As any reader of past columns will know, the ongoing mechanism of the F-Gas regulation, with its emphasis on moving the industry to lower-GWP refrigerants via bans and quota reductions, has caused European cooling businesses to do a lot of soul-searching.

The first challenge had been to convince the users of refrigerants that they should be moving to lower-GWP alternatives.

The European cooling industry is skeptical of change at the best of times and it has been a struggle for the industry’s representative bodies to get the message through that the higher-GWP refrigerants like R404A are soon going to be in short supply and, under the legislation, will soon be banned in larger installations in just two years’ time.

Now, however, the urgency of the message appears to be starting to percolate through the industry, due in no small part to the fact that the cost of R404A has soared, as suppliers manage supply and demand. In fact, as the HFC quota reduces year by year, the cost of refrigerant is becoming more reflective of its GWP, so "medium-high" gases like R410A are also quickly becoming more expensive, too.

This is having the effect of focusing the minds of owners and operators of both refrigeration and AC installations on moving to lower-GWP alternatives.

But, the advent of lower-GWP refrigerants also brings with it serious longer-term considerations. The fact that the majority of alternatives in future will have some degree of flammability — whether it’s the mild flammability of R32 or HFO blends, or the full flammability of hydrocarbons — has given rise to concerns that the current engineering base does not have the right skills to handle them.

There are now mounting calls across Europe for training in flammables to be prioritized as part of F-Gas training courses, and where feasible to be made compulsory.

In RAC’s recent Round Table debate on HFOs, the consensus was that training in flammables was the most pressing need for the industry as it moves towards a lower-GWP landscape.

Given that the next generation of "ultra-low-GWP" HFO blends will all be rated A2L or mildly flammable, it was stressed that the industry needs to grasp the nettle: use and handling of the HFO blends requires a distinct approach to accommodate the fact that they are mildly flammable.

While in practice, the operational changes are not major, engineers, and perhaps more importantly those who employ them — need to be properly trained in handling and servicing them.

The fact that current F-Gas training in the U.K. often only addresses flammability of refrigerants in at best a theoretical fashion — and often only considers it very much in passing — was underlined as a major issue, with delegates saying that practical hands-on training had to be pursued.

Kelvin Kelly, training director for U.K. trainer Business Edge said: "The risk from flammable refrigerants is only one more element in the risk assessment, so shouldn’t be seen as a major issue. But naturally it is vital that the risk assessment is approached properly there is a concern that risk assessments are seen only as a tick box exercise by some companies."

Refrigerant groups in the U.K. are now lobbying the government in a bid to make training on flammables mandatory for all F-Gas engineers. Currently, while F-Gas registration is a legal requirement for working on refrigerants, there is no similar requirement for flammables training.

There is equally a fear that the "mild flammability" of R32 and HFO blends is still not properly understood by national safety authorities, who view the refrigerants in the same way as much more easily ignited products such as hydrocarbons.

The European Commission is in parallel looking at speeding up the development of standards in flammables — expected to include training — commissioning consultants to "fast-track" regulations around all levels of flammable refrigerants. However, the Round Table delegates stressed that European rulemaking take a long time to reach fruition, so waiting for these standards wasn’t an option for the European industry.

Kelly added: "The emphasis should be on the practical element of flammables work — it is about making the industry safe. The risk assessment element has been around since 1997, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the industry needs to take it more seriously."

The mood has been echoed in the AC sector, where R32 is being adopted as the lower-GWP alternative to R410A — and, as has been noted, there is no non-flammable alternative currently available.

Leading manufacturer Toshiba has sought to throw down the gauntlet to competitors, by offering to subsidize training for installers who install its first range of R32 equipment.

General manager David Dunn said: "It is vital that the correct training is provided. We certainly don’t want to put folk off the new technology, but we also don’t want to release equipment without ensuring that installers are properly trained…So in our view, installers need to attend a flammables course. We think that other manufacturers have dumbed down the training element in the past — we don’t want to scare people, but at the same time, they need to have their eyes open."

With the rest of the world outside Europe expected to start its own phase-down of HFCs under the Kigali Agreement as soon as next year, a similar move away from high-GWP refrigerants is inevitable. With that in mind, I suggest due consideration of the need for training in flammable refrigerants sooner rather than later.