AC Technician Career, Education, Certification & Salary

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If you live in a frigid climate, you probably find warmer weather to be a nice respite from blue toes and red noses. If you live in Phoenix, you probably feel a little differently.

In homes, office buildings, schools, hospitals, and retail establishments, air conditioning has become the norm. When an air conditioner goes out, it can be inconvenient and even dangerous in very hot climates where children and the elderly are susceptible to heatstroke. AC technicians are trained to deal with these challenging situations.

Air conditioning technicians install new equipment, as well as perform regular maintenance and repairs on existing air conditioning systems for businesses and residential dwellings. There are many reasons that a technician may choose to specialize in air conditioning systems, including the climate of the area where they work and a desire to work on more refrigeration and storage issues. That said, AC technicians are in demand across the country, and the work can be quite rewarding, both personally and professionally, for the right person.

Keep reading to learn more about the career outlook for AC technicians and how to start a career in this growing field.

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What Does an AC Technician Do?

While the daily duties of an AC technician will have quite a bit in common with those of an HVAC technician, those duties will focus solely on cooling systems.

An experienced AC technician might do a variety of things on a day-to-day basis, but all will revolve around air conditioning and climate control. Unlike an HVAC technician that may work in heating, ventilation, or air conditioning, an AC technician focuses on cooling. This includes regular maintenance like changing air filters, troubleshooting with temperature and pressure tests, and installation of AC units.

An AC technician might work directly for a building management company or an organization like a college, but some AC techs make their living working as independent contractors with their own trucks. AC technicians should be prepared to work a little harder during hot summer months when they are in high demand. In general, an AC tech will work regular hours, but there is always the possibility of emergency calls during the summer that will send a technician out in the field at all hours.

AC Technician Career Outlook

Overall, the demand for AC technicians is climbing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), the need for all HVAC technicians is expected to increase by 5 percent between 2020 and 2030, which represents approximately 19,000 new job openings during that decade. However, this is slightly slower than the average expected growth for all occupations during the same decade (8 percent).

Since the BLS tracks all HVAC technicians together, not all of this growth will be specific to air conditioning positions.

The fact is that in many environments, air conditioning is no longer considered a luxury. With increasingly extreme weather throughout the year, the demand for climate control experts such as AC technicians is unlikely to dwindle. Rather, the demand for those technicians who are well-versed in new air conditioning systems, particularly those with more complex computer control systems, will only increase.

Another factor driving job growth is the contemporary emphasis on energy efficiency and pollution reduction that requires that older equipment be replaced, retrofitted, or upgraded to comply with the newer standards.

There is always a demand for new technicians since those that enter the field often choose to move up along their career trajectory. Trained AC techs can easily go on to become supervisors, service managers, or business owners.

In terms of hiring, there is always a need for residential AC technicians, who are often employed by contractors during the building process or by homeowners directly when maintenance or repairs are needed. AC technicians are also recruited by companies with climate-controlled warehouses to ensure the safety of their inventory.

Businesses that rely on technology and have on-site electronics often need rooms or buildings with specialized cooling systems dedicated to keeping the equipment functioning correctly. Virtually any company that conducts business indoors will need an AC technician at some point, which makes the job that much more interesting.

AC Technician Job Requirements

Starting out, many AC technicians may have no experience at all. If this is the case, the technician should be prepared to show that he or she has an educational foundation to build on. All AC technicians should have, at a minimum, a high school diploma or GED.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, HVAC technicians are required to have training in vocational schools, related on-the-job experience, or an associate’s degree. (ONET Online 2022).

As with most entry-level positions, new AC technicians should have a mix of education and experience. A technician with no direct experience should, at a minimum, have some knowledge of AC systems, including electrical circuits and other basic construction knowledge.

AC technicians with a bachelor’s degree or higher are likely to find themselves moving into a supervisory role more quickly than those with less education. Likewise, technicians who have completed an intensive apprenticeship will be better prepared for the demands of the job and, therefore, eligible for management positions as well.

In addition to technical training, which is available at many vocational schools and community colleges, technicians should have people skills as well as basic math and communications knowledge.

AC Technician Salary

The median annual salary for HVAC technicians in the U.S. is $50,590 (BLS May 2020). As a median salary, it means that half of all employed HVAC technicians make more than this and half make less. At the lower end of the salary range, AC technicians earn around $31,910 annually, while top-paid AC technicians could earn more than $80,820 per year.

Geographic location can also have a huge impact on how much any worker can earn due to cost of living factors. AC technician salaries in the U.S. are highest in Alaska, where HVAC technicians make an average salary of $79,630, followed by District of Columbia, Hawaii, Washington, and Massachusetts. In states where the cost of living is much lower, such as Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama, AC technicians make much less, with Mississippi technicians making an average of just $44,220.

Those brand-new to the profession are likely to make closer to the lower end of the spectrum, while more experienced technicians will make more. Many AC technicians may start working as an apprentice. Technicians in these positions make a percentage of their supervisor’s salary and are generally given raises at regular intervals, provided they are improving in their position. At the end of the apprenticeship, technicians may be offered full-time employment as well as benefits, depending on the position and company.

AC technicians with a solid educational foundation, such as an associate degree or bachelor’s degree, may be able to demand a higher rate at first, but of course, experience also comes into play.

The national figures were slightly different according to another source of data, PayScale (Jaunary 2022), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the AC technicians reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $32,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $50,398
  • 90th percentile: $80,000

Over time, it will be experience and dedication to the craft that will determine whether an AC technician continues to move up in the ranks in terms of both salary and responsibility.

Steps to Becoming an AC Technician

As with any career, not every person who pursues the AC technician career will take exactly the same steps. Following is the most common path toward the job, including a few optional steps that will depend on personal preference and the availability of opportunities such as apprenticeships:

Step 1: Complete high school diploma or GED (four years). There are no strict educational prerequisites to becoming an AC technician in most cases, but the vast majority have earned at least a high school diploma or GED. High school students who are already interested in a career as an AC technician may even take vocational training courses during high school to have a head start upon graduation.

Step 2a: Enroll in a technical training program (two years). The majority of AC technicians also have some type of post-secondary education. Some examples include:

Los Angeles Trade-Tech College

Los Angeles Trade-Tech College (LATTC) offers an associate of science (AS) degree and a certificate of achievement in heating, ventilating, air conditioning (HVAC), and refrigeration preparing students with the necessary skills and knowledge for a career in commercial, industrial, and residential repair and service of air conditioning, refrigeration, and heating systems. Students will also be prepared for certifications such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) section 608 and North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

Made up of 48 credits, the certificate includes courses such as refrigeration fundamentals, indoor air quality, principles & practices of electrical circuits & controls, compression systems of refrigeration, and gas heating systems, among others.

The associate degree program comprises 60 to 69 credits, including coursework in applied calculations and measurements, pipe and tube joining processes, refrigeration electrical circuits & controls, refrigeration system components, applied refrigeration and air conditioning principles, and air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics.

A program like the LATTC option will prepare AC techs well for an entry-level position. Electrical controls, compressor installation & repair, and piping installation are just some of the skills that graduates would master during this program.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Accreditation: Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College, Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: Certificate (less than a year); AS degree (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: California residents ($46 per unit); non-resident ($289 per unit)

Houston Community College

According to the BLS (May 2020), Houston, Texas has the fourth-highest (8,220) employment for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers. Houston Community College is well aware of this market and has created an AC technician program that offers the required skills and knowledge necessary for air conditioner repair and maintenance. Introducing students to new and emerging technologies, these programs allow students to efficiently operate systems.

The college offers one associate of applied science degree and two certificates HVAC/R for aspiring HVAC workers. The basic certificate is made up of 21 credits, while the advanced certificate comprises 42 credits. The AAS degree consists of 60 credits.

The curriculum includes courses such as electrical calculations, air conditioning control principles, refrigeration principles, residential air conditioning, gas & electric heating, advanced air conditioning controls, commercial air conditioning, and air conditioning troubleshooting to name a few.

All programs prepare students for the section 608 EPA recovery certification. Graduates of these programs will be able to service, maintain, repair, and troubleshoot almost every type of HVAC equipment, while also learning about safety and regulations rules surrounding this industry.

  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: AAS (24 months); certificates (12 months each)
  • Estimated Tuition: In-district ($84.50 per credit); out-of-district ($180.50 per credit); out-of-state ($227 per credit)

Mount San Antonio Community College

Mount San Antonio offers an AS degree and a certificate in air conditioning and refrigeration technology. Both programs combine classroom lectures and hands-on training in the lab preparing students for a high-paying career in HVAC/R. This college is one of the very few in the US, whose HVAC programs have received accreditation from both PAHRA and HVAC Excellence.

Comprising 31.5 credits, the certificate program includes courses such as technical mathematics, AC codes and standards, welding, electrical fundamentals, refrigeration fundamentals, heat load calculations and design, gas heating, commercial systems, and air properties and management.

The degree program comprises 63.5 credits including all courses from the certificate with the addition of public speaking and freshman composition, art and humanities, science and math, social science, lifelong understanding, and electives.

Graduates will be able to take up positions in areas such as design, operations, manufacturing, sales, installation, distribution, repairs, controls, and maintenance.

  • Location: Walnut, CA
  • Accreditation: PAHRA; HVAC Excellence; Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Certificate (12 months); degree (24 months)
  • Estimated Tuition: $46 per unit

Step 2b: Apply to an apprenticeship program (two to five years). Many AC technicians choose to go the apprenticeship route, gaining immediate hands-on, paid experience under the supervision of more experienced technicians.

Depending on the sponsoring organization, an apprenticeship can take up to five years to complete, during which apprentices earn a percentage of an experienced technician’s salary. In California, for example, the California Apprenticeship Coordinators Association sponsors a five-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship program for air conditioning technicians.

While not every state will have the exact same program, most metropolitan areas have similar offices or unions that have apprenticeships for new technicians. The US Department of Labor Apprenticeship Finder has resources.

Step 3: Complete EPA Section 608 Certification. Anyone in the US who works with refrigerants must have the EPA Section 608 certification, which deals with the handling and disposal of these potentially harmful chemicals.

Many technical training programs and apprenticeships will have this certification built-in to the program, but prospective AC techs must verify this. If certification is not offered as part of their chosen program, they must pursue the certification on their own before entering the AC workforce. A full list of approved section 608 technician certification programs is available from the EPA.

Step 4: Obtain locally required licensure (timeline varies). Aside from the Section 608 certification, there are no nationally required licenses for AC technicians. That said, individual states and municipalities do have their requirements. Typically, obtaining this type of licensure will require proof of training and/or experience, an application fee, and often a competency exam.

Step 5: Pursue advanced certification (timeline varies). The AC technicians that wish to continue to develop their skills and professional advancement may choose to pursue certification through an organization such as HVAC Excellence or North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

Several industry organizations, such as Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), also provide training and certifications. These types of certifications are not required by law but can demonstrate advanced skills for those looking to progress in their careers.

Licensure & Certification for AC Techs

As mentioned above, the licensing requirements for working AC technicians vary depending on the state where the technician works. In some states, there are no licensing requirements for AC or HVAC technicians. Other states require licenses only for projects that exceed a certain power capacity or a certain dollar amount.

To research credentialing requirements, reach out to state HVAC licensing authorities. Before starting work, prospective AC technicians should be sure to familiarize themselves with the laws in their particular state, as well as local licensing agencies. A license may only require a fee and registration, but most will require some type of exam, and many also require a minimum amount of supervised on-the-job experience.

For more information on credentialing, check out the HVAC certification guide.

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.