How to Become an HVAC Technician | HVAC Certification Ultimate Guide

This article cuts through the online hype to tell you what it takes, how much it costs and how long it takes to become an HVAC technician. Certified HVAC technician salary is included.

PickHVAC is not tied to schools or the referral sites that dominate the Google search results.

We’re unbiased and independent regarding HVAC contractors.

Our purpose is to help our readers find the best HVAC installation and repair technicians where they live. When you succeed in becoming an HVAC pro and getting the job done right in a customer’s home, we succeed.

To that end, the higher number of qualified and experienced HVAC technicians and contractors are available, the better for our readers.

What’s Here?

In this article, you will see the most common paths to becoming an HVAC technician.

Additional topics covered are:

  • HVAC certification online cost
  • HVAC training and education cost
  • How to Pay for HVAC education
  • HVAC technician salary
  • Certified HVAC technician salary – Is there a difference?
  • Job outlook for HVAC technicians
  • The answer to “how long does it take to become an HVAC technician?”

What is your career path – Technician? Management? Business ownership?

  • If you want to get a good-paying entry-level Technician position, and maybe have your education paid for, we discuss that below.
  • If you want to rise through the ranks into HVAC management in a large company, this article shows how to do that.
  • If you want to start your own HVAC business and/or Refrigeration business, that’s covered too.

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.

They must:

  1. 1
    Get a high school diploma or pass a series of GED, general education development, tests
  2. 2
    Pass a drug screening
  3. 3
    Have 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

The career is technically known as HVAC/R.

  • Heating: Furnaces, heat pumps, boilers
  • Ventilation: Air systems that allow for healthy airflow, circulation and fresh-air ventilation.
  • Air Conditioning: Air conditioners, chillers, coolers, etc.
  • Refrigeration: Commercial coolers and freezers like those in grocery stores

There are three paths to a career in HVAC/R. Here’s a brief overview with the pros and cons of each.

Path 1: Formal apprenticeship.

The Department of Labor, or US DOL, says, “Apprenticeships combine paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction to prepare workers for highly-skilled careers.

Workers benefit from apprenticeships by receiving a skills-based education that prepares them for good-paying jobs. Apprenticeship programs help employers recruit, build, and retain a highly-skilled workforce.”

An apprenticeship does not involve simply being a “helper” for a few years, assisting in menial ways, before launching one’s own HVAC company. Note that they involve hands-on training plus classroom instruction.

That combination is a great advantage. Plus, they’re paid. The apprentice will take classes, and the fees for classes are often paid by the company.

Apprenticeships have the potential to turn out very good technicians. They follow the time-honored mentoring method:

  1. 1
    The mentor does it, and the apprentice watche
  2. 2
    The mentor gives the apprentice parts of the task, until well-rounded competency is achieved
  3. 3
    The apprentice does the work, and the mentor watches and critiques
  4. 4
    The apprentice graduates to work independently

A typical apprenticeship involves 2,000 hours per year – like working 40-hour weeks, 50 weeks of the year. In most states, coursework is required as well – up to 144 hours in the classroom per year.

The apprentice is also encouraged or required to get licensed and certified at the appropriate time. Those steps are discussed below.

The potential downside is that some apprenticeships last up to 5 years by contract. So the apprentice is “locked into” the job for a significant amount of time

Secondly, the hand’s-on training will only be as good as those providing the training.

  • Good: An apprentice working for a high-quality HVAC contractor that does things the right way will likely become an outstanding HVAC professional.
  • Bad: Working for a company that cuts corners and does shoddy work might produce a “pro” of the same poor caliber.

Some of the very best HVAC professionals have been through an apprenticeship combined with taking classes from a technical school or college. The best of both worlds is achieved.

Path 2: Technical School + Work Experience

There is a growing need in the US for History majors. 😁Hahaha😉

The real demand is for skilled professionals – HVAC technicians. Plumbers. Electricians. Carpenters. Etc.

These future pros are being trained in technical schools, colleges and apprenticeships across the country.

Programs last 9-18 months with most being 12-15 months. HVAC/R classes are taught in:

  • Residential Gas Heating
  • HVAC Systems Design & Installation
  •  Air Conditioning
  • Boiler Systems
  • Principles of Refrigeration

And many more…

Once the program is successfully completed, the school awards the student a certificate in HVAC.

Most states require those with an HVAC certificate of this type to work in the field for at least 2 years before becoming a licensed HVAC technician – It is akin to an apprenticeship program.

Path 3: Community College + Work Experience

Many CCs have begun technical programs in response to the demand in the skilled trades.

The HVAC portion of the training is the same as provided at a technical school. Additionally, the student might get training in electives like business ownership and general courses like math and science.

The programs are 18-24 months, full time, and result in an associate degree. As with technical school grads, those with an associate degree will have to work for a number of years – it varies by state – before becoming licensed.

Some employers believe graduates of a community college are more well-rounded, so better candidates for employment. Others view them with skepticism, believing they probably want to start their own companies when they’re able to get licensed, possibly taking some of their employers customers with them.

There’s truth in that. Generally speaking, HVAC students that plan to begin their own company get an associate degree vs technical school certificate.

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:

  1. 1
    Allow them to work on a wider range of equipment
  2. 2
    Demonstrate 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.”

EPA

There are multiple levels of the EPA 608 Certification:

  • Type 1: For small appliances like a refrigerator with 5lbs or less of refrigeration.
  • Type 2: For working on air conditioners, heat pumps and other equipment with high-pressure refrigerants.
  • Type 3: For working on chillers and other equipment with low-pressure refrigeration.
  • Type 4: Universal – All the Above.

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.

North American Technician Excellence

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.

The 4 Steps to HVAC Sucess

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.

Contractors Factory Authorized

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 Much Does HVAC Certification Cost?

To get an HVACR education ranges from $900 to more than $30,000??? Yes, but that’s a meaningless range.

However, that’s what you find when you search phrases like, “how much do HVAC technicians make” or “HVAC technician salary” online. This section will help you understand your educational options, what you get for them and what the cost of HVAC education is based on your goals.

Let’s break it down by:

  • HVAC Education Options and What You Get for Them
  • HVAC Certification Online Cost
  • HVAC Certification Cost for In-person Education

HVAC Education Options and What You Get for Them

These are your educational options. Cost ranges for each are discussed below.

There are 5 HVAC education options that lead to HVAC certification.

  1. Online HVAC Courses that prepare you to find a job
  2. Online HVAC Courses that are taken as part of an apprenticeship
  3. In-person and online HVAC Technical Training to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician
  4. In-person Associate Degree in HVAC or HVACR to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician
  5. In-person Bachelor’s degree in HVAC or HVACR to become an HVAC/HVACR engineer

Note on HVAC vs HVACR vs HAR: There are several terms used more or less interchangeably here and in the heating and air conditioning industry.

  • HVAC means heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
  • HVACR adds “refrigeration” to the title, though refrigerant and refrigeration education are part of HVAC training programs.
  • HAR is heating, air conditioning and refrigeration, just another way to say it.

1). Online Introductory HVAC Courses that prepare you to find a job

Schools like Penn Foster (and remember, we have no affiliation with any school) offer a short, preparatory course. Most give you up to 12 months to complete the course, but they can be done in as little as 4-5 months.

These programs consist of 3-10 courses depending on how subjects are grouped into courses.

These are often called Ready to Work programs because you give you enough basic knowledge to start a job where you’ll receive additional, on-the-job HVAC/HVACR training.

The features of these programs are:

A Diploma in HVAC or HVACR upon successful completion of the coursework.

Entirely online with computer and mobile-friendly apps for accessing coursework.

Self-paced – go at your own pace, but there is a deadline for completion, usually about a year.

Learning is done through reading, informative videos, virtual simulations showing how HVAC equipment and refrigerant systems work.

Courses cover the basics of electricity and electrical systems, refrigerant systems, HVACR system design and installation, HVAC and HVACR repair, HVAC tools and how to use them, math useful for these disciplines.

Most provide students with support “coaches” to provide periodic assistance, but these are not tutoring sessions or class instructors.

Options/electives – Each student can customize their education with a limited number of elective options.

Pros:

  • A good introduction to the fields of HVAC and refrigerant systems. All the basics are covered.
  • Low-cost education – since it is entirely online and pre-packaged, and there is little personal instruction, costs for the school are low. Plus, with online HVAC classes, you don’t waste time or money driving to a facility.
  • EPA Certification Test might be paid for as part of your education from most schools along with EPA Certification Test Training Manual.

Cons:

  • Just the basics – There isn’t time in these short courses to cover any of the main topics with much depth. Just a taste of each that will put you ahead of others with no knowledge of HVAC and HVACR.
  • No hands-on instruction on HVAC and Refrigerant systems.
  • Little or no job placement assistance – you’re basically on your own for finding work. But the good news is that this is a growing field, as is discussed below, and heating, air conditioning and refrigeration companies are looking for solid employees. A Diploma gives you a good head start.

Who Should Consider Preparatory Online HVAC Training?

This is an ideal start for three types of people:

1 – If you are still deciding if you want a career in HVAC/HVACR. The low cost means there is little financial cost to find out if this is the career path you want to pursue.

2 – Students that want a career in HVAC, but don’t have the money required for the other types of HVAC education online or in the classroom.

3 – Students that have a job lined up with a company that wants them to get familiar with the basics before on-the-job training or apprenticeship begins.

2). In Person or Online HVAC Courses that are taken as part of an apprenticeship

As noted, apprenticeships remain a popular way for employers to train HVAC and HVACR technicians. They last 3-5 years, and most apprentices stay with the company once they’ve completed the program.

We think this is the strongest way to ensure your success in the HVAC profession.

The most popular programs are online and digital.

Features of an HVAC apprenticeship are:

Everything included in a diploma program like outlined in 1). above – but far more.

A job. Apprentices work for a heating, air conditioning and/or refrigerant company, whether residential, commercial or both.

Coursework: They also further their education from a technical school or college. Courses can be taken online or in person during an apprenticeship. Many local technical schools and community colleges provide in-class training. There are schools like HVACRedu.net that provide online coursework designed for apprentices.

HVACedu.net’s course is a good example of this option. It is four modules called Year 1-4, but since it is self-paced, you can complete it more quickly.

Each “year” of courses require about 150 hours of coursework. It is very thorough, covering every aspect of HVACR work. Courses dovetail with what the student is learning and doing on the job every day.

Be sure to choose a US Department of Labor Registered HVAC Apprenticeship Training Provider.

Some are also certified by the National Association of Technician Excellence, or NATE, and that’s a plus to consider.

Pros:

  • Flexibility Online. Working online gives the student maximum freedom to complete coursework. They can engage the material when it fits their schedule rather than having to be in class at a set time.
  • Increased value to the employer. As a result of the dual track, apprentices soon become an asset to the company by applying what they are learning on the job and in the classroom.
  • Preparedness. The apprentice program graduate is well equipped to serve as a technician, rise into management or begin their own HVAC/HVACR company.
  • Affordability. The cost of online HVAC training for apprentices is covered below. But the cost is quite reasonable. And online education requires no time and expense spent on travel.
  • Paid For? Many employers cover the cost of the apprenticeship program.

Cons:

  • Online courses don’t provide hands-on learning. But this is offset by the fact the student is working and receiving real-life training every day.
  • They’re affordable, but you couldn’t call them “cheap.” HVAC certification cost varies quite a bit between schools.

Who Should Consider Training in Conjunction with an HVAC Apprenticeship?

This is a narrow educational niche. Almost all students in these courses are apprentices employed by HVAC/HVACR companies.

If you’re looking for an introductory education, associate degree or bachelor’s degree in HVAC/HVACR but do not have a position as an apprentice, this isn’t your best plan.

3). Online or In-person HVAC Technical Training to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician

For those not in an apprenticeship, this is the next most popular strategy for getting HVAC technician education. By the way, some of these programs have different names, like Mid-Michigan College’s Heating, Refrigerant & AC course, or HRA.

In this category, in-person programs are popular because of the hands-on training involved. But there are plenty of online options too from schools like HVACRedu.

Students just getting started and those already working in the field who want more education take advantage of these programs.

The features include:

A variety of course options customized to the student’s goals.

Programs with most lasting 6-12 months – These are certification programs which vary by school.

Preparedness to become a certified technician, enter the workforce and rise in one’s career.

Pros:

  • A wide range of program options.
  • Your choice of in-person or online.
  • Respected by employers.
  • HVAC certification online cost is very reasonable.

Cons:

  • While online classes cost less, they don’t provide the same level of personal instruction.
  • In-person courses at technical schools and community colleges cost quite a bit more than online programs – see HVAC education cost below.

Who Should Consider HVAC Technician Training?

This is a broader field chosen by students that want a career in heating, air conditioning, refrigerant and related fields but are not apprentices.

1 – Some students have jobs lined up and might even be working part time in those jobs.

2 – Others are full-time students that will pursue job opportunities as they get close to completing the course.

4). In-person Associate Degree in HVAC or HVACR to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician

These are primarily 2-year programs, or at least 4 semesters or the equivalent. Some offer year-round classes, so students can earn an associate degree in about 18 months.

Features include:

An associate degree upon completion.

HVAC and/or HVACR coursework plus general education (gen-ed) courses that round out the students abilities. Northern Michigan University’s associate degree description is typical: “Students complete the same technical courses as the HVACR certificate program. You will also complete general education courses, which will further prepare you for employment as a service technician and can increase the opportunity to advance in your career or education.”

Pros:

  • A fuller education with more opportunities for career growth.
  • Good preparation for HVACR business management or ownership.
  • In-person, hands-on training.
  • Career help – most have staff that will assist graduate’s in finding a job.

Cons:

  • The cost of college and university programs is much higher than courses taken online.
  • Since training is on campus, you might have to move to the location and rent housing at additional cost.

5). In-person Bachelor’s degree in HVAC or HVACR

A 4-year degree is designed for HVACR engineers, so it is not the route that most take who want to start their career as HVAC technicians.

Hence, we won’t spend much time on the details of these college and university degrees. Most HVAC engineers go to work for large contractors installing, repairing and replacing commercial heating, cooling and refrigerant systems.

While a bachelor’s degree offers more career options, many programs are very expensive.

HVAC Certification Online Cost

There are several online options, as we’ve noted and explained above. Here they are with what you can expect to pay for the programs.

1). Online Introductory HVAC Courses that prepare you to find a job

This is the most basic HVAC/HVACR training. It provides you with a diploma, not a certification or degree. As noted above, it is designed for those who want to look for a job or apprenticeship position where they can be further trained.

It’s also popular with students wanting to explore becoming an HVAC technician before committing major money to it.

HVAC certification online cost for a diploma: $900 - $2,500

2). In Person or Online HVAC Courses that are taken as part of an apprenticeship

These are mostly 4-module programs that are self-paced, though there is usually a maximum time limit for completing each module or course.

They entail about 150 hours of work for each course/module. That’s not the same as credits, but the total amount of time each course takes. For example, here is an overview of Year 2 from HVACRedu.

Year 2 (149 hours) includes all of these learning topics:

  • Everything About Belts (3 hours)
  • Intro to Blueprints (12 hours)
  • Construction Technology (20 hours)
  • Customer Service (15 hours)
  • Indoor Air Quality Basics (18 hours)
  • Refrigeration Cycle II (18 hours)
  • Refrigeration Cycle Service (9 hours)
  • Electrical DC I (18 hours)
  • Electrical AC II (18 hours)
  • Air Properties & Measurement (18 hours)

HVAC online certification cost for apprenticeship-related classes: $1,200 - $1,950 for each “year”, or a total of about $5,000 - $8,000.

3). In Person or Online HVAC Technical Training to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician

HVAC certification online cost to become a technician: $4,500 - $10,000

HVAC certification cost for in-person education: $9,500 - $18,000 with an average of about $15,000.

For example, Northern Michigan University rates are $437 per credit. If you take 12-16 credits, there’s a flat rate of $5,592 per semester for three semesters, or a total of $16,776 barring tuition increases.

HVAC Associate or Bachelor’s Degree Cost for In-person Education

In person education costs more because the courses are taught at a campus using live instruction, the school’s tools and facilities, etc.

Some employers are more confident hiring a student that has been trained in person than one that has received their education virtually.

The exception is students that have received online training that complements their apprenticeship. In our opinion, finding an apprenticeship with a solid HVAC contractor is the best of both worlds. You’ll get paid as part of the job, and many employers also pay for online HVAC apprenticeship courses.

1). In Person Associate Degree in HVAC or HVACR to become an HVAC technician or HVACR technician

At community colleges and universities, the difference between an HVAC technician certification and an associate degree in HVAC is usually one semester extra.

In the example above, Northern Michigan University’s HVACR technician certification program is 44 credits, which usually takes three semesters to complete.

NMU’s associate degree in HVAC Climate Control Technology requires 60 credits. What’s the difference? There’s a broader range of training in the associate degree program that might give you an advantage in pursuing a job in the industry and might also better prepare you to rise through the ranks or to start your own heating and air conditioning business in the future.

HVAC associate degree cost for in-person education: $14,000 - $35,000 or more with an average of about $24,000.

2). In-person Bachelor’s degree in HVAC or HVACR

We didn’t explore this category as deeply, because the percentage of students pursuing it is very small compared with those pursuing a career as a technician. Still, here is the look at the cost of a BA in HVACR Engineering (names vary widely by school).

HVAC bachelor’s degree cost for in-person education: $27,000 - $50,000 or more with an average of about $37,000.

How Long Does it Take to Become an HVAC Technician?

As you can see from the examples above, it takes from about 12 months to 4 years depending on the program of study you choose.

The average time it takes to become an HVAC technician is 12-18 months for most students.

Apprenticeship programs mostly last 4 years, but you can become a certified technician prior to completing the apprenticeship.

How to Pay for HVAC Education

Unless you’re wealthy, you will probably be eligible for federal aid determined through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which you can fill out at https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa/. FAFSA is primarily used for associate and bachelor degree programs, but it is available for many vocational/technical programs too.

The FAFSA asks about your financial status to determine what amount of federal student aid for HVAC training you are entitled to receive.

HVAC Technician Salary – How Much do HVAC Pros Make

According to the most recent information from the most recent US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), certified HVAC technician salary is about $49,000 per year.

That’s the median, which means half make more and half make less. By the way, that’s about $23.50 per hour.

Those are 2019 numbers. The BLS broke down the 2018 numbers into more detail about certified HVAC technician salary.

  • Lowest 10% make about $29,500
  • Those in the 25th percentile earn about $36,500
  • Those at about 50%, or the Median, make about $49,000.
  • Those in the 75th percentile earn about $61,000
  • Those at the top have certified HVAC technician salary of about $76,000

HVAC technician is a very good-paying job, as you can see by the HVAC technician salary data.

What about the HVAC technician job outlook? There is good news there too.

HVAC Career Job Outlook 2020 and Beyond

Again according to the US BLS, the 2018-2028 HVAC technician job outlook is for growth of 13%, which the BLS says is “Much faster than average” for growth of all jobs.

All the best to you as you pursue a career in HVAC that will be both personally and financially rewarding!

If this HVAC Certification Ultimate Guide is useful, please share it with others that might be interested in HVAC certification education too.

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