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As the United States recovers from the Great Recession, there’s one field that’s been relatively impervious to the economic downturn: careers in heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR). In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) projects that job openings for HVAC installers and mechanics will swell 14 percent between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average growth anticipated across all occupations during that time (7 percent). The expected addition of 39,600 HVAC positions is due in part to people’s enduring need for comfortable shelter in the face of increasingly erratic weather patterns. By illustration, the World Economic Forum (2015) has tracked the uptick in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the California drought, which have contributed to the need for failproof climate control in residential and commercial buildings. And with burgeoning trends such as the greening of HVAC technology, the adoption of “smart” climate control systems, and the ever-changing environmental regulations set forth by local and national governments, HVAC is expected to be thriving field on into the future.

So what skills can these aspiring specialists expect to learn in HVAC classes? O*NET(2015)—a data organization partnered with the American Job Center—reports that heating and AC mechanics and installers have many responsibilities including installing, maintaining, inspecting, and repairing HVAC systems; performing tests to determine problematic components; working with sensitive systems such as water, electrical, and fuel lines; recommending upgrades to increase energy efficiency; and staying abreast of the latest technical innovations and governmental regulations for HVAC systems. Some technicians choose to further specialize, gaining skills in specific aspects of HVAC such as solar panels, green technologies, commercial refrigeration, or radiant heating systems.

Although there are varied educational paths to joining this field, O*NET (2015) found that 55 percent of responding HVAC technicians held postsecondary certificates, and 16 percent had associate’s degrees. Sixty-three percent of these professionals were industry contractors—a relatively secure segment as manufacturers and contractors may provide customers with year-round service agreements—and approximately one in ten were self-employed (BLS 2015).

Read on to discover the employment prospects for HVAC professionals, as well as to explore HVAC classes, professional certification options, program accreditation, and trends in the HVAC industry expected in 2016.

HVAC, a Career on the Rise

# Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers (BLS, 2014)

As stated above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) is anticipating a 14 percent increase in openings for HVAC technicians (i.e., mechanics and installers) between 2014 and 2024. The wealth of opportunities for HVAC professionals has emerged for several reasons. Not only do most HVAC units have a lifespan of roughly ten years—requiring continual upkeep and maintenance—but also many businesses and homeowners stand to save money by making systems more efficient or “greener.” Energy Star (2015)—a voluntary program promoting energy use efficiency created by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—reports that the combined annual energy costs of commercial and residential properties is $400 billion, and an astounding 30 percent of all buildings have inefficient energy use.

HVAC is also a relatively lucrative field, paying a median annual salary of $44,630, significantly higher than the median salary for all occupations at $35,542 (BLS 2015). Not surprisingly, HVAC professionals’ average salary fluctuates by region, industry, level of experience, and source of data.

For instance, the BLS (2014) found that the top-paying states for HVAC specialists were:

  • Alaska: $63,300 (annual average salary)

  • District of Columbia: $62,520

  • New Jersey: $56,390

  • Massachusetts: $55,840

  • Washington: $55,770

  • Nevada: $55,490

  • Illinois: $54,830

  • Connecticut: $54,340

  • California: $54,270

  • New York: $53,930

Among these, only three—California, New York, and New Jersey—were also top-employing states in HVAC (BLS 2014):

  • Florida: 23,660 HVAC specialists employed

  • Texas: 20,870

  • California: 19,660Texas: 20,870

  • New York: 12,950

  • Pennsylvania: 12,360

  • North Carolina: 11,020

  • New Jersey: 10,030

  • Ohio: 9,800

  • Virginia: 9,610

  • Georgia: 8,270

It’s crucial to note that the cost of living (i.e., the purchasing power of these salaries) varies significantly by region. As proof of point, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2015) notes that the most expensive states in the country were concentrated in the west and northeast: Hawaii, District of Columbia, New York, California, and Alaska. The least expensive areas—mainly hailing from the midwest and south—were Mississippi, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Additionally, three of the five top-paying municipalities for HVAC services were located in California (BLS 2014):

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $80,700 (annual average salary)

  • Springfield, IL: $69,570

  • Fairbanks, AK: $68,270

  • Oakland-Fremont-Hayward, CA: $67,500

  • Santa Rosa-Petaluma, CA: $66,620

Overall, the BLS (2014) reported the following salary ranges for HVAC professionals across the country:

  • 10th percentile: $27,630

  • 25th percentile: $34,610

  • 50th percentile (median): $44,630

  • 75th percentile: $57,500

  • 90th percentile: $70,820

In hourly terms, these equate to:

  • 10th percentile: $13.29

  • 25th percentile: $16.64

  • 50th percentile (median): $21.46

  • 75th percentile: $27.64

  • 90th percentile: $34.05

Other data sources, however, found slightly lower figures. Payscale (2015)—a site which relies on self-reported salaries in various employment sectors—found the following salary ranges among its 427 HVAC respondents:

  • 10th percentile: $29,000

  • 25th percentile: $35,000

  • 50th percentile (median): $42,895

  • 75th percentile: $52,000

  • 90th percentile: $66,000

For more information on employment trends in the HVAC industry, check out the HVAC careers page.

How to Become an HVAC Technician

There are varied educational paths to becoming a certified HVAC technician. Some choose to garner experience on the job through apprenticeships, and others enroll in accredited HVAC classes or programs. In a survey of HVAC technicians, O*NET (2015) reported that that 55 percent of the respondents in this field held postsecondary certificates, and 16 percent had earned associate’s degrees. As regulations on the HVAC industry and contractors continue to evolve, there has been a trend toward more formal education, although there are still ample opportunities for those interested in apprenticeships.

Here is one possible path to becoming an HVAC technician:

  1. Graduate from high school. Candidates in this profession typically have strong skills in the physical sciences (e.g., chemistry, physics) and at this stage, may even seek out opportunities to assist working HVAC professionals, paid or voluntary.

  2. Complete an accredited HVAC program (6 months to 2 years). Community colleges, technical schools, and other institutions provide training programs at all levels (e.g., certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s) featuring coursework in HVAC system design; energy management; ductwork & piping systems; and load calculations. As part of programs, prospective HVAC professionals not only receive didactic instruction to learn the theory of HVAC components and procedures, but also may work under the supervision of more experienced technicians to get hands-on training. There are various institutions that provide accreditation for HVAC classes—including HVAC Excellence and Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA)—a process which establishes educational standards and recognizes programs which meet or exceed the criteria. To learn more about accredited programs, visit the HVAC schools page.

  3. (Optional) Complete an apprenticeship (3 to 5 years). In lieu of a formal training program, some HVAC technicians choose to learn through an apprenticeship where they receive 2,000 hours annually of hands-on training in the field. Some of the organizations that provide HVAC apprenticeships include the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Inc. and the US Department of Labor’s ApprenticeshipUSA program.

  4. Garner experience in the field (1 to 2 years). Depending on the type of certification an individual seeks, it may be advisable to get some empirical experience prior to applying for certification. Please note that there are some “job-ready” HVAC programs which may bypass this step.

  5. Achieve professional certification (timeline varies). Requirements to work as an HVAC specialist vary by state, but there are some popular certifications in this industry such as those offered by the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and HVAC Excellence.

To learn about state licensure requirements in HVAC and to discover more about about the steps to becoming a certified HVAC professional, check the how to become an HVAC technician and HVAC certification pages.

HVAC Programs

For those interested in learning the fundamentals of the HVAC field, there are educational programs available throughout the country—even distance-based options—at every level: certificate, associate’s, and bachelor’s programs. The main accreditation agency for HVAC programs is the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA). For more on accreditation, please reference the accreditation section below.

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Here is what to expect from various HVAC certificate and degree programs.

HVAC Certificates

The University of California, Berkeley Extension offers an HVAC certificate program with both classroom-based and online learning opportunities. With the successful completion of 165 hours of coursework in areas such as system design considerations, system load calculations &psychrometry (i.e., properties of gas-vapor mixtures), and ductwork & piping systems, students receive a certificate of accomplishment from the Golden Gate chapter of the American Society for Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

The University of Northwestern Ohio (UNOH) provides a PAHRA-accredited HVACR certificate program, training students in the fundamentals of furnace technology, commercial refrigeration, and air conditioners. In a combination of rigorous hands-on instruction with qualified HVAC professionals and Simutech computer exercises, UNOH teaches students the latest in service & procedures, heating systems & controls, applications of refrigeration & temperature controls, and other cornerstones of the field. Finally, UNOH boasts small class sizes—20 students max— and also offers an HVACR associate’s degree program.

HVAC Associate’s Degrees

Front Range Community College of Fort Collins, CO provides a PAHRA-accredited associate of applied science (AAS) degree in HVACR. With 65 credits of classes in areas such as refrigerant tubing, basic electricity & electrical components, and HVACR troubleshooting, Front Range’s program takes four to five semesters to complete. In addition to didactic coursework, students have the option to complete a capstone project or supervised internship to put their newfound knowledge of fabrication, brazing, soldering, and more to the test.

Mount San Antonio College (MTSAC) of Walnut, CA provides an associate of science (AS) degree in air conditioning and refrigeration technology. As the only PAHRA-accredited program in the state of California, MTSAC has a work-study component for interested students in addition to training in refrigerant handling, welding, and mechanical & electrical operation. This program is also offered as a certificate.

HVAC Bachelor’s Degrees

The New York City College of Technology provides a bachelor’s of technology (BTech) degree program in facilities management. This program—an extension of the school’s associate of applied science (AAS) degree in environmental control technology (HVAC)—gives students a working understanding of how to maintain comfortable indoor climates, paying thought to energy conservation and efficiency. This bachelor’s degree may be an especially attractive option to aspiring HVAC professionals who are interested in taking on management roles and increased responsibilities.

North Central University of Minneapolis, MN offers a bachelor of arts/sciences (BA/BS) in applied studies: heating, ventilation, air conditioning, & refrigeration (HVACR). Through hands-on “laboratory work” and classes such as refrigeration fundamentals, interpreting schematic drawings, and introduction to solar thermal systems, North Central students become prepared to uphold Minnesota Energy Code requirements and to enter a variety of specialized careers including HVAC service, commercial refrigeration, indoor air quality control, and building maintenance.

For more information on four-year HVAC and HVACR programs, please visit the top HVAC bachelor’s degrees page.

Online HVAC Degrees

The Pinnacle Career Institute (PCI) provides a 12-month online training program for HVAC technicians with work-ready courses in the fundamentals of electricity, airflow principles, basic HVAC electronics, and residential air conditioning. PCI puts its students through an 11-day bootcamp in an innovative 10,000 square-foot facility Kansas City, MO taught by experienced, certified professionals. Furthermore, PCI assists students in finding externships with local employers and prepares them to sit for the EPA and NATE core service certifications.

Penn Foster Career School in Scranton, PA—a college accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)—offers an online HVAC career diploma. As part of the program, students receive a voucher to sit for the EPA certification—a mandatory credential for workers who handle refrigerants—as well as eight units of courses such as math for the trades, the fundamentals of HVACR, and lithium bromide absorption systems.

Accreditation of HVAC Programs

Aspiring HVAC professionals are strongly encouraged to verify the accreditation status of their program prior to enrollment. The process of accreditation sets up industry-validated standards in training in HVAC to ensure that a school is meeting or exceeding the skill set necessary to uphold government regulations surrounding climate control and provide quality service to customers. Criteria of these organizations may include specific curricular requirements; school finance assessments; and an examination student outcomes & support services.

As stated above, the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA) is the main national accreditation body for HVAC programs. PAHRA developed its program standards in conjunction with all segments of the industry including workers, HVAC educators, administrators, and state supervisors in technical education. PAHRA-accredited programs must use the industry competency exams (ICE) for graduating students, which test knowledge in three areas: residential AC and heating, light commercial AC & heating; and commercial refrigeration. These exams are administered by North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

Additionally, HVAC Excellence has accredited HVAC programs since 1999. A two-person team (an HVAC instructor and an administrator) performs on-site evaluations and weighs criteria such as the mission of the program; school finances; the availability of student services; the quality of student facilities; and instructor credentials.

Finally, there are various organizations that provide accreditation to schools as a whole including the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) for online programs, as well as six regional bodies which have been recognized by the US Department of Education:

HVAC Licensing and Certification

There are a number of regional and national professional certifications available to HVAC professionals. This process indicates to prospective employers and clients that the person has achieved competence in specific fields of HVAC.

There is one mandatory certification for all HVAC professionals who handle refrigerants: the EPA Section 608 certification. Preparation for this exam and vouchers are typically offered as part of an HVAC program. There are four types of certifications available for EPA Section 608: type I (small appliances), type II (high-pressure appliances), type III (low-pressure appliances), and the universal option that covers all aspects of handling refrigerants.

It’s important to note that while the EPA certification is mandatory, the licensure or certification requirements vary by state. Visit the HVAC certification page for a full list of state agencies to verify the credentials necessary to work in this field.

There are several organizations that provide professional HVAC certifications. These include:

  • HVAC Excellence provides the heating, electrical, air conditioning technology (HEAT) and HEAT Plus certifications for high school students. They also have a variety of employment-ready specialty credentials in green awareness, residential heat load analysis, the use of R-410A refrigerant systems, heat pump service, combustion analysis, residential air conditioning, and HVAC educator certifications.

  • North American Technician Excellence (NATE) has a core HVAC exam and specialty certifications in air conditioning, air distribution, oil heating (air), gas heating (air), heat pump (air-to-air), hydronics gas, hydronics oil, commercial refrigeration, and light commercial refrigeration. NATE also provides industry competency exams (ICE), which are required of all students graduating from a PAHRA-accredited program. Please note that many of the specialty exams are also available in Spanish.

  • The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) offers the mandatory EPA Section 608 and eight specialized exams: commercial air conditioning, commercial refrigeration, controls, domestic service, dynamic compression, heating, heat pump, and HVACR electrical.

For more information on professional certification and licensure, please visit the HVAC certification page.

HVAC Trends in 2016

As the 2016 AHR Expo in Orlando approaches—where 60,000 HVAC professionals will gather to discover new industry technologies, products, and best practices—there are six trends in the field which have caught the experts’ attention:

Smart Systems: One of the major trends in the industry is toward “smart controls” in both residential and commercial HVAC systems. HPAC Engineering (2015) reported on the increasing use of smart thermostat and integration technologies which can help save energy and cut costs by giving people the ability to manage multi-area temperatures remotely. These intelligent controls also allow people to track energy-use patterns, detect problems with components, and send diagnostics via mobile technologies to the appropriate service agency to ensure timely maintenance and repairs. The burgeoning internet of things (IoT) has been a major driver in the automation and increased distance-based control of HVAC systems.

Increased Integration and Automation: Aided in part by the increased use of “smart” HVAC technologies, the ability to control several systems seamlessly in concert is a major goal in the industry. It’s no surprise that homeowners, property managers, and business operators can benefit from having one easy-to-operate interface for temperature controls. In fact, HVAC businesses are striving to improve the mobility, user-friendliness, and comprehensiveness of software that can link multiple systems together.

HVAC Goes Green: Green technology systems that pay thought to energy conservation and efficiency are on the rise. Enervise (2015) stated that the federal government’s property-assessed clean energy financing (PACE) program has contributed to the awareness of efficiency, renewable energy sources, and the greening of HVAC by empowering local governments to fund much-needed energy improvements to residential and commercial properties. Governments pay up-front for the upgrades and property owners pay these back over time. Furthermore, buildings are striving to be net zero energy use facilities (i.e., producing as much or more energy than they consume) through the use of renewables (e.g., wind, solar, geothermal, and hydraulic) and energy recovery ventilators. As part of the move toward increased efficiency of HVAC systems, Xcel Energy (2015) reported that there are several new green technologies on the rise, including demand-controlled ventilation; direct digital control (DDC) systems; variable air volume (VAV) systems; and variable frequency drives (VFD).

Evolving Regulations: Federal and local governments are continually changing the standards of energy use, product labeling, building codes, and tax credits, in effect rewarding the use of more efficient HVAC technologies. The US government’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) strives to develop innovative technologies to promote energy efficiency in manufacturing plants, HVAC products, new homes, and buildings. Legislation such as the Energy Policy Act (2005), as well as changes to the annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) standards and seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) are applied differentially across states, affecting building codes and the type of HVAC equipment available.

Proprietary Controls: Although there’s a general move toward increased integration of HVAC systems, in order to preserve market dominance, some companies continue to create proprietary components which do not integrate seamlessly with other company’s products. HPAC Engineering (2015)—using figures from an IHS, Inc. (2014) study—reported that 14.2

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Barry Franklin

Barry is the Editor in Chief of HVACClasses.org, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures, which he joined as partner in 2013 after almost 20 years in the financial software industry.