“Education is a bit of bureaucratic nonsense really, it actually gets in the way of learning.”: Nathan Gambling on the training of new heating engineers in the UK.
In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Nathan Gambling, heating engineer, host of the BetaTalk podcast and founder of BetaTeach.
Michael and Nathan begin by discussing Nathan’s background as a heating engineer and the current state of the UK’s heating industry.
They then discuss the potential of heat pumps to replace gas boilers in the UK.
Finally, they discuss the issues around heating engineer training and qualifications and Nathan’s potential solution.
This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
ML: Nathan, you come from a family of engineers, could you tell us a little bit about that?
NG: I come from a quite remarkable background in heating. My grandfather was considered the guru of all combustion back in the 70s and 80s in the UK. My great uncle was the lead engineer and European Energy Manager for Unilever. My cousin is considered one of the best in the UK for acoustic sensitive heat pumps and air conditioning. So he's worked in lots of recording studios and post production studios. My dad was a technical rep for a boiler maker which was considered the premier boiler maker of the 80s. I did my apprenticeship with the Ministry of Defence and got into teaching in 2005-2006, I was asked to teach in a prison that was the first to teach the City and Guilds course. I stopped teaching around about five years ago. I really loved the teaching aspect of it, but the education system is broken, I think. And so I thought, well, I'll use this new digital technology. One of the things I tried to do is activate engineers as learning resources for one another. Peer learning is a fantastic way to learn with our new computer mediated communication that we have like Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp. The whole reason I started my podcast was to let engineers get their voices out because they're very important voices. I see two challenges in this whole thing. We've got the technology, and we'll talk about how the technology has been there for decades. But one big challenge is the money. And the other big challenge is who's going to do this work? Because the accreditation system and our qualification system doesn't work. We teach people to be qualified, not competent.
ML: Is there much innovation in the heating industry?
NG: We've got innovators now coming in like Octopus. I'm all for Octopus, we need companies like this, because we've got a big energy transition and we’re a sole trader industry. Prior to the 1970s people were heating their homes with electric bar fires or, it might have been a coal fire. They tended to do hot water in a separate system. Central heating came into play, and you had people that were employed by the local gas board, local authorities or councils. In this country, we have a lot of self-employed people. Since the economic turn down in 2008 nearly 400,000 people have become self-employed. So there's a lot of self-employed, we aren't going to solve the challenge with self-employed people, because there's concern about who's competent there. Some of the really good engineers are a little bit frustrated with Octopus at the moment. Octopus put out some information that actually contradicts the Health and Safety Executive advice on Legionella disease in water tanks. Some of the engineers are a little bit frustrated about why they don't talk more to us.
ML: The heating industry is dominated by sole traders, supplied by large boiler companies. What has the effect of this been on the industry?
NG: There are a lot of great engineers out there. But the trouble is that competition has meant that the industry has had a race to the bottom. A boiler has a flame temperature of 900 degrees plus, it's very easy just to plunk it on the wall and walk away, everyone's happy. The customer’s got warmth, and hot water. We've got the most complex, overcrowded heating industry market in the world. We had the biggest gas boiler market in the world in 2016. So essentially, your boiler companies have to sell boilers: if they don't, they crumble . They even incentivize people not to repair but to put new boilers on the wall so we've got the big four at the moment: Ideal, Worcester-Bosch, Vaillant and Baxi. Baxi will fly you to Las Vegas if you're putting enough boilers on the wall, which clearly goes against the grain of what we're all trying to achieve.
ML: How can we ensure that heating engineers are competent and that work is done correctly?
NG: You can stick a boiler on the wall and everyone's happy, they're warm. Some of the work which has been going on is the most shocking that's ever been seen. There are no design considerations whatsoever. Unfortunately, we're following the education model when we train people. Education is a bit of bureaucratic nonsense really, it actually gets in the way of learning. And if you look at when I was training, I went on an apprenticeship and apprenticeships are not the panacea because an apprentice’s main learning is with the employer. So apprenticeships are actually perpetuating the problem at the moment because they learn from low skill. And when I went to college, only apprentices went to college. That changed with the NVQ system in this country. When I started teaching in 2006 City and Guilds issued level two certificates to 48,000 people but only 4000 of those were apprentices. Because we’re a sole trader industry a sole trader might take on their daughter or their son. But for most there's not that many apprenticeships available. We changed the law so that young people now have to go to college whereas before it was a choice. We're teaching hundreds of thousands of people on construction courses that are getting these useless certificates. City and Guilds will tell you that they're doing the theory side of it. So, maybe in the future, they might be able to get an employer to take them on to get their NVQ. How can I teach someone about the cold water system in the loft if they've never been in a loft? Some of these youngsters have never seen an airing cupboard! And you teach them basically to pass an exam on a computer. And they're allowed to take that exam as many times as they want. And that's the same with the competent person scheme. These are big, big money making schemes for the certificate companies and the training companies behind them. And it's nonsense, it's got to stop.
ML: You have created a new platform called BetaTeach to rate the competence of heating engineers. How is it different from other sites like Checkatrade?
NG: Sites like Checkatrade don't work very well because they rely on consumers to rate my competence. No consumer can rate my competence unless they're in the game. They can only rate my punctuality, politeness, and tidiness. They can't rate my technical competence. I might put in a system that works. And you're going to be happy. It might look nice, but you don't know, it might break down in five years, it might not be efficient. So the system doesn't really work. BetaTeach will give you digital awards. So you'll get started to get these digital open badges. They can be verified. BetaTeach actually ascertains that you are involved in conversations, specific conversations, because it's not social media. So it's making you talk about specific topics related to heating, and the system knows that you're investing hours and hours into them. BetaTeach issues badges which verify that. And it means that you've taken ownership of your own learning. This is a very complex industry, my cousin always says “this isn't rocket science, it is more complex”. Because rockets actually do use thermodynamic cooling systems. And so it's a very complex subject, and you've got to keep talking about it to keep learning from your peers and your mentors and your experts. And so my system will improve that.
ML: Are heat pumps a viable replacement for gas boilers in the UK? Isn’t it too cold? I might be biased, as my favourite statistic on heat pumps is that 60% of homes in Norway are heated by heat pumps.
NG: I sometimes use the analogy of a marquee. If you had a marquee, in the middle of winter, and you stuck a load of people in it and danced, it gets too hot. And that's because if we're moving about we emit about 100 watts of energy. So you can heat anything up with a heat pump. But then this is where the design comes in: you think, well, I've got the right sized heat pump, have I got the correctly sized emitters to be able to get that energy into the home quickly enough? And the pipe work in between becomes important, because that's what carries the flow, the energy is carried in the water. Obviously, it can be disruptive. And for some people, it can be costly. So there's a balance of whether we need to insulate this property much. Many commercial buildings out there have not been insulated at all but with an air to air heat pump you can get a COP (coefficient of performance) of five, meaning that you get five times as much energy back in heat as you put in.