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In “America’s Finest City,” the sunny skies beget a wealth of employment opportunities in climate control, particularly in air conditioning and refrigeration. By illustration, the PHCC of San Diego is a thriving branch of a national organization which bestows many benefits upon its members, including frequent membership dinner meetings; a monthly newsletter; professional networking; political representation for issues affecting the industry; apprenticeship opportunities; annual events (e.g., golf tournament, holiday party, family picnic, trade show, etc.); and various members-only discounts, among other perks. Additionally, the SMACNA of San Diego represents both workers in air conditioning and sheet metal, providing services such as virtual safety courses; an active job board; reimbursement for OSHA 10/30 outreach training; and a long-established apprentice program. In short, these skilled individuals are well-supported in San Diego.

So what do heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC/R) professionals do on a day-to-day basis? They take on varied responsibilities such as laying wiring and piping structures for HVAC equipment; conducting maintenance and repairs on systems; reading blueprints; verifying compliance with all local and federal regulations; testing HVAC circuitry and components (e.g., motors, belts, fans, valves, filters, heat pumps, water pumps, boilers, multimeters, economizers, hermetic compressors, split systems, humidifiers, ducts, etc.); soldering and brazing parts; performing heat load and loss calculations; calibrating all controls to manufacturer specifications; maintaining all necessary credentialing; traveling to job sites; maintain detailed service records; and educating customers on practices for energy conservation. Additionally, all HVAC workers in SD who deal with refrigerants must maintain active EPA Section 608 certification.

This piece explores how to become an HVAC worker, including a discussion of the employment demand, salary prospects, credentialing information, and accredited HVAC schools in San Diego.

Occupational Demand for HVAC Technicians in San Diego

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2015), HVAC workers occupy a high-growth and relatively lucrative career. In fact, the BLS projected a 14 percent increase in HVAC openings across the country between 2014 and 2024—the addition of 39,600 positions—double the average growth expected across all jobs during that same decade (7 percent). And in the Golden State, the prospects are even brighter. As proof of point, Projections Central (Feb. 2017) predicted a 31.8 percent explosion in HVAC opportunities in California (2014-24)! This is more than double the national figure and more than four times the growth expected across all jobs during that time period. In sum, the 7,100 fresh openings in CA—many of them in San Diego—should produce favorable employment in the state in coming years.

Currently, California employs the third most HVAC mechanics and installers of any US state, just behind Florida and Texas. The BLS (May 2015) found that there were 21,280 HVAC professionals across CA with many of them concentrated in the relatively warm climates of the southern regions.

There are several factors contributing to the healthy employment climate for HVAC technicians in San Diego and beyond. First, these systems generally need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years and require regular servicing. Second, local laws, regulations, and technologies are continually evolving, which also leads to a steady stream of system upgrades. Additionally, nearly all buildings in San Diego have climate control systems and especially in areas with high rates of construction, there’s a demand for the installation of brand-new equipment.

According to the BLS (Dec. 2015), one in ten HVAC workers nationwide were self-employed, and 63 percent worked in the plumbing, heating, and air conditioning contracting industry. Some of them work normal business hours, and others may be called upon to work evenings, weekends, or holidays, especially in the summer when demand for air conditioning and refrigeration services peaks.

As proof of the thriving employment climate, Indeed (Feb. 2017) had 115 HVAC jobs posted in the SD area, including opportunities at United Plumbing Heating Air Electric, Electronic Environments Corp, Sears Carpet & Air Duct Cleaning, the Port of San Diego, Performance Refrigeration & HVAC, Legacy Air, Source Refrigeration and HVAC, Anderson Plumbing Heating and Air, John Stevenson Plumbing & Mechanical, Inc., Qualcomm, SOAL Technologies, LLC, Electronic Environments Corp, AvalonBay Communities, Electronic Environments Corp, and Sony Interactive Entertainment PlayStation, to name a few. Monster (Feb. 2017) had a wealth of additional openings with employers such as Tradesmen International, Inc., C&L Refrigeration, Paragon Services Engineering, Epsilon Systems Solutions, Inc., The Glen at Scripps Ranch, and Sodexo.

San Diego HVAC Technician Salary Data

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2015), HVAC mechanics and installers make a relatively generous salary, especially in California. In fact, the BLS found that the 274,680 HVAC professionals nationally commanded an annual average salary of $47,380 with the following percentiles:

United States (274,680 HVAC workers): $47,380 annual average salary

  • 10th percentile: $27,790
  • 25th percentile: $34,920
  • 50th percentile (median): $45,110
  • 75th percentile: $58,070
  • 90th percentile: $71,690

In hourly figures, these salaries equated to:

US: $22.78/hr. average

  • 10th percentile: $13.36/hr.
  • 25th percentile: $16.79/hr.
  • 50th percentile (median): $21.69/hr.
  • 75th percentile: $27.92/hr.
  • 90th percentile: $34.47/hr.

The national figures were slightly different according to another source of data, Payscale (Feb. 2017), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the 451 HVAC workers reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles:

US: 451 HVAC workers

  • 10th percentile: $29,000
  • 25th percentile: $35,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $42,886
  • 75th percentile: $53,000
  • 90th percentile: $67,000

An additional 2,486 HVAC workers gave Payscale their hourly salary figures, resulting in these percentile wages:

  • 10th percentile: $13.00/hr.
  • 25th percentile: $15.00/hr.
  • 50th percentile (median): $18.00/hr.
  • 75th percentile: $24.00/hr.
  • 90th percentile: $29.00/hr.

For residents of the Golden State, the wages were much higher. In fact, the BLS (May 2015) reported that the 21,280 HVAC mechanics and installers in CA made an annual average salary of $53,050—12 percent higher than the national average—and the following percentiles:

California (21,280 HVAC workers): $53,050 average annual salary

  • 10th percentile: $29,970
  • 25th percentile: $37,900
  • 50th percentile (median): $51,120
  • 75th percentile: $64,440
  • 90th percentile: $80,840

When put into hourly figures, these same HVAC workers made:

California: $25.51/hr. average

  • 10th percentile: $14.41/hr.
  • 25th percentile: $18.22/hr.
  • 50th percentile (median): $24.58/hr.
  • 75th percentile: $30.98/hr.
  • 90th percentile: $38.86/hr.

Also, Indeed (Feb. 2017) found that California’s HVAC workers made an average of $25.31 per hour, 19 percent above national figures. Before digging into the detailed metropolitan data, it’s important to note that while Californian HVAC professionals enjoy some of the highest wages nationally, they also live in one of the most expensive states in the country. In fact, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2017) reported that CA was the third most expensive region in the country, just behind Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

Not surprisingly, HVAC salaries tended to vary by region within California. There were seven BLS-designated regions in Southern California which may be of interest to residents of San Diego. Luckily for them, the 1,830 SD-Carlsbad area HVAC workers earned an average salary of $53,760, more than any of the nearby regions. Here is an overview of the numbers of HVAC workers, average salaries, and wage percentiles among seven regions of Southern California:

Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine, CA Metropolitan Division (1,860 HVAC workers): $53,000 annual average salary

  • 10th percentile: $33,580
  • 25th percentile: $39,510
  • 50th percentile (median): $48,730
  • 75th percentile: $63,080
  • 90th percentile: $81,680

El Centro, CA (80 workers): $49,540 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $30,970
  • 25th percentile: $39,890
  • 50th percentile (median): $51,740
  • 75th percentile: $59,870
  • 90th percentile: $67,760

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA (7,600 workers): $53,440 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $29,020
  • 25th percentile: $37,980
  • 50th percentile (median): $50,960
  • 75th percentile: $67,920
  • 90th percentile: $81,850

Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA (5300 workers): $47,190 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $30,990
  • 25th percentile: $36,410
  • 50th percentile (median): $45,270
  • 75th percentile: $56,530
  • 90th percentile: $64,070

Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA (2,630 workers): $48,470 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $31,480
  • 25th percentile: $36,940
  • 50th percentile (median): $47,190
  • 75th percentile: $57,690
  • 90th percentile: $66,140

San Diego-Carlsbad, CA (1,830 workers): $53,760 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $31,010
  • 25th percentile: $43,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $54,630
  • 75th percentile: $62,810
  • 90th percentile: $75,720

Visalia-Porterville, CA (150 workers): $52,680 avg.

  • 10th percentile: $19,190
  • 25th percentile: $36,940
  • 50th percentile (median): $52,730
  • 75th percentile: $62,620
  • 90th percentile: $89,950

Accredited HVAC Schools in San Diego

There are varied routes to becoming an HVAC professional in San Diego. Some of these workers choose to enroll in an apprenticeship program. For example, the PHCC of San Diego HVAC Apprenticeship Program was established in 2013. This two-year program includes preparation for the EPA 608, ICE, and NATE certification exams with a hands-on exploration of the theory and diagnostics of a range of systems. The program costs $2,175 annually for PHCC members and $3,696 for non-members. Additional fees may apply for books and other materials. Also, the San Diego Community College District offers a four-year HVAC apprenticeship program based in Poway. To qualify, students must pass a TABE test which measures students’ knowledge in math in English (secondary school level).

Other aspiring HVAC workers in SD may choose to enroll in an accredited training program. These typically last two years and may be recognized by an accreditation organization such as HVAC Excellence or the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA). To learn in-depth how programs are approved, please check out the HVAC programs homepage accreditation section.

One prominent PAHRA-accredited school is Mt. San Antonio College of nearby LA county. MSAC provides an abundance of HVAC training degree and certificate programs, featuring courses such as technical mathematics in air conditioning & refrigeration; welding for air conditioning & refrigeration; air conditioning codes & standards; refrigeration fundamentals; electrical fundamentals for air conditioning & refrigeration; gas heating; heat load calculations & design; commercial electrical for air conditioning & refrigeration; air properties & measurement; advanced mechanical refrigeration; building automation fundamentals; and more. These programs cost $46 per unit for California residents and $227 for non-residents. San Diego City College offers an air conditioning, refrigeration, and environmental control technology (AIRE) associate in science (AS) program. With preparation for HVAC and green careers working with solar panels, students learn areas such as construction drawings & estimating; fluid flow dynamics; comfort heating systems theory; and HVAC/R systems design. Also, SDCC offers a certificate of performance in air conditioning and solar energy with training in basic refrigeration theory; control systems theory; and solar utilization theory, among other fundamentals. The school provides additional certificates in basic refrigeration & control systems; air conditioning, refrigeration & environmental control; heating, air conditioning & solar energy; and heating, air conditioning & ventilation systems design, among others. These programs cost $46 per unit for California residents and $244 for non-residents. Finally, the University of California, San Diego provides an HVAC systems design & control certificate featuring courses such as HVAC DDC basics; HVAC systems design; and system networking design.

These are a few of the training options available for aspiring HVAC professionals in the San Diego area. To learn about the distance-based educational programs available, please check out the online HVAC programs page

HVAC Certification & Licensing in San Diego

Prior to seeking employment, all HVAC workers in San Diego must ensure that they have the proper certification and licensing.

First, there is one mandatory certification for all people who handle environmentally sensitive refrigerants—the EPA Section 608 certification—and there are four types: type 1 (small appliance), type 2 (high-pressure appliances), type 3 (low-pressure appliances), and type 4 (universal). Most HVAC training programs include 608 exam preparation as part of their curriculum.

There’s an abundance of other national entities which offer competency-based, employment-ready trade certifications. These organizations and some sample certifications offered include:

  • HVAC Excellence (e.g., Heating, Electrical, Air conditioning Technology [HEAT], HEAT Plus, carbon monoxide safety, heat oil combustion, residential heat load analysis, green awareness, etc.)
  • North American Technician Excellence, aka NATE (e.g., air conditioning, air distribution, heat pump [air-to-air], hydronics gas, commercial refrigeration, light commercial refrigeration, etc.)
  • Refrigeration Service Engineers Society aka RSES (e.g., EPA Section 608, commercial air conditioning, commercial refrigeration, domestic service, dynamic compression, HVAC-R electrical, etc.)

To learn about the gamut of national credentials available, please visit the HVAC certifications page.

Lastly, HVAC workers in San Diego must ensure that they have all local licensure prior to beginning work. HVAC workers in the state are licensed by the California Contractors State License Board. The Board requires all HVAC workers performing work in excess of $500 hold a C-20 contractor licensure. To qualify, candidates must:

  • Submit a C-20 license application
  • Show proof of at least four years of experience
  • Show proof of having at least $2,500 in working capital
  • File a bond with the registrar for $10,000
  • Pass two exams: business & law and a trade-specific test
  • Pay licensure and examination fees

The HVAC trade exam gauges professionals’ knowledge across four areas:

  • Evaluation, design, and estimation
  • Fabrication, installation, and startup
  • Troubleshooting, repair, and maintenance
  • Safety

Please note that there is an initial $300 application fee ($330 starting July 2017). The first two-year license costs $180, and can be renewed every two years for $360. Also, following the submission of all requisite documentation, there is licensing reciprocity with three other states: Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

Lastly, the City of San Diego requires permits for electrical work and the installation or replacement of air conditioning units. Conveniently, the city permitting process can be completed online, requiring an application, a notarized owner-builder verification form, and a fee. Above all, HVAC workers in San Diego and beyond should ensure that they have all necessary certifications, licenses, and permits prior to agreeing to any work. Failure to do so can result in legal action and financial penalties.