“It may sound corny, but you can get great satisfaction working with your hands and helping someone every day,” says Richard Dean, an owner of heating and air-conditioning business Environmental Systems Associates.
And if you’re good at ensuring this basic life comfort -- staying warm, keeping cool -- for workers and residents, you can make a decent salary in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) careers.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2004, median hourly earnings of heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers were $17.43. Rates vary according to location, but at Dean’s Maryland-based firm, a brand-new trainee earns $10 to $12 per hour. Top technicians are making up to $80,000 a year -- and that’s without overtime, says Dean. “They’re the ones who can do just about anything required of them with little follow-up needed.”
There is a very high demand for well-trained technicians, notes Michael Honeycutt, an education consultant for Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA). “The job prospects are very good, and a lot of companies will pay for training,” says Honeycutt. “The industry offers good money and the work is essential. What a technician does affects how people live and work -- it ensures that their living and working environments are safe and comfortable. Many people like the work because they get to see the completion of their own work. There is lots of opportunity to be your own boss.”
Getting Started in HVAC
“The HVAC field is wide open for any age or gender,” says Honeycutt. “More and more women are entering the profession, and people of both genders are looking at it as a good second career option.” He suggests that an aspiring HVAC technician should have good basic math skills, a fundamental understanding of basic electricity and “an enjoyment of creating with their hands as well as their minds.”
Mechanical aptitude, communication skills and organizational ability are important, he adds. “You should possess the discipline to work independently and have the ability to work with a diversity of people.”
Dean agrees: “Think about who you would want in your home, working on your air conditioner.”
Many technicians get their start by attending community or technical colleges. The Air Conditioning Trade Association offers online training courses, with classes that run typically eight weeks, says the assocation’s president Jim Young. They are designed to prepare you for certification with North American Technical Excellence.
ACCA also offers educational materials, local apprentice programs, partnerships with local technical and vocational schools, student chapters and contractor mentoring, says Honeycutt. “There are also registered apprenticeship or union trade programs that combine education with real-world experience and hands on training,” he adds. Training curricula will probably include the physics and mathematics applicable to piping or HVAC design and installation.
Dean recommends checking your home state’s requirements. In Maryland, an apprenticeship will typically take four years. For a trainee in his company, “you might attend classes two nights a week, and 6,200 hours over four years,” he says. That trainee would also work in teams with the company’s more experienced technicians. “Graduates will get a journeyman’s license that allows them to work unsupervised.”
Your working conditions could range from single residential homes to large commercial buildings. “Work schedules in the HVAC industry have always been consistent with long hours and overtime in the summer months,” says Young.
Dean also emphasizes it’s important to stay attuned to the latest in HVAC equipment technology. “Manufacturers are constructing more and more complicated equipment in some ways, so stay up on that,” he says. “In other respects, the manufacturers are making it easier, as with onboard diagnostics. But there are different types, so invest a certain amount of continuing education.” Changing government regulations, rules for handling refrigerants, new technologies, digital controls -- all these should be kept in mind.
Moving On from the Role of Technician
Dean notes that it’s not just HVAC technicians in high demand. “We need designers and manufacturers. If you eventually want to go into business yourself, you’ll need a master’s license, which takes another two years of training and experience in Maryland,” says Dean.
If you want to eventually move from installation and repairs to actually designing HVAC systems, you should consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on thermodynamics, as well as joining professional trade groups such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
It won’t mean all desk work. “Even engineers have to throw hard hats on and go into a job site,” says Brian Lynch, president of ASHRAE’s Denver chapter. And HVAC engineers are particularly in demand as owners of commercial buildings become more conscious of saving energy and the environment.
“What sets buildings engineers apart is the real interest in environments we live in every day,” says Sheila Hayter, an ASHRAE board member. “For a long time, this field was not as exciting to high school students or new grads. But that’s changing. People are aware that buildings are major consumers of energy. So you can be in a field where you can go out and have an impact in your everyday job. Building a spaceship is cool, but an HVAC engineer can make a difference.”