an example of somebody" with a high-profile prosecution, either of an F-gas breach or of illegal use of R22 (virgin R22 is already banned in Europe). This has proved a successful policy in the safety arena, where the U.K. Health and Safety Executive has brought a large number of prosecutions and prohibition for safety breaches. However, an environmental transgression is clearly not viewed in the same way as a safety one.

The UK government will be going out to consultation on the penalties for F-gas in the autumn, but it seems clear that the prospect of uniformed F-gas officials striding onto cooling sites and handing out prohibitions or warning notices is not a sight here we will see any time soon. Policing of the regulations, it seems, will be in the hands of the industry itself.

In the U.S., where prohibitions over HFC use have been recently proposed by the EPA, perhaps the industry should be asking what the plan is on enforcement.