HVAC Engineer Careers

Have you been considering a career in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)? Perhaps you want to design HVAC systems and are wondering how to become an HVAC engineer? Whether you are a high school student considering your career path or a current HVAC technician looking to take your career to a new level, HVAC engineering is an exciting and stable choice for your future. 

So, what exactly is an HVAC engineer? A type of mechanical engineer, an HVAC engineer designs systems that control the climate inside a building by regulating temperature and humidity and even filtering the air. These systems exist in nearly all modern facilities, meaning there should always be plenty of work for HVAC engineers. 

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How is an HVAC Engineer Different from an HVAC Technician

HVAC engineers will generally have spent several more years in training than an HVAC technician and have usually acquired a bachelor’s degree at minimum. Their educational background makes them well-suited for design work and project oversight. Typical duties of HVAC engineers include designing HVAC systems, serving as project leaders, communicating with clients and preparing bids. 

HVAC technicians may have received training on the job or through a one-year or two-year training program. Their education is geared toward providing maintenance, repairs and installations of HVAC systems. An HVAC technician’s typical duties include troubleshooting issues, identifying and repairing problems, conducting performance tests on HVAC systems, and selling maintenance contracts to clients. Generally, HVAC technicians work under the oversight of the HVAC engineer who designed the systems they work on.

Educational Pathways to Becoming an HVAC Engineer

As stated above, HVAC engineers will generally need to have a bachelor’s degree at minimum; however, there is more than one track you can take to obtain the necessary credentials. First off, whichever path you choose, you will need to have a high school diploma or equivalent. It would also be advisable to seek advanced math and physics courses as part of your high school curriculum or as stand-alone course prerequisites. 

One way to become an HVAC engineer is to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering. HVAC engineers are often mechanical engineers who have taken a concentration in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration. While fully qualified mechanical engineers can become HVAC engineers, it is only one of the many career choices available to them. 

Mechanical engineers are innovators and designers by nature. Mechanical engineering covers a vast field, with graduates working in many different sectors of the community, developing very different types of machines. A typical mechanical engineering program will include education on material mechanics, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, energy conversion, manufacture and design, electromechanical systems, and the science of materials. This diverse degree program releases graduates capable of designing car engines, robots, aircraft engines, space vehicles, prosthetic devices, weaponry and HVAC systems.

Keeping these varied concentrations in mind, it is essential for those with a specific interest in HVAC engineering to seek a program that will allow for instruction in their preferred area of interest. Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of choosing to pursue a degree as a mechanical engineer, as opposed to becoming an HVAC engineer through a different track, is having the ability to change course mid-career if you find the profession does not suit you. 

If seeking a degree as a mechanical engineer feels like the right choice for you, there are a few caveats to keep in mind when choosing a program. First of all, mechanical engineers are required to carry a license in every state, meaning they will have to pass two examinations offered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. The first exam is the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) test, which will allow you to become an Engineer in Training. The second exam is the Professional Engineering (PE) exam, which you will be eligible to take four years after passing the FE exam. 

The second caveat is that you will need to acquire your degree from an Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredited school in order to qualify to take your examinations. Simply put, if you plan on becoming educated through a mechanical engineering program and want to be a licensed engineer upon graduation, you will need to choose an ABET-accredited program like the following:

  • University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. Courses in this program consist of five areas: design and manufacturing, mechanics and materials, dynamics and controls, thermal sciences, and laboratories and technical communication. Students can choose specialized and technical electives as well as upper-level electives, allowing them to receive an education tailored to their goals. 
    If acquiring a degree as a mechanical engineer does not sound like the right fit for you, you could consider attending a program that is specific for HVAC engineers. Programs for advanced HVAC professionals are offered at either an associate or bachelor degree level. These are available at several schools including the following:
  • Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning Design Technology. This highly-recommended program focuses strongly on business management, supervision and design skills, providing the necessary background for a career in HVAC engineering. Students can earn a dual degree through participation in the associate’s degree program in HVAC, learning the hands-on skills of HVAC installation and repair during the first two years of study. The program is certified by the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating Refrigeration Accreditation (PAHRA).

  • Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers a Bachelor of Science in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. Students will learn methods for performing evaluations on different types of HVAC systems as well as ways to maximize HVAC performance. A paid internship is included in the summer between junior and senior year, allowing students to gain much needed hands-on work experience.

  • New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, New York, offers an Associate in Applied Science in Environmental Control Technology. You will likely need to pursue transfer into a bachelor-level program if you plan to work as an HVAC engineer. 

If you have a specific career goal, or are looking for a position in a particular organization, you will want to take the time to research which degree path is the better choice to meet your ambitions and the needs of your prospective employer. In some cases, you may be able to do some design and management work with less education, but a bachelor’s degree is usually preferred. Additionally, some employers will have a preference for licensed engineers, meaning those with a mechanical engineering degree will have an edge. 

Working as an HVAC Engineer

HVAC engineers undergo extensive training because there is a lot they need to know to perform the job’s essential functions. As the primary designer of HVAC systems, the HVAC engineer bears a great deal of responsibility for making sure the systems installed are safe, efficient and able to meet the client’s needs.

Environmental concerns are also weighted heavily in the design of HVAC systems. The engineer will need to know all of the relevant environmental laws, industry-standard practices and local building codes, since an error in any of these areas could lead to dangerous repercussions.

More than just heating and air conditioning, today’s HVAC units are sophisticated systems capable of regulating airflow, air quality, humidity and temperature to a requested specification. HVAC systems generally consist of a forced-air furnace, an air conditioning unit, thermostats and ductwork. Airflow and quality are regulated through a series of gauges, blowers and filters. Every single part of the system has to be precisely calibrated to achieve the desired results. When designing a system, the HVAC engineer will need to coordinate all of these various parts to work together seamlessly. 

HVAC engineers use complicated calculations to ensure that the HVAC units they design will function with maximum efficiency and achieve a client’s desired specifications. Formulas to measure such qualities as air consistency, ton of refrigeration, and relative heat and humidity are commonly used by HVAC professionals. In addition, HVAC engineers will need to know specific electrical and horsepower formulas. As such, a background in math and physics are crucial for those entering the field. 

Renewable energy is a growing trend across the construction industry. HVAC engineers can help lead the cause through the design of energy-efficient systems. Technologies such as geothermal heat, solar power and smart thermostats reduce both energy consumption and cost to the consumer. HVAC engineers can help by innovating new “green” designs for climate control.

HVAC engineers will need to be computer literate, as they spend much of the day working on various types of computer technology. Computer technology aids the HVAC engineer in drafting designs, writing estimates, optimizing efficiency and preparing presentations. Preferred software may vary depending on where you receive your education or become employed. However, you can easily focus on popular industry software, which includes AutoCAD, Trane Trace, Revit, Energy Pro, Excel and PowerPoint. 

The job responsibilities of a typical HVAC engineer go beyond designing HVAC systems. HVAC engineers also spend a significant amount of time meeting with clients, supervising on-site work, reviewing requests, working with equipment technicians to troubleshoot problems and preparing reports for upper management.

HVAC engineers will also need to have some business expertise and will often be required to manage a team of technicians, especially on a job site. Other potential job duties include reviewing product literature, attending meetings, handling contractor submissions, creating bids and designing testing procedures for existing units. 

Salaries for HVAC Engineers

According to payscale.com, HVAC engineers make an average annual salary of $67,824, with the potential for an additional $22,743 in bonuses, commissions and profit-sharing. In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the average annual salary of mechanical engineers as $93,540. However, salaries for mechanical engineers come in a vast range from $57,139 to $138,120. Since mechanical engineers work in such a diverse field, the range in salaries could easily reflect the variability in pay between various industries, with the HVAC industry falling closer to the lower end of the scale. Salaries may also vary with experience and locality. 

Climate can also have a significant effect on employment, with a greater need for climate control systems in areas with temperatures that are colder and hotter than average. Top-paying cities for HVAC engineers include the following:

  • San Jose, California — HVAC engineers in San Jose make up to 14 percent more than average.
  • Chicago, Illinois — HVAC engineers in Chicago enjoy pay rates up to 13 percent higher than average.
  • New York, New York — HVAC engineers in New York make slightly higher than average by about two percent.
  • Dallas, Texas — HVAC engineers in Dallas make about one percent above the average for the career.

The Future of HVAC Engineering

According to Projections Central, mechanical engineers are expected to see a 3.6 percent job growth between 2018 and 2028, with approximately 11,700 new job openings expected each year. However, this data does not necessarily reflect the future for HVAC engineers, as HVAC careers are steadily gaining popularity. For example, heating, air conditioning, refrigeration mechanics and installers are expected to experience a 12.6 percent growth in the same period. Although not explicitly tracked, it is reasonable to assume that HVAC engineer careers may grow somewhat more quickly than mechanical engineering careers, leading to a secure and stable future for those in the profession.

So, where do HVAC engineers work? HVAC engineers find employment with construction companies, especially HVAC construction companies that design, install, maintain and repair HVAC equipment. Some of the top employers in the country for HVAC careers include DPR Construction, Camden Property Trust, Emerson College, David Weekley Homes, National Instruments and Kiewit Corporation. 

HVAC engineering is an excellent career for anyone with an aptitude for technical problem solving, math and physics. As a currently growing field with numerous educational pathways to success, HVAC engineering is a potentially lucrative and accessible career choice. Regardless of which academic path you choose and where you focus your career, HVAC engineering holds the promise of a bright future.