HVAC maintenance in SA

There seems to be a gaping hole in the South African HVAC service and maintenance industry – what is happening and what SHOULD be happening?

Properly maintaining an HVAC system not only protects the equipment – it also protects the people in the building from discomfort and indoor air quality (IAQ) concerns, and the building owner from potential lawsuits.

The main problem in South Africa is that maintenance is hardly ever done preventatively (or proactively). The contractor is only called in when there is an emergency or breakdown – at which stage it’s already too late. A quick fix turns into an expensive replacement and a very unhappy client.

To many, ‘routine maintenance’ means simply cleaning out a filter and dusting off the machine. But there is much more to maintaining an air-conditioning system than clients (and often the contractors themselves) even understand.

We interview four local commercial HVAC contractors to see what’s happening in the South African air-conditioning maintenance sphere. Note that for the purpose of this article, we’ll predominantly look at maintenance on the air-conditioning side of things; refrigeration is a whole different story (but with the same general challenges).

It’s a cost thing

Often building owners try and cut down on costs and minimise the maintenance done on systems. But in the long run, this can be an ignorant (and costly) mind-set. As Alastair Collins, managing director of Atlas Air explains, you wouldn’t dare to slip up on your car’s maintenance plan. Why don’t people think the same when it comes to HVAC systems? Many of the commercial systems are far more costly to repair than a car. “We have a problem with people not taking HVAC maintenance seriously,” says Collins. “You wouldn’t treat your car like that, why do you treat your building that way?”

The reality is that times are tough and clients are also under constant pressure to trim budgets. “That’s why they try push the servicing of equipment out further and further. This may save them money immediately but ends up costing a lot more when the HVAC system doesn’t run at optimum or starts failing, which if not maintained correctly, will happen,” explains Robbie Di Giovampaolo, director of Ampair.

Commercial/ industrial HVAC systems are worth hundreds of thousands of Rands, and have a critical role to play in terms of ensuring required indoor air conditions are provided and building regulations requirements are adhered to. “When equipment is not regularly maintained, considerable amount of energy is wasted in keeping the unit in operation and the system seizes to operate effectively, affecting the overall design intent of the system,” says Di Giovampaolo. “Lack of maintenance of any system in the long run reduces the life span of the system and increases maintenance cost.”

“The problem is that we’re living in a ‘throw-away’ society. We replace our cellphones and laptops almost annually,” explains Collins. “And we’re applying the same logic to our HVAC systems, viewing everything as disposable, rather than something that must be maintained.”

“Cheap is the name of the game and everything just comes down to price,” John Parry, director of 52 Engineering, agrees. “Clients don’t understand what we do and think we just wash out the filters – they always want to argue about the price.”

Money is an issue all around – all the contractors I spoke to brought it up. As times get tougher, the money for maintenance gets less and less. “But you get what you pay for,” says Colin Bouwer, managing director of Ekurhuleni Air Conditioning and Electrical. “If you pay peanuts, you’ll get a monkey.”

The one-year contract

Most big projects come with a standard one-year maintenance plan so the contractor involved can make sure the system is fine-tuned and running as it should continuously from commissioning (in an ideal world).

The 12-month maintenance contract is the warranty period for all new installations. Once this warranty period is up, a long-term planned preventative maintenance schedule is usually implemented to continue with the on-going maintenance of the installation. Clients may choose to do this in-house or appoint a contractor to handle this. “Most of the time it is outsourced as this requires larger teams and specific skills sets,” explains Di Giovampaolo.

The problem is that the one-year contract is too short to put proper resources in place, Collins explains. For bigger contracts, like the Melrose Arch central plant, Atlas Air has hired permanent staff to take care of the site. But this would be a huge risk for a temporary contract.

When the 12 month warranty period ends, often another contractor now has to take over the site, which can lead to its own challenges. “When we take over a building which has been running for 12 months or longer our goal is ensure the equipment is running at optimum. Once we have rectified any issues, a planned preventative maintenance schedule is put into place,” explains Di Giovampaolo.

Other challenges

As with our whole industry, skills is a massive problem in the maintenance sector, driving up the prices of labour.

“The industry is facing an alarming lack of skilled talent, especially in terms of technicians,” Di Giovampaolo says. Ampair has recently launched its own Skills Development Centre to ensure its staff are continuously up-skilled. Technicians work on equipment that is worth millions and lack of experience can cause serious damage and financial loss.

Often, when workers are sent for a trade test and upskilled, they leave as soon as they get their qualification, searching for ‘greener pastures’. Bouwer explains that he no longer pays for workers to get their trade test because of this – it’s simply too risky.

Then, because of the skills level, paperwork becomes an issue as the sub-contractor doesn’t necessarily have the skills to properly fill out a job card. But it’s not just admin and on-the-job skills that are lacking – a big issue is finding workers with drivers’ licenses, explains Bouwer. This is vital to ensure teams get to site and can function even when one member is off.

Another challenge is the increasing of BB-EEE ratings, explains Collins. This can sometimes mean that even though the company has done the HVAC installation, they won’t get the maintenance contract because their level isn’t high enough.

Health and safety regulations are also getting ever more stringent, meaning that the contractor’s job is just getting more complicated and staff has to be micro-managed to ensure proper adherence to the rules. For example, it is often stipulated that there always have to be at least two workers on a job. For the bigger clients like Vodacom, Collins has had to send his staff for induction training on various safety issues like height safety, advanced driving and even scaffolding erection, before they were even allowed on site. The workers also need to go for annual medical exams. All of this is not only time-consuming, but can be costly for the employer.

But safety is non-negotiable. “You’re either on board with safety, or you’re not,” says Collins. “My advice is to get behind it as soon as possible and to start taking health and safety seriously – or you’ll get left behind.”

The issue though is that proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is very expensive and certain sites require specialised equipment for safety reasons. For example, where 52 Engineering is doing the maintenance at Sasol, workers require fire retardant overalls (which cost almost R1 000 apiece), all extra costs the contractor has to incur.

The fluctuating foreign exchange rates are also always a challenge to local contractors as the price of equipment and spares keep changing (often increasing), cutting into profit margins. “The prices of parts are going through the roof with the current exchange rate,” says Collins.

But it’s not just the price of spares that is a problem. Trying to get spares after hours for an emergency breakdown is virtually impossible, Parry explains. “We work 24 hours a day to keep the plants running, but if something breaks after hours, we’re stuck and we have to make a temporary plan until we can get parts.”

Timing is also a problem or rather – planning. “There is no preventative maintenance in this industry,” says Bouwer. “People only call me when something goes wrong; they wait until number 99.” This means that everything is quiet in the winter months when companies should ideally do their preventative maintenance, but in summer, everything goes wrong at once and the contractors are over-worked and cannot deliver as quickly as clients would like. “People simply don’t think that far ahead.”

Then there is the issue of the R22 phase-out under the Montreal Protocol. “There are so many replacement refrigerants on the market now and we have to keep all of them in stock, where before we only needed one or two types,” explains Parry. This is quite expensive. Not to mention that the different canisters require different types of gauges and fittings, so contractors have to cart around all these adapters.

Times are tough for the HVAC contractor, but the industry is resilient and companies all over the country are working on creative ways to overcome their many challenges. The digital era is also making its impact felt, streamlining the process. Ampair, for example, has shifted its planned preventative maintenance work onto a digital platform. “This assists us in ensuring that the required maintenance on individual equipment has been carried out and any remedial work required on all equipment to ensure optimal and efficient operation has been noted.” Technicians have iPads on which they capture their work status and client has access to this via an app and can live track everything that is being carried out.

Service matters

There are hundreds of HVAC contractors playing in the commercial field all around the country (not  to mention the vast ‘bakkie brigade’ that services the domestic market). So what sets contractors apart other than the obvious price range category? In one word – service.

“The service levels in this country are sub-standard,” says Collins. “That’s why we place such a high value on service. It’s important to do follow ups and go the extra mile to set yourself apart from the masses.”

The problem is that people don’t take pride in their work anymore, says Bouwer. “It’s especially hard to get workers you can trust.” And if your staff aren’t delivering, you can’t.

“I always tell my staff – ‘service before reward’,” says Collins.

Spotting the problem

When an HVAC contractor is appointed to a new site, it is crucial that they understand how the building they are taking over was designed to run. “This will ensure a correctly implemented planned preventative maintenance schedule and an HVAC system that fulfils its function effectively,” explains Di Giovampaolo.

“We have been to some sites where no maintenance has been done for months, and the entire HVAC system is clogged up,” says Di Giovampaolo. “This can be a huge challenge, not to mention costly, as many parts need to be replaced.”

How can this be prevented? There are many ways to make sure that indoor air is kept at appropriate levels in between scheduled maintenance check-ups:

  • Keep an eye on the air vents – you can find out if mould or other pollutants are entering your occupied space.
  • Watch for a musty odour.
  • Keep in touch with tenants/occupants, and ask them to participate in surveys regarding air quality.
  • Listen to people’s complaints and take them seriously.

This is where the education of the end-user and/or client comes in. It is the responsibility of the contractor to inform their clients of these red flags to look out for. Tell them about the warning signs so problems can be picked up before they become too serious and a system shut-down is inevitable – something that should be avoided at all costs, especially on the refrigeration side of things.

Tips for success

Knowledge only comes with experience and the contracting companies we interviwed, have been in the game for a long time. They share some of the lessons they’ve learnt over the years…

Make sure your workers are supervised and you know what’s happening on site, Collins recommends. Even though you cannot always be on all sites, it’s vital to make sure you have proper management in place and that you do spot checks to make sure your employees aren’t cutting corners. “There is a big problem in the industry with people not managing their sub-contractors and it can be a costly exercise,” he says.

Look after your own equipment, Collins advises. Not only because the law says you have to, but to prevent accidents and possible lawsuits in future. Atlas Air does weekly inspections on things like power tools and extension cables.

It’s not just the tools, but also the fleet that should be regularly inspected. The Ekurhuleni Air team comes in one Saturday every month to check out the quality of the tools and vehicles.

Another tip is to use fibre glass ladders instead of the conventional aluminium ladders that not only conduct electricity and can be a safety risk, but often get stolen on site.

Collins also recommends ensuring that you use a reputable supplier on the product side or else you will struggle to find spares as there are many ‘fly-by-nights’ in the industry who might offer you cheaper pricing initially, but will let you down when it comes to after-sales service and parts. This can leave you in an awkward position with clients who expect you to fix their problems immediately!

Bouwer finds that taking lots of pictures on site has helped him a great deal over the years. “I cannot be on every single site so I require that my workers bring back pictures of every job.” This helps him to see what the team did on site and also serves as a back-up should the client ever come back with a complaint or query.

Another big thing is to always be honest with your client, even if you make a mistake. “Everyone makes mistakes,” says Bouwer, “But when your reputation is on the line, work ethic becomes vital and you must own up to your mistakes and fix them.” He always tries to train his staff to immediately tell him when they’ve made a mistake so it can be dealt with timeously.

Make sure that your staff are neat and presentable as they carry your brand and reputation when they’re on site. They should always also have the right PPE and look professional, says Bouwer.

Having checklists also helps, Parry advises. 52 Engineering has various checklists to be completed by the workers on site, depending on the job they’re doing – be it cleaning out a split unit or a larger job on a big plant. Sometimes the larger clients will also have their own lists to be completed.

What needs to change?

In the end, step one is to educate clients and upskill workers. But this won’t happen overnight and contractors around the country have their work cut out for them.

“South Africa is too relaxed about maintenance,” says Parry. “We definitely need to up our game and focus more on preventative maintenance.”

What are you going to do to be part of the solution rather than the problem?

Benefits of routine maintenance

  • Reduced breakdowns of HVAC system
  • Reduced operating costs
  • Optimum equipment / plant performance
  • Longevity of equipment

* Article from www.hvacronline.co.za

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