What’s It Take To Be An HVAC Technician?

HVAC jobs entail much responsibility.


HVAC is common industry shorthand for Heating-Ventilating-Air Conditioning. Sometimes you’ll see the acronym as HVAC/R, the R standing for Refrigeration. Refrigeration is quite similar to Air Conditioning in technology and training, so for the sake of simplicity I’ll refer to HVAC with the understanding that it also encompasses refrigeration.

HVAC technicians install, service and repair HVAC systems in residential and commercial buildings.

Training includes how to read blueprints and use an assortment of common and specialized tools, ranging from hand tools and metal cutters to sophisticated electronic instruments. The job requires excellent math skills and understanding of the physics of heating and cooling. Most HVAC technicians will be trained in both installation and service techniques. The latter includes an emphasis on diagnosis and troubleshooting.

Technicians must ensure that all components of an HVAC system, including ductwork, compressors, motors, fans, pumps, thermostats and switches, are working properly and that controls are at their proper settings. Their job entails a lot of responsibility because it can be catastrophic for a home owner or business when a heating system fails in the dead of winter or the air conditioning conks out during a summer heat wave.

An HVAC technician also assumes responsibility for making sure systems comply with codes and environmental regulations, and that they will operate efficiently to deliver maximum comfort without excessive energy consumption. The HVAC trade requires considerable ongoing training in order to keep up with ever-changing technology and regulations.

HVAC requires crossover skills from other trades, especially electrical and plumbing. Electrical knowledge is important because HVAC work routinely involves wiring and electrical circuits. In northern climates, HVAC technicians may be called upon to work with so-called hydronic heating systems, in which heat is conveyed via water or steam coming out of boilers as opposed to warm air generated by furnaces and heat pumps. Hydronic heating requires some knowledge of plumbing technology and techniques.

Jobsite safety is an extremely important part of HVAC training. As an HVAC technician, you might be required to work in extreme hot and cold temperatures, from heights or in cramped spaces. You must perform your duties with care to avoid injury from electricity, toxic fumes and hazardous materials.

There are various routes to the HVAC trade. Some community colleges and trade schools offer HVAC certification or an associate’s degree in programs that can take up to two years. Some programs provide access to OJT (on-the-job training) internships and jobs with area HVAC contractors. If you are a high school student with an eye towards an HVAC career, you can get a head start by taking and doing well in computer courses, math, chemistry and physics. Some schools may have vocational training or shop classes that cover areas such as mechanical drawing, blueprint reading and electronics, all of which are applicable to HVAC technology.

Formal HVAC apprenticeship programs exist that are run by both union and nonunion contractor trade associations. These programs combine classroom instruction with OJT and usually stretch out to several years. Apprentices get paid while learning the trade, although not nearly as much as they will earn as full-fledged technicians after graduation.

Many individual companies offer HVAC training that may vary in length and intensity depending on a trainee’s experience and aptitude. Someone with an HVAC associate’s degree may work with minimal supervision, while raw novices may have to do lowly chores as a helper for a couple of years while learning the trade.

Depending on your location, you may need a license to work as an HVAC technician. Licensing requirements vary, but typically include passing an exam and completing an approved training program or school. Some trade organizations, such as the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) and HVAC Excellence, grant certifications attesting to various skill levels. These certifications may be required by certain employers before they will hire you as an HVAC technician.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were almost 268,000 HVAC technicians employed in the United States as of 2012, 54% of whom worked for HVAC contractors. The rest were employed by public agencies, schools, health care facilities, manufacturing companies or other private organizations. Employment for HVAC technicians is expected to grow about 28% between 2008-2018, which is greater than average for jobs tracked by the BLS.

The BLS calculated that HVAC technicians earned a median annual salary of $43,640 and median hourly wages of $20.98 in 2012. Keep in mind that “median” is different than “average.” Median means half the workers earned more and half less.

\Based on many years of experience writing about HVAC contractors, I find the BLS data to be misleading. Technicians who work for top-notch HVAC contractors usually earn far more than $43,000 a year, with some incomes ranging into six figures. The HVAC trade is a great career choice for someone with mechanical aptitude, at least a high school diploma or GED, and a solid work ethic.