Most people do not spend a lot of time thinking about their heating system or their air conditioning units. That is because when a building or room is the perfect temperature, no one notices. But when the systems break down, an HVAC technician is the first person to call.
HVAC technicians are trained to install, repair, and replace HVAC systems. The acronym stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. Some technicians and training programs prefer to use the acronym HVAC/R because repairing refrigeration systems can also be a crucial part of the job. HVAC technicians may find a place working on construction sites, as a part of a general contractor’s team, or as an independent repairperson.
An HVAC technician is different from a general contractor or any of the other specialties in the construction industry. It is, however, used as an umbrella term for other HVAC specialties. That is to say that an HVAC technician is trained in all HVAC systems in a general way. As his or her career progresses, some technicians become much more specialized in the types of work they take on. An HVAC installer may work for contractors who build new homes or buildings and therefore specialize only in installations of new systems rather than repairs. Many HVAC techs also go on to specialize in air conditioning or refrigeration, steering away from heating and ventilation.
There are a few important questions to answer when considering how to become an HVAC technician. First and foremost, HVAC technicians must be thoroughly educated in the specifics of HVAC systems in order to perform repairs. This requires mechanical skills, a detail oriented personality, and the physical fitness necessary to lift, move, and repair large equipment.
While the technical skills necessary to complete HVAC repairs are certainly important, there are also certain personality traits that can help an HVAC technician to excel in the field.
HVAC technicians must be reliable, as many are called to jobs at odd hours and on the weekends. Furthermore, the most successful HVAC technicians are able to explain the intricacies of an HVAC system to a customer who may not be familiar with the specifics of their building. This is because, in addition to technical knowledge and manual skills, many HVAC technicians are tasked with selling.
HVAC technicians must be able to convince the customer that the repairs are indeed necessary. Furthermore, some HVAC technicians sell long-term maintenance contracts to their customers, which also requires a modicum of salesmanship (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). To be successful here, one must have strong people skills and be able to communicate clearly.
Technical training and education are both key requirements when it comes to how to become an HVAC tech. Before beginning work, the majority of HVAC technicians have at least some specialized training. Today, most HVAC technicians begin by taking courses at a technical school or community college. Shorter programs may last only 6 months and result in an HVAC technician certificate while longer programs go for up to 2 years and result in an associate’s degree. HVAC technicians can begin to prepare for this type of training in high school by taking courses in math, physics, and shop.
Once formal training is completed, there are some states that require professional licensing before an HVAC technician can begin work. Unfortunately there is no national clearinghouse that lists information about every individual state, so new HVAC technicians will have to take it upon themselves to research licensing requirements in their state of residence.
Some licenses, however, do transcend geography. Namely, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that any technician working with refrigerants (such as CFCs and HCFCs) must be properly trained in handing and disposing of these hazardous chemicals. HVAC technicians can become certified in Small Appliances, Low-Pressure Systems, High-Pressure Systems, or can obtain a universal certification that lets them qualify for work with all refrigerant systems. The tests for this licensing is offered by a number of third part companies and can be completed online.
After some degree of formal education, further on-the-job training is generally required. Sometimes this can take the form of an apprenticeship with an experienced HVAC technician. Other HVAC technicians will move directly from school to entry-level positions.
Where paths to becoming an HVAC technician often diverge is after the first one to three years of work. At that point, there are a number of options for exams and certifications that can lead to more specialized work. While there are no national associations that an HVAC technician must join, there are many that offer career support and certifications. One of the most prolific testing organizations, North American Technician Excellence (NATE), offers Industry Competency Exams (also known as ICE) in installation and service specialties. These exams are supported and recognized by other HVAC organizations including the Air-conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and Heating, Air-conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI).
Advanced certifications can be attractive to potential employers as well as clients so many HVAC techs do decide to pursue them, but they are not required. Sometimes an employer may require further education for job advancement. For instance, an HVAC technician with no specialty who is working for a construction company may need to obtain certification in the HVAC installation track in order to move forward and supervise new buildings. Ultimately, further education and certification is the best way to progress a career as an HVAC technician. Coupled with ongoing technical experience, it is east to see that the path showing how to become an HVAC technician can be varied but can also take you far.