Becoming an HVAC Engineer: Degree & Career Requirements

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Heating, venting, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are an integral part of most contemporary buildings. The professionals who design the systems that control air quality and temperature are known as HVAC engineers. HVAC engineers are a category of mechanical engineers and their work is coordinated with other construction specialists. HVAC engineers often have expertise in trades such as electrical or plumbing that are a part of climate control systems. They must be familiar with federal, state, and local building codes and regulations in order to remain in compliance with the law.

An effective HVAC system requires the ability to perform heat load and loss calculations and understand how air flows through various types of structures. There is a wealth of considerations for professionals designing systems to fit the special needs of hospitals, restaurants, schools, and areas such as computer rooms.

What Does an HVAC Engineer Do?

An HVAC engineer assesses the needs of building occupants (e.g., people, animals, products) and the purpose of a structure to design an optimal climate control system. The design encompasses the system components’ layout and usually includes schematics or other drawings. They choose the appropriate equipment and prepare cost estimates.

HVAC engineers plan and coordinate every aspect of a system installation. They ensure that all safety procedures are followed and that the work is completed according to code. They meet with clients and building inspectors as required. As each installation step is completed, the engineer tests the operation. As well as designing climate control systems for new construction, HVAC engineers can conduct performance evaluations of existing systems and recommend improvements to increase efficiency.

What are the Requirements to Become an HVAC Engineer?

HVAC engineers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree. They may obtain their degree in mechanical engineering or HVAC engineering technology. For those seeking the highest quality education who wish to someday become licensed Professional Engineers (PE), it’s important to attend an institution that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Successful HVAC engineers have personal characteristics in common with engineers in other subfields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) lists the following skills as important:

  • Creativity
  • Listening
  • Mathematical reasoning
  • Mechanical ability
  • Problem-solving

The BLS advises that those who are proficient in the latest technology typically have the best job prospects.

PayScale (2023) reports that HVAC engineers who are project managers have higher salaries, followed by those who understand conservation and energy efficiency. System design is also a highly rewarded skill.

What are the Steps to Becoming an HVAC Engineer?

Please note that the following is only one path to becoming an HVAC engineer, and includes information about how to become licensed in mechanical engineering.

Having a Professional Engineer (PE) credential allows a mechanical engineer to work on publicly funded HVAC projects and may enhance his or her leadership and earning prospects. Rather than pursuing the PE license, other aspiring HVAC engineers may substitute additional years of hands-on experience or pursue other avenues. Here is one possible pathway into this high-growth profession:

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

Aspiring HVAC engineers may excel at math and science in school, and are advised to seek out extracurricular activities in shop class, volunteering (or working) with local HVAC companies, or other opportunities related to the industry. Please note that admissions to four-year, ABET-accredited schools in mechanical engineering can be competitive, and students are encouraged to maintain a strong GPA (e.g., >3.0).

Step 2: Obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree in engineering (two to four years).

At this stage, a prospective HVAC engineer is encouraged to enroll in a two- to four-year program in mechanical engineering, HVAC engineering, or a related discipline.

In both associate and bachelor degree programs, students can expect to take courses such as energy calculations, air flow and balancing, air handling equipment, pumps and piping systems, psychometric analysis, and electrical load computation, among other classes.

Pennsylvania College of Technology

For example, the Pennsylvania College of Technology offers a bachelor of science (BS) in HVAC engineering technology which exemplifies an entry-level degree in HVAC engineering.

This degree program typically takes four years to complete and includes courses such as introduction to refrigeration; HVAC-R electricity; mechanical systems design and operation; residential HVAC system design; print reading and automated design; basic heating systems (installation); college algebra and trigonometry; warm-air heating and duct design; and hydronic heating systems. The program also includes several electives in commercial refrigeration, mechanics, and general ed topics.

Notably, the Pennsylvania College of Technology also offers an associate of applied science degree in HVAC technology.

  • Location: Williamsport, PA
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); PAHRA
  • Expected Time to Completion: BS (eight semesters); AAS (four semesters)
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($608); out-of-state ($866 per credit)

University of Michigan

Alternatively, students at this stage can pursue a mechanical engineering (or related) degree and specialize in HVAC later on. For example, the University of Michigan offers an ABET-accredited bachelor of science in engineering (BSE) degree, including instruction in areas such as the introduction to solid mechanics; thermodynamics; design and manufacturing; heat transfer; and the mechanical behavior of materials, among many others.

The distinction between these two types of bachelor’s degrees is an important one: while many “technology” programs such as the one at Pennsylvania College feature a more practical, hands-on approach to the HVAC discipline, a degree in mechanical engineering tends to be more theoretical and can set a student up to learn about advanced design in the future.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: Michigan resident ($1,337 per credit); Michigan non-resident ($3,079 per credit)

Step 3: BSE graduates only – Take the Fundamentals in Engineering (FE) exam to become an Engineer in Training (EIT) or engineering intern near the time of graduation (less than one year).

Assuming that students completed their BS in mechanical engineering, he or she is advised to take the FE exam to become an EIT. The FE exam is the first step in becoming a licensed engineer and ultimately can qualify the professional to work on publicly funded projects in the future.

While becoming a Professional Engineer (PE) isn’t necessary to secure employment in HVAC engineering, it can enhance one’s candidacy for various projects and even qualify someone for higher salaries.

Step 4: Seek entry-level work experience (four years or more).

Following the completion of a degree and the FE exam (for BSE graduates), aspiring HVAC engineers are encouraged to seek out work opportunities to apply their skills. Depending on the state in which they live, they may have to register as HVAC apprentices to accrue hundreds of hours under a licensed journeyman-level contractor in order to qualify for their own credentialing.

Step 5: Optional – Obtain a graduate degree (or certificate) in engineering (one to two years).

At this stage, there are varied degrees the prospective HVAC engineer can pursue. Earning a certificate may be advisable for those who finished an HVAC technology undergraduate degree.

UC Berkeley Extension

For example, UC Berkeley Extension offers an in-depth certificate program in HVAC to impart the advanced principles of the discipline. Ideal for those with a BSE or prior HVAC experience, coursework includes HVAC ductwork and piping systems; HVAC control and energy management systems; HVAC system design considerations; and HVAC system load calculations and psychometry.

  • Location: Berkeley, CA
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Less than a year
  • Estimated Tuition: $4,875 to $5,285 total

Penn State World Campus

Other aspiring HVAC engineers may prefer a degree program, such as the online master of science (MS) in mechanical engineering available from the Penn State World Campus, which mentions preparation for HVAC specifically in its program description.

The 32-credit program offers courses in heat transfer; the foundations of fluid mechanics; the principles of turbomachinery; automatic control systems; and engineering optimization, among others.

For admission to the program, applicants must hold either a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited U.S. institution or a tertiary degree that is deemed comparable. Application requirements include official transcripts from each institution attended, three references, a current resume, a statement of purpose, and proof of English language proficiency for international students. GRE test scores are not required for admission but will be considered if submitted.

  • Location: University Park, PA
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,132 per credit

New York University

New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering offers a master of science program in mechanical engineering that can either be pursued as a terminal degree or as a stepping stone toward a PhD degree. Applicants generally require a bachelor’s degree and a good academic record in mechanical engineering from a reputable college or university.

This 30-credit program includes core courses such as applied mathematics in mechanical engineering; thermal engineering fundamentals; introduction to solid mechanics; and linear control theory and design. The program also offers several specialty options to choose from. Notably, the fluids and energy engineering specialty includes courses such as thermodynamics of HVAC systems; fluid mechanics for HVAC systems; heat transfer for HVAC systems; design of HVAC systems; and computational fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

  • Location: New York City, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $2,335 per credit

Embry‑Riddle Aeronautical University

Embry‑Riddle Aeronautical University offers a master of science program in mechanical engineering preparing graduates in designing and implementing mechanical systems for meeting the needs of a wide range of industries in the aviation, aerospace, energy, automotive, and biomedical arenas. The program has both thesis as well as non-thesis options available.

The program’s 30-credit curriculum includes courses such as HVAC systems; advanced mechatronics; clean energy systems; design for manufacturing and assembly; hybrid and electric vehicles; computational heat transfer; mechanical system design; advanced kinematics and mechanics; computational biofluid mechanics; tissue biomechanics; advanced modeling methods in mechanical engineering; and advanced model-based control design.

  • Location: Daytona Beach, FL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Two years
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,695 per credit

Step 6: BSE graduates only – Take the Professional Engineering (PE) exam in mechanical engineering (HVAC and refrigeration).

As a final step toward licensure as a Professional Engineer (PE), experienced engineering professionals must take the eight-hour PE exam, which offers three subcategories of mechanical engineering, including one in HVAC and refrigeration. According to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, 77 percent of first-time test takers passed the January 2023 HVAC exam.

As a final note, those who wish to obtain specialty certifications, such as building energy assessment, can obtain those through the appropriate associations, which include:

  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
  • Associated Air Balance Council (AABC)
  • Green Business Certification Inc. (GBC)
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
  • Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE)

How Much Do HVAC Engineers Make?

HVAC engineers earn a range of salaries, depending on their experience, their education, their location, and their additional skills. ZipRecruiter (2023) showed an average annual salary of $79,882. Those in the 25th percentile made $60,000 or less, while those in the 75th percentile made $93,500 or more. A few employees reported receiving bonuses and profit-sharing amounts.

Another source of data had different figures. PayScale (2023) reported an average annual salary of $72,963 among its HVAC engineers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022) combines HVAC engineers with all mechanical engineers and reported a mean of $100,820 salary for all mechanical engineers. BLS statistics are compiled from surveys of industries.

Average Salary of HVAC Engineers

The BLS (May 2022) reported that the average annual salary for all mechanical engineers was $100,820. And again, based on self-reports from employees, PayScale (2023) reported an average salary of $72,963 for HVAC Engineers. The BLS and PayScale statistics both reflect nationwide amounts. Their averages do not take location into account.

Salary & Experience

PayScale (2023) statistics, based on reports from 232 individuals, indicated that entry-level HVAC engineers earned 15 percent less than experienced employees. Their salaries ranged from $46,000 to approximately $71,000. The median was $60,841. Entry-level employees are defined as those with less than five years of experience.

As HVAC engineers gain experience, their salaries increase. PayScale (2023) reported that mid-career employees begin earning 11 percent more than average. Mid-careers are those with five to nine years of experience. Sixty mid-career individuals reported earning an average of $81,346 annually. Employees with ten to 19 years of experience earned 19 percent more than the average salary. Forty-three experienced individuals reported earning an average of $84,648 annually. Late-career employees have 20 or more years of experience and earn 32 percent more than the average salary. Fifty-three late-career employees reported an average annual salary of $96,134.

Again, the BLS (May 2022) includes all mechanical engineers in their reports. Their statistics are based on 277,560 employees, and they don’t specifically correlate wages with experience. Here are the wage percentiles for all of the mechanical engineers across the U.S.:

United States
Number employed in the U.S. 277,560
Average Annual Salary $100,820
10th percentile $61,990
25th percentile $76,980
50th Percentile (Median) $96,310
75th percentile $122,680
90th percentile $151,260

Salary & Region

The BLS (May 2022) reports the following cities as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

Metropolitan area Employment Annual mean wage
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 3,730 $140,750
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 5,130 $137,530
Baton Rouge, LA 360 $132,920
New Orleans-Metairie, LA 640 $129,670
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA 160 $120,900

The BLS (May 2022) reports the following states as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

State Employment Annual mean wage
New Mexico 1,680 $126,080
District of Columbia 550 $122,670
Louisiana 1,450 $118,250
California 28,100 $118,200
Alaska 230 $115,300

Factors such as climate and economy affect the employment and salaries in each state.

The above salaries don’t necessarily reflect the economic status of individuals because they don’t account for the differences in the cost of living. For example, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023), the cost of living index for the District of Columbia was 149.7. That means that D.C. residents paid $149.7 for what costs $100 on average nationally. The cost of living index for Mississippi was 86, meaning that Mississippi residents only paid $86 for what costs $100.00 on average nationally. This is an important consideration for HVAC engineers living in different regions.

What Is the Career Outlook in HVAC Engineering?

Finally, the BLS (2023) reported a positive job outlook for mechanical engineers. They predicted that employment opportunities nationwide would grow 10 percent between 2022 and 2032, some of these specifically in HVAC design and engineering. That’s much faster than the 3 percent growth predicted for all U.S. occupations in that same period.

Overall, experienced HVAC engineers, especially those with PE licensure, can assume more high-paying project management duties. They may also be at an advantage in seeking employment as faculty in higher education institutions and in research and development programs.

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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