What Is EPA 608 certification?

In the United States, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) technicians are certified and regulated by each state and territory in different ways—but there is an important national certification that nearly every HVAC-R technician must have, called the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 608 certification.

This certification, of which there are four types depending on the type of equipment you are working with, is intended to ensure that people who work with refrigerants can do so in a safe manner. Refrigerants are special fluids, circulating through closed systems of tubing within an air conditioner or refrigerator, that are able to evaporate and condense quickly and responsively enough to produce the cooling effect that makes the appliances work.

The History of Refrigerant Fluids

Although the air conditioner and refrigerator are considered to be characteristic hallmarks of modern civilization, large-scale industrial refrigerators using ammonia as their refrigerant fluid have existed since the mid- to late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, ammonia in a refrigerator is a very corrosive and toxic chemical that is dangerous to the environment and the health of humans and animals. It can also destroy property if it leaks out of its closed system. Other early refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride were also toxic.

Modern refrigerant fluids were invented in the 1920s. They were much less dangerous than the earlier refrigerants if they leaked out of an appliance, which meant that refrigerators, freezers, heat pumps and air conditioners for buildings and cars were quickly developed. These appliances proliferated rapidly, meaning that food could be preserved longer and people could live comfortably in very hot and humid climates. Although they are not glamorous pieces of technology, these modern appliances had a profound impact on cultures and economies.

Unfortunately, this class of refrigerants had a silent and profound impact on the environment. Escaped refrigerants, having leaked out of a closed, pressurized system, would quickly evaporate, and the individual molecules of refrigerant would then break down in sunlight into chlorine and bromine, which would float up to the highest levels of the Earth’s atmosphere where there is a thin layer of ozone—a molecule made of three oxygen atoms bound together. Although ozone is commonly produced in small quantities at ground level from lightning and various natural and industrial chemical processes, the thin ozone layer performs an essential role, helping to shield the delicate life on Earth from the relentless, cell-destroying ultraviolet light emitted by the sun.

In the 1970s, environmental scientists discovered that the ozone layer was shrinking at an alarming rate of four percent per year, with holes in the layer appearing at the poles where there is a prevalence of clouds in the very high stratospheric layer of our atmosphere. Scientists also discovered that certain refrigerants contributed to global warming. This discovery, and subsequent research linking it to the breakdown products of leaked and discarded refrigerant, led to a global conference in 1984 that produced the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that laid out a plan for the gradual phasing out of the use of ozone-destroying refrigerants.

The Clean Air Act is the United States’ effort to comply with the Montreal Protocol. Passed in 1990, this statute contains a number of measures intended to reduce the impact of human-made, ozone-destroying and climate-warming liquids and gases. Because refrigerants are ubiquitous across the country, the Act requires that all workers who install, maintain and dispose of refrigerants are properly trained in handling them in a way that is safe for people and the planet.

The Types of EPA 608 Certification

When applying for work, it’s important to understand that there are four distinct types of EPA 608 certification, depending on the type of appliance that you’ll be working with. They are:

  • Type 1 – servicing small appliances
  • Type 2 – servicing or properly disposing of high-pressure or very high-pressure appliances, with the exception of small appliances and motor vehicle air conditioners
  • Type 3 – servicing or properly disposing of low-pressure appliances
  • Type 4 – servicing all types of refrigeration equipment

To prove your knowledge you’ll need to take a proctored exam, which varies according to type. Each type of certification exam also includes a core section, intended to prove that you have a good grasp of the science behind refrigeration, the principles of reclaiming and recycling refrigerants, how the physics of refrigeration works, safety in handling and shipping refrigerants and an understanding of the risks refrigerants can pose to people, animals and the environment.

If you’re interested as a career working in refrigeration and HVAC, it is strongly recommended that you obtain the type 4 certification, as this will give you the flexibility to work in any area within the field, whether you’re working with a restaurant’s walk-in freezer or a massive refrigerated food-processing factory.

Areas of Knowledge Needed for Each Certification Type

In addition to the core knowledge section, each certification type has its own set of topics that will be tested on the exam.

  • Type 1 focuses on refrigerant recovery requirements and techniques in small appliances. The exam covers the definition of a “small appliance” and the requirements for evacuating small appliances with and without their compressors working, using recovery equipment built both before and after the law changed standards after November 15, 1993. The exam also covers how to identify refrigerants and detect non-condensable substances in the system using pressure and temperature, and how to remove refrigerant from appliances using vacuum pumps and heat. It also tests the need to install both high and low side access valves to recover refrigerant without operational compressors, and the need to operate working compressors when recovering refrigerant with a passive recovery device. It goes into the chemistry of hydrofluorocarbons—refrigerants that don’t harm the ozone layer and that can be used to replace the more harmful ones—and tests knowledge of proper safety techniques.
  • Type 2 covers the special measures that must be taken when working with high-pressure appliances. The exam tests knowledge of signs of leak detection in high-pressure systems, the need to leak-test before adding refrigerants to equipment, and gases used in leak testing. It also tests understanding of leak repair requirements, allowable leak rates for commercial and industrial refrigeration and for other appliances that contain more than 50 pounds of refrigerant, and leak repair record-keeping. The exam also covers recovery techniques—including ways of speeding up refrigerant recovery and reducing emissions and cross-contamination—as well as the requirements for safe recovery of refrigerants during major or minor repairs and during disposal. The properties of various types of high-pressure refrigerant, safety measures and equipment room standards are also covered in the exam.
  • Type 3 is focused on proper procedure when working with low-pressure appliances. It covers detecting leaks using a variety of methods, leak inspection requirements for appliances that exceed accepted leak rates, reporting procedures for chronically leaking appliances and allowable rates of refrigerant leakage for industrial and commercial units as well as for units that contain more than 50 pounds of refrigerant. It also covers refrigerant recovery techniques and best practices, and techniques for recharging low-pressure appliances with refrigerant. The exam also tests knowledge of recovery requirements and refrigerant disposal in a variety of situations such as leaky versus non-leaky appliances, small or major repairs, and whether the appliance contains more or less than 200 pounds of refrigerant. Finally it goes into safety and performance requirements and standards.
  • Type 4 includes information covered on all three exams, plus the core knowledge section.

Who Needs to be EPA 608 Certified?

The EPA 608 certification is required for any technician who is working with refrigerants, including installers, maintenance workers, and disposal and recycling experts. Unless you are an apprentice who is continually supervised when working with refrigerants, you’ll need to be certified. Fortunately, certification only needs to be granted once and then is valid indefinitely.

Certification can only be granted by an approved program, of which the EPA maintains a list, and the opportunity to take the exam is not contingent on the completion of technical training. Training programs keep a list of the names of people they have trained who pass the exam and are certified, as it is important for the public to be able to check that their technicians are safe to handle refrigerants.

How the EPA 608 Certification Test Works

The certification exam is a proctored exam, meaning you’ll attend a certified testing center and take the test with others at a scheduled time and date. The training programs listed on the EPA website linked above are the only organizations authorized to conduct testing, but vocational programs, apprenticeships and companies who aren’t on this list regularly refer people they’ve trained to these programs for testing.

The exception to this rule is the Type 1 exam. If you’re just going for type 1 certification, you can take it online or via the mail, as it is an open-book test. However, if you will be working with appliances containing more than five pounds of refrigerant, the test will need to be proctored and must be taken in person at a testing center. Not all testing centers offer online or mail-in tests, so it’s important to check in advance.

The Type 1 exam contains 25 multiple-choice questions, of which 21 must be answered correctly. The type 2 exam is also 25 questions long, as is the type 3, and 21 of each must be answered for a pass. The core section of the exam, which is the same for each type, also contains 25 questions. If you’re only planning to certify for type 1 and will only be working with appliances containing less than five pounds of refrigerant, you can take the core section as an open-book test along with your type 1 exam. But if you plan for higher levels of certification, the core section will also be taken closed-book.

How to Prepare for the EPA 608 Certification Exam

There’s no need to worry too much about taking the EPA 608 certification exam—if you’re good at memorizing information, it will be straightforward. There are also a number of practice exams available for free or to purchase online including at Tests.com and at the HVAC-R industry group ESCO. But the best way to prepare is to undertake proper HVAC-R training in a program or apprenticeship, and learn working on appliances containing refrigerants under the supervision of experienced technicians.

Fees and Information for EPA 608 Certification

Many training programs include coverage of the fees for the exam, but if you’re taking it independently the exam fee will generally range between $50-$100 depending on which type of certification you seek and which program is offering the exam. Costs can go as high as $150 if you’re taking the type 4 Universal exam. You will pay the testing center directly for the test, not the EPA.

Motor Vehicle Air Conditioning Certification

It is important to note that another certification is required to install, maintain and dispose of air conditioning units in motor vehicles— the EPA 609 certification. To obtain this certification, you will need a separate test and to study some different areas of knowledge. Further information is available on the EPA website.

Working as an EPA 608 Certified Technician

This certification—particularly the type 4 version—is essential for anyone who wants to succeed as an HVAC-R technician, because refrigeration is a core part of this type of work in most climates. HVAC-R is a relatively safe industry regardless of economic performance, as systems will always need to be repaired, maintained and upgraded, and the strict national requirement that all work involving refrigerants is conducted or continually supervised by a certified technician is unlikely to change. As a lifelong certification, EPA 608 is an accessible and wise investment in your career.