HVAC Refrigeration Technician (HVAC/R): Career & Salary

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Refrigeration is a technology that most of us in the western world take for granted, but it’s impact on our lives and on society have been immense. Refrigeration is responsible for drops in food prices that led to better nutrition across social classes; for freeing us from pickling, potting, drying salting, or canning as the only means of food preservation; for suppressing the growth of food-borne bacteria; and for allowing us to eat food that tastes fresh almost all the time.

Well-trained and knowledgeable HVAC refrigeration technicians not only keep our food cold, edible, and fresh, but their training is incredibly important to keeping our earth healthy through keeping greenhouse gases in check, and stemming the spread of food-borne illness. The proper removal, storage, purification, and reuse of refrigerant chemicals will be a major force for good in humankind’s global efforts to prevent major climate catastrophe.

A refrigeration technician is there for families, stores, office buildings, and hospitals when their refrigeration units stop working. They also help install new refrigeration systems. These trained technicians have the skills and experience to troubleshoot refrigeration issues in many different scenarios. Most refrigeration technicians are trained in all areas of HVAC systems and once they have entered the workforce, they may 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. Refrigeration technicians must also be trained in proper disposal of HFCs and other chemical refrigerants.

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 or HVAC/R 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—or in some circumstances, the loss of life-saving assets like medications—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 for Refrigeration Techs – HVAC/R

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 HVAC maintenance and installation professionals is expected to increase 13 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028 (BLS 2019). This demand is more than double the average expected growth for all occupations in the U.S., which sits at just 5 percent.

The demand for refrigeration technicians does not suffer significant impact at the hands of economic fluctuations because no matter how much a company may suffer in profits, there is no substitute for keeping customers and inventory cool. The same is true at hospitals and even for residences. 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. The organization reports a Contractor Comfort Index (CCI) of 78 (ACCA). 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 healthy construction industry, means that that outlook is good for those looking to join this career.

Refrigeration Technician Job Requirements – HVAC/R

As with many careers, different jobs within the refrigeration technician sector have varying requirements when it comes to education and experience. One recent study from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) found that 23 percent of those working in the field have some college education but no terminal degree (O*NET 2020). In comparison, 14 percent have less than a high school diploma, and 52 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.

Refrigeration Technician Salary – HVAC/R

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 to skilled professionals.

While salaries can certainly vary by state and experience, it is helpful to note that the average salary for HVAC mechanics and installers—including those in refrigeration—was $51,420 per year in 2018 (BLS May 2019). This works out to an average hourly rate of $24.72 per hour.

Geographic location has 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 these skilled technicians can be found in Washington, D.C. where the average annual pay is $71,940.

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 – HVAC/R

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 (four 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 a 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, six months to two years)

After high school, many prospective refrigeration techs choose to enroll in a post-secondary training program to pursue either an associate degree (two years) or certificate (six months to two years).

For instance, Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Alabama offers a two-year associate of applied science (AAS) 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, two to five 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 EPA section 608 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. There are four different classifications of this certification, requiring four separate tests. A technician will need to earn the proper certification(s) based on the types of equipment they will be installing or servicing:

  • Type I – Small appliances
  • Type II – HIgh-pressure appliances
  • Type III – Low pressure appliances
  • Universal – All types of equipment

For technicians who came to work without a formalized program, or through a route where test prep was not included, ACCA provides a three-hour, online EPA 608 certification test prep course for a fee.

Step 4: Apply for state or local licensure

A majority of U.S. states require HVAC technicians to obtain licensure before working. More details are available in the “Licensure & Certification” section below.

Step 5: Pursue advanced certifications

More professional prospects may be available to technicians who choose to pursue certification beyond what is required. Advanced certifications can result in salary increases or promotions in a current place of employment, a clear statement of competency on a resume for those who are looking for jobs, a designation of speciality expertise, or simply an impetus to improve one’s skills by giving an HVAC refrigeration tech a benchmark to live up to.

Licensure & Certification for Refrigeration Technicians – HVAC/R

Although the EPA section 608 certification is required across the country for anyone working with refrigerants, there is no federal licensing system in place for refrigeration technicians, specifically.

Licensing requirements for refrigeration technicians vary wildly, depending on geographic region. Some states do not require licensure at all, while others have official 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. It is also possible that HVAC/R techs may need to gain additional licensure to work in certain cities or municipalities.

Before beginning work as a refrigeration technician anywhere, it is essential that the tech investigates the licensing requirement to ensure he or she is on the right side of the law. Due diligence is a must in this profession.

Finally, the following institutions offer a range of certifications for HVAC/R techs:

  • HVAC Excellence offers a progressive system of certifications by which technicians can prove ever-greater levels of professional competency. From high school credentialing up to educator credentialing, techs at any stage of career can find a credential to prove skills, knowledge, and competency in the HVAC/R arena.
  • North American Technician Excellence (NATE) offers generalized HVAC certifications for contractors and technicians. NATE offers four different certifications for techs at different stages of the first five years of their career.
  • National Inspection Testing Certifications (NITC) offers specialized certificates for experienced HVAC/R techs in STAR HVAC/R mastery and HVAC/R brazing processes.
  • The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) – who self-designates as “The HVAC/R training authority” offers general HVAC/R certifications, as well as certifications to demonstrate specialized HVAC refrigeration skills such as commercial refrigeration, HVAC/R electrical, and R-410A.

For more information on credentialing, please visit the HVAC/R certifications and licensing guide.

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.