How to Become a Heating, Air Conditioning, or Refrigeration Mechanic and Installer
A technician inspects the filter on a roof top air conditioning unit.
Because HVACR systems are increasingly complex, employers generally prefer applicants with postsecondary education or those who have completed an apprenticeship. Some states and localities require technicians to be licensed.
A growing number of HVACR technicians receive postsecondary instruction from technical and trade schools or community colleges that offer programs in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration. These programs generally last from 6 months to 2 years and lead to a certificate or an associate’s degree.
High school students interested in becoming an HVACR technician should take courses in shop, math, and physics. Knowledge of plumbing or electrical work and a basic understanding of electronics is also helpful.
Some HVACR technicians learn their trade on the job, although this is becoming much less common. Those who do usually begin by assisting experienced technicians with basic tasks, such as insulating refrigerant lines or cleaning furnaces. In time, they move on to more difficult tasks, including cutting and soldering pipes or checking electrical circuits.
Some technicians receive their training through an apprenticeship. Applicants for apprenticeships must have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED). Math and reading skills are essential.
Apprenticeship programs usually last 3 to 5 years. Each year, apprentices must have at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and a minimum of 144 hours of related technical education. Over the course of the apprenticeship, technicians become familiar with subjects such as safety practices, blueprint reading, and how to use tools. They also learn about the numerous systems that heat and cool buildings. To enter an apprenticeship program, a trainee must meet the following requirements:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Have a high school diploma or equivalent
- Pass a basic math test
- Pass substance abuse screening
- Have a valid driver’s license
Apprenticeship programs frequently are run by joint committees representing local chapters of various organizations, including the following:
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Whether having learned the occupation through postsecondary education or through other means, HVACR technicians may take several different tests that measure their skills. These tests require different levels of experience. Technicians with relevant coursework and less than 2 years of experience may take the “entry-level” certification exams. These exams test basic competency in residential heating and cooling, light commercial heating and cooling, and commercial refrigeration. Technicians can take the exams at technical and trade schools.
HVACR technicians who have at least 1 year of installation experience and 2 years of maintenance and repair experience can take a number of specialized exams. These exams certify their competency in working with specific types of equipment, such as oil-burning furnaces or compressed-refrigerant cooling systems. Many organizations offer certifying exams. For example, the North American Technician Excellence offers the Industry Competency Exam; HVAC Excellence offers a Secondary Employment Ready Exam, a Secondary Heat exam, and a Heat Plus exam; the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute offers a secondary exam; and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society offers two levels of certification.
Certifications can be helpful because they show that the technician has specific competencies. Some employers actively seek out industry-certified HVACR technicians.
Some states and localities require HVACR technicians to be licensed. Although specific licensing requirements vary, all candidates must pass an exam.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all technicians who buy or work with refrigerants to be certified in proper refrigerant handling. To become certified, technicians must pass a written exam specific to one of three specializations: Type I—servicing small appliances; Type II—high-pressure refrigerants; and Type III—low-pressure refrigerants. Many trade schools, unions, and employer associations offer training programs designed to prepare students for the EPA exam.
Customer-service skills. HVACR technicians often work in customers’ homes or business offices, so it is important that they are friendly, polite, and punctual. Repair technicians must sometimes deal with unhappy customers whose heating or air conditioning is not working.
Detail oriented. HVACR technicians must carefully maintain records of all work performed. The records must include what work was performed and the time it took, and list specific parts and equipment that were used.
Mechanical skills. HVACR technicians install and work on complicated climate-control systems. Workers must understand the HVAC components and be able to properly assemble, disassemble, and if needed, program them.
Physical strength. Workers may have to lift and support heavy equipment and components, often without help.
Time-management skills. HVACR technicians often have a set number of daily maintenance calls. They should be able to keep a schedule and complete all necessary repairs or tasks.
Troubleshooting skills. Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems involve many intricate parts. To repair malfunctioning systems, technicians must be able to identify problems and then determine the best way to repair it.