HVAC Career & Training Information
You're ready to start training for a job that can offer you security and reliability. A job that can provide you with a steady income where trained professionals are almost always in demand. Training in the field of HVAC—or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning—can give you the upper hand when it comes to securing the kind of stable and enjoyable job that you want.
You already have an interest in HVAC, but you've got questions about what the job looks like, how much training you will need, what kind of certification is required, how much money you can make, and more. Here you can find the most commonly asked questions about HVAC training and jobs, and the straight-forward answers that you're looking for.
And, when you're ready to start training, you can easily find an HVAC school near you.
HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. The HVAC systems in our homes, offices, shopping malls, and other buildings allow us to live inside without too much concern for what's happening outside. But this field goes beyond the regulation of indoor temperatures. When such systems are properly installed and maintained, they contribute to better airflow and healthier indoor air quality, which is especially important for people with allergies, asthma, or other medical issues.
In addition to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, there is another type of climate-control technology that is crucial to modern life. The "R" in HVAC/R stands for refrigeration. The storage and transport of perishable foods, medicines, and other items we may take for granted is made possible by today's commercial refrigeration systems.
Advances in technology are making the heating and cooling of new and retrofitted buildings more and more energy efficient. Refrigerants are being developed and used that are more environmentally friendly. And technologies such as hydronics (water-based heating), geothermal, and solar-powered heating and cooling are turning the profession into one with a growing number of "green" jobs.
HVAC systems are installed and serviced by technicians (who are sometimes known as HVAC mechanics or installers).
The work can be rather varied. From installation to routine maintenance to repair, the many duties of a professional in this industry often add up to working days full of diverse activities. However, a lot depends on whether or not a technician chooses to specialize in working with a particular type of equipment (i.e., residential, light commercial, or commercial/industrial) in either the installation or service side of the business.
So, depending on their specialty, level of knowledge, and arsenal of skills, they carry out tasks that can include:
- Installing furnaces, heat pumps, and air conditioning units
- Installing the ductwork that carries treated air throughout a building
- Following blueprints and specifications used in the installation of systems, including air ducts, vents, pumps, water and fuel supply lines, and other components
- Connecting electrical wiring and controls
- Performing routine maintenance on a variety of equipment, such as checking for leaks, adjusting blowers and burners, and checking nozzles, thermostats, electrical circuits, controls, and other components
- Diagnosing and repairing problems that are found within any part of a system
- Adjusting the controls of a system and recommending appropriate settings
- Testing the performance of a furnace, heat pump, air conditioning unit or other piece of equipment to ensure that it operates at peak efficiency
- Using carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide testers to make sure that a customer's equipment operates safely
- Selling service contracts or replacement equipment to customers
HVAC/R technicians, sometimes known as refrigeration mechanics, install and service commercial or industrial refrigeration systems. In addition to some of the tasks above, HVAC/R technicians have duties that can include:
- Charging refrigeration systems with the proper refrigerant
- Conserving, recovering, and recycling refrigerants for reuse or ensuring that they are disposed of properly since their release can be very harmful to the environment
- Venting refrigerant into the appropriate cylinders
Whether they specialize in installing or servicing residential, commercial, or industrial equipment (or all three), technicians perform their work on-site in a wide variety of settings. Any building that utilizes climate-control equipment will see multiple visits by HVAC technicians over the course of its lifetime. Such buildings can include:
Most techs work for independent service contractors. However, employment can also be found with:
- Direct-selling retail establishments (e.g., equipment dealers)
- Repair shops for commercial or industrial equipment and machinery
- Merchant wholesalers of heating equipment and supplies
The typical salary depends on many factors such as the type of job, employer location, level of experience, and whether or not a union is involved. When it comes to HVAC, salary is usually implemented in the form of hourly wages. Generally, wages will increase gradually based on skill-level, knowledge, and experience.
Based on national estimates, yearly wages break down this way: *
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $43,640, making HVAC a high paying job without a degree being necessary.
- The top 10 percent earn $68,990 or more.
Average salaries can sometimes vary dramatically, even within the same city. Those who install and service commercial or industrial systems generally get paid the most. Unionized employers also tend to have much higher wages than non-unionized ones. However, you can expect a percentage of your wages from any union job to go toward paying for union fees, insurance, and other benefits.
Many maximize their income by working longer hours during peak seasons (summer and/or winter). Additional wages can also come, in some cases, from earning commissions on the sale of new equipment or service contracts.
The job outlook is expected to be excellent for the foreseeable future. In America, employment of HVAC technicians is projected to increase by 21 percent between 2012 and 2022, which is much faster than average. **
The growing demand for technicians can be attributed to a number of factors. As the nation's population grows, so does the number of buildings (residential, commercial, and industrial) that need to be fitted with climate-control systems. And the increasing complexity of new HVAC systems means an increasing possibility of their malfunction and need for servicing, which then requires skilled technicians. In addition, the growing focus on reducing energy consumption and improving indoor air quality means that more HVAC technicians are needed for analyzing the efficiency of existing systems and replacing old polluting ones with new, more efficient models.
The industry is incredibly diverse. Most technicians begin their careers in the residential and light commercial sectors of the field. Advancement usually comes in the form of higher wages or supervisory positions. But, with advanced knowledge, a lot of experience, and the right mindset, new opportunities can arise for entering other areas of the industry, which offer new challenges.
Commercial refrigeration, for instance, is an area of high demand that requires workers with a lot of patience and specialized skills. With the right training and education, HVAC/R technicians can also specialize in areas such as solar-powered or geothermal heating and cooling, retrofitting, system testing and balancing, efficiency evaluations, or building operations with advanced computer controls. In addition, some technicians move into teaching, HVAC sales and marketing, or managing their own contracting businesses.
It is even possible to earn a bachelor's degree in HVAC engineering technology. Such a degree could allow you to become an HVAC engineer or HVAC technologist and design new systems and controls for the manufacturing, commercial, institutional, or industrial sectors.
Benefits of Working in HVAC
- A sense of accomplishment—It can be intensely rewarding to fix problematic equipment or install new systems since it means that your hard work directly impacts the ability of people to feel comfortable in their environments.
- Variety—Every day is bound to be somewhat different. You won't be stuck in an office. Instead, you'll get to solve a variety of problems and meet new people. And the fast pace of busy times helps the work days pass quickly.
- Stimulation—Opportunities for learning something new happen on a frequent basis, which means boredom is rare. As the industry moves closer and closer toward full computer automated systems, the chance to develop advanced knowledge also increases.
- Long-term stability—Once you've established yourself in the trade, there is great potential for making good money. And the job security can also be good. This is particularly true when you consider that the skills are portable, and the work must be performed on location, which means that the jobs are not subject to foreign outsourcing.
Helpful Personal Characteristics For the Job
- A sense of craftsmanship and pride in your work
- An aptitude for mechanical, hands-on work
- Determination and a strong work ethic
- An interest in the science behind HVAC technology
How To Become an HVAC Tech
It is important to consider that most employers generally consider formal training a must before they will even consider you for an open position.
Here are some things to consider about training at an HVAC school:
- Most training programs at technical and trade schools take between six months and two years to complete.
- Programs that last a year or less generally award a diploma or certificate of completion. Those that last two years usually award an associate's degree.
- Shorter certificate or diploma programs are often designed to concentrate on one of the three main areas of HVAC/R: (1) residential heating and air conditioning, (2) light commercial heating and air conditioning, or (3) commercial refrigeration.
- Many training schools offer programs that are accredited by at least one of the following agencies: HVAC Excellence, the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), or the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA).
- Taking the right courses in high school can help you better prepare for HVAC school. These include subjects such as mechanical drawing, basic electronics, math, computer science, and applied physics and chemistry. It can also be beneficial to gain some basic knowledge of electrical and plumbing work.
Here is what you should know about HVAC apprenticeships:
- Apprenticeships are often a pathway to national certification in the HVAC industry, and they can even allow you to earn college credits.
- In order to reap all of the benefits of a formal apprenticeship, you'll want to find a program that is registered with the Office of Apprenticeship, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.
- Apprenticeships usually last four to five years, and they include both classroom instruction and hands-on training on the job. After completing a five-year registered apprenticeship, you can become a journeyman in the HVAC field.
- Apprenticeship openings are often highly competitive. Plus, you must meet the minimum requirements of whatever apprenticeship program you are applying for.
- Completing an HVAC program at a technical college or trade school can give you a leg up on the competition when applying for a registered apprenticeship.
Some certifications are required while most others are voluntary. Even voluntary certifications, however, can help you advance in your career since most employers like to see official acknowledgment of your competencies.
But knowing how to obtain certification is just one aspect of this issue. You also need to understand what it all means. Here are the most important things to remember:
- Regardless of which area you choose to work in, you will be required to obtain at least one type of certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Section 608 of the Clean Air Act of 1990 requires anyone who services equipment that uses specific refrigerants to take a test to prove that they know how to properly handle, recycle, and dispose of materials that can damage the ozone layer.
- EPA Section 608 certification is broken down into four types depending on the kind of equipment you will be working with: (1) Type I for small appliances, (2) Type II for very high-pressure appliances, (3) Type III for low-pressure appliances, and (4) Universal for all types of HVAC/R equipment.
- Students enrolled in formal training are often required to take the EPA Section 608 Universal certification test as part of their program.
- Although not required by the EPA, R-410A certification covers an especially dangerous type of refrigerant in greater detail than what is found in the EPA Section 608 test. R-410A refrigerant is used at a much higher vapor pressure than other refrigerants and, therefore, requires different tools, equipment, and safety standards. R-410A is increasingly replacing some of the older ozone-damaging refrigerants that are being phased out.
- Other types of professional certifications are designed to verify the real-world skills and working knowledge of technicians who've had at least a year or two of on-the-job experience. Certification is offered by independent organizations in many different specialty areas such as residential and commercial air conditioning, heat pump service and installation, gas heat, electric heat, oil furnaces, hydronics, air distribution, and commercial refrigeration.
- The two most recognized providers of professional-level certifications in the American HVAC/R industry are (1) HVAC Excellence and (2) North American Technician Excellence (NATE). Obtaining certification from these organizations involves meeting any prerequisites and then passing written exams. You can also obtain your EPA Section 608 certification through such providers.
Length of Training
Formal programs at technical colleges and trade schools vary in length. A lot depends on the type of credential you're after and how in-depth you want your schooling to be.
HVAC programs that award certificates or diplomas typically last one year or less. Some take as little as about 18 weeks to complete. With these shorter programs, you can often choose to study one of three specific areas: (1) light commercial air conditioning and heating, (2) residential air conditioning and heating, or (3) commercial refrigeration.
Associate degree programs in HVAC/R technology, on the other hand, are designed to last two years and are often more comprehensive, including most or all of the different HVAC areas.
The cost of training varies significantly depending on where you go to school and whether you choose to pursue a certificate or associate degree.
Basic program costs, including tuition, can range from as little as $2,000 or less to as much as $35,000 or more. The more expensive programs sometimes have a wider range of HVAC equipment and tools in their labs for better hands-on learning, although it is best to tour any school you are considering and check out their facilities to make sure you'll be getting good value for your money.
Financial aid in the form of loans and grants are frequently available from the federal government for those who qualify. And some states offer financial assistance through their own retraining programs for unemployed workers.
What a Training Program Can Teach You
HVAC schools are set up to teach the fundamentals of what you need to know to begin working as a technician at the entry level. Ultimately, HVAC involves learning at least the basics of about five different trades competently, including electrical work, plumbing, welding, pipefitting, and sheet metal.
Most programs combine classroom study with hands-on learning. In fact, some of what you could learn in an HVAC program could cover similar components of what students learn in electrician school, and other related trade schools. Depending on the program, you can expect the curriculum to include subjects such as:
- Electric, gas, and oil heat
- Residential and light commercial air conditioning
- Heat pumps
- Basic electronics
- Soldering and brazing
- Venting and duct systems
- Interpreting mechanical drawings and diagrams
- Components of HVAC systems
- General HVAC theory
- Airflow and indoor air quality
- Heating fuels
- Refrigerant types and refrigerant oils
- Installation and service
- Troubleshooting and problem solving
- Building codes and requirements
- Safety precautions and practices
Many HVAC/R programs that are accredited by an industry organization use the Industry Competency Exam (ICE) as an exit exam for students. So, depending on the program you choose, you might have to take one or more of the three different tests that are available as part of the ICE. The different testing areas are: (1) residential air conditioning and heating, (2) light commercial air conditioning and heating, and (3) commercial refrigeration.
Licensing requirements vary greatly depending on the state or locality a tech works in and whether they intend to be their own boss. And some states don't have any legal requirements. In the ones that do, however, a state exam often must be passed. Plus, some states require you to have completed the equivalent of an apprenticeship program or two to five years of on-the-job experience before you can apply for a license to legally work on your own.
The content of state licensing exams also varies significantly. In some states, for example, emphasis might be placed on having an extensive knowledge of electrical codes, but, in other states, the focus might be more on HVAC-specific knowledge.
Just remember: Although your state might not require you to obtain an official license in order to work, the federal government will still require you to be certified in the proper handling of refrigerants. The EPA Section 608 certification exam is a written test and is administered by a variety of organizations that have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including unions, building groups, trade schools, and contractor associations.
Improving Your Employment Opportunities
Look into Opportunities for Real-Life Experience
Many employers place a high priority on real-life experience. To help meet this need, many training schools include an externship with their programs. An externship is usually completed as the last portion of a program, and allows you to be placed within an off-site setting, working with an actual company. While most externships are unpaid, they are incredibly valuable, as they give you the opportunity to apply what you've learned in school within a real business—working with clients and HVAC pros.
However, if your program does not include an externship, another option that is available to you is to pursue an apprenticeship with a certified professional, company, or organization. It may be helpful to search for organizations within your state or region, and use them as a resource to get in contact with potential apprenticeship sources.
Make Use of Career Assistance Programs
Many HVAC schools have a career services department, which can help you find a part-time job while you are attending school, and give you a hand with finding a job after you graduate. Some common forms of career assistance include help with resume writing, networking, and job searching. Many schools will also host on-site career fairs, or maintain job listing resources that are solely intended for their students and alumni.
Many career services departments can also help you discover opportunities for externships or apprenticeships, and help you with what you need to know to create a contract that is beneficial to everyone involved.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on March 10, 2015.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, web site last accessed on March 10, 2015.
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HVAC Excellence, web site last accessed on March 9, 2015.
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Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), web site last accessed on March 9, 2015.
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