For aspiring HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) specialists, one of the best ways of demonstrating one’s professional competence to prospective clients or employers is to pursue certification. The credentials may demonstrate a broad range of skills within the field, including maintaining, repairing and installing HVAC units in commercial or residential spaces; analyzing temperature control mechanisms, humidity levels and air quality; understanding the fundamentals of refrigeration and heating systems (e.g. the mechanisms that climate control are based on); and using a broad range of different electronic parts (e.g. ducts, thermostats and fans).
Although not every state requires HVAC technicians to become certified before they are allowed to practice, there are several reasons why this is advisable. First of all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that certification may be helpful since it shows that a technician has certain competencies and that there are some employers who are actively seeking industry-certified HVACR technicians. Also, those technicians that do not obtain certification might be limited in terms of which geographic locations they can work in since there are some areas that grant reciprocal practice privileges to individuals that have licensure from a different area. Achieving HVAC certification also broadens the kind of work that a person is authorized to do, which enhances the individual’s earning potential. For example, if you look at Indeed.com at their continuously updated average salaries for HVAC technicians compared with certified HVAC technicians you will find that on average the certified ones earn significantly more money. As of September 2015, the yearly mean salaries were $41,000 for non-certified and $44,000 for certified HVAC technicians.
Although certification is optional in some areas (but strongly advisable), there is one kind of national certification that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates for anybody who works with refrigerant recycling and recovery. The Section 608 Refrigerant Recycling Rule – which is part of the 1990 Clean Air Act – requires all technicians who perform disposal, maintenance or service of equipment that might release refrigerants such as CFC’s into the air must become pass a test and become certified by an organization that is EPA-approved. HVAC professions are taught about leak repair requirements, recovery cylinders used for dangerous materials, ozone depletion and other compliance rules for protecting the environment. The certifications do not expire.
Keep reading to learn what the steps are to becoming a certified HVAC technician, what the specific requirements are for different kinds of certifications, what online training programs are available, how to best prepare to take certification exams, and what regulatory agencies are present in certain states across the country.
First note that the requirements for becoming a certified HVAC technician, vary by specialization and by state. The following is one common path towards becoming a certified HVAC technician:
Complete your high school diploma. HVAC contractors and technicians who are successful usually excel in course like shop, physics and mathematics. Some decide to seek employment or volunteer in electronics, mechanics or a related field where they can learn some of the profession’s empirical fundamentals.
Complete an HVAC program from an accredited institution (6 months – 2 years). Although in some states this step may be waived for candidates who have completed an apprenticeship or who have extensive experience, it is usually advisable for individuals to complete a formalized HVAC training program from either a trade school or community college, especially for anyone who seeks certification. These programs offer training for entry-level repair, design and service of HVAC-R systems may be accredited by organizations like HVAC Excellence and might include the process of certification in the overall training. The curriculum for aspiring HVAC technicians might also include on-the-job instructions for working under a licensed contractor. That is often necessary since many licenses and certification exams require one to two years worth of practical experience at least.
Pass examinations and apply for industry competence certifications (timeline will vary). As previously mentions, that are some HVAC programs where the certification process is included in the overall training program like the North American Training Center one. There is a broad range of agencies that offer HVAC certifications for individuals wanting to enhance their credentials. Many industry competency exams are hosted by the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) as well as a number of different HVAC-R specialty certifications like HVAC performance verifier, senior level HVAC efficiency analyst and air distribution (AD). In addition to providing program accreditation, HVAC Excellence also offers employment-ready certification exams for charging, basic refrigeration, light commercial air conditioning and air conditioning procedures. There is a partnership between NATE and the Refrigeration Services Engineers Society (RSES) to provide additional certification exams, which include HVAC-R electrical, heating, commercial refrigeration, commercial air conditioning and EPA Section 608.
Purse state and national licensure or certifications (timeline will vary). As previously mentioned, the rules that govern HVAC technicians and contractors vary among states. See the table below to determine what the regional requirements are for HVAC professionals along with the governing body.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2014) reports that typically HVAC apprenticeship programs take three to five years to complete. Candidates receive a minimum of 2,00 hours worth of empirical training along with 144 hours worth of technical education. Joint committees comprised of local organizations like the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) or Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) run many of the programs.
HVAC certification requirements will vary according to the organization that is offering it and by the type of certification. For some certifications, for example, students may need to complete a training course, while in others working at a job for a certain amount of time will provide enough knowledge for passing an exam. Also, various kinds of testing might be required for a certifying exam,which can vary from demonstrating one’s hands-on skills to a written test. The following are some of the certifications offered by some of the more common certifying organizations.
HVAC Excellence provides numerous certifications in order to ensure that various vocational programs meet state, federal and institutional HVAC requirements. For students who are enrolled in a high school HVAC program, two certifications are provided by the organizations: heating, electrical, air conditioning technology (HEAT) as well as HEAT Plus. HEAT is a 100-question assessment that tests the student’s expertise on common HVAC subjects like AC troubleshooting, fundamental capacitors and motors and electrical theory. In addition to the 100-question assessment, the Plus program also includes a hands-on exam as well as 25 addition questions for gauging abilities like employability skills, work ethic and computer literacy. Other offerings from HVAC Excellence include employment-ready certification, which are ideal for trade school or vocational program students. Each requires the student to pass a 50 to 100 question exam. There are over 15 areas that they are available in including systems diagnostics troubleshooting, heat oil combustion, carbon monoxide safety and much more. There are also specialty certifications that are offered by HVAC Excellent that demonstrate the student’s competence in areas such as using R-410A refrigerant systems, residential heat load analysis and green awareness. The organization also offers progressive professional technician level certifications to individuals with two years minimum verified work experience within a certain field (e.g. residential air conditioning, combustion analysis, heat pump service). An exam is required for all these certifications. The hands-on master specialist technician certifications are available for individuals with even more experience. They require three years minimum of verified work experience as well as a demonstration of skills. There are finally various educator credentials that include the CSME (certified subject matter educator) that are for HVAC instructors and demonstrate that an HVAC field professional has the necessary skills for teaching a certain content area like oil heat, heat pumps, air conditioning and others.
The CMHE (certified master HVAC-R educator) credential is perfect for multi-area specialists wanting to teach. Six CSME subject exams must be passed with an 80 percent or higher score. A capstone project must also be completed.
As previously mentioned, it is required by the EPA for individuals working with refrigeration systems or refrigerants to obtain EPA Section 608 certification. The following EPA certifications are available: small appliances (Type I); high-pressure appliances (Type II); low-pressure appliances (Type III); and a comprehensive credential called Universal. Many organizations offer exam sites for testing, preparation materials and coursework for the certifications. They include the ESCO Institute and Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES). The EPS also offers a complete list of section 608 technician certification programs that the organization has approved.
North American Technician Excellence (NATE) provides a broad range of specialty certifications at various levels. Aspiring HVAC technicians are required by NATE to pass one specialty exam and a core exam in order to obtain certification. There are three categories of specialty exams: senior, service and installation. The five installation specialties are gas heating (air), oil heating (air), heat pump (air-to-air), air distribution and air conditioning. The nine service specialties – which include many of them being offered in Spanish as well – are light commercial refrigeration, commercial refrigeration, hydronics oil, hydronics gas, heat pump (air-to-air), gas heating (air), oil heating (air), air distribution and air conditioning. Candidates who have two NATE specialty certifications are eligible for senior level technician certification. NATE also provides industry competency exams )ICE) which used to called ARI/GAMA competency exams. They cover a wide range of commercial and residential HVAC systems along with skills that relate to them.
The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) offers several different subject areas and levels of HVAC certification which includes the Section 607 certification mandated by the EPA for refrigeration workers that was previously mentioned. Eight specialized written exams are offered: HVAC-R electrical, heat pump, heating, dynamic compression, domestic service, controls, commercial refrigeration and commercial air conditioning. It should be noted that these specialized credentials are for active RSES members exclusively. The organization also offers R-410A certification and training.
Typically HVAC programs prepare their students for taking the EPA Section 608 certification exam due to the fact that it is required to work on refrigeration systems. Certification exam preparation is extended even further by other programs. For example the HVAC-R technician associate’s degree program offered by Virginia College in Birmingham, Alabama offers not just 608 certification training, but preparation for NATE certifications and industry competency exams (ICE) as well.
There are numerous online HVAC programs that help prepare students to take their certification exams. A majority of the programs offers certification exam preparation for EPA Section 608 as part of their overall curriculum in addition to coursework covering specialized areas to provide students with a good sense of what the profession’s various competencies are all about. The following is a sample of some of the online HVAC programs that are available:
HVAC Training Solutions offers several different online training programs which include NATE certification training, contractor, commercial refrigeration and HVAC technician. The self-paced programs provide one-on-one, live assistance; a multimodal (e.g. simulations, online forums, reading, quizzes, videos) approach for HVAC-R fundamentals and a unique digital simulator for teaching about equipment and procedures.
In addition to receiving training from an HVAC program, it is also recommended that prospective professionals within this field seek out other practice exams, simulations and training materials to prepare for their certification. Numerous testing websites offer preparation materials. There are many resources that are available to help aspiring HVAC-R technicians prepare for certification exams.
The ESCO Institute offers a comprehensive online store stocked with specialized training manuals – with many of them available in Spanish as well – for competencies like hydrocarbon refrigerants, electrical theory, heat pump installation, the EPA section 608 and more. It also provides a wide range of DVDs, interactive digital training materials and textbooks.
HVAC-Learning.com offers numerous free online training videos for reviewing common subjects across various certification exams like calculating flow rates, heat pumps and fan coil units.
HVACCertificationPracticeTests.com offers free practice tests for EPA 608, NATE and HVAC basics certifications.
An HVAC-R technician is required by many U.S. states to be licensed before being allowed to practice the profession. There are some exceptions, however. A license isn’t required by some states to practice. In these cases, the technician might need to be licensed at the municipal or local level. The policies can change, and it is critical to check with your local regulating authority to get the most up-to-date requirements.