Becoming a certified HVAC technician doesn’t have to be a years-long process. There are two primary roads to take, either through classroom education or on-the-job training. Both paths lead through EPA certification and, ultimately, your HVAC credentials.
Do you have what it takes to enter one of the fastest-growing industries in America right now? This article will take you through the paces of becoming an HVAC technician. I will show you the various steps (both mandatory and optional) and help you choose the right path to your own certification.
In a nutshell, HVAC technician certification is a certificate that shows you have the training, knowledge, and experience to diagnose, install, repair, and remove HVAC equipment. Depending on the area you live in, HVAC certification may or may not be required.
However, as part of your certification process, you will be required to gain your EPA certification (608). The federal government requires this certification for anyone working with refrigerants. While your job or area may not require a full HVAC certification, the EPA certification is required.
With an HVAC technician certification, you can enter the job field, get paid well for your knowledge, and have an enjoyable career in one of the fastest-growing industries for the next 10 years.
Advantages of Achieving Professional Certification
There are several advantages to gaining your HVAC tech certification. The first, and most obvious, is that you will find it easier to gain employment in the HVAC field. While having the certification doesn’t guarantee job placement, it makes you more attractive to prospective employers.
You gain the knowledge that may not otherwise be obtained. Many HVAC techs can go most of their careers without having to deal with certain aspects of the job. Through your certification process, you will get to experience just about everything that might arise during your career.
By going through the courses and exams, along with real-world training, you will get to meet people in the industry. As you may understand, knowing the right person can be the difference between being hired and still applying.
Finally, you will get a linear path through all of the certification exams and processes. Instead of having to figure out the next step, or which exam to take following the previous ones, you will have your path to HVAC tech certification laid out in front of you. You won’t have to wonder what comes next, or when it should come.
HVAC Training Options
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are two primary paths to becoming HVAC certified. Let’s take a closer look at those two paths now.
Technical College/HVAC Trade Schools
The first option is to go to school. There are several options if you are searching for “the best HVAC school near me.” It goes a little deeper than that, though. The possibilities include colleges, universities, and trade schools.
If you are looking for certification only, an HVAC trade school is your best option. These will last 4 months to a year and get you prepared for HVAC careers. Most of them will have job placement programs available upon graduation. Be careful, though. Not all trade schools offer the EPA certification exam.
If you attend a college program, you will get the same experience as a trade school, but along with your certification, you can also get a degree. Most programs offer a 2-year associate’s degree, though there are a couple that do have a bachelor’s degree program. These are designed for the techs that want to advance in the career as management or start their own companies.
The other avenue is to get on-the-job-training (OJT) or work as an apprentice. This is the better option for those working in a related field that want to expand their resumes. While most apprenticeships do not pay, the experience will lead directly to certification. How long until you can become certified varies.
For the most part, the OJT path leads more to the required certification in your area. This may be only the EPA 608 certification, or can also include the full HVAC tech certification. You will have to check with the apprenticeship or employer to find out.
HVAC Certification Guide
So, are you ready to get HVAC technician certified? Let’s take a look at the requirements you need to meet to get that certification or degree, then.
HVAC License Requirements
To gain your HVAC certification, there are some hoops you will have to jump through. None of them are difficult, though. The time frame will depend on your availability, of course. First, you will need to obtain your high school diploma or GED. Even tech and trade schools will have this as a minimum requirement to enroll.
After enrolling, you will need to complete and pass the course. Trade schools generally last for 4 to 9 months, with tech schools lasting 6 to 12 months (some go for two years). If you decide to go the degree route, you can expect a minimum of 2 years for the associate’s degree and 4 years for the bachelor’s.
From there, you will need to pay for the certification exam, which should be state-run (or at least state-sponsored). Many of the schools will include the fees and exams with their tuition and enrollment. However, if you are going the apprentice or OJT route, you will need to find a location and pay the exam fees yourself.
Once you have passed the exam, you are technically HVAC certified. However, you still need to take and pass the EPA certification exam.
EPA Section 608 Certification
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for overseeing that all HVAC techs are certified to handle refrigerants. HVAC technicians need a minimum or the EPA 608 certification, though there are others you can obtain.
Without the 608 certification, you will not be legally allowed to purchase refrigerant, flush, vacuum, or fill refrigerant lines. You can not work on appliances, HVAC equipment, or any other item that contains refrigerant.
Note: If you plan to work in the automotive field, you will need to obtain the EPA 609 certification.
Types of Certification
There are four levels of EPA 608 certification. Each level will allow you to work with various refrigerants and equipment. Most exams will have three sections (Types I through III). You can take any or all of them, though it is recommended to take all of them (Universal) for complete certification. Here is the breakdown.
- Type I
The Type I certification allows you the legal right to work on small appliances with refrigerants. This will include refrigerators, coolers, portable ACs, etc.
- Type II
Type II certification allows you to repair and service high- and very high-pressure refrigerants, except those in small appliances and motor vehicle air conditioners (MVACs). With Type II certification, you also gain the legal right to dispose of refrigerants.
- Type III
Type III certification allows you to repair and service low-pressure refrigerant systems.
- Universal EPA Certificate
Finally, the Universal certification allows you all three (Type I, II, and III) certification allowances. Unless you are specializing in a specific type of HVAC service, the Universal certification is the one to go for.
- North American Technician Excellence (NATE)
The North American Technician Excellence (or NATE) is a certification coalition that provides updated HVAC/R testing and certification. Unlike the EPA 608, which never expires, the NATE certification has a 2-year validity.
NATE Entry-Level Certification
Once NATE certified, you prove you are up to date on all manner of knowledge-based HVAC systems, conditions, equipment, and tools. Since the industry changes over time, you must re-certify every 2 years. This certification is purely voluntary and isn’t a requirement in any state.
However, with the certification, you become more employable and stand out over other applicants that are not certified. It does not guarantee a job or placement, but it doesn’t hurt your chances either.
There are four steps to the NATE certification. However, steps 3 and 4 are for HVAC technicians employed for 2 or more years. This article is aimed to get you started in the career, so I will only focus on the first two steps.
The first step is for absolute beginners. Aimed at those with little to no experience or formal training, this certification is online only. In essence, it is a proving ground that you have the skills needed to become a certified technician. All study materials and the exam are done online.
HVAC Support Technician Certification
The HVAC support test is designed as a prep-course for the official NATE certification (step 3). This exam and certificate will cover the basic fundamentals of HVAC training, and ensure you know what you are doing in the field. To qualify for this exam, you must have the Ready-to-Work certificate and have worked int eh field for 6 to 12 months.
Steps 3 and 4
Briefly, let me explain the rest of the process. Once you have worked for 24 months (2 years) in the field and hold both previous certificates, you can take the Core exam. As long as you pass the Core exam and maintain your certification, you only need to take this exam once.
Step 3 then allows you to choose a service exam or installation exam (or both). Once you pass those, you are NATE certified. Step for is a master technician certification aimed at techs with a minimum of 2 years experience. However, before you can take this exam, you must pass and hold both the heating and cooling certifications from the previous step.
Other HVAC Certification Organizations
There are other certification organizations out there for you to choose from, as well. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages. However, for the self-starter, having options is a great asset.
HVAC Excellence focuses primarily on entry-level techs. Making sure you have the required licenses and certifications needed to make a lasting career. They are now a part of the ESCOgroup (see below) and offer training, testing, and certification in entry-level, master-level, and specialized certifications for HVAC/R.
Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES)
The RSES organization is responsible for certifying over 200,000 technicians across the country. They have an elaborate online database for study materials, resources, and exams. Since 2012, they have also offered NATE certifications and pride themselves on making the most knowledgeable technicians in the country.
The ESCO Institute is one of the largest and most revered certification organizations in the HVAC/R world. They specialize in their remarkable online resources and exam institutions. Not only can you become HVAC certified, EPA certified, and concentrate with other certifications, but through ESCO, you can also become an exam proctor yourself.
Aside from the EPA 608 requirement, each state is left to its own requirements for licenses and certifications for HVAC technicians. For the most part, you don’t have to have an HVAC technician license, though this doesn’t mean you don’t have to be certified.
Some states require a plumbing or electrical license (or both) if you are going to be independent. Working for a company, though, has fewer requirements on the individual level.
Your school or apprenticeship will have all of the required information about the laws in your state. Since each state varies (some even by region), it is beyond the scope of this article to cover them all. Check with your local HVAC trade schools for local requirements. Even if you aren’t enrolled in their programs, they will help you determine what is required in your area.
The Cost of Becoming Certified
The cost to become HVAC certified will vary by individual and needs. It also depends on which path you decide to take to become certified. If you go through an apprenticeship program, you won’t have to pay anything. However, you also won’t get paid, either, so your income will need to be subsidized somehow.
Going through a trade or technical school will cost you tuition fees that can range from a few thousand to twenty thousand. Likewise, college and university tuition fees will depend on the degree type and amount of credit hours per semester you enroll in.
The most significant cost will be your time. While it is possible to get certified in as little as four months, most technicians gain their certification in the 9 to 18-month range. This will depend on how many hours per week you can devote to the training or school and how many times you need to pass the exams.
People Also Ask (FAQs)
What is the difference between HVAC and Refrigeration certification?
The primary difference between HVAC and refrigeration training and certification is that refrigeration deals only with the cooling side of the HVAC universe. HVAC certification covers refrigeration as well as heating.
What is an HVAC engineer? Does an HVAC engineer require certification?
Instead of repairing or installing HVAC systems like a technician does, an HVAC engineer has the job of developing HVAC systems. This can be working for a company that develops HVAC equipment, or for one that designs new HVAC concepts. HVAC engineers aren’t always required to be certified (though they should be), but they are required to have formal engineering degrees, usually with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.
Can I get certified online? When are these programs advisable?
You can get certified online. There are several certification institutes that do online testing and training. Many online organizations will train you at your own pace online but may require the certification exams to be taken on campus or in a classroom, in person. If you are a full-time worker or have other obligations that prevent you from attending a class in person during regular hours, an online training program may be the best answer for you.
What states do not require an HVAC license?
Most states do not require an HVAC license to work on HVAC equipment as an employee. However, if you are an independent contractor or own your own HVAC company, you will need to be licensed and insured. Each state carries its own rules and laws about licensure, so you will need to check with the state you plan to work in to find out their current requirements.
Do HVAC technicians make good money?
An HVAC technician with at least 1 year of employment with all required certifications can expect to make between $32,000 and $54,000 per year. The range will vary depending on employer need, location, and experience.
Does HVAC involve math?
HVAC involves a lot of math. While the actual calculations are basic math (with some algebra), you will need to be able to convert measurements, read and understand pressures, and be able to know weights, balances, and temperatures to calculate different refrigerant needs.
Is it worth going to school for HVAC?
If you plan to be an HVAC technician, you do not need to go to school. However, if you plan to be an employed HVAC technician, formal training through a school or accredited HVAC program is advised.
What colleges offer HVAC programs?
There are technical institutes and colleges in every state that offer HVAC training, certification, and degrees. Not every city or county will have an HVAC college, but chances are there is one within a 50-mile radius of your home.
What is the highest HVAC degree?
The highest degree for HVAC/R is currently a bachelor’s degree. There are only a few institutions that offer a bachelor’s program in HVAC, though, as certifications and associate’s degrees are more common.
Whether you want to further an HVAC career, start your own HVAC company, or start your career on the right foot, learning how to become an HVAC technician is crucial. While you have plenty of options when it comes to certification, the more certifications you hold, the better off your career will be.
At a minimum, you will need to be EPA 608 certified to get employed as an HVAC technician. Attending an HVAC trade or technical school (or college) will only enhance your career options and get you HVAC certified.
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