Let’s start with the two most important truths about HVAC installations and repairs:
First, not all HVAC technicians are created equally.
The people are created equal, of course, but their training, professional certifications and experience vary tremendously.
Secondly, how well an installation or repair is done is the most important factor in how well the unit will run.
The importance of doing it right: There’s an adage in the HVAC world that the most important day of your heating and air conditioning equipment’s life is the day it is installed. The point is that only properly installed equipment will run as efficiently and as durably as it should.
The same principle holds for repaired equipment. When done right, it will be “like new.” Bad repairs are a prelude to more repairs.
In short, find a:
This is the best way to ensure you’re getting what you pay for rather than wasting money on a poor installation or repair.
Here’s where we are going in this Pick HVAC Guide:
- How to Become an HVAC Technician – Getting Started
- Apprenticeship vs Trade School or College
- HVAC Technician Licensing
- Required HVAC Technician Certifications
- Professional HVAC Technician Certification Levels
- The Importance of Experience & Staying Up to Date
- How to Hire an HVAC Contractor
There’s a wealth of detail here for homeowners that want to find the best of the best HVAC technicians and are willing to ask companies a lot of questions before they hire anyone. This is one of the reasons some HVAC contractors get frustrated with Pick HVAC – our mission is to help homeowners understand their specific issue and make a good decision about equipment or who to hire.
But in the end, the HVAC contractors committed to doing things right appreciate an educated consumer like you. They know you are more likely to choose them – even if they’re not the cheapest price in town.
Others will find the detail tedious or won’t have the time to read through it. They can jump to sections that interest them. We recommend at least reading the last two sections: The Importance of Experience and How to Hire an HVAC Contractor.
How to Become an HVAC Technician – Getting Started
Before someone enters a specific training program, he or she must get over a few hurdles. At least for most programs.
- 1Get a high school diploma or pass a series of GED, general education development, tests
- 2Pass a drug screening
- 3Have a driver’s license
At that point, the person has a decision about which program type they’ll enter.
Apprenticeship vs Trade School or College
These are the three main paths to a career as an HVAC technician.
Path 1: Formal Apprenticeship
This is the way professionals have been entering trades for thousands of years.
In this path, an established HVAC contractor hires an apprenticeship and trains them mostly on the job. Most states also require some course work.
When the training is complete, the apprentice is often required to get licensed and certified. This is an ideal path if the contractor does its work “the right way.” Outstanding HVAC technicians are produced through apprenticeships.
Path 2: Technical School + Work Experience
There are two approaches here. First, an individual can go to HVAC trade school, which lasts 9-18 months depending on the program. Once graduated, the person looks for a job.
The second approach is to find an HVAC company that is willing to hire the individual and pay their way through trade school. Essentially, this take the place of an apprenticeship. In return, the newly minted HVAC technician agrees to work for the company for a set amount of time.
Path 3: Community College + Work Experience
Heating and air conditioning programs at community colleges typically cover the same training as a technical school plus teach general courses on business. The result is an associate degree instead of an HVAC certification.
This is a popular route for people who would like to own their own HVAC business someday or who want to work for a large contractor and work their way into management.
These three paths form the foundation for a well-qualified HVAC pro. But there’s more that needs to be obtained.
HVAC Technician Licensing
The apprenticeship – or the equivalent of school plus work experience – is completed.
Now the student/apprentice takes the next step – becoming a licensed HVAC technician.
A test must be passed to obtain an HVAC license. The test length varies by state. Tests are proctored, meaning the test must be taken at a recognized testing center, and the test taker is monitored to ensure they’re taking the test “by the rules.”
When passed, the individual has hit a milestone in their career – They’ve become a licensed HVAC technician.
The license demonstrates that the person has a general understanding of all important heating and air conditioning concepts such as load calculations for how large a system must be, HVAC system design and installation, troubleshooting and repair.
By law in most states, an HVAC contractor cannot send anyone to work on your equipment unless they are licensed – or are on the job as a helper or apprentice assisting a licensed HVAC technician.
Required HVAC Technician Certifications
The license demonstrates completed training the basic knowledge, skills and experience to be an effective HVAC technician.
With the basic license in place, many HVAC technicians pursue certifications that might:
- 1Allow them to work on a wider range of equipment
- 2Demonstrate they’ve mastered a wider range of skills
An example of the first is the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, Section 608 Technician Certification. It allows for the handling of refrigerants. In the industry, this is referred to as “having your refrigerant card.”
Per the EPA, “EPA regulations under Section 608 of the Clean Air Act require that technicians who maintain, service, repair, or dispose of equipment that could release ozone depleting refrigerants into the atmosphere must be certified.”
There are multiple levels of the EPA 608 Certification:
For most residential HVAC installation and repair, type 2 is the most important.
Professional HVAC Technician Certification Levels
If your HVAC pro has a license, is certified by the EPA and has years of experience, they might do a fantastic job installing your furnace, repairing your air conditioner or whatever the project requires.
However, if you’re looking for an HVAC company for the installation or repair, there’s another way to evaluate their competency: Professional certifications.
What is the difference between these and licensing and EPA certification?
These are not required by the government. They are optional, voluntary, but obtained to demonstrate superior knowledge, experience and wisdom
Some employers make them mandatory for their technicians, and that is an HVAC contractor worth considering for your next new installation, replacement or repair.
Meet NATE: North American Technician Excellence, or NATE, is the nationally recognized leading professional organization for HVAC technicians.
NATE offers testing in a range of areas. The exams are rigorous and comprehensive. When an exam is passed, the technician receives a professional certification demonstrating that they have mastered a certain area of expertise.
This page has an overview of the 4 levels of NATE testing. They are called KATEs – Knowledge Areas of Technician Expertise.
1. Ready to Work Test
This entry-level test is designed for those who want to enter an apprenticeship program with a certified HVAC contractor.
It shows potential employers that the person is serious about becoming a pro technician and has worked to learn the basics.
Requirement: 0-6 months experience. It does not require a certificate or degree from one of the institutions mentioned above.
Note – This is not NATE certification, but it is a good step toward it.
2. HVAC Support Technician Certificate
This isn’t the full NATE certification either. It shows, however, that the individual is making progress in their understanding of HVAC repair and installation. They are well-qualified to assist an HVAC technician on the job.
Requirement: 6-12 months of work in HVAC.
3. NATE Core and Specialty Tests
Individuals serious about their career often want the Core NATE certification plus certifications in specific areas of HVAC system design, installation, replacement and repair.
Requirement: 2 years minimum experience working alongside a certified, licensed HVAC professional.
Core NATE: This NATE exam tests every area of HVAC work a technician might face. Passing the core exam demonstrates a high degree of competency – knowledge + skills + good decision making about troubleshooting and solving common and obscure HVAC issues.
Specialty NATE Tests: It is not enough to pass the Core NATE exam. To be NATE-certified, the technician must also pass one or more Specialty Tests related to Installation or Service/Repair.
Test areas related to residential HVAC cover Air conditioning, Heat pumps, Gas furnaces and other Gas heaters. There are separate tests in each area for Installation and Service/Repair.
4. Senior Level Efficiency Exam
Once a technician has five years of experience, the they can take NATE’s toughest, most comprehensive test.
The Importance of Experience & Staying Up to Date
Having NATE certification is a big plus. But not all of the best HVAC contractors and technicians are NATE-certified.
There are many highly talented technicians who got an education, went to work for a contractor that demanded things be done the right way, and will do a fantastic job on your furnace, heat pump, boiler, air conditioner or the installation of an entire system.
Experience and keeping up with the pace of innovation are essential too and can replace NATE certification in the right company and technician.
In fact, while passing NATE exams demonstrates excellent knowledge, nothing surpasses good experience in importance.
Staying up to date matters too. How is that done? Many contractors send their technicians to “schools” offered by major HVAC brands. Some are week-long courses at the brand’s factory. If you see an HVAC logo that says, “Factory Trained” or “Factory Authorized,” this is what that means.
Some classes are now video or online. Carrier University is one example.
These brands provide training to companies and technicians that keep them current with requirements and best practices for installing and repairing the brand’s equipment. For example, variable capacity heat pumps are new in the last decade. If you choose one, it will be a good idea to ask if the installer has been specifically trained in installing them, setting them up and tuning them for optimal performance.
How to Hire an HVAC Contractor
Here’s where the rubber meets the road.
There are two approaches to hiring an HVAC contractor depending on how much time you have to find a qualified contractor and make your decision.
Scenario One: You Need it Now
Your equipment is broken, and your house is rapidly heating up or cooling down, based on the season. We recommend these steps:
1. Get a window AC or fans going in summer or a few space heaters going in winter. They’re not ideal, but they can buy you a little time. If you have a heat pump with emergency heat strips, now is the time to use them.
2. Use our fast, convenient Free Local Quotes phone number or form. It takes just a few minutes, and you’ll soon have 3 written estimates for the repair from pre-screened, licensed contractors certified to handle the work. We don’t know of a faster way to get written repair or replacement cost estimates.
3. Use a short checklist to determine which heating and air conditioning company to choose:
___The company has a license that is up to date
___The company is insured for liability
___The person doing the repair is certified and has a 5+ years of experience
___Are financing options available?
Did you know? Most states have a contractor’s database online. You can search the company to see if it is licensed and in good standing. Here is the lookup site for Ohio as an example.
We’ve listed those in the order of importance. Do the checklist for each company you get estimates from. Evaluate and compare the checklists.
Then check to see if the company’s Google/Yelp/Better Business Bureau reviews are 4-star or above. If they are not, something is amiss. Move on to the next company.
Scenario Two: You are Planning Ahead
Many wise homeowners understand the value of preemptively replacing old HVAC equipment. Get rid of it before it can fail and leave you stuck in the heat or freezing weather.
This approach gives you time. Your checklist is a little different:
1. Contact at least 3 HVAC companies two to five weeks before you want to have the work done.
Our Free Local Quotes service comes with no cost or obligation. All the companies are licensed and insured. Most use technicians that are factory trained, NATE-certified or both. Doing it a few weeks before your desired “start date” for the project allows you more time to investigate the companies’ experience, ratings and reviews.
2. Talk with the representative of each company. Discuss your plans, ask questions and listen to their advice. Ask about different equipment options.
Discuss issues like a 14 SEER vs 16 SEER AC or heat pump – which efficiency level makes sense for your climate and how long you intend to live in that house? If it’s really hot and humid where you live, then the issue might be a 16 SEER vs 18 SEER unit, or a two-stage model vs single-stage unit.
What about an 80 vs 90 furnace, or 90 vs 95 furnace? Which is cost-effective for your winter weather?
What are the pros, cons and costs of adding accessories like an air cleaner or humidifier?
When you’re not in a hurry, you can explore these issues that will affect your heating and air conditioning costs and indoor climate control. Take your time to get questions answered and compare “apples to apples” in terms of equipment efficiency, cost and the potential to make your home comfortable.
3. Go through the checklist above to determine the qualifications and experience both of the company and the technicians that will install, repair or maintain your equipment. It doesn’t matter if the company has been in business for 50 years if the guy who is going to install your AC is relatively inexperienced.
4. Check out online reviews. Go to Google, and type in each company’s name, one at a time. Check the scores, and read a handful of the reviews at least. Expect a couple bad reviews, because some people just can’t be pleased. But more than 15-20% bad reviews show there is a problem.
5. Evaluate all the information you’ve gathered.
6. Choose an HVAC contractor with technicians with a good mix of:
- Training & certification – NATE and brand training, in-house training and mentoring.
- Experience installing or repairing the type of equipment you have or plan to install.
- Price that seems fair to you. It probably won’t be the cheapest price. In fact, in our experience, HVAC companies with proven records of excellent repairs and installation are in the midrange to upper tier in cost. If the highest bid is 20% or more above the others, that is likely too much. You can do better. However, well-trained technicians make more money than those with little training, and some companies pay for their technicians’ ongoing training and advancement. These create higher overhead costs, and so their prices are higher.
This is what due diligence looks like – and what homeowners need to know when hiring a contractor to work on their heating and air conditioning system.
Thank you for researching how to hire a contractor with our guide. Taking the approach we’ve outlined has proven useful for many readers.
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