HVAC Certification & Professional State Licensure Guide

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For 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; and understanding the fundamentals of heating and refrigeration systems.

Although there is no federal law mandating HVAC certification, becoming certified may be advisable for several reasons. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021), notes that “some states and localities may require technicians to be licensed.” Therefore, those who do not pursue certifications may limit themselves severely in terms of where they can work. Some regions grant reciprocal practice privileges to those with licensure from another area, meaning individual state certification is not always required. Further, earning HVAC certification broadens the scope of work that an individual is authorized to perform, thus enhancing a technician’s earning potential.

While certification is optional 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 (which includes virtually all HVAC technicians). The Section 608 Refrigerant Recycling Rule—added to 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 obtain certification. The regulations were amended in 2018 to include substitute refrigerants (e.g., HFCs).

Certification requires passing an EPA-approved test administered by an EPA-approved organization. Testing is specific to the type of certification sought, but HVAC professionals are expected to understand the environmental impacts of refrigerants, Section 608 regulations, leak repair requirements, safety, and other rules of compliance to protect themselves and the environment. The certification does not expire.

The US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates safety training but does not specify the curriculum. Industries, including HVAC, develop and implement their programs to meet established safety standards. The standards are taught in 10-hour and 30-hour courses. The 10-hour course focuses on job safety and health hazards. The 30-hour course is designed for supervisors or others responsible for job safety.

Employers may require that technicians complete an OSHA course as a condition of employment. Some states mandate safety training for all workers. Safety training is often part of an apprenticeship or classroom coursework. OSHA maintains training centers throughout the country as well as a list of authorized trainers.

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

Required steps to become a certified HVAC technician will vary by state and specialization, and not all technicians will follow precisely the same path. However, the following steps represent one common path to becoming a certified HVAC technician:

Step 1: 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.

Step 2a: Complete an accredited HVAC program (option 1, six months to two years)

While this step can be waived in some states for candidates with extensive experience or an apprenticeship (see option 2 below), many certified technicians choose to complete formal, classroom-based HVAC training at a community college or trade school.

These programs offer training in entry-level service, design, and repair of HVAC-R systems and can be accredited by industry organizations such as HVAC Excellence or Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA). Many of the HVAC programs include Section 608 certification and preparation for other industry certifications 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.

Step 2b: Complete an HVAC apprenticeship (option 2, three to five years)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), HVAC apprenticeship programs typically last from three to five years. These candidates receive at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job 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).

Additional resources are available from the US Department of Labor Apprenticeship Finder.

Step 3: 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 the 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 several 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 also 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.
  • The Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA) offers several certifications for technicians in the field of industrial refrigeration. Those include CARO – Certified Assistant Refrigeration Operator for entry-level workers and CIRO – Certified Industrial Refrigeration Operator.

Step 4: 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.

HVAC Certification Boards & Requirements

Requirements for HVAC certification will vary by type of certification and by the 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 skills. Here is a look at some common certifying organizations and their certifications:

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)

ASHRAE offers seven certification programs as of March 2021, as follows:

  • BCXP – Building Commissioning Professional Certification
  • BEAP – Building Energy Assessment Professional Certification
  • BEMP – Building Energy Modeling Professional Certification
  • CHD – Certified HVAC Designer
  • HBDP – High-Performance Building Design Professional Certification
  • HFDP – Healthcare Facility Design Professional Certification
  • OPMP – Operations and Performance Management Professional Certification

The courses and exams are available through the ASHRAE Learning Institute.

HVAC Excellence

HVAC Excellence offers several certifications for both high school students who have completed vocational training and for more advanced HVAC technicians.

  • For high school students: Two certifications are available for students enrolled in high school HVAC programs: heating, electrical, air conditioning technology (H.E.A.T.) and H.E.A.T. 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.
  • Employment-ready certifications: Other HVAC Excellence offerings include employment-ready certifications for entry-level employees, and are ideal for students of vocational programs or trade schools. Each topic requires passing a 50- to 100-question exam. Exams are available in more than 15 areas, including carbon monoxide safety, fuel oil combustion, electric heat, and light commercial air conditioning, among others.
  • Specialty certifications: HVAC Excellence also offers specialty certifications demonstrating a candidate’s competence in highly specific areas such as green awareness, residential heat load analysis, and use of R-410A refrigerant systems.
  • Professional technician certifications: Additionally, HVAC Excellence 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.
  • Educator credentials: 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.

EPA Certification

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 provides coursework, preparation materials, and exam sites to test for these certifications. These include the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) and the ESCO Institute. ESCO additionally offers Section 609 (automotive HVAC) preparation and testing. The EPA also provides a full list of approved section 608 technician certification programs.

North American Technician Excellence (NATE) & Industry Competency Exams (ICE) Exams

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 to achieve certification. The specialty exams are divided into installation and service categories:

  • Installation specialties: The five installation specialties include air conditioning, air distribution, heat pump (air-to-air), oil heating (air), and gas heating (air).
  • Service specialties: The several 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, light commercial refrigeration, and senior-level efficiency analyst.

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, Section 608 certification, and certifications for ground source heat pump installers and HVAC performance verifiers.

Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA)

The Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Association (RETA) offers several certifications for technicians in the field of industrial refrigeration. As well as the CARO and CIRO certifications noted earlier, the organization also offers CRST – Certified Refrigeration Service Technician and CRES – Certified Refrigeration Energy Specialist exams for HVAC technicians specializing in industrial refrigeration.

Refrigeration Service Engineers Society

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.

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 is a requirement for working with refrigeration systems. Some programs go beyond this minimum requirement and prepare students specifically for higher levels of certification.

Online Programs & Preparing for HVAC Certification Exams

Several online HVAC programs aim to prepare students to sit for certification exams. Most of these programs provide EPA Section 608 certification exam preparation as part of the curriculum as well as coursework in specialized areas to give students a flavor for the various competencies of the profession. Following is a selection of online HVAC programs:

Ashworth College

Ashworth College offers an online diploma in HVAC which can be finished in just four months. 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.

This HVAC diploma helps students gain the required skills and knowledge needed for successfully installing, troubleshooting, and maintaining HVAC systems for commercial and residential buildings. The program includes lessons such as the HVAC/R field, learning at Ashworth, HVAC/R tools, testing instruments & service equipment, refrigerant properties & management, and refrigeration systems.

  • Location: Norcross, GA
  • Accreditation: Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four months
  • Estimated Tuition: $679

Penn Foster College

Penn Foster offers an online HVAC diploma. Students in this program will receive a voucher to sit for the EPA certification.

The program consists of 8 courses, providing students with the skills and knowledge for performing HVAC/R repair jobs in a variety of settings. The curriculum includes topics such as orientation to HVAC/R, math and electrical basics for HVAC/R, fundamentals of HVAC/R, refrigeration systems, electrical systems, commercial refrigeration systems, HVAC/R system design & installation, and residential and light commercial HVAC/R systems.

Students will gain an understanding of the usage and composition of HVAC/R equipment, tools, and materials that are required for installing and diagnosing tasks, understand the refrigeration cycle, recognize safety procedures, understand theories and processes for evaluating and installing electrical controls and systems, and comprehend procedures for installing, inspecting, testing, repairing, and maintaining HVAC/R systems.

  • Location: Scottsdale, AZ
  • Accreditation: Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Five months
  • Estimated Tuition: $749

HVAC Training Solutions

HVAC Training Solutions provides several online training programs, including HVAC technician, commercial refrigeration, contractor, and NATE certification training. 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.

The simplified approach offered here for learning HVAC is very non-traditional. When students learn the basics of HVAC, they will have the necessary skills to pursue their HVAC careers.

In addition to the training received through an HVAC program, prospective HVAC professionals 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 variety of resources that can help prepare a student for the exam, including:

  • The ESCO Institute provides a comprehensive online store of specialized training manuals—many also available in Spanish—for competencies such as EPA 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.
  • HVACCertificationPracticeTests.com provides free practice tests for HVAC basics, NATE, and EPA 608 certifications.

For more information on test formats and tips for passing, reach out to the Guide to Acing the HVAC Certification Exams.

State Licensing Requirements for HVAC Professionals

Many US states require that an HVAC/R technician be licensed before working independently in the field. However, there are exceptions. Some states do not require a license, although in these states the technician may still need to be licensed at the local or municipal level. All government policies are subject to change, and it is crucial to check with the local regulating authority for the most up-to-date requirements.

State Professional Licensing Organization
Alabama Alabama State Board of Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors
Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development
Arizona Arizona Registrar of Contractors
Arkansas Arkansas Department of Labor and Licensing
California Contractors State License Board
Colorado State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection
Delaware Board of Plumbing, Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Examiners
District of Columbia Board of Industrial Trades
Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation
Georgia State Construction Industry Licensing Board
Hawaii Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs, Professional and Vocational Licensing
Idaho Division of Building Safety
Illinois State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Indiana State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Iowa Iowa Plumbing and Mechanical Systems Board
Kansas State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet, Department of Housing, Buildings & Construction
Louisiana Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors
Maine State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Maryland Board of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Contractors
Massachusetts Engineering Division
Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs
Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry
Mississippi State Board of Contractors
Missouri State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Montana Montana Department of Labor & Industry
Nebraska Department of Labor
Nevada State Contractors Board
New Hampshire New Hampshire Employment Security, Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau
New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs
New Mexico New Mexico Regulation & Licensing Department
New York State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
North Carolina State Board of Refrigeration Contractors
North Dakota Secretary of State
Ohio Department of Commerce
Oklahoma Construction Industries Board
Oregon Construction Contractors Board
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry
Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, Professional Regulation
South Carolina Contractor’s Licensing Board
South Dakota Office of Economic Development
Tennessee Board for Licensing Contractors
Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation
Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing
Vermont State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.
Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, Board for Contractors
Washington Department of Labor & Industries
West Virginia Division of Labor Contractor Licensing
Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services
Wyoming State licensing is not required. Local licensing may be.

Jocelyn Blore

Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.