How to Become an Automotive HVAC Technician
Automotive HVAC technicians are responsible for inspecting, maintaining, repairing and installing HVAC systems in vehicles. More than air conditioning units, these sophisticated climate control systems monitor the internal temperature of a vehicle’s riding compartment, allowing occupants to alter the climate to their own comfort. Automotive HVACs are capable of regulating both the temperature and humidity of the air, while also adjusting the flow to a passenger’s specifications. Furthermore, these systems often allow passengers to request conflicting settings in different zones within the car.
The primary duties of automotive HVAC technicians involve using their skills and expertise to keep these complicated systems working optimally. Essential to the automotive industry, their expertise is continuously in demand. Therefore, the trade is an excellent choice for those beginning a new career or looking to make a change.
If this is a field you’ve been considering, you might be wondering what exactly automotive HVAC technicians do from day to day and how you can become one. This article will discuss the basics of this career choice, including what they do and how to take the first steps to become a fully qualified automotive HVAC technician.
Climate Control for Automobiles
First introduced to the public in 1925, the air conditioner would not make its appearance in automobiles until 1933. These first units were not widely available, as they were expensive. At the time, they were only installed in limousines and high-end luxury cars. Furthermore, they were unreliable and bulky. A typical unit could take up more than half of the trunk space in a vehicle. These drawbacks made them less popular, even for those with means.
It wasn’t until 1953, when air conditioning was offered as an option on the Chrysler Imperial, that air conditioning in cars became more widely available to people other than the ultra-rich. Followed in 1954 by the Nash Ambassador, which offered a fully-integrated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, the automobile air conditioner began to take off. By 1960, 20 percent of cars in the United States had air conditioning, with percentages skewing as high as 80 percent in the warmer southwestern states. By 1964, air conditioning was present in 54 percent of new cars sold in the country.
The technology has experienced significant improvements since its inception, becoming both less bulky and more economical. Today, air conditioning technology has become a part of climate control systems, which are now standard on nearly every vehicle sold. These units consist of complex technology to cool, heat, dry and moisten the air.
Air conditioning units rely on the use of refrigerants to create cold air. Refrigerants must possess precise chemical properties to be ideal for use in a cooling system. Specifically, a coolant will need to have a boiling point below the targeted temperature and be moderately dense. Additionally, a refrigerant should be non-toxic, non-flammable, non-corrosive and environmentally friendly. Initially, automotive air conditioning used R-12 Freon as a coolant. Unfortunately, it was found to be damaging to the planet’s ozone layer, as it added to its depletion. Since ozone-depleting chemicals were restricted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1994, today’s automotive air conditioners use mainly R410A, R407C or R134a Freon instead.
Automotive air conditioning units consist of a high-pressure side and a low-pressure side, existing in nearly a closed loop. Components on the high-pressure side include:
- Compressor — The most essential part of the air conditioning unit, the compressor pressurizes the coolant, raising its temperature. Driven by a belt attached to the engine’s crankshaft, the compressor draws in the low-pressure gaseous coolant and engages a pump to apply pressure. The refrigerant must heat to a higher temperature than the ambient air so that it can release heat later in the process. The compressor also senses temperature changes both inside and outside the car, monitors output temperature and forces air to the condenser.
- Condenser — The condenser reduces the temperature of hot gasses coming from the compressor. Acting as a radiator, it achieves cooling by forcing the heated coolant through coiled tubes, which allow heat to be released into the ambient air, turning the coolant back into a liquid. The condenser then moves the cooled liquid to the receiver/dryer or accumulator.
- Receiver/Dryer — The receiver/dryer takes the moisture out of the refrigerant. As the liquid is pushed from the condenser, it enters a reservoir filled with desiccants. Consisting of small granules that attract water, the desiccants remove all water particles from the coolant, protecting the system from potentially damaging ice crystals. In some models, the receiver/dryer is replaced by an accumulator. The accumulator is a filter that works in much the same way as the receiver/dryer.
At this point in the process, the system moves to the low-pressure side. If you were working on the system, you would find the system’s low-pressure side is cool to the touch, while the high-pressure side is hot. Components on the low-pressure side include:
- Thermal Expansion Valve — True to its name, when the refrigerant moves to the thermal expansion valve, it is allowed to expand. This expansion depressurizes the coolant, allowing it to move into the evaporator. Sensors measure the system’s temperature and pressure to calculate how much refrigerant to send to the evaporator, which is controlled by the valve. In some vehicles, the thermal expansion valve is replaced by an orifice tube, depending on the car’s model. A thermal expansion valve is always present on vehicles with a receiver/dryer, while an orifice tube is always present on vehicles with an accumulator. The orifice tube serves the same purpose as the thermal expansion valve, allowing the gasses to expand before the liquid moves to the evaporator. In place of the valve, vehicles with orifice tubes will turn the air conditioning off and on, to regulate the flow through the system. Orifice tubes have the tendency to become blocked by debris.
- Evaporator — Located right below the dashboard, the evaporator is the only component of the air conditioning system located in the cabin of the car. Like the condenser, it consists of coiled tubes. However, unlike the condenser, its job is to absorb heat, as opposed to releasing it. At this stage, the refrigerant should reach the coils at an ideal 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the coolant remains liquid at this temperature, its extremely low boiling point ensures that it will return to gaseous form as it absorbs heat from the cabin. Once it has reached its gaseous state, it can absorb even more heat. Colder air moves into the cabin through the use of a fan, blowing over the outside of the coils. In the simplest terms, the evaporator is what finally cools the air with refrigerant, just before it is blown into the vehicle, cooling the passenger.
Automotive HVAC Technicians will need to have an in-depth knowledge of all parts of the cooling system, know how all of the components work and learn how to identify the problems that can cause the system to fail. It will be essential to have the ability to troubleshoot both the mechanical and electronic mechanisms, read schematics and safely handle refrigerants. Technicians will also need to acquire extensive knowledge about the highly specialized equipment and the tools involved in the trade, to be able to diagnose and repair problems. Computer literacy is imperative for those entering the career, as technicians will often need to perform computer-assisted diagnostics.
Training for Automotive HVAC Technicians
Working as an automotive HVAC tech requires a great deal of physical stamina and mental acuity. Although a degree is not a requirement to work in the field, it will be necessary to obtain a high school diploma or equivalent. Extensive training in the trade is also recommended.
Automotive HVAC technicians differ from HVAC technicians because they specialize in automotive systems. Working in the field requires expertise with both foreign and domestic automobiles and the systems they use for cooling. As such, attendance at a specialized training program is highly recommended. If specific training is not available in your area, taking classes in general automotive repair prior to seeking an on-the-job training opportunity is worth considering.
Training programs will generally take the form of a certificate program and include basic automotive repair as a part of the curriculum. Although it is possible to take an online course, those with little experience in automotive repair should look for classes that include opportunities for hands-on learning. Courses should also cover specific subjects such as the science behind air conditioning systems, running computer diagnostics and air conditioning system installation.
Once you have completed your education or training and are able to work independently, it will be essential to keep up-to-date with all industry standards, regulations and required certifications. As such, education for automotive HVAC technicians is ongoing. Additionally, newer climate control technology is continuously being invented and technicians will need to learn the specifics of each new development to stay competent in the field.
Certifications for Automotive HVAC Specialists
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all automotive HVAC technicians to be certified under section 609 of the Clean Air Act. There are several programs approved by the EPA for the certification of automotive HVAC technicians. A few of these include:
- Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) offers several certifications for automotive professionals. For those who specialize in automotive air conditioning, the Heating and Air Conditioning test (A7) is a helpful certification. For general mechanics, this designation can be earned as part of a Master Mechanic certification.
- Ferris State University’s Center for Certification, Training and Testing offers training and testing for EPA section 608 and 609 certification.
- Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers’ Association offers EPA section 609 testing.
- Mainstream Engineering also offers EPA section 609 testing.
Many employers and automobile manufacturers also offer various certifications for automotive HVAC technicians. Although not all certificates are required, pursuing them may open up better employment opportunities or qualify you for a raise with your current employer. For those who wish to accelerate their career, certifications are always a worthwhile endeavor.
How Much Should Automotive HVAC Technicians Expect to Make?
Automotive HVAC Technicians make more than both HVAC installers and automotive technicians, with indeed.com reporting an average hourly salary of $23.65. By comparison, HVAC installers and automotive technicians make average hourly salaries of $22.27 and $19.47, respectively. Additionally, automotive HVAC technicians reported overtime earnings of $8,700 per year on average.
Top-paying cities for the profession include Augusta, GA, Washington, DC, Dallas, TX, and New York, NY. Automotive HVAC technicians typically work for automotive dealers, repair shops and private vehicle services. Some technicians also choose self-employment by running their own repair shop.
The Future of the Automotive HVAC Repair Profession
Although specific projections for automotive HVAC technicians are not available, Projections Central predicts negative growth for automotive service technicians in the next decade. Specifically, the career is expected to decline by 0.8 percent, translating to an average of 74 new job openings per year. However, these projections do not necessarily translate to poor opportunities, especially with such a slight decline occurring over a 10-year period.
It should also be noted that the above predictions apply to automotive technicians as a whole and do not expressly reflect the potential for automotive HVAC technicians. In general, although the advent of the electric vehicle has led to a decrease in the need for repair technicians, those who specialize in automotive HVAC repair may not face the same declining numbers. With HVAC units coming standard in most vehicles these days, it is easy to imagine that automotive HVAC technicians may not face a decline in positions at all.
Prior to deciding on your career path, it is essential to research the potential for work in the areas in which you would like to be employed. For instance, are there already numerous automotive HVAC technicians in your area, or are people often waiting weeks for repairs? Or perhaps you already work as an automotive technician and there is an opportunity to advance and learn new skills within your current organization. Knowing there is a demand for the skills in the places you live and work can make the career the best choice for your future, regardless of projection data.