Guide to Acing the HVAC Certification Exams

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A variety of organizations use the words “certifying” and “certification.” Schools offer certificates, but It can be challenging to know what a “certified HVAC technician” is. A more accurate description is the statement that an HVAC technician has a particular certification, or is certified to perform a specific job. For example, an HVAC technician has a green awareness certification, or an HVAC technician is certified for green awareness.

Some certifications are earned as workers go through their training. Many schools include preparation for the basic certification exams as part of the curricula. Apprentices are prepared during their apprenticeships.

The Section 608 certification exam offered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency generally must be passed before a technician can work with refrigerants. Other HVAC and HVAC/R workers seek voluntary certifications to increase their knowledge. As well as the satisfaction of becoming more competent, technicians improve their employability and increase their potential earnings as they gain additional skills.

Technicians acquire their certifications from several sources. The Section 608 exam is mandated by the federal government. States often require potential contractors to pass an exam in business and law, as well as a trade-specific exam. Their exams are typically accessed through third-party vendors. Equipment manufacturers offer training that certifies the technician as having proficiency in installing, maintaining, or servicing their equipment. Toolmakers may provide training in the efficient use of their tools. Industry associations are by far the largest source of training for HVAC technicians.

Check out this guide to the most popular HVAC certification exams below.

Environmental Protection Agency

Climate-control equipment uses one or more kinds of refrigerants. The refrigerants are hazardous to human and animal health and the environment. Accordingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as part of Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, requires that all technicians “who maintain, service, repair, or dispose of equipment that could release ozone depleting refrigerants into the atmosphere must be certified.” The requirement also includes “appliances containing most substitute refrigerants, including HFCs.”

Technicians must pass an exam to gain their Section 608 certification. Core test topics include environmental impacts; the Clean Air Act and Montreal Protocol; Section 608 regulations; substitute refrigerants and oils; refrigeration; recovery, recycling, and reclaiming; dehydration evacuation; safety; and shipping. Each type of certification has an additional selection of topics relevant to it that technicians are expected to know.

Practice exams and study guides are available.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established safety standards. The standards are taught in 10-hour and 30-hour courses.

The 10-hour course focuses on job safety and health hazards. The 30-hour course is designed for supervisors or others responsible for job safety. OSHA standards only mandate safety training; they do not specify the curriculum. Industries, including HVAC, develop and implement their own programs. Employers may require that workers complete an OSHA course as a condition of requirement, or workers may voluntarily seek training. Some states mandate safety training for all workers.

Safety training is often part of an apprenticeship or acquired through hands-on experience in a school lab. OSHA maintains training centers throughout the country and a list of authorized trainers. Individuals who complete a training course receive a card. OSHA emphasizes that the card is not a certification or a license.

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)

ASHRAE offers seven certification programs as follows:

  • BCXP – Building Commissioning Professional Certification
  • BEAP – Building Energy Assessment Professional Certification
  • BEMP – Building Energy Modeling Professional Certification
  • CHD – Certified HVAC Designer
  • HBDP – High-Performance Building Design Professional Certification
  • HFDP – Healthcare Facility Design Professional Certification
  • OPMP – Operations and Performance Management Professional Certification

Each program has a guideline that spells out the education and experience required before sitting for the exam. Guidelines may be downloaded after agreeing to restrictions as to how they may be used, as they are copyrighted. Exams are timed multiple-choice format. There are testing sites throughout the US, or exams may be completed online.

Technicians can prepare for the exam online. Books, study materials, and practice exams are available in hardcopy or electronically from the ASHRAE bookstore. Individuals who are not residents of the US can take certification coursework through the Global Training Center or the European Training Center. Dozens of instructor-led short courses and seminars are available at chapter meetings and conferences through the ASHRAE Learning Institute (ALI).

HVAC Excellence

HVAC Excellence, an affiliate of the ESCO Group, offers progressive levels of certifications.

The first level of certifications begins with the Heating, Electrical, Air Conditioning Technology (H.E.A.T.) exam for high school students —a 100-question test to assess vocational training. The Heating, Electrical, Air Conditioning Technology (H.E.A.T.) PLUS exam includes 25 questions which measure computer literacy, safety, math, employability skills, and work ethics, as well as a performance test. It is worth mentioning that students who pass these exams receive certificates of achievement, but do not earn professional certification.

The next level is Employment Ready Certifications, which are for entry-level employees. These 100-question exams are available for professionals getting started in the fields of electrical, electric heat, gas heat, oil heat, air conditioning, light commercial air conditioning, light commercial refrigeration, heat pumps, systems diagnostics and troubleshooting, basic refrigeration and charging procedures, carbon monoxide safety, residential and commercial light hydronic heat, fuel oil combustion, natural gas combustion, combustion appliance zone, carbon monoxide and combustion analysis, and geothermal heat pumps.

The tests are administered at the end of a training module, and those who pass are awarded a certificate of achievement. Although these are not professional certifications, they do demonstrate knowledge and assist in obtaining employment.

Specialty certifications are designed for HVAC technicians who want to gain expertise in a particular specialization area. They may receive certification in system performance (an area which is especially helpful for installers), residential heat load analyst, green awareness, duct and envelope testing, R-410A, hydrocarbon refrigerants, and residential energy auditor.

HVAC technicians who have two or more years of experience may seek professional technician certifications. Principles of Electrical and Refrigeration Theory is a core exam that’s a prerequisite for all the other exams. The certifications include electric heat, heat pump installer, light commercial air conditioning, residential air conditioning, combustion analysis, gas heat, heat pump service, light commercial refrigeration, and residential and light commercial hydronic heat.

The master specialist certification is the highest level for HVAC technicians. In addition to demonstrating their theoretical knowledge, technicians must be able apply their knowledge through a hands-on performance evaluation. An example of a hands-on evaluation task is soldering a leak-proof and structurally-sound solder joint. To take the test, technicians must have at least three years of experience and have obtained professional technician certifications. The master specialist test is performance-based, and those who pass it are identified as “possessing the highest levels of competency.” Certification is available for more than two dozen fields of competency.

ESCO also offers Section 608 and Section 609 (automotive HVAC) preparation and testing. Students and technicians can obtain textbooks, study guides, and manuals from the online bookstore. Free practice exams are available for Section 608 and R-410A certifications.

North American Technician Excellence (NATE)

NATE offers four levels of testing.

The first level is for a ready-to-work certificate. It is a timed 50-question test of HVAC fundamentals for entry-level workers. It is available online only. Individuals who order the exam receive a study guide with it.

The next level is the HVAC support technician certificate for technicians with six months to one year of experience. It’s a timed 100-question test of general knowledge and must be taken at a testing center. Note that passing these exams gives professionals certificates, but not professional certifications.

The core exam tests “general knowledge, construction knowledge, and HVAC/R specific knowledge.” Technicians must pass it to qualify for the specialty certifications. The specialty certifications are divided into four installation certifications and ten service certifications. Technicians must renew their certifications every two years, either by submitting continuing education credits or by retaking the exam.

NATE also administers the Industry Competency Exams (ICE) for entry-level technicians. Passing the exams is a condition of graduation for many schools. Technicians who have passed the core exam and at least one specialty section receive residential ICE certification. Technicians seeking the light commercial HVAC or the commercial refrigeration ICE certification do not have to take the core exam and are not divided into specialty sections. Study materials for ICE are available, and the exams may be completed online.

NATE also maintains Knowledge Areas of Technician Expertise (KATEs). The KATEs are designed as study guides and “No question will be on a NATE-developed test unless it is referenced in a KATE.”

Manuals and other reference materials are available in the online store. The NATE training organizations and testing organizations located throughout the US also offer preparatory material.

Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA)

RETA offers several certifications for technicians in the field of industrial refrigeration.

The first is CARO – Certified Assistant Refrigeration Operator for entry-level workers. The exam is timed, with 110 questions based on information in RETA’s Industrial Refrigeration Best Practices Guide.

Technicians with at least two years of industrial refrigeration experience are eligible for the CIRO – Certified Industrial Refrigeration Operator exam. That exam is also based on the Industrial Refrigeration Best Practices Guide. It contains 135 questions and is timed.

The CRST – Certified Refrigeration Service Technician exam is for technicians who have four years of experience and have either the CARO or CIRO certification. The timed exam has 150 questions “from advanced levels of plant safety and operations through the basics of ammonia refrigeration compliance and PSM requirements.”

The CRES – Certified Refrigeration Energy Specialist exam doesn’t require previous certifications. The exam is timed, with 135 questions based on the Industrial Refrigeration Best Practices Guide and the Energy Conservation Manual. The exam also includes “the documentation of three energy saving activities related to refrigeration system operations and their facilities whereby energy savings can be quantitatively documented.”

Training materials for the exams are available online, and training may also be completed online. Schools and other organizations also offer RETA training. Technicians may also purchase practice exams. Testing centers are available nationwide. Certifications are valid for three years and require continuing education units to renew.

Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES)

RSES provides training designed to help HVAC/R technicians obtain various industry certifications through the RSES Technical Institute. Industry training and reference materials are available, and training is available via eLearning, webinars, chapters, company training facilities, schools, or self-study.

RSES does not offer certifications other than that required for Acceptance Test Technicians (ATTs) and Acceptance Test Employers (ATEs). Those positions were established by California law and are defined as “the process by which a field technician verifies the installation and operation of newly installed equipment or construction elements of a nonresidential building.” RSES is contracting with area schools to provide the training and certification. Technicians must have 36 months of experience and the ability to pass a performance-based test.

Technicians may find free practice exams for most of the above certifications; however, the exams do not override an organization’s study guides and recommendations, nor do they replace a disciplined course of study.

HVAC Certifications Available From Manufacturers

As a final note, equipment and tool manufacturers frequently offer training designed to increase technician knowledge and skills. Training may be online but is more often hands-on. Technicians may become certified for that manufacturer’s product, or they may receive a certificate of achievement. Well-known providers are Carrier University, Lennox Learning Solutions, and Trane University.

As technicians typically have favorites when it comes to tools, they are advised to contact the toolmakers they prefer for training.

Sandra Smith

Sandra Smith was introduced to the HVAC industry when she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary for a small air-conditioning contractor. She eventually became a CPA and started her own practice specializing in small business taxes and accounting. After retiring from business, she began writing articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites. She also authored four books. Sandra makes her home in the mountains with a rescue dog that naps on her lap as she writes.

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