HVAC -- heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration -- is a diverse occupation that spans across industries, from manufacturing to construction, engineering to waste disposal. HVAC technicians, sometimes referred to as HVACR technicians, are trained professionals who install, repair and maintain the various systems that control the temperature and air quality in homes, residential buildings, commercial properties and more.
A growing field, HVAC provides prospective students with the opportunity both to specialize in their field as well as target several different industries for employment.
HVAC education and degree programs
The path to becoming an HVAC technician typically begins at one of three points:
- A diploma
- Associate degree
- Bachelor's degree
The most common educational avenue is the diploma program, typically designed to last anywhere from as little as six months to one year of study. Students may also choose to enroll in an associate degree programs that transition to a bachelor's degree in HVAC. several schools offer these types of transitional programs. Students complete two years of study, earning an Associate of Applied Science and then go on to finish a bachelor's degree in areas such as facilities management, applied management or energy technology.
Upon completion of a formal education program, HVAC technicians generally enter into an apprenticeship, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov). These apprenticeships may last up to 5 years and include at least 2,000 hours of technical education and 144 hours of related classes.
Apprenticeships can be arranged through numerous professional organizations and associations. Some of those HVAC organizations include the following:
- Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), http://www.acca.org/about/
- Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, http://www.ari.org
- Air Movement and Control Association International, http://www.amca.org/
- American Boiler Manufacturers Association, http://www.abma.com/
- ASHRAE (Formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, https://www.ashrae.org/
- Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc., http://www.abc.org/
- Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada, http://www.hrai.ca/
- Mechanical Contractors Association of America, http://www.mcaa.org/
- National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA), http://nadca.com/en
- National Association of Home Builders, Home Builders Institute, http://www.hbi.org/
- Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling Contractors Association, http://www.phccweb.org/index.cfm
- Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), http://www.rses.org/
- Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA), https://www.smacna.org/
HVAC specializations and certifications
Although students in HVAC programs are taught core fundamentals of the industry, they generally choose a specialized area for professional development in either category. Specializations go hand-in-hand with North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification. HVAC specialization traditionally falls into two categories: installation and service.
NATE certification demonstrates real-world, fundamental knowledge of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Qualified HVAC technicians many earn three types of certifications from NATE: installer, service or senior certification.
Installation and service certifications
- Air conditioning (AC)
- Air distribution (AD)
- Oil heating (OL)
- Gas heating (GS)
- Heat pumps, air-to-air (HP)
- Ground source heat pump loop installer
- HVAC efficiency analyst, senior level (EA)
- HVAC performance verifier
- Hydronics gas (HG)
- Hydronics Oil (HO)
- Commercial refrigeration (RC)
- Light commercial refrigeration (LC)
In 2014, NATE announced changes to the certification program after receiving industry response and feedback. Certifications earned before January 1, 2014 are valid for five years. Certifications earned after January 1, 2014 must be renewed after two years. With the change to the certification period, HVAC technicians only need to earn 16 continuing education hours (CEH) to maintain their certifications, instead of 60 CEH hours under the five-year certification period.
Section 608 Certification
In addition to NATE certification, HVAC technicians who service, maintains or repairs equipment or appliances that use refrigerants CFC or HCFC must possess Section 608 certification from the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are four types of Section 608 certifications:
- Core - technicians must pass Core certification before taking any other certification exam
- Type I - designed for technicians that service small appliances
- Type II - designed for technicians who service high-pressure appliances
- Type III - designed for technicians who service low-pressure appliances
- Universal - designed for technicians who pass all four parts of the Section 608 certification examination
HVAC technician employment and salary outlook
In 2013, data from the BLS revealed the national average salary for HVAC technicians was slightly more than $46,000, with the top 10 percent of earners taking home at least $69,000.
Because HVAC is such a broad occupation, pay varies by location and industry. In 2013, the highest paying industries, according to the BLS, included waste treatment and disposal ($68,860), electric power generation ($66,900) and aerospace product and parts manufacturing ($66,440). While large states, such as Texas and California had large numbers of HVAC technicians employed in 2013, the states with the greatest concentration of workers included Delaware (3.68 jobs for every 1,000), Florida (2.97) and Maine (2.77).
Overall, HVAC is an in-demand profession, expected to grow by 21 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, data from the BLS reveals. That growth equates to nearly 56,000 positions across the country. Graduates of HVAC programs and schools may enter the industry at several different points, including commercial or residential technicians, as well as HVAC systems installers or repairers.
- Pennsylvania College of Technology, HVAC Bachelor's Degree, http://www.pct.edu/catalog/majors/BHD.shtml
- Ferris State University, HVAC Bachelor's Degree, http://www.ferris.edu/college-degree-hvac.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, HVAC Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes499021.htm
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, OOH, HVAC Technicians, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/heating-air-conditioning-and-refrigeration-mechanics-and-installers.htm
- NATE, Certifications, http://www.natex.org/site/353/Technicians/Certification-Basics/101
- EPA, Section 608 Certification, http://www.epa.gov/ozone/title6/608/technicians/608certs.html