Becoming an HVAC Project Manager: Steps & Certification

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The title of HVAC project manager can mean different things depending on the hiring party. In most cases, an HVAC project manager is someone with experience in the HVAC field who oversees new projects for an HVAC construction company, or as a consultant for a contractor. Oftentimes, an HVAC project manager will be responsible for assessing the site of a new HVAC installation or renovation project and putting together a bid for his or her employer. An HVAC project manager therefore must be able to create a definitive list of the parts and labor that will be necessary to complete a project to the client’s specifications. This includes a thorough evaluation of the current HVAC system and the ability to determine which parts can be kept and which must be replaced.

Unlike an HVAC technician, an HVAC project manager will not necessarily be involved in the hands-on completion of an HVAC system installation or repair. Instead, an HVAC project manager is responsible for interfacing with the client while the project is being completed, coordinating all the different people responsible for various HVAC design elements, and for ensuring the entire project meets construction standards.

In some cases, a company may have an HVAC project engineer as well as an HVAC project manager or HVAC supervisor. When this is the case, the engineer will generally take charge of the site assessment and compile a plan and bid for the project while the project manager will handle on-site duties once the project is won.

Skills & Personality Traits of HVAC Project Managers

The best HVAC project managers are those with the right blend of technical skills and people skills. Because HVAC project managers are responsible for a team of techs working for a client, their strength of knowledge is just as important as their ability to communicate.

On a more granular level, HVAC project managers must be organized and meticulous. HVAC project managers are the accountable party for how money is being spent, how workers are spending their time and each detail of project progression.

This necessarily means that HVAC project managers need strong math and reasoning skills. In addition to HVAC-related measurements and calculations, HVAC program managers need to be able to predict the timeline for and cost of projects.

Project managers must also be problem solvers. As the leader of a team of HVAC technicians, there are always questions to answer or challenges to overcome. A good project manager should be able to deal with these problems, help their technicians to solve them, and be able to do all this without becoming rattled or overwhelmed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “dealing well with risk and stress is imperative […] Project managers must be able to handle the frustration that may arise when risks and failures materialize to derail a project.”

HVAC Project Manager Role Requirements

The everyday requirements of an HVAC project manager can vary greatly depending upon the project, the industry, the size of the team, the scale of the project, or even the demands of the day. HVAC project managers, therefore, must have a baseline level of flexibility in order to handle the shifting nature of the position.

Because this role requires project managers to excel in both technical skill and interpersonal skills, it is rare that someone will find themselves in a management position directly after finishing an apprentice program or graduating from school. Most HVAC project managers will have a minimum of three to five years working in the field. This is especially true for those managing projects in specialty facilities or projects requiring specialized knowledge.

Although scheduling, delegation, and technician dispatch is a large part of the role of a project manager, high-level issues may require HVAC project managers to do service calls themselves. Managers may also find themselves training and hiring, enacting safety compliance, and ensuring all employees have the proper federal and state-level HVAC certifications.

How to Become an HVAC Project Manager

There is no formal process, nor just one path to becoming an HVAC program manager. This lack of formalized training to get the role provides experienced HVAC technicians with a wide range of ways to advance into project management. The following details the pathways someone could take to become an HVAC project manager.

Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)

While in high school, it helps to take courses in math, physics, and vocational education. Classes like automotive tech, woodshop, or electrician courses can be good training for the physical and problem-solving skills that professionals need to become competent and productive HVAC technicians. If a student knows that management is their ultimate goal, having a bachelor’s degree (while not necessary) may be a competitive advantage. Students should plan course loads accordingly.

Step 2: Graduate from an apprenticeship program, or pursue a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree in HVAC (six months to five years)

Experience as an HVAC technician is necessary to become a project manager, and training is needed to become an HVAC technician. Which program a future HVAC technician chooses will depend on who they are as a student.

Those interested in getting to work as soon as possible after graduation can choose the apprenticeship route if it is available in their state. Apprenticeships are hands-on, in-the-field learning programs where new HVAC techs spend three to five years learning the trade in the real world with experienced HVAC technicians. Depending on the state requirements, may also need to complete classroom work. In some states, a completed apprenticeship is adequate to apply for licensure.

If no apprenticeship programs are available, the next-quickest route to work is through diploma, certificate, or vocational programs. These programs can last six months or more, like the one at The Refrigeration School in Phoenix, Arizona. Of the school-based routes, these programs tend to be the most affordable.

Future HVAC techs who are interested in gaining a wider breadth of training before starting work can pursue an associate of applied science in HVAC. In addition to HVAC requirements, associate degrees may require students to complete some general education requirements like English and math. Most AAS degrees offer more coursework than certificates, degrees, and diploma programs, which give future HVAC techs a broader taste of the field. Some AAS programs also allow students to specialize in residential versus commercial HVAC, like the programs available at Central New Mexico Community College. Although it varies from program to program, AAS degrees generally take two years to complete.

Finally, future HVAC project managers can also choose bachelor’s degrees specifically in HVAC, or can choose to study mechanical engineering. Students who want a well-rounded education that allows for the in-depth study of HVAC equipment and processes are those that may want to choose the bachelor’s route. Bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete, require the greatest number of courses to complete, and are typically the priciest of the three options. That said, bachelor’s degrees may also make a candidate more competitive in the job market.

Most HVAC programs are campus-based and require in-person attendance, but some programs, like the bachelor of science (BS) in HVAC/R engineering technology at Ferris State University are offered online.

Step 3: Earn all necessary certifications and licenses (timeline varies)

For any technicians who perform maintenance, service, or repairs on, or dispose of equipment with the potential to release ozone depleting refrigerants into the atmosphere, EPA section 608 Technician Certification is required. Depending on the types of equipment an HVAC tech decides to work with, they may need to earn multiple certifications:

  • Type I – Small appliances
  • Type II – HIgh pressure appliances
  • Type III – Low pressure appliances
  • Universal – All types of equipment

In addition to EPA requirements, each state has individualized requirements for licensure. HVAC techs should ensure they understand and acquire the correct license for the state in which they plan to work.

Highly motivated HVAC techs who are really looking to distinguish themselves in current positions or impress future employers can earn specialist or high-level certifications from North American Technician Excellence (NATE) or from HVAC Excellence.

Step 4: Work as an HVAC tech and volunteer for higher level tasks (up to five years)

The most important stepping stone to managing others is to have the experience and knowledge required to face common issues on the job. Because HVAC is applicable to a wide array of industries, time spent working will also help HVAC techs to gain the kinds of specialized knowledge that is often valued in a project manager. Specialized knowledge can also help techs garner a higher salary both as a tech and as a manager. For example, according to PayScale.com (2020), HVAC techs with commercial skills made more than those with residential skills.

While on the job, techs interested in project management should develop interpersonal and leadership skills as well/ Hopeful HVAC managers should volunteer for opportunities to do client-facing tasks, organizational tasks, team-lead tasks, and should also offer assistance to current project managers. Engaging in tasks like these can accelerate an HVAC tech’s pathway to project management by demonstrating a capacity for leadership.

Step 5: Climb the ranks, or apply to outside project manager positions (timeline varies)

By volunteering for high-level tasks at their current places of work, it may be possible for HVAC techs to earn leadership positions within an organization. However, if an organization already has strong HVAC project leadership, there is no shortage of need for those with HVAC skills who can also lead. In May 2020, Indeed.com had over 20,000 listings for HVAC managers.

Becca Brewer

Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.

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