AC Tech Career Information

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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 sticky situations.

Air conditioning technicians perform regular maintenance and repairs on air conditioning systems for businesses as well as 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 climates. 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 as well. AC technicians should definitely 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.

Career Outlook

Overall, the demand for AC technicians is climbing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017), the need for all HVAC technicians is expected to rise 15 percent through the year 2026, which represents approximately 48,800 new job openings during that time period. This is significantly higher than the average expected growth for all occupations, which was last predicted at 7 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.

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. 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 minimum a high school diploma or GED. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 13 percent of AC technicians have no higher than this level of training at first. However, 71 percent of AC technicians have at least some college and 16 percent have an associate’s degree (ONet Online).

As with most entry-level positions, new AC technicians should have some mix of education and experience. A technician with no direct experience should at 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 in addition to basic math and communications knowledge.

AC Technician Salary Data

The median salary for an AC technician in the U.S. is $47,080 annually, but again this number includes all HVAC technicians (BLS 2017). 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 make around $30,000 annually while top paid AC technicians could make more than $75,000 per year.

Geographic location can also have a huge impact on how much any worker can make, due to cost of living factors. AC technician salaries in the U.S. are highest in Washington, D.C., where HVAC technicians make an average salary of $67,920, as well as Hawaii, Illinois, and Connecticut. In states where the cost of living is much lower, such as West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas, AC technicians make much less with WV technicians making an average of just $40,520.

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. According to Payscale (2018), which collects self-reported salaries, an entry-level AC technician with zero to five years of experience can earn an average of $34,000 per year while someone with 10 to 20 years of experience can earn an average of $44,000 per year. 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 Become 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 towards the job, including a few optional steps that will depend on personal preference and the availability of opportunities such as apprenticeships.

1. Complete high school diploma or GED (4 years)

There are no strict educational prerequisites to become 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 the AC technician career may even take vocational training courses during high school to have a head start upon graduation.

2. Enroll in a technical training program (option A, 2 years)

The majority of AC technicians also have some type of post-secondary education. For example, Los Angeles Trade-Tech College (LATTC) offers an associate of science degree in refrigeration and air conditioning that can be completed in just four semesters. Courses cover such critical topics as electrical mathematics, refrigeration system components, and service for air conditioning equipment. A program like the LATTC option will prepare AC techs well for an entry-level position.

3. Apply to apprenticeship program (option B, 2 to 5 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 Coordinator’s Association sponsors a five year, 8000 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 who have apprenticeships for new technicians.

4. 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 it is important that prospective AC techs 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.

5. Obtain locally required licensure

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

6. Pursue advanced certification

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 Exellence or North American Technician Excellence. These types of certifications are not required by law but can demonstrate advanced skills for those looking to progress in their careers.

Licensure & Certification

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. Before starting work, prospective AC technicians should be sure to familiarize themselves with the laws in their particular state. 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.