HVAC Certification

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For aspiring heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) specialists, pursuing certification can be a way to show one’s competencies to prospective employers or clients. These credentials can demonstrate a wide range of skills in the field such as: installing, repairing, and maintaining HVAC units in residential or commercial spaces; analyzing air quality, humidity levels, and temperature control mechanisms; understanding the fundamentals of heating and refrigeration systems (e.g., the mechanics behind climate control); and using a wide range of electronic parts (e.g., fans, thermostats, ducts).

 While not all states require HVAC technicians to be certified prior to practice, it may be advisable for several reasons. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014), notes that, “Certifications can be helpful because they show that the technician has specific competencies. Some employers actively seek out industry-certified HVACR technicians.” Furthermore, those who don’t receive certifications may limit the geographic zone in which they can perform work since some regions grant reciprocal practice privileges to those with licensure from another area. Finally, achieving HVAC certifications broadens the base of types of work that an individual is authorized to perform, thus enhancing one’s earning potential. By illustration, examine the continually updated average salaries on Indeed.com of HVAC technicians compared to certified HVAC technicians. The certified counterparts make significantly more money on average. As of the time of this writing (September 2015), the annual mean salaries were $41,000 and $44,000, respectively.

While certification is optional (but strongly advisable) in some areas, there is one type of national certification mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for anyone working with refrigerant recovery and recycling. The Section 608 Refrigeration Recycling Rule—part of the Clean Air Act in 1990—requires that all technicians performing service, maintenance, or disposal of equipment that could release refrigerants (e.g., CFCs) into the atmosphere become certified by an EPA-approved organization and pass a test. This process teaches HVAC professionals about ozone depletion, recovery cylinders for dangerous materials, leak repair requirements, and other rules of compliance to protect the environment. These certifications do not expire.

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Read on below to discover how to become a certified HVAC technician, the requirements for various types of certifications, online training programs, how to prepare for certification exams, and the regulatory agencies across states.

How to Become a Certified HVAC Technician

In order to become a certified HVAC technician, please note that requirements will vary by state and specialization. Here is one common path to becoming a certified HVAC technician:

  • Receive a high school diploma. Successful HVAC technicians and contractors typically excel in courses such as mathematics, physics, and shop. Some choose to volunteer or seek out employment in mechanics, electronics, or related fields which can teach them some of the empirical fundamentals of the profession.

  • Complete an accredited HVAC program (6 months to 2 years). While this step can be waived in some states for candidates with extensive experience or an apprenticeship*, it may be advisable to complete a more formal HVAC training program at a community college or trade school, especially for those seeking certification. These programs—offering training in entry-level service, design, and repair of HVAC-R systems—can be accredited by organizations such as HVAC Excellence and may include the certification process as part of the training. Also, as part of the curriculum, aspiring HVAC technicians may receive on-the-job instruction working under licensed  contractors. This is typically necessary as many certification exams and licenses require at least one to two years of practical experience.

  • Apply for additional industry competence certifications and pass examinations (timeline varies). As mentioned above, some job-ready HVAC programs include the certification process as part of their training program such as the one at North American Training Center. That said, there is a wide array of agencies offering HVAC certifications for those looking to enhance their credentials. The North American Technician Excellence (NATE) hosts the “industry competency exam” and provides a number of HVAC-R specialty certifications such as air distribution (AD), HVAC efficiency analyst (senior level), and HVAC performance verifier. HVAC Excellence not only provides program accreditation, but has employment-ready certification exams for air conditioning, light commercial air conditioning, and basic refrigeration and charging procedures. The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) has a partnership with NATE and provides additional certification exams including EPA section 608, commercial air conditioning, commercial refrigeration, heating, and HVAC-R electrical.

  • Pursue national and state certifications or licensure (timeline varies). As mentioned above, the rules governing HVAC contractors and technicians vary between states. Please reference the table below to check the regional requirements and governing body for HVAC professionals.

*According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014), HVAC apprenticeship programs typically last from three to five years. These candidates receive at least 2,000 hours of empirical training and 144 hours of technical education. Many of these programs are run by joint committees of local organizations such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) or the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

HVAC Certification Boards and Requirements

Requirements for HVAC certification will vary by type of certification and by organization offering it. For example, for some certifications, students might need to have a completed course of training while for others, time on the job provides the sufficient knowledge needed to pass an exam. Additionally, different types of testing may be required for certifying exams, varying from a written test to a hands-on display of one’s skills. Here is a look at some common certifying organizations and their certifications:

  • HVAC Excellence offers a number of certifications to ensure that vocational programs are meeting institutional, federal, and state requirements in HVAC. For students enrolled in high school HVAC programs, this organization provides two certifications: heating, electrical, air conditioning technology (HEAT) and HEAT Plus. The former is a 100-question assessment of the students’ expertise with common HVAC topics such as electrical theory, fundamental motors and capacitors, and AC troubleshooting. The latter “Plus” program comprises not only the 100-question assessment, but also a hands-on exam component and an additional 25 questions to gauge abilities such as computer literacy, work ethics, and employability skills. Other HVAC Excellence offerings include employment-ready certifications, ideal for students of vocational programs or trade schools. Each topic requires passing a 50- to 100-question exam and are available in more than 15 areas including carbon monoxide safety, heat oil combustion, systems diagnostics troubleshooting, and more. HVAC Excellence also offers specialty certifications demonstrating a candidate’s competence in areas like green awareness, residential heat load analysis, and use of R-410A refrigerant systems. Additionally, it provides progressive professional level technician certifications to those with at least two years of verified work experience in a specific field (e.g., heat pump service, combustion analysis, residential air conditioning). These certifications all require an exam. For those with even more experience, the master specialist hands-on technician certifications require at least three years of verified work and a demonstration of skills. Finally, there are various educator credentials including the certified subject matter educator (CSME) for HVAC instructors which demonstrates that a field professional is skilled to teach in a content area such as air conditioning, heat pumps, and oil heat, to name a few. The certified master HVAC-R educator (CMHE) credential is ideal for multi-area specialists who want to teach since it involves passing six CSME subject exams with a score of 80 percent or higher and completing a capstone project.

  • As mentioned above, the EPA requires those who work with refrigerants or refrigeration systems to seek an EPA Section 608 certification. The EPA certifications that are available include: Type I for small appliances; Type II for high-pressure appliances; Type III for low-pressure appliances; and Universal, which is a comprehensive credential. A plurality of organizations provide coursework, preparation materials, and exam sites to test for these certifications. These include the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) and the ESCO Institute. The EPA also provides a full list of approved section 608 technician certification programs.

  • North American Technician Excellence (NATE) offers a wide range of specialty certifications at varying levels. NATE requires that aspiring HVAC technicians pass a core exam and one specialty exam in order to achieve certification. The specialty exams are divided into three categories: installation, service, and senior. The five installation specialties include air conditioning, air distribution, heat pump (air-to-air), oil heating (air), and gas heating (air). The nine service specialties—with many offered in Spanish—include air conditioning, air distribution, oil heating (air), gas heating (air), heat pump (air-to-air), hydronics gas, hydronics oil, commercial refrigeration, and light commercial refrigeration. The senior level technician certification is open to candidates with two NATE specialty certifications. NATE also offers the industry competency exams (ICE)—formerly called the ARI/GAMA competency exams—covering a range of residential and commercial HVAC systems and related skills.

  • The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) provides several different levels and subject areas of HVAC certification including the mandatory EPA Section 608 certification for refrigeration workers mentioned above.  There are eight specialized written examinations: commercial air conditioning, commercial refrigeration, controls, domestic service, dynamic compression, heating, heat pump, and HVAC-R electrical.  Please note that these specialized credentials are exclusively for active members of RSES. The organization also provides R-410A training and certification.

Please note that HVAC programs typically prepare students for the EPA Section 608 certification exam since it’s a requirement for working with refrigeration systems. Other programs extend the certification exam preparation further. By illustration, Virginia College’s HVAC-R technician associate’s degree program—based in Birmingham, Alabama—offers not only 608 certification training, but also preparation for industry competency exams (ICE) and other NATE certifications.

Online Programs and Preparing for HVAC Certification Exams

There are a number of online HVAC programs which aim to prepare students to sit for the certification exams. Most of these programs provide EPA Section 608 certification exam preparation as part of their curriculum as well as coursework in specialized areas to give students a flavor for the various competencies of the profession. Here is a sampling of online HVAC programs:

Ashworth College—based northeast of Atlanta, Georgia—provides a four-month online HVAC training program with courses such as refrigeration, electrical, and heat pump systems. Ashworth also includes preparation for the EPA Section 608 certification exam which is proctored by the program’s partner: the ESCO Institute. The school even gives students $75 vouchers which cover some or all of the Section 608 exams.

Penn Foster Career School of Scranton, Pennsylvania is accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and provides an EPA certification exam voucher, preparation materials, and registration as part of its HVAC program. Penn Foster also offers rigorous training in areas such as fundamentals of HVAC-R, refrigeration systems, and lithium bromide absorption systems.

HVAC Training Solutions provides several online training programs including HVAC technician, commercial refrigeration, contractor, and NATE certification trainings. These self-paced programs offer live, one-on-one assistance; a unique digital simulator to teach about procedures and equipment; and a multimodal (e.g., videos, quizzes, reading, online forums, simulations) approach to the fundamentals of HVAC-R.

In addition to training received through an HVAC program, prospective professionals in this field are encouraged to seek out other training materials, simulations, and practice exams to prepare for certification. Many testing websites provide preparation materials. For aspiring HVAC-R technicians seeking certification, there are a number of resources which can help prepare a student for the exam: 

The ESCO Institute provides a comprehensive online store of specialized training manuals—many also available in Spanish—for competencies such as EPA’s section 608, heat pump installation, electrical theory, hydrocarbon refrigerants, and many more. The group also has textbooks, interactive digital training materials, and a range of DVDs.

HVAC-Learning.com has a wealth of free online training videos to review common topics across certification exams such as fan coil units, heat pumps, and calculating flow rates.

HVACCertificationPracticeTests.com provides free practice tests for HVAC basics, NATE, and EPA 608 certifications.

State Licensing Requirements for HVAC Professionals

Many U.S. states require that an HVAC-R technician be licensed before practicing the profession. However, there are exceptions. Some states do not require a license to practice, in which case the technician may or may need to be licensed at the local or municipal level. These policies are subject to change, and it’s crucial to check with the local regulating authority for the most up-to-date requirements. 

AlabamaAlabama State Board of Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors
AlaskaRegulation of Mechanical Administrators
ArizonaArizona Registrar of Contractors
ArkansasHeating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration Licensing Board
CaliforniaContractors State License Board
ColoradoState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
ConnecticutDepartment of Consumer Protection
DelawareBoard of Plumbing, Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Examiners
District of ColumbiaBoard of Industrial Trades
FloridaConstruction Industry Licensing Board
GeorgiaState Construction Industry Licensing Board
HawaiiDepartment of Commerce & Consumer Affairs, Professional and Vocational Licensing
IdahoDivision of Building Safety
IllinoisState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
IndianaState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
IowaIowa Plumbing and Mechanical Systems Board
KansasState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
KentuckyPublic Protection Cabinet, Department of Housing, Buildings & Construction
LouisianaLouisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors
MaineState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
MarylandBoard of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors
MassachussetsDepartment of Public Safety
MichiganDepartment of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs
MinnesotaDepartment of Labor & Industry
MississippiState Board of Contractors
MissouriState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
MontanaMontana Department of Labor & Industry
NebraskaDepartment of Labor
NevadaState Contractors Board
New HampshireState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
New JerseyDivision of Consumer Affairs
New MexicoNew Mexico Regulation & Licensing Department
New YorkState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
North CarolinaState Board of Refrigeration Examiners
North DakotaSecretary of State
OhioDepartment of Commerce
OklahomaConstruction Industries Board
OregonConstruction Contractors Board
PennsylvaniaPennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry
Rhode IslandDepartment of Labor and Training, Workforce Regulation and Safety
South CarolinaResidential Builders Commission
South CarolinaContractor’s Licensing Board
South DakotaState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
TennesseeBoard for Licensing Contractors
TexasDepartment of Licensing and Regulation
UtahDivision of Occupational and Professional Licensing
VermontState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.
VirginiaDepartment of Professional and Occupational Regulation, Board for Contractors
WashingtonDepartment of Labor & Industries
West VirginiaDivision of Labor Contractor Licensing
WisconsinLicense, Permit and Registration Services
WyomingState licensing not required. Local licensing may be.