HVAC Engineer

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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 engineering falls under the purview of mechanical engineers, who work closely with other construction specialists. HVAC engineers often have expertise in trades such as electrical or plumbing that are a part of climate control systems and 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 that have specific climate control requirements.

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. HVAC engineers choose the appropriate equipment and prepare cost estimates for construction purposes.

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

What is the Career Outlook in HVAC Engineering?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) reported a positive job outlook for mechanical engineers, which is data that includes HVAC engineers. The BLS predicted that employment opportunities for this career would grow 9 percent nationwide between 2016 and 2026. That’s slightly faster than the 7 percent growth predicted for all occupations in the U.S. in that same time period.

There are a number of reasons that the demand for HVAC engineers is expected to increase over the coming years. The BLS specifically indicates that an uptick in demand for alternative energy solutions and sustainable design will mean a demand for highly skilled and successfully trained HVAC engineers. Indeed, engineers with a background in sustainability may be able to find jobs in both new construction and renovation and retrofitting projects as investment in green energy continues to grow.

Further, technological developments that mean more complex HVAC systems may find that jobs HVAC technicians could once complete successfully will need more technically skilled oversight from an HVAC engineer.

What Are the Requirements to Become an HVAC Engineer?

HVAC engineers typically need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, usually in mechanical engineering or HVAC engineering technology. For those seeking the highest quality education who wish to someday become licensed Professional Engineers (PE), it is important to attend an institution that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Many HVAC engineers also choose to pursue graduate level education in order to improve their career prospects.

Successful HVAC engineers have personal characteristics in common to engineers in other subfields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) lists the following skills as important:

  • Creativity
  • Effective communication
  • Mathematical reasoning
  • Mechanical ability
  • Problem-solving

The BLS advises that those who are proficient in the latest technology typically have the best job prospects with understanding energy conservation and efficiency being another essential skill.

Payscale (March 2018) reports that HVAC engineers who are project managers have higher salaries, followed by those who are skilled designers and those at ease with computer software.

HVAC Engineer Salary Data

How much HVAC engineers make depends on their experience, their education, their location, and their skills. According to Payscale (Dec. 2018), which collects self-reported salary data, HVAC engineers can earn an annual salary range of $49,989 to $93,968. A few employees reported receiving bonuses and profit-sharing amounts. The current Payscale salary statistics are from 477 individuals who reported their earnings.

Median wages are not the same as average wages. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Payscale reports a median salary of $64,034 for HVAC engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) combines HVAC engineers with all mechanical engineers and reported a median of $85,880 salary for all mechanical engineers.

As mentioned, an engineer’s experience can have a significant impact on his or her salary. Payscale (Dec. 2018) statistics indicated that entry-level HVAC engineers earned 6 percent less than experienced employees. Entry-level salaries ranged from $48,276 to approximately $74,785 with a median of $60,273.

Again, the BLS includes all mechanical engineers in their reports (BLS 2017). Their statistics do not specifically correlate wages with experience. Employees in the 75th percentile (meaning just 25 percent of HVAC engineers earn more than this amount) earned $108,580 annually while those in the 90th percentile earned $133,900 annually.

Due to cost of living and other factors, the region where an HVAC engineer works is also influential on that individual’s salary. The BLS (2017) reports the following cities as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

  • Anchorage, AK $146,770
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $125,940
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division $121,150
  • Tuscaloosa, AL $119,410
  • Taunton-Middleborough-Norton, MA NECTA Division $119,110

The BLS (2017) reports the following states as having the highest average annual pay for all mechanical engineers:

  • Alaska $132,100
  • District of Columbia $110,910
  • New Mexico $108,990
  • Texas $106,020
  • Maryland $104,250

Factors such as climate and economy affect the employment and salaries in each state. For example, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC), the 2018 cost of living index for the District of Columbia was 161. That means that D.C. residents paid $161 for what costs $100.00 on average nationally. The 2018 cost of living index for Arkansas was 88.5, meaning that Arkansas residents only paid $88.50 for what costs $100.00 on average nationally. This is an important consideration for HVAC engineers living in different regions.

What Are the Steps to Becoming an HVAC Engineer?

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:

1. Obtain a high school diploma or GED (4 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).

2. Obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree in engineering (2-4 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 interpretation, basic heating systems (installation), college algebra and trigonometry, warm-air heating and duct design, hydronic heating systems, and several electives in commercial refrigeration, mechanics, and several general education topics.

Alternatively, students at this stage can pursue a mechanical engineering (or related) degree and specialize in HVAC later on. 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, the mechanical behavior of materials, and statistical quality control and design, 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.

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 the 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) is not necessary to secure employment in HVAC engineering, it can enhance one’s candidacy for various projects and even qualify someone for higher salaries.

4. Seek entry-level work experience (4 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.

5. Optional – Obtain a graduate degree (or certificate) in engineering (1-2 years).

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

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 70 percent of first-time test takers passed the October 2017 HVAC exam, according to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying.

HVAC Engineer Licensure and Certification

As mentioned above, HVAC engineers may choose to pursue a professional engineer (PE) license. In order to be eligible for the PE license, an engineer must already have worked in a professional capacity as an engineer for at least four years. To obtain the license, applicants must sit for one of the twice-yearly administered exams, which consist of 80 total questions. The PE license is not required to work as an HVAC engineer, but can open doors for professional advancement.

In addition to the PE license, specialty examinations are available from a variety of sources. Those who wish to obtain specialty certifications, such as building energy assessment, can obtain those through the appropriate associations, which include:

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.

As a final note, many states have their own specific engineering licensing requirements. Aspiring HVAC engineers should be sure to verify the licensing requirements in the state where they intend to practice in order to ensure they stay on the right side of the law and maintain their professional status.