Becoming an HVAC Technician – Education & Certification

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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 at the perfect temperature, almost no one notices. But when one of these systems breaks 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 repair person.

An HVAC technician is different from a general contractor or any of the other specialties in the construction industry. “HVAC technician” is used as an umbrella term for other HVAC specialties. Since HVAC technicians are trained in all HVAC systems in a general way, some technicians become much more specialized in the types of work they take on as their career progresses. For instance, 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. Some HVAC techs also go on to specialize in air conditioning or refrigeration, steering away from heating and ventilation.

Check out this comprehensive guide to becoming an HVAC technician below.

Skills & Personality Traits of HVAC Technicians

There are a few important qualifications to consider when becoming an HVAC technician. First and foremost, HVAC technicians must be thoroughly educated in the specifics of HVAC systems 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 needed to complete HVAC repairs are essential, certain personality traits make success more likely for a prospective HVAC technician.

HVAC technicians must be reliable, as many are called to jobs at odd hours, including weekends. Furthermore, the most successful HVAC technicians can explain the intricacies of an HVAC system to a customer who may not be familiar with the specifics of their building’s system.

In addition to technical knowledge and manual skills, HVAC technicians may also need to sell service contracts to their customers. In that case, HVAC technicians must be able to convince the customer that the repairs are indeed necessary. To be a successful HVAC technician, one must have strong interpersonal skills and be able to communicate clearly and directly.

Role Requirements for HVAC Professionals

Technical training and education are both key requirements when it comes to becoming 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 six months and result in an HVAC technician certificate, while longer programs can last up to two years and result in an associate 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, some states require professional licensing before an HVAC technician can begin work. To research local credentialing requirements, reach out to state HVAC licensing authorities.

Some licenses, however, do transcend geography. Namely, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that any technician working with refrigerants (such as CFCs and HCFCs) must be properly trained in handling 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 qualifies them to work with all refrigerant systems. The tests for this type of licensing are offered by several third-party companies and can be completed online.

Career, Education, and Certification to Become an HVAC Technician

While there are numerous ways to become a certified HVAC technician, some choose to gain experience by obtaining on-the-job training or by participating in an apprenticeship. Others might enroll in accredited HVAC programs to better prepare for the competitive job market.

After some measure 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.

Paths to becoming an HVAC technician often diverge after the first one to three years of work. At that point, there are several 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), the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and the Heating, Air-conditioning, and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI).

Advanced HVAC certifications can be attractive to potential employers as well as clients, so many HVAC technicians 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 to move forward and supervise new buildings. Ultimately, further education and certification are the best ways to progress in a career as an HVAC technician. Coupled with ongoing technical experience, the path to becoming an HVAC technician can be varied and promising.

Steps to Becoming an HVAC Technician

Here is an example of a possible path to becoming an HVAC technician:

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma or GED (four years)

Aspiring HVAC technicians should have strong skills in chemistry, physics, and other physical sciences. Additionally, competitive candidates may also have volunteer or work experience assisting HVAC technicians.

Step 2a: Join and Complete an Accredited HVAC Program (Six Months to Two Years)

Candidates may apply for a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree programs that feature coursework in HVAC system design; refrigeration; energy management; load calculations, industry code standards; ductwork and piping systems; and air quality and conditioning. Prospective HVAC technicians in these programs learn HVAC theory and practice, and may also work with HVAC technicians for hands-on training.

Two institutions offering accreditation for HVAC classes are HVAC Excellence and Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA). The process of accreditation establishes academic standards and recognizes programs that meet or exceed the criteria. Learn more about accredited programs in different states by visiting the HVAC schools page.

Step 2b: Complete an Apprenticeship (Optional, Three to Five Years)

Some HVAC technicians choose to acquire their skills through an apprenticeship, where they perform 2,000 hours of hands-on HVAC training annually and 144 hours of technical education. Some organizations provide HVAC apprenticeships, including the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Inc., the Associated Builders and Contractors, and the US Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship USA program. HVAC apprenticeships are typically paid positions; the exact salary will vary based on experience, location, and employer.

Step 3: Become an HVAC Technician and Continue to Work in the Field (One to Two Years)

Before becoming a certified HVAC technician, it may be advisable to get some empirical professional-level (i.e., beyond apprentice-level) experience. Please note that some “job-ready” HVAC programs may bypass this step. As described above, one may obtain an entry-level HVAC technician position without professional certification, although technicians working with regulated refrigerants are required to have a basic EPA 608 certification.

Step 4: Achieve Professional Certification (timeline varies)

While HVAC technician requirements vary by state, there are some popular certifications in this industry such as those offered by North American Technician Excellence (NATE), the Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA), and HVAC Excellence (partnered with the Esco Group).

For instance, NATE offers several specialty certifications (e.g., air distribution, HVAC efficiency analyst, HVAC performance verifier), whereas HVAC Excellence offers more generalized certification exams for air conditioning, light commercial air conditioning, and basic refrigeration and charging procedures. Besides, RETA offers two American National Standards Institute accredited certifications, including a certified assistant refrigeration operator (CARO) and a certified industrial refrigeration operator (CIRO).

To learn more about the wealth of certifications available, check out the main HVAC credentials page.

Featured HVAC Degree & Certificate Programs

Mount San Antonio Community College

The HVAC programs offered here at Mount San Antonio Community College are accredited by both HVAC excellence and PAHRA. It offers an associate of science (AS) degree and a certificate in air conditioning & refrigeration technology. Combining classroom instruction with hands-on training, these programs will help students in understanding the basics of designing, troubleshooting, and maintaining HVAC systems.

The certificate program consists of 31.5 credit-hours and includes courses such as welding for air conditioning and refrigeration, refrigeration fundamentals, gas heating fundamentals, air properties & measurement, commercial systems, heat load calculations & design, and technical mathematics in air conditioning and refrigeration, among others.

The degree program is made up of 61.5 credit-hours including all courses from the certificate with additional general education coursework in public speaking, freshman composition, art course, humanities course, science course, and lifelong understanding course, among others.

Graduates of these programs can find employment opportunities in manufacturing, design, operation, distribution, sales, maintenance, installation, repairs, and controls.

  • Location: Walnut, CA
  • Accreditation: Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA); HVAC Excellence
  • Expected Time to Completion: Certificate (12 months); AS degree (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: $46 per unit

Grand Rapids Community College

Grand Rapids Community College offers HVAC training programs that have been accredited by PAHRA. The college offers the following two HVAC programs:

  • HVAC/R certificate (33 credits)
  • AAS degree in HVAC/R technology (60 credits)

The curriculum for the HVAC/R technology certificate includes courses such as refrigeration applications, basic refrigeration, heating theory, heating and cooling controls, air conditioning theory, HVAC/R electronic controls, HVAC blueprint reading and design, and more. All units earned in this HVAC/R certificate may be applied toward the AAS in the HVAC/R technology program.

The degree program includes courses in HVAC/R electronic controls, heating & cooling controls, commercial refrigeration, duct construction & design, metallic & non-metallic joining mechanical codes, and basic boiler operation.

Students in these programs gain hands-on lab experience by installing equipment and performing service procedures. They learn about the principles of HVAC/R, heating, cooling, controlling, and filtering humidity, blueprint reading, diagnosing malfunctions, overhauling, repairing, and adjusting parts, units, and systems, and using technical reference manuals.

On successful completion of the program, graduates can take up roles such as heating and cooling technician, air-conditioning technician, domestic air-conditioning installer, environmental-control-system installer, climate control technician, refrigeration technician, and heating technician.

  • Location: Grand Rapids, MI
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission; PAHRA
  • Expected Time to Completion: Certificate (12 months); AAS degree (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: Resident ($117 per contact-hour); non-resident ($247 per-contact-hour); out-of-state ($371 per-contact-hour)

College of Southern Nevada

This college also has HVAC programs that have accreditation from both HVAC and PAHRA. The College of Southern Nevada offers several HVAC programs that emphasize hands-on training and practical experience preparing students in analyzing and solving HVAC problems. There are a total of 8 programs offered by the college (4 certificates and 4 AAS degree programs).

The certificate programs include a 40.5-credit air conditioning technology certificate, a 41-credit air conditioning technology: central plant certificate, a 40-credit air conditioning technology: critical systems certificate, and a 42.5-credit air conditioning technology: foodservice refrigeration certificate.

The degree programs offered by the college include a 60-credit air conditioning technology program; an air conditioning technology: central plant program comprising 60 credits; an air conditioning technology: critical systems program consisting 60 credits; and a 61.5-credit air conditioning technology: foodservice refrigeration program.

As part of these programs, students will delve into topics such as residential gas heating, introduction to HVAC electrical theory and application, commercial refrigeration, heat pumps, copper fundamentals, boiler operation and maintenance, HVAC automatic controls, industrial electricity, troubleshooting, and equipment cooling, among others.

Graduates are prepared to obtain their EPA 608 certification as well as HVAC Excellence Employment Readiness certification. The college also offers an Entry-Level Air Conditioning Technician program which is made up of 18.5 credit hours.

  • Location: Henderson, NV; Las Vegas, NV; North Las Vegas, NV
  • Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU); PAHRA; HVAC Excellence
  • Expected Time to Completion: Certificates (12 months); AAS degrees (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: Lower-division courses ($106.75 per credit); upper-division courses ($175 per credit )

Central New Mexico Community College

Central New Mexico Community College offers the following three HVAC programs:

  • Certificate of completion in residential HVAC (26 credits)
  • Certificate of completion in commercial, industrial HVAC & building performance (53 credits)
  • Associate of applied science (AAS) degree in HVAC technology (65 credits)

This is yet another college that has all its HVAC programs accredited by HVAC Excellence and PAHRA. Students in these programs will gain knowledge in electrical circuitry and troubleshooting, proper refrigeration, mechanical equipment, hydronic piping practices, and maintenance and service of various types of HVAC/R systems and accessories.

The residential certificate comprises 26 credits including courses in basic electricity, refrigerant fundamentals, refrigerant management, air conditioning and controls, code and safety I, heating and heating control systems, composition I, and system design, installation & retrofit of heating/cooling systems.

The commercial certificate consists of 53 credits including all courses from the residential certificate with additional coursework in advanced hydronics & controls I, interpersonal communication, chilled water systems, hot water & steam generation systems & controls II, controls III, refrigeration application, code & safety requirements II, commercial and industrial refrigeration, energy efficiency & green building code compliance, and energy efficiency & green building standards I and II.

The AAS degree is made up of 65 credit-hours including all courses from the certificates mentioned above. Students also have to complete additional coursework in humanities, mathematics, and social and behavioral science.

Students through these programs gain in-depth skills and knowledge about HVAC/R fundamentals through hands-on training in labs and develop a fundamental understanding of wiring diagrams. Graduates are well prepared to be employed by local service and installation contractors as well as facilities, local manufacturers, and hospitals.

  • Location: Albuquerque, NM
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission; PAHRA; HVAC Excellence
  • Expected Time to Completion: Residential certificate (two semesters); commercial certificate (five semesters); AAS (five semesters)
  • Estimated Tuition: New Mexico Residents ($56 per credit); non-New Mexico residents ($296 per credit)

Wallace State Community College

The HVAC programs offered at Wallace State Community College help students gain the skills and knowledge needed for passing licensing and certification procedures, so they can start working in this high-demand HVAC field. The programs offered here include two short-term certificates in refrigerant handling and electrical systems comprising nine and 12 credits, respectively, a 55-credit HVAC certificate, and an AAS degree in HVAC technology consisting of 65 credits.

The curriculum explores topics such as principles of refrigeration and electricity, HVAC/R electrical circuits, HVAC/R electrical motors, refrigerant piping practices, heat pump systems, commercial air conditioning, troubleshooting HVAC/R systems, gas heating systems, fundamentals of electric heat, service procedures, HVAC/R electrical components, and commercial refrigeration, among others.

At the end of the program, graduates can pursue several opportunities in the HVAC industry, and continue developing their knowledge and skills. Also, they may choose to receive a license to begin contracting HVAC/R services as a business owner or employee. Additionally, they may choose to further their education towards a higher degree at a four-year institution.

  • Location: Hanceville, AL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges; HVAC Excellence
  • Expected Time to Completion: AAS degree (four semesters); certificate (four semesters); short-term certificate (one semester)
  • Estimated Tuition: $133 per credit

Central Louisiana Community College

Central Louisiana Community College offers a technical diploma in HVAC/R providing hands-on training combined with classroom experience. This program prepares students for entry-level employment in a variety of jobs in this HVAC/R field. Students in this diploma will receive a certificate of competency after each semester they complete.

The diploma consists of 45 credits. Courses include an HVAC introduction, electrical fundamentals, principles of refrigeration, electric motors, electrical components, domestic refrigeration, residential heating, residential heat pumps, and residential system design, among others.

The program opens up several opportunities for graduates in the field of HVAC/R. They learn about the basics of installing, diagnosing, repairing, and maintaining the operating condition of residential, commercial, and domestic HVAC/R systems.

  • Location: Natchitoches, LA; Alexandria, LA
  • Accreditation: Accrediting Commission of the Council on Occupational Education (COE); HVAC Excellence
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $8,532

Farheen Gani

Farheen is a freelance writer, marketer, and researcher. She writes about technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).

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