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, however, used as an umbrella term for other HVAC specialties. Since HVAC technicians are trained in all HVAC systems in a general way, as their career progresses, some technicians become much more specialized in the types of work they take on. 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.
There are a few important questions to answer when considering becoming 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 needed to complete HVAC repairs are important, there are also certain personality traits that 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 are able to 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, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Oct. 2017), HVAC technicians may also need to sell service contracts to their customers. In which 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.
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’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. 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 a number of third party companies and can be completed online.
While there are numerous ways to become a certified HVAC technician, some choose to gain experience by obtaining on-the-job training or an apprenticeship. Others might enroll in accredited HVAC programs to better prepare for the competitive job market. According to an O*NET HVAC technicians survey (2017), 55 percent held postsecondary certificates, and 16 percent earned associate’s degrees.
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.
The point in which 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), 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 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, the path to becoming an HVAC technician can be varied and promising.
Here is an example of a possible path to becoming an HVAC technician.
1. Earn a high school diploma or GED. 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.
2. Join and complete an accredited HVAC program (6 months to 2 years). Candidates may apply for certificate, associate’s 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. Some institutions offering accreditation for HVAC classes is HVAC Excellence and Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA). This process 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 homepage.
3. (Optional) Complete an apprenticeship (3 to 5 years). Some HVAC technicians choose to acquire their skills through an apprenticeship where they perform 2,000 hours annually of hands-on HVAC training 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; exact salary will vary based on experience, location, and employer.
4. Become an HVAC technician and continue to work in the field (1 to 2 years). Prior to becoming a certified HVAC technician, it may be advisable to get some empirical professional-level (i.e., beyond apprentice-level) experience. Please note that there are some “job-ready” HVAC programs which 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 basic EPA Certifications.
5. 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 a number of 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. In addition, RETA offers 2 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.