How To Become an HVAC Technician
Heating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) technicians work on heating, ventilation, and cooling systems. HVAC technicians are also known as Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration (HVACR) technicians when they are also trained in working with refrigeration systems. HVAC and HVACR technicians are mechanics and installers who work with systems that control air quality and temperature in all types of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. They are primarily responsible for installing, as well as repairing and maintaining these systems.
A Comprehensive Look At Their Duties
HVAC technicians work with heating and air conditioning systems that control temperature, humidity, and air quality in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. In addition to this work, HVACR technicians also work on refrigeration systems that provide a climate controlled environment for storing and transporting perishable items, such as food and medicine.
Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers typically follow blueprints and other design specifications to install and repair climate-control systems. They also connect heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems to fuel and water supply lines, air ducts, and other components, as well as install electrical wiring and controls for climate-control systems. In addition to installing and repairing systems, HVAC/R technicians are involved in regular servicing and testing of climate-control systems to ensure they are operating properly and efficiently. They are also involved in regularly repairing and replacing defective or worn parts. Tasks may also include testing for carbon monoxide and other potentially hazardous gases or chemicals that can leak from climate-control systems.
Much of a technician’s work requires close attention to detail, as well as effective troubleshooting and problem-solving skills in order to install and maintain complex systems. These skills are also essential in order to identify and resolve existing or potential problems with systems.
HVAC/R technicians may specialize in installation or in maintenance, service and repair work. They may also specialize in heating, air conditioning, or refrigeration. Although an HVAC technician can work with both heating and air conditioning systems, and an HVACR technician can work with heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems, on occasion technicians prefer to work with one only type of climate-control system.
HVAC/R technicians may also specialize in certain types of HVACR equipment, such as gas or oil boilers, water-based heating systems, geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar panels, or commercial refrigeration. Some technicians can also specialize in only green climate-control systems, such as solar and geothermal powered heating and cooling. When specializing in a specific type of HVACR equipment, specialized training and certification is often available on individual types of equipment and systems.
A Look at the HVAC Technician Salary
HVAC/R installers and mechanics earn slightly more than the national average for all occupations. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average (or mean) salary for HVAC/R technicians was $46,880 per year or $22.54 per hour in May 2014, while the average annual salary for all occupations was $45,230 per year or $21.74 per hour. Salaries range from $27,630 or $13.29 per hour for the bottom 10 percent of all employed HVAC/R technicians to $70,820 or $34.05 per hour for the top 10 percent.
The highest wages for HVAC/R technicians are found with employers in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing, where technicians earn on average $35.30 per hour or $73,420 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other sectors with the highest wages include motor vehicle parts manufacturing, aerospace product and parts manufacturing, motor vehicle manufacturing, and rail transportation. These sectors typically employee few HVAC/R technicians, making the application process for the highest paid positions very competitive.
What Are the Working Conditions Like?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, states with the highest levels of HVAC/R technician employment are Texas, Florida, California, New York, and Pennsylvania. The industry with the most HVAC/R technician employment opportunities are building equipment contractors, followed by direct selling establishments; hardware, and plumbing and heating equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers; commercial and industrial machinery and equipment (except automotive and electronic) repair and maintenance; and colleges, universities, and professional schools.
HVAC/R technicians work in residential homes and commercial buildings such as factories, office buildings, and shops. Technicians also work in schools and hospitals. Installers and mechanics can work in any number of locations on any given day as they travel when responding to service and repair calls, or they may be assigned a single job site for a specific period of time. HVAC/R technicians tend to work full time, and occasionally work on evenings or weekends. Overtime and irregular hours are especially common during summers and winters, when demand for cooling and heating is high.
Technicians generally work indoors, although some technicians may work outside when climate-control systems or components are located outdoors. Often work is undertaken in tight, cramped spaces. Working in these conditions can be uncomfortable because of extreme heat or cold when air conditioning or heating systems are malfunctioning. Being in good physical shape and having excellent dexterity are therefore assets when working as an HVAC/R technician.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC/R technicians have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average for all occupations. Potential on-the-job hazards include electrical shocks, burns and muscle strains, as well as injuries related to handling heavy equipment or refrigerants, including frostbite, skin damage, blindness, and respiratory illnesses from inhaling refrigerants.
How To Become a HVAC/R Technician
There are a number of education routes that can be pursued in order to become a qualified HVAC/R technician. In addition to formal education and training, it is also possible to become an HVAC/R technician through informal training. Employers are increasingly looking for job applicants who have some formal education and training in climate-control systems.
Formal Education and Training
An increasingly common path to become a HVAC/R technician is formal technical training and education at a trade and technical school, community college, college, or university. Admission to these programs typically requires a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED), as well as a background in mathematics and physics obtained through high school level courses. Certificate courses typically provide you with an overview of heating and cooling systems and skills. Diploma and degree programs explore these skills further, as well as various techniques related to climate-control systems that are needed for installing and repairing systems. Diploma and degree programs are designed to provide you with in-depth skills related to designing, building, maintaining, and servicing heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems. These more advanced programs tend to include lab work, where students learn about climate-control systems with practical sessions. Programs also tend to include job placements or paid internships.
A second option to becoming a training HVAC/R technician is formal apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships provide the skills and experience necessary to design, build, maintain, and service climate-control systems through practical, on-the-job training and technical instruction under the supervision of experienced technicians. In order to apply to an apprenticeship program, you should have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Apprenticeships are offered by unions, contractor associations, and other trade and industry groups. Local chapters of trade unions and contractor associations typically accept apprenticeship applications and administer admission tests.
Informal training on the job is a third route to becoming a HVAC/R technician. Traditionally, HVAC/R technicians have received their training informally through on-the-job training. Over time, new technicians complete more and more complex tasks, and eventually are able to work on their own as a qualified technician.
How Long is the HVAC Training for?
The amount of time it takes to become a qualified HVAC/R technician depends on the education and training path you select. With informal training, the amount of time depends on the ability of the trainee to grasp new tasks and improve his or her skills. Formal education through certificate, diploma, or degree programs in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration generally lasts between six months and two years. Degree programs are typically two years in length, while certificate programs can be completed in a few months. Formal apprenticeships last between three and five years.
Upon completion of your training, whether it is formal or informal, you can pursue formal certification and apply to be a licensed technician in your state or community. Typically, you require at least two years of practical experience to apply for certification as a fully-qualified technician.
HVAC Training Costs and Financial Aid
Training costs depend on the type of program and the school, college, or university offering the program. In addition to tuition, students must purchase books and other materials such as tools that are needed to complete lab or practical components. Tools can cost up to $1,000 or more, depending on the type of program. There is typically no cost for apprenticeships programs, although there costs associated with purchasing books for coursework and in-class instruction.
Merit-based financial aid in the form of scholarships and grants are typically available directly from the institution delivering the program. Grants and scholarships are also available from outside organizations, such as trade unions and industry associations. Some educational institutions may also provide interest-free loans on a needs basis. Needs-based financial aid is also available from federal and state governments, including Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG). Loans administered by the Department of Education are also available to students requiring financial aid. Federal aid is only available to students enrolled in programs at accredited schools, colleges, and universities, as well as accredited online schools.
Throughout their training and into their careers, HVAC technicians can take a number of tests to measure their skills. Certification is often looked for by employers and customers to verify that a technician has the competency to install and repair climate-control systems to manufacturers’ specifications in a safe and efficient manner. Exams for entry-level certification test basic skills in residential and light commercial climate-control systems, installation, and repair. These exams are available at technical and trade schools, as well as community and junior colleges and universities as part of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration training programs.
For specialized certification in specific heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems and equipment, certifying tests are also available from a number of organizations. For example, exams are provided by the Air-Conditioning, heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI), the Refrigeration Services Engineers Society (RSES), and HVAC Excellence. A fee is often required to write an exam, which are often delivered at technical and trade schools, community and junior colleges, and universities.
You may be required to be licensed in order to work as a HVAC/R technician. Specific licensing requirements vary, and are established by individual states and local authorities. Typically, technicians are required to pass an exam in order to be licensed. Additional requirements may be needed if you are establishing your own HVAC/R business, such as permits and business licenses.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also requires all technicians to be licensed in order to buy or work with refrigerants. To become certified, technicians must pass a written exam for servicing small appliances (Type I certification), high-pressure refrigerants (Type II certification), and low-pressure refrigerants (Type III certification). Several trade schools, unions, and employer associations such as the Refrigeration Services Engineers Society offer training programs to preparing you for the exam.
HVAC Job Market
The demand for HVAC/R technicians is rising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2010 and 2020, the number of Americans employed in this occupation will increase by 29% or more. This rate of growth much faster than the average for other occupations, and it is estimated that over 100,000 jobs will be created nation-wide between 2010 and 2020.
HVAC/R technicians are also likely to benefit from increasing demand for green technologies. With higher consumer and private sector demand for energy efficient and environmentally sensitive technology, HVAC/R technicians will have an important role in the green economy. The green economy will likely support new occupations in the climate-control systems sector, and HVAC/R technicians can easily transfer their skills into these new occupations. Many of the skills learned through training and work experience are adaptable as the climate-control industry moves to towards more energy efficient systems. Similarly, HVAC/R technicians will also have many transferable skills to support the green construction sector.