HVAC Degree vs Certificate Programs

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Those who are interested in working independently in the field of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) may either obtain an academic degree (or certificate) before seeking out employment, or pursue a lengthy apprenticeship that can last three to five years. And anyone opting to pursue a formal HVAC education may find themselves asking which is better: a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree? Each of these options has its pros and cons.

A major difference between HVAC certificate programs and HVAC degrees is the breadth of knowledge. All who pursue an HVAC degree will be required to complete general education requirements, and a greater quantity of HVAC courses than those in certificate programs. This means that those with an associate of applied science (AAS) or bachelor’s of science (BS) in HVAC will generally be better prepared to understand the wide breadth of responsibilities an HVAC technician may have than those who complete a certificate program. Additionally, certificate-holders may spend more time in assistant positions at the beginning of their career as they understand the field better than those in an associate degree program. Those who complete bachelor’s degree programs may also be better suited to move on to research and development or management.

All accredited HVAC certificate and degree programs help students learn essential knowledge in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) by covering core technologies and systems and how to tune them for performance and reliability.

To better understand the similarities, differences, and overlap between these options, read on for an overview and side-by-side comparison of HVAC certificate and degree programs, including salary, professional certification, and sample educational programs.

HVAC Certificate Program vs Professional Certification

It’s important to know that HVAC certificate degree programs are not the same as professional certification. HVAC certificate programs are one-year postsecondary degree programs for applicants with a high school diploma. By comparison, professional certification is earned after completing a one-year HVAC certificate or an associate’s degree (two years) or bachelor’s (four-year) program to prove professional credibility.

The most common professional certification is the EPA Section 608 Certification for “technicians who maintain, service, repair, or dispose of equipment that could release refrigerants into the atmosphere.” Most programs prepare students for work readiness by giving students the information they need to sit for the federally required EPA Section 608 Certification or specialty professional certifications offered by HVAC Excellence.

In addition to the EPA Section 608 Certification, there are other professional HVAC certifications for specialized applications in system performance and environmental impact. Those with more extensive formal training may be better prepared to sit for certifications offered by North American Technician Excellence (NATE), a non-profit certification organization that provides HVAC-specialized certifications.

How Long is HVAC School?

Time to completion is one of the significant differences between an HVAC certificate program and an associate or bachelor’s degree in HVAC.

Here is a list of the three most common HVAC programs and their approximate time to completion:

  • Postsecondary certificate program: one year or less
  • Associate degree: two years
  • Bachelor’s degree: four years

HVAC programs are offered in on-campus and online formats, and students can choose the delivery method that works best for their learning style and proximity to an institution. For example, Penn Foster offers an online HVAC certificate program that allows students to pursue a self-paced postsecondary certificate in approximately seven to 11 months.

The length of an HVAC program will often also translate into a difference in the costs. One-year certificate programs tend to be more affordable than two-year associate’s degrees, and four-year bachelor’s degree programs are more expensive.

Side-by-side Comparison: HVAC Certificate vs. Associate Degree vs. Bachelor’s Degree

The table below lays out the similarities and differences between HVAC certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree programs.

Certificate in HVAC Associate Degree in HVAC (AAS, AS) Bachelor’s Degree in HVAC (BS)
How long does it take to obtain this level of education?

Six to 12 months

Not all certificate programs are identical, and each HVAC certificate or diploma includes material that will determine its length. An individual can complete this level of formal education in as few as six months.

Please see HVAC Classes Guide to Affordable HVAC Training: Top 15 Certificate Programs for sample schools.

Two years

Generally, it will only take a student two years to complete an associate degree with an HVAC focus. Some programs may require additional time to obtain the degree, although this ultimately depends on the institution.

Please see Top HVAC Associate Degree Programs for information on two-year degree programs.

Four years

A bachelor’s degree in HVAC will likely take four years to complete, and provide the most comprehensive HVAC instruction level. In some cases, an individual may obtain a bachelor’s in less time if they have already completed college credits or take additional classes in the summer.

Please see Top 10 HVAC Bachelor’s Degree Programs for four-year programs.

What types of classes should the individual expect to take on this path?

The following is a short list of topics that those in HVAC certificate/diploma programs may expect to cover:

  • Refrigeration systems
  • Electrical systems
  • Residential and light commercial systems
  • HVAC system design and installation

In addition to those courses covered in a certificate program, the following is a list of topics that an individual pursuing an associate degree may be exposed to:

  • Metal fabrication
  • Electricity in relation to HVAC systems
  • Heat pumps
  • Technical physics

In addition to those courses covered in a certificate program and associate degree, the following is a list of topics that an individual pursuing a bachelor’s degree may be exposed to:

  • Control theory
  • Load analysis
  • Energy audit and analysis
  • Commercial HVAC system design
  • Contracting issues
  • Hydronic system design
In what types of educational institutions is this program available?

A student can obtain a certificate in HVAC at community colleges, trade schools, technical institutes, online schools, adult schools, and some career-oriented colleges.

Pursuing an associate degree is most often possible within a community college or career (vocational) college.

An individual may be able to obtain a bachelor’s degree in the field of HVAC at a number of accredited institutions, including colleges and career colleges.

What types of jobs will the individual be eligible for after completion of this program?

Upon completing a certificate in HVAC, the individual may be eligible to work as an HVAC technician, as long as they have met all other prerequisites for this industry based on state law. Some programs prepare graduates to serve in an assistance role only.

Similar to a certificate, those who have an associate degree in HVAC are typically prepared to work as an HVAC technician upon completion of the program.

An individual who holds a bachelor’s degree in the field of HVAC is more likely to be fully prepared to work as an HVAC technician—particularly in a supervisory or contractor role—upon graduation, and should also be prepared to sit for additional competency exams that differentiate these graduates in the labor pool.

What level of salary can an individual expect after completing this program?

About $50,000 per year, depending on location. Salary is difficult to predict as different companies in different locations can offer a wide range of salaries.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2023) reports that those earning in the lowest 10th percentile made $37,270 or less annually.

Although the median salary for HVAC techs is higher ($57,300), entry-level techs should expect to earn below the median until they gain more experience.

Available data does not demonstrate much difference between the starting salaries of a certificate- and associate-prepared HVAC technician.

However, an associate degree better prepares candidates to pursue a bachelor’s degree (in order to qualify for management responsibility), or obtain further specialization in the form of professional certifications.

The BLS (May 2023) shows the top 90th percentile earn $84,250 or more per year. And specialization and management increase salary potential.

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree in HVAC shows a commitment to the industry, and (along with some experience) may qualify a candidate for management or supervisory positions. HVAC service managers earn a median salary of $54,179 PayScale (2024).

Will completion of this program prepare the individual for additional certifications in the field of HVAC?

Yes, certificate programs with refrigeration training generally prepare students to sit for the EPA Section 608 exam, but possibly with the need for additional study outside the program.

Because HVAC techs will be managing refrigeration chemicals, the EPA exam is essentially mandatory for anyone to work as an HVAC tech.

Yes. The EPA Section 608 exam, and possibly other professional certifications as well.

Associate degree programs provide broader coverage on topics related to HVAC and will help prepare students for taking competency exams through NATE, HVAC Excellence, and other HVAC certification entities.

Due to the demanding nature of most bachelor’s degree programs, an individual with this degree is likely to be prepared for a range of additional competency exams. A bachelor’s degree may also prepare the graduate for a managerial or supervisory role.

Specific schools that offer these programs

The following is a partial list of schools that offer certificate programs in HVAC:

The following is a partial list of schools that offer associate degree programs in HVAC:

The following is a partial list of schools that offer bachelor’s degree programs in HVAC:

The bottom line

Certificates are best for students who learn best on the job. A certificate in HVAC is the least time-consuming way to dive into the industry and work towards becoming a technician. Although it may not provide the same level of education as that of a higher degree, it will quickly prepare a student (often in less than a year) for a career in this field, allowing him or her to pursue additional education through on-the-job training.

This is an excellent choice for someone who hopes to begin working as a technician in the shortest period of time.

Associate degrees are a good balance of formal learning and a relatively quick timeline to get started. Although an associate degree may take longer to complete than a certificate, it typically provides a greater level of knowledge that can be utilized throughout the individual’s career.

To be sure, much of the education necessary to work in this industry will be obtained on the job; that being said, an associate degree allows a student to learn about various aspects of HVAC before moving into the workforce. This is an ideal option for those who are interested in developing a comprehensive knowledge of this subject, yet still hoping to begin a new career in less than two years. It’s also a good option for those who may want to do higher-level HVAC tasks, but are unsure.

Bachelor’s degrees are good for those who want to manage, innovate, or research HVAC technology. A bachelor’s degree program generally takes four years to complete; as such, students in such a program should expect to develop the most comprehensive knowledge of HVAC-related subjects out of these three options.

Students who obtain bachelor’s degrees in the field of HVAC are prepared for nearly all types of jobs in this industry, including supervisory roles, and will be highly competitive upon graduation.

This is a great choice for someone who is interested in spending up to four years in the classroom in order to enhance his or her education and makes particular sense for those looking to move into a management role, or perhaps even start their own business.

Becca Brewer

Becca Brewer, MEd

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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