HVAC Mechanic Career Information

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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 a 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 with HVAC mechanics.

In our modern world, we have come to expect a certain level of comfort in our homes, schools, offices, and businesses — to say nothing of the climate control required for food storage, electronic equipment, and a wide array of industrial applications. That comfort often starts with the temperature and overall climate of those buildings where we spend most of our time. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) mechanics are the skilled professionals that 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 that 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 post-secondary 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 that is a great place to start.

To get more specific, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates the following as some of 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
  • Accurate record keeping of work performed

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

Career Outlook

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 15 percent from 2016 to 2026(BLS 2017). This means more than 48,800 new jobs in the HVAC mechanic field each and every year.

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 crises, 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 – are largely safe from most economic fluctuations.

Many different industries require HVAC mechanics. Currently, many available jobs in the industry are working in the booming healthcare field at hospitals 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 at this time 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 a number of 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, 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 bachelor’s degrees in some type of construction management or mechanical engineers, but those that take this extra step are more likely to pursue the HVAC engineer career. The minimum educational requirements for HVAC mechanics is a high school diploma or GED with at least some upper-level math experience.

For those aspiring HVAC mechanics that 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, all of which are paid at set rates. After the completion of the apprenticeship, with more than 2000 hours of experience, 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.

HVAC Mechanic Salary Data

For a profession that typically requires just two years of post-secondary education, HVAC mechanics can earn a fairly comfortable salary. As of 2017, the average annual salary for HVAC mechanics in the US was $49,530 or $23.81 per hour (BLS 2017).

A number of different 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 high cost of living, such as Washington, D.C., and Alaska where the average salary is more than $64,000 per year (BLS 2017). 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 $40,520 per year. There can even be great variability within a state, with most major metropolitan areas, like Atlanta with a median salary of $44,370 per year, paying better than more rural areas, like Albany, Georgia, which has a median salary of $37,450 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 GED (4 years)

There are no specific educational requirements, legally speaking, to become an HVAC mechanic. However, as mentioned earlier, most HVAC mechanics have some post-secondary 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 2A: Enroll in degree or certificate program (Option A, 6 months to 2 years)

After high school, many prospective HVAC installers choose to enroll in a post-secondary training program to pursue either an associate degree (2 years) or certificate (6 months to 2 years). For instance, Hennepin Technical College with campuses in Brooklyn Park and Eden Praire, Minnesota, offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in HVAC as well commercial and residential HVAC diplomas. All programs cover, to some degree, math, circuitry, and the fundamentals of HVAC systems.

Step 2B: Obtain apprenticeship (Option B, 2 to 5 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 HVAC apprenticeship that requires those selected to complete at least 216 hours of classroom training per year and 8,000 hours of on-the-job training to complete the program. During this time, apprentices are paid a percentage of a fully trained technician’s salary.

Step 3: Complete required certification

All technicians who will work with refrigerants must earn the EPA section 608 certification. Section 608 training and certification is typically part of any HVAC training, but it is essential that HVAC mechanics earn this before beginning work.

Step 4: Apply for state or local licensure

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

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).

Licensure & Certification

The licensing requirements for HVAC mechanics vary wildly from state to state. In fact, some states require no licensing whatsoever in order to begin work as an HVAC mechanic. 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). This 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.

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. Whatever certifications or licensures that an HVAC mechanic chooses to pursue can have a significnat 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.