A Career as an AC Technician
When you’re thinking about what to do for work, a practical, hands-on job like being an air conditioning (AC) technician can be very attractive. AC installers make sure that our living, working and leisure spaces are cooled safely and reliably as well as keeping humidity under control. With decent compensation and strong prospects for career growth, AC installation and maintenance is a stable and fulfilling career. It’s also skilled, hard work—to do well, you’ll need to invest a significant amount of time in training and to have both physical stamina and mechanical aptitude.
Aptitudes and Skills for AC Technicians
Air conditioning systems, whether they’re built into a house or a skyscraper, rely on special chemicals that can change quickly from liquid to gas and back again. These chemicals, called refrigerants, are locked into a closed system within the unit and can be mechanically compressed and run through a series of metal fans, engineered to transfer thermal energy from the air to the fluid, which then becomes a gas and is routed back to the beginning of the cycle to be compressed again.
In practice, this means there are lots of pipes and moving parts in any given AC system, and there are metal fans inside and outside the building, and ducts to circulate the cooled air around the interior space. AC units also have filters in them to remove contaminants and particles from outside air, and those need to be replaced on a regular basis. This is also the role of AC techs, who generally do maintenance as well as set up new systems.
In order to do well as an AC technician you’ll need to have a good working knowledge of the physics of AC systems as well as an understanding of how big and powerful a system needs to be in order to cool, filter and, if required, dehumidify the air in a given space. You’ll also need to understand something about electrical systems to make sure the AC system is reliably and adequately powered, and about the flow of air within buildings.
How to Become an AC Technician
AC technicians work in a valuable field, but to become an AC technician a significant amount of training is involved. At the most basic level, to begin an entry-level job, training course or apprenticeship, you should hold a high school or general equivalency diploma. One exception to this is that many high schools have vocational programs where students can begin training to be an AC technician. If you are still in high school, it is encouraged to take advantage of this training. If your own school doesn’t offer this kind of training, it may have reciprocal arrangements with another nearby school that does. Your guidance counselor may be able to help with this.
Proficiency in spoken and written English, basic math skills and an understanding of how simple electrical circuits work are important before you begin. You’ll also need to be reasonably physically fit—you don’t need to run marathons or win bodybuilding competitions, but you will be lifting heavy objects and using your strength and stamina on a daily basis.
The next step toward becoming an AC technician is undertaking a technical training program or an apprenticeship. Depending on where you are and what programs and jobs are available, these can sometimes be done at the same time.
If you’re searching online for training or apprenticeship opportunities in your area, it’s important to understand that AC technicians are specialists within the broader world of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technicians, so you’ll need to ask around and see which course or apprenticeship is particularly suitable for people who know they want to specialize in air conditioning.
Training Courses for AC Technicians
Generally, there are two sorts of training courses for AC technicians: a two-year associate’s degree or a weeks- or months-long certificate course. Bachelor’s degrees are also available. It’s recommended that you choose a program that is accredited by national organizations aimed at technical education such as HVAC Excellence or the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA).
Community colleges, universities, technical schools and even HVAC companies and the manufacturers of widely used HVAC equipment may offer courses near you. Online courses are also available and confer the advantage of flexibility, as most of these programs are self-directed. Learners can study at home at a time that fits them, making it possible to learn alongside other work, educational or caretaking responsibilities. If you learn better in person, most locations within the U.S. have HVAC classes suitable for aspiring AC technicians running year-round, often with connections to local apprenticeships and employers.
Here are a couple of examples of available programs:
- Lewis and Clark College is a public university in Idaho, well-known for its strong technical programs. Its HVAC program, accredited by HVAC Excellence, offers a technical certificate, an associate’s degree lasting two years and a bachelor’s degree lasting four years. As a public university, Lewis and Clark has the advantage of its courses and programs being eligible for a broad variety of forms of financial aid at the state and federal levels. In all levels of the program, there is a strong focus on hands-on education, making graduates desirable to employers.
- Based in DeKalb, Georgia, the Georgia Piedmont Technical College offers a two-year associate’s degree program specializing in air conditioning technology. Alongside a foundation of courses in general education, the program includes courses in refrigeration, electrical apparatus and air conditioning, from the theoretical basics to installation and system design. The program includes extensive practical application in workshop settings as well as classroom-based lectures, and is eligible for many types of financial aid.
A completed certificate or degree will set you up well when you apply for an apprenticeship, which is a traditional method of learning in which you are paid a wage while learning your trade. While it’s very possible to get an apprenticeship without having completed a training program, apprenticeship applications are competitive.
Apprenticeship.gov is a federal government site with vetted apprenticeships, and HVAC-related professional organizations and trade unions like plumbing and pipefitters unions might have AC-focused apprenticeships. Your chosen training program is very likely to have links to employers that take on apprentices.
An apprenticeship is a good way to get the thousands of hours of experience in the field that can be required by states that certify AC and HVAC technicians at the contractor or journeyworker level. It’s also a good way to focus on the AC specialty, working in a discipline or for an employer that does the work you are interested in learning.
Certification for AC Technicians
As the United States is organized federally, each state and territory has the power to regulate the certification of skilled specialists like AC technicians. While many states certify HVAC contractors—the people who bid on jobs and design systems—not all states certify or register technicians or impose a graded system of apprentices, journeyworkers and contractors. The Department of Labor of your state is a good place to find the rules for your area.
Certification as a contractor generally requires proving thousands of hours of high-level work in the field and a rigorous proctored exam. There are also privately administered national professional certifications at the contractor level, managed by bodies like the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
There is one important set of certifications imposed at the federal level for AC technicians, and that is the EPA Section 608 certification, required for anyone working with equipment that uses refrigerant chemicals. AC technicians definitely require this certification.
There are several classes of EPA 608 certification, depending on the type of equipment you want to work on, install or dispose of:
- Working with small appliances (Type I)
- Working with high-pressure appliances (Type II)
- Working with low-pressure appliances (Type III)
- Working with all types of equipment (Universal)
The EPA 608 exam is a proctored exam that must be administered by an EPA-approved certifying organization—lots of these exist in all states, and your technical course or apprenticeship-holder may well be one of them. Apprentices who are directly and continually supervised don’t need this certification, but everyone else does, as refrigerant leaks can be damaging to health and to the environment.
Job Outlook and Salary Information for AC Technicians
Like other HVAC disciplines, AC technicians receive good compensation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide separate data for AC technicians, but offers a detailed analysis of prospects and compensation for what it refers to as “HVAC installers and mechanics.” In 2019, the average pay for these workers across the U.S. was $48,730 per year or $23.43 per hour, with national job growth projected at four percent between 2019 and 2029—about an average rate of growth.
Because HVAC installation and maintenance is needed for nearly all sorts of buildings, it’s closely pegged to the local climate and economy, which means compensation and the number or available jobs will vary widely across the country. For example, AC technicians in New York State can make an average of nearly $60,000 per year, while the average annual salary in southeastern states is less than $45,000. Metropolitan areas and far-flung locations compensate their technicians more highly. Fairbanks, Alaska, and Santa Cruz, California, have an average annual salary for HVAC technicians of about $78,000.
Who Hires AC Technicians?
By far, the largest employers of AC and HVAC technicians are the companies that make the equipment they install and maintain. Construction companies tend to hire specialist firms to take care of designing and installing AC systems, so if you take a job with one of these firms you might find yourself travelling from site to site in your local area to install and maintain equipment. Other major industries that hire AC techs include repair and maintenance, facilities management, direct sales and warehousing. If you’re working for a company in one of these sectors it’s likely you’ll be working with a regular roster of clients, keeping their systems safe, functional and up-to-date.
Many AC techs are self-employed or work in very small companies with an extremely local range, repairing and upgrading the AC equipment of homes and small businesses. If you enjoy driving from site to site and building relationships with a few clients over a long period of time, this sort of work might be a good fit for you.
School systems, hospital networks and medium to large businesses with multiple sites across an area often maintain a roster of in-house technicians who can fix a problem quickly. Failed AC systems can mean a site has to close until the problem is repaired—particularly in areas with hot, humid climates—so having skilled AC technicians on staff is mission-critical.
Working as an AC Technician
AC systems are in the behind-the-scenes parts of buildings, so you’ll be working on ladders, in access shafts and in dark and loud maintenance rooms. You’ll be lifting heavy objects and dealing with dirty and dusty filters on a regular basis, and you will find yourself working late at night, early in the morning and on weekends so your clients can get their systems working at their best without losing important business hours. You might have to use your patience and professionalism to deal with tense or angry customers, and you will need to be skilled at working alone or in a team, often with significant time pressures.
As an AC technician, your brains are as important as your strength. You’ll need to be a safe and courteous driver, and you’ll need to keep meticulous records in order to comply with all of the legal and health and safety requirements of your state, locality and customers. You’ll need to use your experience and reasoning to troubleshoot problems and to test your repairs to ensure their success. Often you’ll need to use a wide variety of built-in computer systems within AC technology, some of which may be years out of date. If you work for yourself, strong accounting, secretarial and even marketing skills are useful. As in any job, a strong work ethic, pride in your work and professionalism will help you stand out from the crowd.