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HVAC Careers, Jobs and Training Information

HVAC Career and Job Highlights

  • Opportunities in heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration repair and installation are good, especially for those who have formal training, be it through a technical school or as an apprentice.
  • The Air-Conditioning Excellence program, North American Technician Excellence, is the norm to become a certified technician.

HVAC Career Overview

Obviously the need for heating and air-conditioning exists all over, as residents in Tucson would suffer from heat exhaustion in the summer without air-conditioning while those in Buffalo in the winter would freeze without heating. Cooling and heating devices help regulate the temperature, humidity, and air quality residential homes, commercial locations, and industrial facilities. Many items like food and medicine require refrigeration to keep them from spoiling. Technicians carry our repairs, maintenance, and installations of heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems. As these systems are often called HVACR systems, workers are often referred to as HVACR technicians.

These systems are made up of many different parts, including electrical, mechanical, and electronic parts like thermostats, fans, ducts, motors, and pipes. As an example, a centralized heating system will utilize a furnace that produces warm air, which is then spread to different areas of the building by a network of ducts. Workers must have the ability to provide maintenance, identify problems and carry out repairs on any part of the system. Technicians carry out this work by making adjustments to the systems settings and running performance tests of the system.

Frequently technicians will pick an area of specialization, be it in installation or maintenance and repair, though they are typically trained in both areas. A few technicians work solely with one type of device such as an oil burner, solar panel, or commercial refrigerator. Contracting businesses, manufacturers, and wholesalers often employ technicians. Technicians employed by smaller companies often install and maintain ally types of systems. However, service contracts that include heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration service regularly for specific customers are gaining popularity. These service contracts aid in curbing the natural fluctuations of this work.

Both residential and commercial buildings are worked on by heating and air-conditioning mechanics that must carry out installations, service the systems, and provide the needed repairs. Furnace installers, other wise known as heating equipment technicians, utilize the blueprints and specs to put in oil, gas, electric, solid-fuel, and multiple-fuel heating systems. Obviously, air-conditioning mechanics carry out installations and provide service for central air-conditioning systems. Once the main equipment is set up, technicians will also put in fuel and water lines, ducts and vents for air, and pumps along with other parts as needed. Technicians will ensure that the system is functioning properly, as well as making the proper connections between wires and their controls. A combustion test using carbon dioxide or oxygen testers will be used to check that the system is indeed working as desired.

In addition to furnace installations, heating techs will maintain and repair maintenance and the system as needed to ensure it is functioning properly. For example, technicians will make adjustments on the burners and blowers during the fall and winter because they are used the most during those seasons. When a system is failing, the thermostat, burner nozzle, and controls will be inspected in an effort to identify the problem.

Since heating systems are least used throughout the summer, technicians will take advantage of this time to carry out maintenance, including the replacement of filters, ducts, and other parts which become dusty over time. Similarly when winter arrives, air-conditioning techs will carry out maintenance and perform inspections.

Commercial refrigeration systems and related equipment is installed and repaired by refrigeration mechanics. These technicians use blueprints, equipment specs, and the manufacturer’s directions to aid in performing installations of motors, evaporators, piping and other parts. They are in charge of the connecting of these various parts to the main ducts, refrigerant lines, and the power supply. Once all these parts are properly connected, the technician must charge the system with refrigerant, and ensure the system is operating properly as well as program all system controls.

In servicing the various types of equipment, from heating, cooling, and refrigeration systems, technicians must take special care in handling and reusing chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants utilized by these systems. The stratospheric ozone layer, which shields plants and animals from ultraviolet rays, is damaged by the release of CFCs and HCFCs. Refrigerant must be checked to be sure that none of it is leaked outside of the systems; it must be recovered by clearing the ducts and vents, and then recycled so that it can be used in filter-dryers.

Many different tools are utilized by heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics. These many different tools include hammers, wrenches, metal snips, electric drills, pipe cutters and benders, measurement gauges, and acetylene torches, which aid in working on refrigerant lines and air ducts. Other testing devices like voltmeters, thermometers, pressure gauges, manometers are utilized to ensure proper airflow and that the refrigerant is pressurized, as well as to test parts like electrical circuits, burners, and other components.

Other workers might also perform installations and repairs on heating and cooling systems. In the case of a big air-conditioning installation where technicians regulated by union contracts, ductwork could be carried out sheet metal workers and duct installers; electricians would do electrical work; and installation of piping, condensers, and other parts by pipe layers, plumbers, pipe fitters, and steamfitters. Appliances found in the home, like air-conditioners and fridges, are normally worked on by home appliance repairers.

In any location that equipment is used to control the climate, such as houses, retail stores, offices, hospitals, and plants, there you will find heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics working. Technicians might be given a list of jobs every day to carry out; or they may be instructed via radio or phone to which service appointments to take care of. The use of mobile phones is becoming more popular as a means of communication for employers.
Work might be done inside or outside, in warm weather or cold weather. Often times work must be done in uncomfortable positions, due to limited work space or the need perform maintenance on parts in high locations. Some dangers of the industry involve electrical shock, burns, muscle strains, and other injuries derived from carrying large equipment. As always, safety equipment is required when working with refrigerants since skin contact can result in damage, frostbite or blindness. If working in a small area, inhaling refrigerants can also be potentially dangerous.

Most workers work 40 hours a week. Overtime or nonstandard hours might be worked during busy periods or seasons. Often times maintenance techs, especially those who providing services by contract, must work late shifts or be on call. Year round employment can be expected as most companies will schedule both installation and maintenance work, and some places even require service contracts, guaranteeing work the whole year. Employment is also fairly stable in heating and air-conditioning shops.

More than 249,000 positions were held by heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration technicians in 2002. Close to 50 percent of them were employed by cooling and heating contractors. The rest worked for various industries, showing just how far a reach these types of systems have on the nation. Employment for some was found amongst fuel oil dealers, refrigeration and air-conditioning service and repair shops, schools, and stores that sell heating and air-conditioning systems as well as local and federal governments, hospitals, offices, and other organizations that utilize huge climate controlling systems. Approximately 15 percent of technicians are self-employed.

HVAC Training and Job Qualifications

As these systems are becoming more complex, HVAC training via technical schools or through an apprenticeship program is preferred. Yet, there are still lots of technicians that learn job as they work.

Training in heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration from 6 months to 2 years can be had through secondary and postsecondary technical and trade schools, junior and community colleges, and the U.S. Armed Forces. In these programs, theory, design, electronics, and equipment construction is studied. In addition, students are taught the fundamentals of installing, maintaining, and repairing these systems.

Combined chapters of the Air-Conditioning Contractors of America, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors, and locals of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association or the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada often work together to set up and run training programs for apprentices. Additionally, local sections Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Home Builders organizations might also sponsor an apprenticeship program. These programs range anywhere from 3 to 5 years and include on-the-job training alongside classroom teaching. One’s classroom experience might cover various subjects like how to use and care for tools, safety, reading blueprints, as well as the theory and design of heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems. To apply for such a job, one must have graduated from high school or achieve a similar status. The ability read and perform mathematical computations is paramount.

Beginners who learn the trade on the job typically benefit from the experience gained by helping established technicians. In the beginning, easy duties like handling materials, putting in insulation for refrigerant lines, or cleaning furnaces will be performed. As time progresses and experience is gained, they will be assigned more difficult duties such as cutting and soldering pipes and sheet metal, or checking circuits in the system.

To build a good foundation for this occupation, one should take classes in shop math, mechanical drawing, applied physics and chemistry, electronics, blueprint reading, and computer applications. Additional knowledge or experience of plumbing and electrical work also comes in handy. As equipment controls are more frequently used in these systems, fundamental knowledge of electronics is important as well. Since contact between worker and customers is commonplace, a technician should be courteous and tactful. Additionally, they should be physically fit as this type of work may require lifting and moving of large equipment.

All workers who handle refrigerants must be certified in this area. Certification for handling and purchasing refrigerants can be achieved by passing written exam which is specific to one’s area of specialization. One can be certified in any of three areas, which are as follows: Type I—servicing small appliances, Type II—high-pressure refrigerants, and Type III—low-pressure refrigerants. Many trade schools, unions, contractor associations and building groups can gain approval from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and administer these exams to workers.

Those with little experience can take advantage of various class or internet courses and independent study programs being offered by different organizations. Besides merely knowing how systems operate, workers must understand the rules, regulations, and guidelines associated with the use of refrigerants. The most common standard in the industry, as far as being certified goes, is the Air-Conditioning Excellence program, which is run by North American Technician Excellence (NATE).

Promotion in the industry typically is shown by higher earnings. Still some workers will be promoted to positions as a supervisor or manager, while others might move into sales positions or marketing. Some will become building superintendents, cost estimators, or teachers after attaining the needed certification. Those with the financial means and the appropriate managerial ability might start their own business.

HVAC Job and Employment Opportunities

While opportunities are good across the board in heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration, the best opportunities exist for those with formal training. In the heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration industry, employment for mechanics projected to rise faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2012. With the growth in population and the economy, the demand for new residential, commercial and industrial climate-control systems shall also grow. When construction dies down, installation technicians may pass through a period of time with no employment, but typically the maintenance and repair work available remains fairly constant. Obviously, cooling and heating systems must be kept functioning properly by businesses and people, despite what economic problems might exist.

As the effort to more efficiently conserve energy is revived, more and more advancements will be made to find ways to conserver more and more energy. As energy conservation becomes the focus, old systems will be replaced with new systems prompting more installation work. Additionally, more people and businesses will seek to keep their systems running optimally, prompting more demand for service and maintenance. In 1993 the discharge of CFC and HCFC was strictly prohibited, and in 2000 there was ban placed on the producing more CFC. As a result of these regulations, workers should be in demand to replace old systems or make the necessary modifications to ensure they are environmentally safe. The added emphasis on air quality should help increase the number of jobs available in the heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration industry. Additionally, the increase in businesses that utilize refrigeration equipment, such as grocery stores, should help increase the demand for more technicians. Also, thousands of positions will open in up as a result of workers who transfer to other jobs or leave the workforce.

Historical Earnings Information

In 2002, the average hourly wages heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration technicians were $16.78. The middle 50 percent made anywhere from $12.95 to $21.37 an hour. The bottom 10 percent made below $10.34, and the highest 10 percent made $26.20 or more.