Automotive HVAC Tech Careers – Education & Certification

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Heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) technology enables people to stay comfortable inside their homes, offices, and vehicles. Over the years, HVAC has evolved from primarily blowing heated or cooled air into an enclosed space to systems that maintain temperature, humidity, and air quality. Modern HVAC provides climate control that individuals customize to meet their needs.

One of the first forms of automotive HVAC systems were the “weather conditioners” installed in cars as early as the 1930s. However, the technology proved unreliable and too expensive to be successful. Car makers shelved the concept of automotive HVAC for several decades until the 1960s. By then, technological improvements allowed manufacturers to begin installing HVAC systems in high-end cars. As technology continued to improve and advance, HVAC costs dropped making them ubiquitous in automobiles. Today, even the cheapest vehicles come with climate control as standard equipment.

Drivers and passengers can adjust a car’s climate by turning a knob or moving a lever. They can arrange vents that direct the flow of air and even adjust the temperature and airflow in different seats, depending on the car. Everyone in the vehicle can have the comfort they wish with minimal effort regardless of where they sit and how long they are in the car.

While from the outside, climate control seems seamless and straightforward, under the hood is a different story. A complex system of mechanical devices and electronics work to cool, warm, clean, dry, or moisten the air, and then regulate the speed and direction in which it flows. Although part of the process is directed by the activity of the passengers, various sensors and actuators make many of the climate control decisions.

The major components of an HVAC system include a compressor, condenser, expansion device, evaporator, and dryer or receiver. Systems from different vehicle manufacturers vary in details and features, but the basic process is the same. Air temperature is governed by the refrigeration cycle, part of which includes liquid refrigerant. Blowers and fans move air through areas of high pressure and low pressure to where it needs to be in the system. Other components that move air through the system include belts, hoses, filters, and flaps. An automotive HVAC technician keeps all these parts working smoothly and efficiently to maintain interior comfort for passengers.

What Does An Automotive HVAC Tech Do?

Automotive HVAC technicians install, inspect, maintain, and repair the climate control systems in passenger vehicles, light trucks, heavy-duty trucks, and agricultural equipment. Their skills include troubleshooting both mechanical components and sophisticated electronic components. They can diagnose the source of HVAC malfunctions in vehicles made by domestic and foreign car manufacturers, as well as new and old models from each maker.

Automotive HVAC techs understand how the system controls air temperature and are qualified to handle refrigerants safely. They look for distinct problems, such as leaks in hoses, frayed belts, or broken wires and cables. Techs are proficient in the use of specialized tools and testing equipment to locate less-obvious system failures. Because HVAC systems are highly automated, a tech typically uses diagnostic software and other computer programs to test the operation of a system and isolate malfunctioning components. They can accurately evaluate whether major components such as compressors can simply be repaired or must be replaced.

Techs work in repair shops owned by others or in their own shop. They may also be employed by dealerships, fleets, private vehicle services, such as limo businesses, governmental agencies, or vehicle rental companies. Depending on their experience and position, they may be responsible for duties other than working on vehicles. For example, they might be responsible for managing the HVAC parts inventory, ordering supplies and materials, maintaining testing equipment and tools, or customer service.

What Are The Requirements To Becoming An Automotive HVAC Tech?

Automotive HVAC technicians must be computer literate. They must understand electronics and automated control systems. Superior troubleshooting skills are essential, as is the ability to evaluate and apply testing results.

Automotive HVAC technicians are specialty mechanics, so they need to have an aptitude for mechanics. They need to understand how to use, repair, and maintain their equipment and tools, and their training should include how to read schematics, especially those applicable to motors and vehicular HVAC components. All HVAC technicians must have manual dexterity, which is even more essential for those working on automotive HVAC, as the engine compartment is a much smaller workspace.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employers expect service technicians to have some post-secondary education, although degrees are not required. On-the-job training is usually short-term, and various industry certifications are essential. In addition to mechanical knowledge and skills, technicians are expected to be detail-oriented, physically strong, and keep their workspaces clean and organized. Customer-service skills also increase employability.

How to Become an Automotive HVAC Tech

Although automotive HVAC technicians can find employment with minimal formal training, obtaining a certificate of completion, diploma, or degree from an accredited institution can significantly increase job opportunities and pay.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED (four years).

Aspiring technicians need to focus on developing their mechanical, computer, and electronics abilities. Shop classes, especially those designed to develop automotive repair skills, are highly recommended. Science, math, and communication classes are also helpful. Internships or part-time jobs in automotive shops provide a foundation in the basics.

Step 2: Seek further education and training (several months to four years).

Automotive HVAC technicians should then obtain further on-the-job training and gain a more complete understanding of the job requirements while increasing their technical skills. They can enroll in formal training programs at community colleges, trade schools, or colleges. Techs should expect to receive hands-on-training and classroom lectures in coursework such as:

  • Job safety practices
  • Starting and charging automotive HVAC systems
  • Automotive HVAC equipment and systems
  • HVAC electronics
  • Automotive and HVAC diagnostic tools and software
  • Dynamics of air flow
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Federal and state codes and regulations

Depending on personal goals and institutions selected, students can earn certificates in a few months to four-year degrees. They should look for institutions that are accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF).

Step 3: Obtain industry certifications and continuing education (timelines vary).

Technicians improve their employability by obtaining industry certifications, such as safety training and the following:

  • Automotive Service Excellence – ASE certifications are the industry standard. They are divided into eight core groups, one of which is A7 heating and air conditioning. Technicians who achieve certification in more than one group and meet work experience requirements can earn the master mechanic certification, which can significantly increase their employability.
  • Manufacturers – Car makers offer training programs and certifications for servicing their vehicles. Parts manufacturers also offer programs for installing and servicing their products.
  • Section 609 refrigerant recovery – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all automotive HVAC technicians to be trained and certified in safe refrigerant handling.
  • Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) – The SAE offers several training programs and related certifications for automotive technicians.

New car models come out every year, and with each new model comes updated features and components, including climate control. Technicians are expected to stay up-to-date on the changes. Climate control often affects the mileage of vehicles and technicians must be aware of complying with ever-changing mileage and emission regulations. Continuing education is essential to ensuring compliance.

Step 4: Obtain licensing (timeline varies).

Certification is not the same as licensing. Licensing requirements vary by state and position. Most do not apply to technicians who are employed by licensed companies. Self-employed technicians must ascertain which requirements, if any, apply to them.

How Much Does An Automotive HVAC Tech Make?

The wages of automotive HVAC technicians depend on location, education, training, and experience. The BLS reports that there are currently 648,050 automotive HVAC techs in the U.S. and they earn $21.02 per hour or $43,730 annually on average.

According to Payscale, technicians have self-reported that they make between $10.44 and $26.73 an hour and between $23,429 and $62,229 per year. Furthermore, the national average is $39,000.

Entry-level employees average 22 percent less than the average, and mid-career employees average 1 percent less than the average. Experienced employees earn 18 percent more than the average, and late-career employees: 31 percent more. Payscale further details that skilled diagnosticians can earn 31 percent more and skilled troubleshooters can earn 11 percent more than other employees.

Cities With The Highest Pay

The five highest paying cities for automotive service technicians and mechanics according to the BLS (May 2018) are:

  • California–Lexington Park, Maryland
  • Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Austin–Round Rock, Texas
  • San Francisco–Oakland–Hayward, California
  • Bridgeport–Stamford–Norwalk, Connecticut

Several factors contribute to the higher-than-average wages in these cities. Except for Austin, the cities are located in states that have a higher cost of living than the national average. Local weather extremes can mean that climate control systems are used more and need to be serviced or replaced frequently, which increases the demand and earnings for skilled technicians.

States With The Highest Pay

The five highest-paying states for automotive service technicians and mechanics according to the BLS (May 2018) are:

  • Washington D.C.
  • Alaska
  • Maryland
  • Connecticut
  • Washington

In D.C., automotive HVAC techs make $59,350 annually on average, and in Alaska, they earn $55,910.

These states all have a relatively high cost of living. Residents of these states pay more for services and products than residents of other states. Due to its location and weather conditions, Alaskan companies are often required to pay higher wages to attract employees. Maryland has the highest cost of living of the listed states and has to pay employees more to retain them, and Washington state has more unionized workers than the other four states. These are all factors that may influence wages in these areas.

Career Outlook for an Automotive HVAC Tech

The BLS predicted that openings for automotive service technicians and mechanics will increase 6 percent from 2016 to 2026 nationwide. This is slightly less than the 7 percent predicted growth for all occupations in the U.S. for the same period. The demand for technicians equates to an estimated 45,900 new workers over that ten-year period and is based on an increase in the number of vehicles in use. BLS statistics indicate that most job opportunities will continue to be in automobile dealerships and independent repair shops.

It should be noted that vehicle manufacturers are placing more reliance on electronics and automation. Technicians will need to have the skills required to install, service, and repair HVAC systems in hybrid, all-electric, and self-driving cars, while retaining their ability to work on older model vehicles that rely on mechanical systems rather than electronic systems.

As a final note, technicians reporting to Payscale indicate that service positions are often a stepping stone to service advisors, shop supervisors, and other supervisory opportunities.

Barry Franklin

Barry is the Editor in Chief of HVACClasses.org, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures, which he joined as partner in 2013 after almost 20 years in the financial software industry.