How to Become an HVAC Technician in California

Most commercial, industrial and residential buildings rely on climate-controlled heating, ventilation and cooling systems. The mechanics who work on these air conditioning systems are called HVAC technicians or HVAC techs. HVAC technicians are responsible for the installation, maintenance and repair of these systems. Other responsibilities of an HVAC tech include: reading blueprints, making sure that systems are compliant with local, state and federal regulations, and educating clients on how to use their systems safely and efficiently. As systems evolve and become more complex, and require maintenance and updates, the need for more qualified HVAC technicians will remain. [Leer en español]

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Requirements for Becoming an HVAC Technician in California

Nationally, the only certification that HVAC technicians are required to have is the EPA Section 608 certification provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This certification is mandatory for all HVAC techs to handle refrigerants.

Most states do require certification or licensure on a statewide level. In California, an HVAC contractor license must be obtained if you are providing services that are worth more than $500. Work experience and passing two exams are prerequisites to this licensure.

Postsecondary education is not a requirement to become an HVAC technician; however, many candidates choose to complete a certificate, diploma or associate degree program at a trade school or community college. These programs typically take between six months and two years to complete and can be found at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Topics in a HVAC training program might address things like system maintenance and repairs, humidifiers, heat pumps, air conditioning equipment (including central cooling), boilers, automation systems, heating systems, air conditioning control systems, and refrigerators.

While not required, certification from professional organizations such as HVAC Excellence or the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA) may also help candidates stand out to potential employers.

HVAC Apprenticeship and Educational Programs in California

To work in the HVAC field, you must possess knowledge and skill in all things HVAC related. This can be acquired through a combination of on-the-job training and classroom education, through completing either an apprenticeship or a post-secondary educational program at an accredited HVAC school. California has options available for whichever route you may choose.

As far as apprenticeships, the Air Conditioning Trade Association offers a four-year apprenticeship program. ACTA works with HVAC contractors in the state to provide students with knowledge and hands-on training, so they may succeed in their HVAC careers. After apprentices complete all class requirements, complete 6,500 work hours and pass the journeyman exit exam, they will receive a journeyman card and a certificate of completion.

Another apprenticeship program to consider is the one provided by the Local Union 250 Joint Journeymen and Apprentice Training Center of Los Angeles. Students must be at least 18 years of age to apply to this program. Apprentices in this program are expected to complete 216 hours per year of classroom instruction for five years. They are also required to complete 8,000 hours (or four years) of work experience.

HVAC Programs in California

For anybody interested in pursuing an HVAC education, here is a list of the best HVAC schools in California:

  • North American Training Center. The HVAC technician program offered by the North American Training Center is accredited by HVAC Excellence. This program trains students on how to work with air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment as well as teaches them electrical fundamentals. It also prepares students for EPA certification and the HVAC Excellence competency examination.
  • Mt. San Antonio College. Mt. San Antonio offers a two-year Associate in Science (AS) degree in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology and a one-year certificate program in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Technology. Both programs are accredited by both HVAC Excellence and the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA).

Students at these schools who meet the requirements may be eligible for financial aid. For more information, contact the financial assistance office at the school you’re considering.

HVAC Certification and Licensing for Becoming a Technician in California

Before you do any work with refrigerants, including purchasing them, you must get EPA Section 608 certification. You must pass an exam to get this certification, and there are four subcategories of this certification. They are: Type 1 (small appliances), Type 2 (high pressure appliances), Type 3 (low pressure appliances) and Type 4 (universal). Most accredited educational programs provide preparation for this exam.

The North American Technician Excellence (NATE) level of certification was developed to award the best technicians in North America. This is a national accreditation that distinguishes top experts on two fronts: those who are new to the business and those with more expertise.

In order to achieve NATE certification, you must first pass an entry-level core exam and then a specialty exam in the area of your expertise. The core examination tests general knowledge while the specialty exams test specific skills such as installation or service in the areas of air conditioning, heat pumps, gas heating, oil heating or hydronics.

To become a licensed contractor in California, you’ll need to take an examination administered by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). The CSLB offers two different exams for those interested in becoming HVAC contractors: the Law and Business Examination and the Trade Examination. To qualify to take either of these exams, you must have a minimum of four years journey-level experience as an HVAC technician.

HVAC technicians in California are not required to have a license, but some employers prefer or require their employees to be licensed. The CSLB offers a voluntary certification for HVAC technicians called the Certified Appliance Professional (CAP) designation. To earn this designation, you must pass an examination that covers topics such as installation, service and repair of appliances.

For those interested in working with refrigerants, the CFC/HFC Certification Program is offered by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). This program is designed to ensure that those who work with these chemicals are properly trained and follow all safety protocols.

The California Contractors State License Board is the agency that regulates HVAC licensing in the state. Any person who will be providing services that will cost more than $500 must get their state contractor’s license. To get this license you must have four years work experience (can be accomplished through apprenticeship), apply to the board, pay any exam and license fees, and pass a business and law exam and an HVAC exam.

Please refer to the Contractor’s State License Board of California for more information.

Career Outlook and Salary Expectations

The salary data for Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers (49-9021.00) in California showcases the state’s higher wages for this occupation compared to the national average. In California, these professionals earn an average annual salary of $60,830, significantly above the national average of $51,390. The salary range in California extends from $38,900 at the 10th percentile to $103,670 at the 90th percentile, indicating a wide range of earning potential that reflects the state’s cost of living and demand for skilled technicians.

National vs. California Salaries for HVAC Technicians

Location Annual Low (10%) Annual Median Annual High (90%)
United States $36,170 $51,390 $82,630
California $38,900 $60,830 $103,670

Salaries by Region in California for HVAC Technicians

Region Annual Low (10%) Annual Median Annual High (90%)
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $47,560 $74,450 $128,960
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $48,830 $78,690 $148,370
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $40,080 $61,310 $106,030

HVAC Trends in California

In California, the employment outlook for Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers (49-9021.00) is highly positive, with a projected growth of 14% from 2020 to 2030. The number of employees in this occupation is expected to increase from 34,800 in 2020 to 39,600 by 2030. Annually, there are projected to be 3,980 job openings in California for this occupation during this period, which includes openings due to both industry growth and replacements. This growth rate significantly exceeds the national average growth rate of 6% for the same period, indicating a robust demand for HVAC technicians within the state.

Employement Trends

Aspect California United States
Employment (2020 for CA, 2022 for US) 34,800 employees 415,800 employees
Projected Employment (2030 for CA, 2032 for US) 39,600 employees 438,800 employees
Projected Growth 14% 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings (2020-2030 for CA, 2022-2032 for US) 3,980 37,700

Sources of data:

  • For employment trends and projections: Projections Central’s 2020-2030 long-term projections.
  • For national employment and wage data: The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2022-2032 employment projections.

Working as an HVAC Technician in California

California has extremely hot summers and the threat of droughts looming, so HVAC systems are a necessity. And with the population booming, the need for contractors and technicians to install new residential and commercial HVAC systems is also on the rise.

There are numerous opportunities for employment in California, especially in the larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. HVAC technicians may find work in settings such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Airports
  • Office buildings
  • Restaurants
  • Retail stores
  • Schools and universities
  • Residential homes

With experience, some HVAC technicians move into management or open their own businesses. Some may also become instructors at trade or technical schools.

In the United States, the state of California ranks second for the highest employment of HVAC workers. High concentrations of HVAC jobs can be found in the following areas: Oakland, Hayward, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim, Riverside, San Bernadino, Ontario and San Diego. If you are looking for the higher paying areas in the state, consider Oakland, Hayward, Berkeley, Salinas, San Francisco, Redwood City, San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Santa Rosa, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim.

The career of a technician or contractor in the HVAC industry is financially stable and has a high growth rate, especially in the state of California. Training and licensing can be completed in less than five years, with the opportunity to get paid while you learn if you work as an apprentice. If this sounds appealing to you, consider becoming an HVAC technician in California.

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How do I Become an HVAC Technician in California?

  • 1. Build up your skill set by becoming an HVAC apprentice or completing HVAC courses
  • 2. Pass an EPA qualifying exam if you plan to work with refrigerants
  • 3. Get a contractor’s license to independently complete jobs worth $500 or more

What is the highest certification for HVAC?

The highest certification for HVAC is the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification. NATE is the largest non-profit certification organization in North America and is recognized by the EPA. To become certified, technicians must pass a rigorous exam that covers all aspects of HVAC installation, service, and repair.

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