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India’s AC servicing sector needs a reboot

 India needs well-trained AC service technicians

India’s refrigeration and air-conditioning (RAC) demand is set to grow over 11 times in the next two decades, according to official estimates, from just 8% penetration rate of household use today.

Given the increasing heat stress due to climate change, this growth is important for wellbeing, health and productivity of the population as well as for sustaining industrial growth and competitiveness in India’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) sectors.

Much of India’s existing cooling relies on older generations of refrigerants that contribute directly to climate change. Importantly, about 40% of India’s usage of these high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants is due to the servicing sector.

To break out of this vicious cycle of cooling-induced global warming, the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) enlists targets across various stakeholders and sectors. The targets are set out to ensure access to affordable cooling in a sustainable fashion, including for the servicing sector.

The ICAP has highlighted several priorities that seek to formalise, regulate, train and offer enhanced access to better and safer livelihoods as well as social security.

Better training of technicians

The number of technicians today is estimated to be approximately 200,000. This number is expected to grow to 2,000,000 over the next two decades alongside the surge in RAC sales.

A majority of these technicians work in the informal economy and have been trained on the job. The switch from high-GWP refrigerants to climate-friendly alternatives necessitates regular training to recognise and handle these new gases with necessary caution.

Moreover, good servicing remains key to optimised energy efficient running of the AC systems.

The ICAP has mandated standardisation of training for servicing technicians and a universal certification system in India as key priorities for the service sector. Meeting these policy goals will ensure that the entire workforce consists of recognised and qualified technicians over time.

Well trained and qualified technicians are more likely to undertake good servicing practices that ensure safety as well as minimise energy consumption and refrigerant wastage.

Standardised system required

However, technicians who are already on the job may be at a risk of losing out as a result of this push for formalisation, training and certification. It is, therefore, necessary to establish standardised training modules and a certification system on values such as equity, accessibility and affordability, safety and enhanced livelihoods.

Evaluation mechanisms that are completely independent of training providers need to be established. This will allow for technicians from all locations and stages of literacy and demographics to be tested and registered as certified technicians based solely on their vocational knowledge and skills.

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), in its latest study, has introduced a typology in levels of certification to allow for career growth of technicians, based on varying degrees of technical skills they have or may acquire over time.

Ensuring independence of the certification agency will be another key tenet of the institutional blueprint that establishes a certification system in India.

The training modules that are available for technicians today are provided by a multitude of actors with varying degrees of theoretical and practical training priorities across formal, informal, private and public enterprises.

In order to move forward with an updated curriculum across all actors provisioning these, CEEW research has identified four key areas that must be incorporated into the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for this sector’s curricula: (i) good servicing practices; (ii) handling alternative refrigerants; (iii) workplace safety; and (iv) enhanced employability.

Environmentally sound practices

These priorities reflect value-based outcomes that ensure safe and environmentally sound practices and improved livelihoods. However, for these to be scaled up across the country, voluntary – and then mandatory – adherence by private sector players towards NOS development and adoption is necessary.

It is these standards which will be linked to the certification system that the government envisions. As an immediate next step, all government sanctioned training modules should adhere to these national standards, which is currently not the case.

To enable the twin objectives of enhanced skills and a formal recognition of these, a long-term target of mandating certification should be announced for 2030-32, in keeping with ICAP.

Sectoral targets should be specified in the interim for technicians working on various refrigerant-based appliances and equipment, such as room and central air conditioners, industrial chillers, vehicle air conditioners, reefers, cold chain rooms and others.

In the meantime, for such ambitions to be met, it is important that the private sector be encouraged to start labelling the types of gases in their AC units so that technicians can immediately know which gas they are handling.

Building a roster

Moreover, at the behest of the government, all companies should enlist or register their servicing technicians — those they directly employ or those who are affiliated through partner agencies with their companies.

This will help initiate a roster of the existing labour force that needs to undergo further training and certification. Furthermore, an incentive scheme — such as access to an ongoing insurance programme — should be offered to all technicians volunteering to be among the first to be certified under this scheme.

With a certification scheme coming into play, the dignity, safety and environmental preservation that servicing can lead to will be realised.

India Climate Dialogue

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