From blue to green
First published in The Sunday Age, Domain
Eco-worries and generous rebates mean tradespeople are learning important new skills. But what does it mean for householders?
Victorian tradies are leading Australia’s green skills revolution, making up more than half the workers accredited under two leading national training schemes, Green Plumbers and EcoSmart Electricians.
That puts the state on the front line of a huge practical transformation among Australia’s skilled workers. “Demand for the ‘green collar’ trades is quite extraordinary,” says Tony Arnel, Victoria’s Building and Plumbing Industry Commissioner and Green Building Council of Australia Chair. He estimates that in the last year alone, interest in sustainable plumbing has risen by about one-fifth.
But this surge in interest doesn’t translate to easier decision-making for consumers. With so many eco choices and products, it’s hard to be sure you’re getting the right advice. Besides, what exactly does a ‘green’ tradie do differently? And what sort of training have they completed?
Mr Arnel believes that tradespeople play a crucial role in translating sustainability issues into in-the-home solutions. Essentially, they can become environmental advocates. “Tradies are at the coalface. More than anybody else in the domestic sector, they’re in a position to influence the choice of consumers. They play a critical role.”
An expert green tradie will have thorough knowledge of the products available and the most efficient options for the client’s situation.
Plumbers and electricians, in particular, can help existing householders make the most immediate improvements. Their expertise relates directly to water and electricity efficiency, from rainwater tanks and low-flow toilets to solar power and low-energy lighting.
But sustainability is a factor in every household job. Bart Scheen is a manager in the Building Industry Training Centre at Holmesglen TAFE. He says that eco-training is a now a standard part of every apprenticeship course. “When students are working with products they really need to understand the impact of those products on the environment.”
According to Mr Scheen, that includes embodied energy (energy used in making the product) and the leftovers from the job. “There has been a common practice to calculate materials and allow for a 10 percent wastage,” he says. “What we’re trying to get into apprentices is that they have to take much more care in working out the quantities.”
The apprentices are proving enthusiastic about his message. Research group Dusseldorp Skills Forum (DSF) surveyed young tradies last year and found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents were interested in green skills. “Unfortunately they’re being held back by older tradespeople,” says DSF’s Judy Turnbull. “They are really keen to provide green skills and knowledge to their clients but they’re not being encouraged to do so by their employers.”
In the long term, the attitudes of younger tradies will make for a fundamental shift in the building industry. In the meantime, although many established tradespeople aren’t convinced that the public is sufficiently interested in sustainability, others have taken the enviro-plunge and been well rewarded.
“Some ‘early adopters’ have decided it’s a point of difference to provide green painting or building or carpentry,” Ms Turnbull says. “They’ve seen the future and when they’ve added a green bunch of skills they find themselves in great demand.”
To help build eco-awareness among construction workers, DSF will soon launch a new website, Trade Secrets, where green tradies will be able to share their stories, tips and successes. To begin with, the organisation has posted over a dozen videos of different green tradespeople on YouTube.
The current training gap is also concern for the commissioner, Mr Arnel. “There needs to be a lot more work going into the training of tradespeople,” he says. “Also, from a consumer point of view, these green credentials need to be verifiable. If you pick up the phone book and you’ve got green electricians and green plumbers, what does that mean? I describe it as the ‘green veneer’ – basically anybody can use the term. Consumers need to know whether or not there is any substance in a person’s claim.”
He says that the industry training programs like GreenPlumbers, run by the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association, are a good start. “They saw sustainability in buildings becoming a major challenge and opportunity. Now we need to take the next step (in training) because we’ve got to think about the way all the trades operate.”
For plumbers, the next step will be the Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre, which is under construction in Brunswick. The centre, jointly funded by the state government and industry bodies and unions, will offer extensive training across all aspects of sustainable plumbing. It scheduled to open next month.
While greenwash – or the green veneer – hasn’t become a severe problem in the construction industry, the state consumer watchdog, Consumer Affairs Victoria, has received over 10 complaints and about 45 enquiries about traders offering to install solar panels and water tanks.
Some dodgy tradespeople are spruiking door-to-door, then demanding large payments up front, while delaying installation. In some cases, the tradies also tried to increase the cost of solar power systems after consumers had signed the contracts.
“The best way for consumers to protect themselves from itinerant tradespeople is to deal with reputable, registered businesses in their area,” says Consumer Affairs spokesperson Emma Neal.
As with any building work, consumers should ask lots of questions, check with the relevant industry association and do as much research as they can. No matter what your green issue is, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet. It’s also wise to take simple precautions. “Never pay for anything upfront in cash,” Ms Neal recommends. “Ask for a quote and a warranty in writing and ask to see references or ask friends or family if they’ve dealt with the company.”
Plumbing the heights of a new industry
Warren Perrett’s team of Melbourne plumbers installed an average of three solar hot water systems a day last year. “It keeps them busy,” he says, smiling wryly as he sits in his Ferntree Gully office. By the look of his desk, lined with rows of documents, it keeps him busy too.
Mr Perrett won the Green Plumber of the Year award from the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association last year.
In 2001, prompted by questions he’d had from a few clients, he took part in the association’s first eco-skills training course. It has transformed his business. “Eight years ago, (green plumbing) was just a thought in someone’s mind,” he says. Now, thanks to an extended drought, tough water restrictions and rising awareness of climate change, water efficiency has become a day-to-day concern for householders.
But with a dazzling array of water products and options, it can be hard for the average consumer to know where to begin.
Mr Perrett’s business, AquaBlock, is a licensed green plumber through the plumbers’ association – all its plumbers complete the association’s full accreditation program. The company offers home audits and pre-building advice, as well as all the usual services. “My job is to try and give the client every bit of information they need to make the right decision,” Mr Perrett says. “It may be slightly more expensive but the end result is going to be cost savings, whether it be water or power or gas.”
“If you’re designing your house, you’d be mad if you didn’t get a green plumber to advise you at the start, because you’ve got to know the pros and cons of what you’re discussing with the builder.”
While the economic downturn means that some people are delaying unnecessary spending, Mr Perrett hopes that extra government rebates and regulations will keep the green trades going strong.
As for his award, Mr Perrett says the Brownlow-style ceremony took him by surprise. “I was a bit flabbergasted, actually. It got shown on Channel Ten with the weather guy, and I looked a bit stunned.”
And though he’s glad that his team’s hard work has been recognised, when the time comes, he’ll be happy to hand over to the next winner. “It’s an acknowledgement that you’re doing the right thing. But at the end of the day, I only want to win it once,” Mr Perrett says. “I want to know that other people are doing it too."