Becoming an HVAC Mechanic: Education & Certification

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Think about your ideal day. Maybe it is relaxing poolside in a beautiful tropical retreat and then retiring to a luxury hotel room for a mid-afternoon siesta. Or perhaps it is whooshing down an Alpine ski run while the sun is out and then spending the evening curled up by the fireplace with hot cocoa. These scenarios are very different but have something in common: after a day in the sun, you get to go inside where it is comfortable and dry. And that would not be possible without HVAC mechanics.

In our modern world, we have come to expect a certain level of comfort in our homes, schools, offices, and businesses. Climate control is also essential for food storage, electronic equipment, and a wide array of industrial applications. That comfort often starts with the temperature, humidity, airflow, and overall ventilation of those buildings where we spend most of our time. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) mechanics are skilled professionals who install, maintain, and repair HVAC systems, ensuring that people can be comfortable and safe inside no matter what is going on outside.

The HVAC mechanic career can be an attractive option for those who like working with their hands, solving problems, and have an aptitude for mechanical issues. HVAC mechanics can come from many different educational backgrounds, but the majority have at least two years of postsecondary training. Trained mechanics can go on to take many different career paths, whether that means working full-time for a particular facility, becoming self-employed and traveling to different clients each day, or working with a contractor to install systems in new or renovated buildings.

Keep reading to learn more about the day-to-day experiences of an HVAC mechanic, as well as the steps necessary to join this particular career.

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What Does an HVAC Mechanic Do?

As alluded to in the introduction, HVAC mechanics can be employed by a variety of organizations, including building management companies, general contractors, and even themselves.

On a day-to-day basis, an HVAC mechanic may install a brand-new air conditioning unit in a home as it is being built, troubleshoot the ventilation system at a local hospital, or change out the air filters in an apartment building—it all depends on which career path he or she has chosen. On all of these paths, however, HVAC mechanics will find themselves working in situations that are not always that comfortable (think extreme temperatures) and with clients that do not always understand what they do. Patience and a level head are key traits in a great HVAC mechanic, and those attributes give workers a head start.

Specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates the most important and common tasks for HVAC mechanics:

  • Installing, cleaning, and maintaining HVAC systems
  • Installing electrical components and wiring
  • Inspecting and testing HVAC systems
  • Discussing system malfunctions with customers
  • Repairing or replacing worn or defective parts
  • Recommending maintenance to improve system performance
  • Keeping accurate records of work performed

As with virtually any job, the daily tasks that an HVAC mechanic performs will vary based on the job as well as the experience of the individual, but aspiring HVAC professionals should be ready to do whatever it takes to install and maintain climate-control systems each and every day.

Career Outlook for HVAC Mechanics

For anyone who believes they have what it takes to become an HVAC mechanic, now could not be a better time to explore the career. The BLS has indicated that the career opportunities for HVAC mechanics are expected to climb over the next decade, at a rate of 13 percent from 2018 to 2028 (BLS 2019). This means more than 46,300 new jobs nationally in the HVAC mechanic field by the end of the decade.

This impressive growth is largely due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, climate control is no longer a luxury; it is a fact of modern life, and we expect it wherever we go. Further, in buildings like hospitals and grocery stores, it is vital to business and quality of life. During the last economic crisis, some HVAC mechanic hiring slowed, but only in the new construction sector. As the housing market recovered, the jobs of HVAC mechanics (both new and old) were essentially safe from most economic fluctuations.

Many different industries require HVAC mechanics. Currently, available jobs in the industry are in the booming healthcare field at hospitals, medical research centers, and other healthcare facilities. This can be an extremely fulfilling way to utilize an HVAC mechanic’s knowledge while also assisting some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Another booming industry is hospitality, with hotels and resorts in tourist areas hiring HVAC mechanics on a regular basis. While it is not the largest segment of the industry (just 9 percent, according to the BLS), there are also HVAC mechanics that are self-employed. Many mechanics find great satisfaction in finding new business for themselves, setting their own hours, and being their own boss.

HVAC Mechanic Job Requirements

It is extremely rare for a new HVAC mechanic to enter the field with no formal education or training. Rather, the vast majority of applicants for entry-level HVAC mechanic jobs are those that have some combination of education and experience.

In terms of formal educational background, many HVAC mechanics earn an associate of applied science (AAS) degree or professional certificate at a community college or other technical training program. In fact, according to ONET Online (2020), a site that sources its data from the US Department of Labor, 55 percent of HVAC mechanics have a post-secondary certificate, 16 percent hold an associate degree, and 13 percent have only a high school diploma or GED.

A small portion of HVAC mechanics may go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in construction management or mechanical engineering, but those that take this extra step are more likely to pursue a career as an HVAC engineer. The minimum educational requirement for HVAC mechanics is a high school diploma or GED with at least some upper-level math experience.

For those aspiring HVAC mechanics who would prefer a more comprehensive training program, apprenticeships are another option. These are often offered in cooperation with local unions that represent pipefitters, steamfitters, and plumbers, depending on the area. Apprentices train with an experienced HVAC mechanic for between three and five years, during which they are paid at set rates. After the completion of the apprenticeship, the new HVAC mechanic is usually invited to join the union at their starting union salary.

It is important to note that there are generally more aspiring apprentices than there are apprenticeships available, so this can be a competitive route into the career.

How Much Do HVAC Mechanics Make?

For a profession that typically requires just two years of postsecondary education, HVAC mechanics can earn a fairly comfortable salary. As of May 2018, the average annual salary for HVAC mechanics in the US was $50,160 or $24.12 per hour (BLS 2019).

Several factors, including experience and geographic location, can have a major impact on which end of the salary spectrum any HVAC mechanic falls. Of course, those mechanics with less experience can expect to make less than the average wage, at least until they gain the requisite knowledge. However, those entering with a solid educational background, particularly anyone with a bachelor’s degree in HVAC or mechanical engineering, may have the chance to make a higher salary from the outset.

Due to the radical differences in the cost of living throughout the country, geography can also have a major influence on HVAC mechanic salary. The best-paid HVAC mechanics can be found in places where there are extreme climates in addition to the high cost of living, such as Washington DC and Alaska, where the average salary is more than $69,000 per year (BLS 2019). Areas with a much lower cost of living, such as West Virginia, still have jobs for HVAC mechanics, but the average pay there is well below the national median at $41,110 per year.

There can even be significant variability within a state, with most major metropolitan areas, like Savannah, GA, with an average salary of $46,280 per year, paying better than more rural areas, like Warner Robins, GA, which has an average salary of $34,500 per year.

Steps to Become an HVAC Mechanic

Not every HVAC mechanic will follow the same career path, but the following steps are the most common route for those entering the career.

Step 1: Complete high school or earn a GED (four years)

There are no specific educational requirements, legally speaking, to become an HVAC mechanic. However, as mentioned earlier, most HVAC mechanics have some postsecondary training, and the vast majority have a high school diploma or GED. Students preparing for the HVAC mechanic career should excel in math courses and may choose to enroll in vocational HVAC training where available.

Step 2, Option A: Enroll in degree or certificate program (six months to two years)

After high school, many prospective HVAC installers choose to enroll in a post-secondary training program to pursue either an associate degree (two years) or a certificate (six months to two years). For instance, Hennepin Technical College, with campuses in Brooklyn Park and Eden Prairie, MN, offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in HVAC as well as commercial and residential HVAC diplomas. All programs cover, to some degree, math, circuitry, troubleshooting, and the fundamentals of HVAC systems.

Step 2, Option B: Complete an HVAC apprenticeship (two to five years)

HVAC mechanics that want to join a union or who are ready to dedicate more years to hands-on training may choose to apply for one of the many competitive apprenticeship programs in HVAC.

For example, the Local 250 in Los Angeles offers a highly selective five-year HVAC apprenticeship that requires those chosen to complete at least 216 hours of classroom training per year and a total of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training. During this time, apprentices are paid a percentage of a fully trained technician’s salary.

Step 3: Complete required certification (timeline varies)

All technicians who will work with refrigerants must earn EPA Section 608 certification. Section 608 training and certification are typically part of any HVAC program. If certification is not offered as part of a training program, technicians must pursue the certification on their own before entering the AC workforce.

Step 4: Apply for state or local licensure (timeline varies)

Depending on the region where an HVAC mechanic works, state or local licensing may be required prior to starting work. More details about licensing are available in the next section.

Step 5: Pursue advanced certifications (timeline varies)

Further professional prospects may be available to HVAC mechanics who choose to pursue certification beyond what is required. These certifications are available from organizations like HVAC Excellence or North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

For a detailed look at the possibilities, check out the HVAC certification guide.

HVAC Mechanic Licensure & Certification

The licensing requirements for HVAC mechanics vary wildly from state to state. In fact, some states require no licensing whatsoever to begin work as an HVAC mechanic. To research state requirements, reach out to state HVAC licensing authorities.

Any aspiring HVAC mechanic or technician should be sure to check their local licensing requirements prior to beginning any job in the field. Running afoul of these requirements can mean large fines and other repercussions for future career opportunities.

HVAC mechanics that will work with hazardous refrigerants must first be certified as refrigerant handlers by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Section 608 Certification requires that the mechanic take and pass an exam on the proper handling, recycling, and disposal of certain hazardous chemicals involved in refrigeration systems. Many HVAC training schools offer this exam and certification as part of their program.

Employers may also require that technicians complete an OSHA safety course as a condition of employment. Some states require safety training for all workers. Safety training is often part of an apprenticeship or classroom coursework, or it may be obtained from an OSHA training center.

The more experience an HVAC mechanic gains, the more certification opportunities are open to him or her. There are exams from various agencies that can help HVAC mechanics to demonstrate their expertise in different systems and techniques. For instance, the government Energy Star program certifies that an HVAC mechanic is familiar with environmentally friendly systems and practices, which can be a highly valuable skill in the increasingly green economy. Further information on the various types of HVAC certifications, online training programs, how to prepare for certification exams, and the regulatory agencies across states is available on the aforementioned HVAC certifications page.

Whatever certifications or licensures that an HVAC mechanic chooses to pursue can have a significant impact on the types of professional opportunities that are available to him or her, so it is worth considering for those that want to advance their careers.

Sandra Smith

Sandra Smith was introduced to the HVAC industry when she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary for a small air-conditioning contractor. She eventually became a CPA and started her own practice specializing in small business taxes and accounting. After retiring from business, she began writing articles for newspapers, magazines, and websites. She also authored four books. Sandra makes her home in the mountains with a rescue dog that naps on her lap as she writes.

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