Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers—often referred to as HVAC technicians—work on heating, ventilation, cooling, and refrigeration systems that control the air quality in many types of buildings. They mostly work in residential homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings, or factories. Their worksites may be very hot or cold because the heating and cooling system they must repair is broken. Working in cramped spaces is common. Most work full time.
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HVAC technicians typically do the following:
Heating and air conditioning systems control the temperature, humidity, and overall air quality in homes, businesses, and other buildings. By providing a climate controlled environment, refrigeration systems make it possible to store and transport food, medicine, and other perishable items. Although trained to do all three, HVAC technicians sometimes work strictly with heating, air conditioning, or refrigeration systems. They also may specialize in certain types of HVAC equipment, such as water-based heating systems, solar panels, or commercial refrigeration.
Depending on the task, HVAC technicians use many different tools. For example, they often use screwdrivers, wrenches, pipe cutters and other basic handtools when installing systems. To test or install complex system components, technicians may use more sophisticated tools, such as carbon monoxide testers, voltmeters, combustion analyzers, and acetylene torches. When working on air conditioning and refrigeration systems, technicians must follow government regulations regarding the conservation, recovery, and recycling of refrigerants. This often entails proper handling and disposal of fluids.
Some HVAC technicians sell service contracts to their clients, providing regular maintenance of heating and cooling systems. Other craft workers sometimes help install or repair cooling and heating systems. For example, on a large air conditioning installation job, especially one in which workers are covered by union contracts, ductwork might be done by sheet metal workers and duct installers, or electrical work by electricians. In addition, home appliance repairers usually service window air conditioners and household refrigerators.
Because HVAC systems are increasingly complex, employers generally prefer applicants with technical training or those who have completed a formal apprenticeship. Some jurisdictions require technicians to be licensed.
A growing number of HVAC technicians receive training from technical and trade schools or community colleges that offer programs in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration. These programs generally last six months to two years and can lead to a certificate or an associate’s degree. High school students interested in becoming HVAC technicians should take courses in shop, math, and physics. Some knowledge of plumbing or electrical work and a basic understanding of electronics can be helpful.
Other HVAC technicians learn their trade on the job, although this is becoming much less common. Informally trained technicians usually begin by assisting experienced technicians with basic tasks, such as insulating refrigerant lines or cleaning furnaces. In time, they move on to more difficult tasks, including cutting and soldering pipes or checking electrical circuits.
Many technicians receive their training through a formal apprenticeship. Applicants for apprenticeships must have a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED). Math and reading skills are essential. Apprenticeship programs normally last three to five years, and combine paid on-the-job training with technical instruction. Over the course of the apprenticeship, technicians become familiar with subjects such as safety practices, blueprint reading, and how to use tools.
HVAC technicians mostly work in residential homes, schools, stores, hospitals, office buildings, or factories. Some technicians are assigned to specific job sites at the beginning of each day. Others travel to several different locations making service calls.
Technicians generally work indoors, but some may have to work on outdoor heat pumps, for example, even in bad weather. They often work in awkward or cramped spaces, and some work in buildings that are uncomfortable because the air conditioning or heating system is broken.
The median annual wage of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers was $42,530 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $26,490, and the top 10% earned more than $66,930.
Apprentices usually earn about half of the wage paid to experienced workers. As they gain experience and improve their skills, they receive periodic raises until they reach the wage of experienced workers.