Becoming an HVAC Engineer: Degree & Career Requirements

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Heating, ventilation, 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.

Engineering an effective HVAC system requires the ability to perform heat load and loss calculations and an understanding of 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 in order to design an optimal climate control system. The design encompasses the layout of all the system components 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 step of the installation 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 to engineers in other subfields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) 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 (2021) 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 become 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.

For example, the Pennsylvania College of Technology offers a bachelor of science (BS) in HVAC design technology which exemplifies an entry-level degree into HVAC engineering; this degree programs typically takes four years to complete and includes courses such as the 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, hydronic heating systems, several electives in commercial refrigeration, mechanics, and several general ed topics.

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’s 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.

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 the student pursued 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. For those who finished an HVAC technology undergraduate degree, earning a certificate may be advisable. 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, system design considerations, and HVAC system load calculations and psychometry.

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. Please note that this program is open only to graduates of an ABET-accredited undergraduate program.

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. Please note that 69 percent of first-time test takers passed the December 2019 HVAC exam, according to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

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
  • Associated Air Balance Council
  • Green Building Certification Institute
  • National Fire Prevention Association
  • Association for Facilities Engineering

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 (2021) showed an average annual salary of $82,752. Those in the 25th percentile made $58,000 or less, while those in the 75th percentile made $92,500 or more. A few employees reported receiving bonuses and profit-sharing amounts.

Notably, individuals with project management skills earned 9 percent more than other engineers. Those who reported AutoCAD MEP as their main skill earned 7 percent less than other engineers.

Another source of data had different figures. PayScale (2021) reported an average annual salary of $68,456 among its HVAC engineers. It also found a median salary of $68,000. That means half of the wages are less than $68,000 and half are greater than $68,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019) combines HVAC engineers with all mechanical engineers and reported a median of $88,430 salary for all mechanical engineers. BLS statistics are compiled from surveys of industries.

Average Salary of HVAC Engineers

The BLS (May 2019) reported that the average annual salary for all mechanical engineers was $93,540. And again, based on self-reports from employees, PayScale (2021) reported an average salary of $68,456 for HVAC Engineers. The BLS and PayScale statistics both reflect nationwide amounts. Their averages do not take location into account.

Salary & Experience

PayScale (2021) statistics, based on reports from 135 individuals, indicated that entry-level HVAC engineers earned 11 percent less than experienced employees. Their salaries ranged from $46,000 to approximately $68,000. The median was $58,000 Entry-level employees are defined as those with less than five years experience.

As HVAC engineers gain experience, their salaries increase. PayScale (2021) reported that mid-career employees begin earning 19 percent more than average. Mid-career are those with five to ten years of experience. One-hundred-and-eleven mid-career individuals reported earning an average of $76,000 annually. Employees with ten to 20 years experience earned 19 percent more than the average salary. Forty-seven experienced individuals reported earning an average of $77,649 annually. Late-career employees have 20 or more years experience and earn 55 percent more than the average salary. Forty-two late-career employees reported an average annual salary of $101,859.

Again, the BLS (2019) includes all mechanical engineers in their reports. Their statistics are based on 306,990 employees, and they don’t specifically correlate wages with experience. Here were the wage percentiles for all of the mechanical engineers across the U.S.:

  • 10th percentile: $57,130
  • 25th percentile: $70,280
  • 50th percentile (median): $88,430
  • 75th percentile: $111,980
  • 90th percentile: $138,020

Salary & Region

The BLS (May 2019) reports the following cities as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $125,640
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $123,270
  • Lake Charles, LA: $120,950
  • Albuquerque, NM: $120,470
  • Midland, TX: $119,800

The BLS (May 2019) reports the following states as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

  • New Mexico $114,420
  • District of Columbia $112,240
  • Maryland $109,800
  • California $107,920
  • Alaska $103,360

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 cost of living. For example, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC), the 2021 cost of living index for the District of Columbia was 159. That means that D.C. residents paid $159 for what costs $100 on average nationally. The cost of living index for Arkansas was 88.1, meaning that Arkansas residents only paid $88.10 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?

As a final note, the BLS (2020) reported a positive job outlook for mechanical engineers. They predicted that employment opportunities nationwide would grow 4 percent between 2019 and 2029, some of these specifically in HVAC design and engineering. That’s the same as the 4 percent growth predicted for all occupations in the U.S. in that same time period.

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

Becca Brewer

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.