HVAC Bachelor’s Degree vs Associate Degree vs Certificate

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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.

By covering core technologies and systems and how to tune them for performance and reliability, all accredited HVAC programs help students obtain greater knowledge in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) so that they can work in the field. Most programs also prepare students for work-readiness by giving students the information they need to sit for the federally required EPA Section 608 certification.

One major difference between HVAC degrees and HVAC certificate programs is the breadth of knowledge. Those 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 at the beginning of their career in assistant positions as they gain a broader understanding of the field 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.

Also, the knowledge obtained while pursuing an associate degree or bachelor’s degree can provide greater assistance to an individual if they decide to complete professional HVAC certifications. For example, those with more extensive formal training may be better prepared to sit for certifications offered by North American Technician Excellence, a non-profit certification organization that provides HVAC-specialized certifications.

How Long is HVAC School?

Time to completion is one of the major differences between an HVAC certificate program and an associate (or bachelor’s) degree in HVAC. In general, a certificate program can be completed in less than one year; an associate degree generally takes two years of study; and a bachelor’s degree will take four years.

Online programs, such as the one available through Penn Foster, allow students the chance to pursue a certificate at their own speed, depending on the amount of time they have to dedicate to their studies. The length of the program will often also translate into a difference in the costs, with certificate programs tending to be the most affordable, and bachelor programs being the most expensive.

To better understand the similarities, differences, and overlap between these options, please read this overview and retain this side-by-side comparison to help you make an informed decision.

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

The table below lays out similarities and differences between HVAC certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree programs, across a number of dimensions.

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.

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.

Four years

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

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. Pursuit of 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 he or she has 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 $30,000 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 2019) reports that those earning in the lowest 10th percentile made $30,610 annually. Although the median salary for HVAC techs is higher, 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. 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 $71,642 (PayScale.com, May 2020).
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 HVAC tech.

Yes. The EPA Section 608 exam, and possible other professional certificates 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.
Name 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 which 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 is the co-founder of Limitless: An Adventure to Build a Better Future on a Thriving Earth. Limitless exists to inspire everyday people to join the millions of people across our planet who are already taking steps to heal our earth in their everyday lives. To move people into action, Becca and her travel partner, Léandre Deryckere, share the life stories of everyday earth healers and convey what they learn as they build environmental projects within the principles of gift economy. You can follow the adventure on Instagram at @LimitlessEcoAdventure, and join the project at Limitless.Eco.

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