Spotlight on: Graeme Fox, President of the IOR

In the latest of his interviews with people making an impact on the net zero journey Andrew Gaved hears how Graeme Fox is helping to fight the cooling industry’s corner.

When Graeme Fox was elected President of the IOR (Institute of Refrigeration) last year, he became the first incumbent mainly from the air conditioning sector to achieve the position.

The presidency, combined with his day job as technical director of BESA, the Building Engineering Services Association, has brought him face-to-face with the issues facing both heating and cooling – some of which are similar and some of which are distinctly different.

To prove the point, before considering the achievements of his IOR presidency, Graeme has net zero matters on his mind:

“What we’re trying to do at BESA with regards to net zero is to help our members demonstrate what they’re doing. And first of all, the problem is most people have got no concept what ‘net zero’ actually means. And if they do think about it, they just think it’s such a massive thing: ‘net zero by 2050, 68% reductions by 2030’ etc: it’s not surprising they’re thinking ‘Wow, we’ll never achieve that.’ Or: ‘It’s too big a thing and the government will probably do a U-turn anyway’. The result is a lot of them just don’t bother to do anything.”

The problem, however, is that a lot of BESA’s members have got tender documents like PQQs where it’s a big part of that tender to actually explain what they are doing towards their net zero target, he says.

“It makes it difficult for some of them. Some of them just don’t bother tendering because they think they don’t meet the criteria.”

To help its members understand how relatively simple it can be to make net zero adaptations, BESA has set about demonstrating it in its own premises. As we sit in the BESA HQ at Rotherwick House near the Tower of London, Graeme explains that all the heating and cooling is heat recovery across the entire building. There are occupancy sensors in every area so if there’s nobody there, the lights turn off and it cuts down the ventilation. And the Association has recently installed electric charging points for members to turn up with their electric vehicles.

“All of that stuff is all part of net zero,” he says, “But we were ‘doing net zero’ for our clients 20 years ago. What we were doing was saving them money by cutting their energy bills. But it wasn’t called net zero because nobody gave a thought to carbon 20 years ago.”

BESA is putting all of its guidance into a net zero hub for its website, to allow members to access whatever resources they need. “It needs to be about giving SMEs the tools they need,” he says, “BESA hasn’t shouted about it like some of the other trade associations, but we are trying to walk the walk.”

Heat networks

Walking the walk is what led BESA to develop the test standard for Heat Interface Units back in 2015, Graeme notes: “The heat networks that were being installed weren’t delivering in performance. It meant the heat interface units themselves could be measured against an agreed industry standard.”

What the testing highlighted was that the HIU units often worked perfectly well – it was the networks themselves that were the problem. “So that’s why eight years later, we’re now in the process of helping government to set up the heat network technical assurance scheme so that we can then guarantee the performance of the network,” he says.

In this way, he says, BESA has helped to ensure the networks – a key element in the government’s low carbon heating strategy – have a chance of meeting their design performance: “If you’re guaranteeing the pumps, the network and the HIUs themselves, then you’ve effectively got guaranteed delivery and then it’s just a case of how you actually apply the heat into the network in the first place.”

And that segues neatly into a key area of crossover – or rather connectedness – with the cooling industry, namely heat recovery: “One of the things we’re looking at in the IOR are the huge opportunities for heat recovery and feeding heat into heat networks through heat pumps and stuff like that – because it is refrigeration technology creating the heat for other sectors to deliver.”

Emissions

Technical issues have exercised Graeme Fox for as long as he has represented his industry – dating back more than 20 years to when he was BESA RAC group chair while a contractor. Anyone who has followed the progress of F-Gas legislation – the EU law that is fundamental to anyone in the cooling industry – will be familiar with Graeme’s sometimes thundering statements. Over the last 15 years, he has been an increasingly vocal advocate for the industry, often having to defend those who actually use refrigerant daily against the whims of those who just talk about it.

Most importantly, he isn’t afraid to stand up to opposing voices when it comes to the pursuit for “natural refrigerants” such as CO2 and propane – arguing that the calls to accelerate the adoption of such refrigerants are ideologically driven and ignore the practical reality: “I’ve always been all for minimising emissions and using the best solution possible environmentally. But I take that as being that there are many, many cases where an HFC is the best solution environmentally – because if you’re containing that refrigerant in the system, then the actual Global Warming is zero. So, it should be what’s the most energy efficient solution, not ‘what’s got the lowest Global Warming Potential.’”

Graeme thinks refrigeration is being unfairly targeted: “We are a relatively small industry. Why is everyone trying to squeeze this industry when there’s much more to be gained, I’d argue by sorting out the emissions in the aerospace industry, or in fact by imposing significant tariffs on Chinese imports?”

Chinese threat

The Chinese threat is something of a bête noir for Graeme Fox, which has stemmed from being inundated since becoming technical director at BESA by reports of unsafe Far Eastern products.

“When you look into it, you’ll find that some Chinese companies have got a very laissez faire attitude towards global product compliance. For example, they will develop a product which they’ll submit for CE-marking certification. Then when they have got CE-approval, the manufacturer will then roll out something else on the production line that hasn’t actually been tested. And they just put the CE mark sticker on all of them, regardless. The customs people in the EU don’t investigate further, as the unit has got a mark for that design.”

Lest anyone think that this is just arguing about technicalities, Graeme notes that for HVAC equipment, the consequences of non-compliance can be serious – and that is clearly something to think about as the UK gets to grip with the flammable refrigerant propane:

“I think I was only about a week into being BESA technical director when I got an email about exploding bellows. You find these bellows – effectively two flanges either side of a rubber ball – in big steel pipework, often for steam or very hot water. And the idea is that it’s there to take up vibration and expansion and contractions from the very hot fluid. But what was happening was the manufacturer was using an inferior grade of rubber in the actual product they put on the market to the one that was tested. This inferior grade rubber goes brittle after constant heat. On one particular case, the engineer that was doing a maintenance inspection got really severely burned, ending his career. When we looked into it, it was because the contractor needed to save a few quid, so they used an alternative product instead of the specified one – which happened to be a cheap import which was of the inferior grade rubber.”

He rails against the thinking that has given rise to this situation: “As long as we have an industry that continues to allow that kind of shortcutting and value-engineering, and a government that allows that country to import here without punitive tariffs – and let’s not get started on the human rights records – what we’re doing is we’re fuelling an economy, which is heavily carbon pollutant…So I’ve said to civil servants: ‘If you really want to drive net zero, you need to stop allowing cheap Chinese imports to come into the country because firstly it diminishes UK industry; Secondly, it’s dangerous to the UK public. And thirdly, it fuels that carbon pollution.”

He concedes that diplomatic issues have meant that the civil servants haven’t been swift to take him up on the suggestion.

F-Gas

However, there is more room for optimism when it comes to F-Gas and the forthcoming revisions. Simply put, whatever scare stories you may have heard about the punitive changes being considered for the legislation, the UK will not be blindly following them.

“I have had a lot of people getting very worried about F-Gas, now that the EU has published its trialogue proposals,” he says, “But we are not in the EU anymore. We don’t actually have to worry about it immediately. We are at least a year and a half away. And everything that’s coming out of DEFRA for me points towards pragmatism. A year ago, Defra’s interim report very clearly said that the proposals on the table from the European Commission were unworkable for the UK industry. And I was very heartened by that.”

Graeme believes that Defra recognises he is not driven by an agenda: “Because I was a contractor for 27 years, I think I will always have a sympathy for contractors. But I like to be able to give the industry a practical solution, so I have always tried to be neutral, and I think over the years I’ve felt that trust with Defra – that they understand I’m not just trying to push a certain perspective.”

The UK F-Gas proposals are expected to be offered for consultation in late 2024, with an implementation date of early to mid-2025. This is largely due to the fact that the legislation has to be drafted for the UK and formally discussed rather than transposed from EU law.

“What Defra is doing right now is they’re focusing on the things they can do immediately without legislative change, which is things like better enforcement of some of the existing legislation. So, for example, they are looking at better policing the illegal trading of refrigerants and of end-of-life refrigerant recovery.”

Refrigerant recovery

This brings us to another bugbear of Graeme’s: refrigerant recovery, or, more accurately, lack of it: “I often used to get jobs as a contractor to go to demolition sites, where for instance the VRF air conditioning system needed to be decommissioned. I wasn’t required to do the strip-out, it was literally just a case of degassing the unit. But I’d get to the unit and find some idiot labourer had just stuck a hacksaw

through the pipes, because there was a wall they needed to knock down.”

“I have said to the European Commission many times over the years ‘Our industry is tired of this. High emissions levels are not down to ‘leakage’ rates at all. Because actually there are thousands of tonnes of refrigerant that have been deliberately emitted to atmosphere by labourers. And our industry gets the brunt of that for something that’s completely outside of our control.”

But, he notes gladly, Defra is making progress on addressing this and is in the midst of a major data collection exercise. More positively still, the department is considering mandating a register of F-Gas qualified operatives to run in parallel with the company certificate register managed by BESA subsidiary REFCOM, along with fellow certification company Quidos.

Having the two types of register in parallel would help enormously with monitoring of refrigerant and the self-policing aspects of implementation of the Regulations – and thus also emissions and in turn carbon usage, he says:

“The companies that are on the REFCOM register would get properly vetted and we can then make sure they actually have records of recovery of refrigerants and stuff like that. We can also encourage them to properly report on those instances that they’re currently uncomfortable reporting, where they’re going to a site to recover gas that’s already had pipes cut and refrigerant released. With air conditioning, because we have a relatively compliant professional workforce now, the leakage rate is probably less than 2%. Commercial refrigeration leakage rates probably start at 8-10%, which is a massive improvement on the 20-30% it was 15 years ago, but there is still a lot of work to do. But where we can make bigger gains is, not surprisingly, in enforcement. And the enforcement brings confidence.”

Cultural change

However, given all the focus on technical matters, it is telling that what Graeme considers his greatest achievement, now he is more than halfway through his two-year IOR Presidency, is helping to change the culture of the Institute and to some extent, the industry:

“I think the culture within the IOR is now more inclusive and I think we are more open to change and discussions about change than ever before. I’ve seen a massive change in the culture already in the last year,” he says, “I made a start before I took office admittedly, but I hit the ground running, that’s for sure.”

Graeme notes that he is the first President of the Institute to come from a mainly air conditioning background, rather than commercial or industrial refrigeration: “I think that has been a big factor in being able to drive that culture change – although admittedly it was also a big factor in the resistance to me getting elected in the first place. There was certainly something of an old boys’ club from the older members of the refrigeration industry. Some of them have retired now, which has helped, no doubt. But the result of us embracing young engineers and female engineers better than before is that we have more empathy on the bigger climate issues. And I think that the more women we have in senior positions of influence and the more we encourage young people to speak up, the more we can change that whole cultural dynamic across the sector. And that is really encouraging.”