HVAC Refrigeration Tech Career Information

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When we are focused on our smartphones, televisions, and even space travel as the major technological advances that they are, we can sometimes overlook the technology that really impacts our life. For instance, what would your house look like without a refrigerator? The invention of the refrigerator – for use in both the average home and on a larger scale in grocery stores and warehouses – has done more to change how the average American lives than even the Internet. So, imagine just how much damage is done to your quality of life when your refrigerator stops working.

A refrigeration technician is there for families, stores, office buildings, and hospitals when their refrigeration units stop working. These trained technicians have the skills and experience to troubleshoot refrigeration issues in many different scenarios. Most refrigeration technicians will be trained in all areas of HVAC systems but once they have entered the workforce, have chosen to focus on refrigeration. While refrigeration technicians may work on climate control systems (e.g., air conditioning) for residential buildings, most commonly their work involves commercial refrigeration for food storage, transportation, and other industrial applications.

Keep reading to learn more about what the day-to-day tasks of a refrigeration technician look like as well as what steps are necessary to become one.

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What Does a Refrigeration Technician Do?

As mentioned above, a refrigeration technician is an HVAC technician that chooses to specialize in refrigeration. This means that on a day-to-day basis, they are working exclusively with systems that keep buildings, warehouses, trucks, storage space, and other climate-controlled areas cool. Refrigeration technicians may be closely involved in building these systems, in the case of new construction or renovation, or may spend more time on maintenance and repairs, depending on their position.

A refrigeration technician may work specifically for a company, as in the case of grocery stores or refrigerated warehouses, but more often, refrigeration technicians work as contractors that visit different job sites throughout the week. Because broken refrigeration units can cause spoilage and waste, many technicians may find themselves on call during all hours of the night. Of course, odd hours can also come with overtime pay, which is a nice perk for those nights spent rushing to keep expensive inventory from going bad.

Career Outlook

Anyone looking to enter the refrigeration tech career is doing so at the right time. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for these technicians is expected to increase by 15 percent between 2016 and 2026 (BLS 2017). This demand is more than double the average expected growth for all occupations in the U.S., which sits at just 7 percent. The demand for refrigeration technicians does not suffer significant impact at the hands of economic fluctuations because no matter how much a company, such a grocery store, may suffer in profits, there is no substitute for keeping inventory cool. The same is true at hospitals and even for residential customers. In most cases, refrigeration is a necessity, not a luxury, which is highly beneficial for those who can make a career of it.

Although the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) focus primarily on air conditioner repair, climate control including refrigeration is within their purview. As of January 2017, the organization reports a Contractor Comfort Index (CCI) of 78 (ACCA 2017). The CCI is determined by asking member contractors how they feel about new business prospects, existing business activity, and expected staffing decisions in the short-term future with a score of more than 50 indicating anticipated growth and overall positive feelings.

As the demand for refrigeration techs grows, it is easy to see a trend in the types of companies that are doing a significant portion of the hiring. Grocery stores, including large chains and local specialty stores, tend to have at least one tech on hand to deal with crucial refrigeration issues. Similarly, food companies that must store and transport perishable goods are always hiring skilled refrigeration technicians to work in warehouses and to repair mobile refrigeration units. The combination of these elements, along with a relatively health construction industry, means that that outlook is good for those looking to join this career.

Refrigeration Technician Job Requirements

As with many careers, different jobs within the refrigeration technician sector have different requirements when it comes to education and experience. One recent study from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) found that 22 percent of those working in the field have some college education but no terminal degree (ONetOnline.org). In comparison, 12 percent have an associate’s degree and 56 percent have a post-secondary certificate but no degree.

The more education a new refrigeration technician has, the more attractive he or she will be to employers. However, hands-on experience is also extremely valuable. This is why many aspiring refrigeration techs decide to complete an apprenticeship program as an initial step into the career. Many community college programs that offer refrigeration technician programs have affiliated apprenticeships. Additionally, many local unions that represent pipefitters and HVAC technicians offer apprenticeships that do not require any type of college education to apply. However, these are often difficult to obtain for those with no prior connection to the union.

Those refrigeration technicians with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be considered for supervisory or management positions earlier in their career. Of course, there are no guarantees that this will be the case for any individual.

Regardless of his or her formal educational background, refrigeration technicians should be well versed in math as well as electrical circuitry and basic physics in order to be successful in the field.

HVAC TECHNICIAN SALARY DATA

Many people are drawn to a refrigeration technician career track because of steady work, the potential for growth as a business owner, and of course the potential salary that is available skilled professionals. While salaries can certainly vary by state and experience, it is helpful to note that the average salary across the country was $49,530 per year in 2017 (BLS 2017). This works out to an average hourly rate of $23.81 per hour.

Geographic location can have a major impact on salaries for most occupations, including refrigeration technicians. This is often due to the fact that the cost of living varies so widely from place to place. The highest median salary for refrigeration techs can be found in Washington, D.C. where the average annual pay is more than $60,000. By contrast, lower average salaries are found in areas like West Virginia, where the cost of living is much lower. The average WV refrigeration technician makes $40,520 per year.

It is important to keep in mind that these salaries are representative of all refrigeration technicians working in the U.S., both entry level and experienced. As a refrigeration tech gains experience, it is likely that he or she will also see an increase in salary.

Steps to Become a Refrigeration Technician

Although not all refrigeration technicians will take the same path, it can be helpful to consider some of the most common steps taken towards this career. Following is a common route to the refrigeration technician career.

Step 1: Complete high school or earn GED (4 years)

There are no specific educational requirements, legally speaking, to become a refrigeration technician. However, as mentioned earlier, most techs have some post-secondary training or an advanced degree, for which a diploma or GED is a prerequisite. Students preparing for this career should make every attempt to 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 refrigeration techs 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, Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Alabama offers a two-year associate of applied science degree in air conditioning and refrigeration as well as a certificate and short-term certificate. All programs cover, to some degree, math, circuitry, and the fundamentals of refrigeration systems.

Step 2B: Obtain apprenticeship (Option B, 2 to 5 years)

Many refrigeration technicians may start out in an apprenticeship. Apprentices are paid a percentage of what their supervisor makes and receive raises at regular intervals, assuming they are performing a satisfactory job. Apprentices who work within a union structure are paid according to union terms and have a minimum starting salary upon completion of the apprenticeship, which generally lasts five years.

The apprenticeship route can be rewarding albeit competitive. Unions such as the Pipefitters Local 537 offer apprenticeship programs to train new members in their trade.

Step 3: Complete required certification

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

Step 4: Apply for state or local licensure

Depending on the region where a refrigeration technician 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 technicians 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

Although the section 608 certification is required across the country, other licensing requirements for refrigeration technicians vary wildly from state to state. There is no federal licensing system in place for refrigeration technicians. Some states have departments of licensing that proctor exams and issue licenses to all technicians. For example, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation issues licenses to refrigeration and air conditioning contractors in that state. These licenses may be required for all jobs or only for those that involve a certain size refrigeration system. Some states have no licensing requirements whatsoever for refrigeration technicians. Before beginning work as a refrigeration technician in any state, it is essential that the tech investigates the licensing requirement in that particular state to ensure he or she is on the right side of the law. In fact, cities and municipalities may have their own licensing requirements separate from state requirements, so due diligence is a must in this profession.