There are close to 310,000 heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers in the United States. Projected job growth during the next decade is much better than average. Employers prefer to hire heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers who have a certificate or associate’s degree from a technical school or who have completed an apprenticeship.
Heating and air-conditioning systems control interior climates, including humidity, temperature, and air quality. Transporting meat, dairy, and produce—and keeping these items cold—requires refrigeration systems, as do residential and commercial air-conditioners. Furnaces heat the air in a home, commercial building, or other structure. Heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems are called HVACR systems and contain a multitude of elements. Motors, compressors, fans, pumps, ducts, and thermostats are serviced by HVACR mechanics and installers.
HVACR mechanics are trained to install, maintain, and repair units, but they frequently specialize in just one aspect. Technicians must be able to read blueprints to know how to install single or multiple-fuel systems. Fuel and water supply lines, air ducts, vents, pumps, and the like are attached to the unit after it has been installed. Carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, combustion analyzers, or oxygen testers are used to test combustion and check safety. Installers also put in heat pumps, which cool in the summer and heat in the winter and require more maintenance.
Refrigeration mechanics install, maintain, and repair refrigeration equipment and systems. Manufacturer instruction manuals, blueprints, and design specifications are consulted to ensure motors, compressors, condensing units, evaporators, piping, and other elements are correctly installed. After all components have been connected and powered on, the system must be charged with refrigerants. Air-conditioning and refrigeration technicians recycle the refrigerants as much as possible, as they are environmentally toxic.
Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers use electric and hand tools, such as pipe cutters, wrenches, metal snips, electric drills, gauges, and acetylene torches. Voltmeters, thermometers, pressure gauges, and manometers are used diagnostically to test airflow, refrigerant pressure, circuits, and burners.
These employees primarily work on-site, since it is rarely practical to bring a furnace, air-conditioner, refrigerator, or other large, heavy unit to a shop. Most technicians work outdoors in extreme heat or cold; in crawl spaces or attics that may not be temperature controlled; or in other locations where a unit must be installed or repaired. Crouching, crawling, and twisting can contribute to muscular or skeletal problems. Some technicians work on commercial building rooftops, scaffolds, or other high places. If proper safety procedures are followed, chances of electrical shock, burns, and muscle strains are reduced. If allowed to touch the skin, refrigerants can cause burns, blindness, and even frostbite. Installers must be careful not to inhale fumes.
During peak seasons, heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers may be required to work a lot of overtime or weekend hours. Evening shifts are common, as many people have home units serviced after work. Shops servicing both heating and air-conditioning equipment offer relative job security.
Most employers look for applicants that have graduated from a training program, completed an internship, or both. Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems are becoming increasingly complex. Workers without the proper training may be unable to complete a repair. Most training programs are completed between six months and two years. Those who were in the military and learned similar work are also favored by employees. Knowledge of chemistry, applied physics, electronics, computer software, basic math, and mechanical drawing is ideal. Industry standards are reflected in these programs: HVAC Excellence, the National Center for Construction Education and Research, and the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation. With two years or less of on-site experience, technicians are considered to be fully competent. Apprenticeships are fostered by Contractors of America, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association, the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada. Most apprenticeships are completed in less than five years and involve classroom instruction coupled with paid job training. To be considered for an apprenticeship, a high school diploma or GED is required.
Certain states and localities may require licensing, which is obtained by passing a test, together with several years experience or completion of an apprenticeship. Technicians working with refrigerants must be certified also.
Certification, postsecondary coursework, and experience can result in promotion to more complex tasks and higher pay. Technicians might advance by becoming a supervisor or manager, leaving the repair side to go into sales, or become building superintendents, cost estimators, or instructors.
The median hourly pay for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers is around $20 per hour. Those with little experience or training earn about $13 per hour, while those in the top 10 percent in terms of pay earn over $30 per hour.