HVAC Refrigeration Technician Careers

Refrigeration was first invented as early as the 1750s, although it was more an unstable experiment than a functioning technology. Since then, refrigeration technology has advanced considerably and in the process has become indispensable to modern life. Most homes today have refrigerators and freezers, without which we could not keep our food fresh, sanitary and cold. Imagine how much more labor-intensive providing food for your family would be without it. 

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However, refrigeration technology is used well beyond our homes and the food we eat. Refrigeration is used in factories for manufacturing, in medicine to keep medication and diagnostic equipment cool, and in the transportation industry. It is no exaggeration to say that without refrigeration technology, society as we know it would not exist. 

So, how do we keep all of these refrigeration units functioning? Heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR or HVAC/R) technicians have the necessary skills and qualifications to install, maintain and repair refrigeration equipment. These vital technicians undergo specific training to become experts in the field. 

Working as an HVACR technician comes with a great deal of responsibility. If you’ve been looking for a trade career that will provide plenty of opportunities to keep you employed, training to be an HVACR technician might be just the thing to help you meet your career goals. For more information about this exciting career and how to become an HVACR technician, keep reading below. 

Getting Started as an HVAC Refrigeration Technician

HVAC/R technicians will need to acquire training prior to becoming qualified to work in the field. As a prerequisite to training, you will want to have already obtained a high school diploma or equivalent.

Trade-specific training can take the form of attendance in a post-secondary training course or through working as an apprentice. For those who prefer an apprenticeship, the website apprenticeship.gov is a great resource to find an opportunity in your area. 

Training programs for HVACR professionals range from one-year certificate-level programs to bachelor’s degree programs. Choosing the right program for you will depend on your career goals. For example, if you are hoping to work as a hands-on technician, a certificate might be the best fit for you. In contrast, a bachelor’s degree is more fitting if you want to design HVACR systems and supervise the work of other technicians. 

HVACR careers have become popular in recent years and, as a result, there are many educational opportunities for aspiring HVACR technicians in the United States, possibly even one near you. A few of the top-rated schools for HVACR professionals include the following:

  • Tennessee College of Applied Technology, located in Knoxville, TN, offers a certificate in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. Students in the program will learn to troubleshoot, repair and install HVACR systems in both residential and commercial buildings.
  • Ranken Technical College with campuses in St. Louis, Wentzville and Perryville, MO, offers an Associate of Science degree, an Associate of Technology degree or a Certificate of Technology in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. Students are promised hands-on experience with installing, troubleshooting and repairing a variety of HVACR units. 
  • Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids, MI, offers both an Associate in Applied Science degree and Bachelor of Science degree in HVAC Engineering Technology and Energy Management. Students will learn the principles of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration technology combined with extensive hands-on laboratory practice. 
  • Coyne College in Chicago, IL, offers a diploma program in Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. Students will learn to troubleshoot both residential and commercial HVACR units. The program takes as little as 42 weeks to complete. 
  • Delaware Technical Community College with campuses in Dover, Georgetown, Stanton and Wilmington, DE, offers a diploma in Refrigeration, Heating AC Studies and an Associate in Applied Science in Refrigeration, Heating, AC. The program pairs classroom instruction with hands-on learning to help students gain the knowledge they need to succeed in an HVACR career.

HVACR Licensure and Certifications

Licensing requirements can vary by state and locality, but most states require HVACR technicians to obtain a license prior to working in the field. There may also be licensing requirements in some cities or counties, so it is essential to research the legal requirements in the areas in which you wish to work. In addition, all HVACR technicians, regardless of location, will need to acquire Section 608 Technician Certification from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

As part of the Clean Air Act, anyone working with refrigerants that could be released into the atmosphere must become certified. Since refrigerants can have harmful effects on the planet’s ozone layer, certification seeks to ensure that technicians are aware of safe handling practices. Technicians are defined as anyone who attaches and detaches hoses and gauges to a system, anyone who adds refrigerant to a system and anyone who might compromise an HVAC system’s integrity.

To attain Section 608 certification, you will need to pass an examination administered by an EPA-approved certifying organization. Tests should be specific to the type of equipment for which you typically provide service. Alternatively, you can apply for universal certification, which covers all types of equipment. Apprentices are exempt from certification as long as they are closely supervised by a certified technician. 

There are also several certifications that can be earned by HVACR technicians. While not required by law, specific certifications may be preferred or encouraged by some employers in the trade. Obtaining accreditation is also an excellent way to add some professionalism to your resume and increase your career opportunities.

A few organizations that offer certification include the following:

  • ESCO Group offers certification in HVAC Excellence. Along with EPA section 608 certification, ESCO group provides many levels of certifications for professionals, students and educators. 
  • North American Technician Excellence (NATE) offers a tiered system of certifications, allowing technicians to achieve various certifications for different stages in their careers. The tests represent four distinct steps that can be taken by an HVACR technician including Ready-to-Work, HVAC Support Test, Core and Specialty Tests and Senior Level Efficiency Exam.
  • Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) offers a variety of certifications for HVACR professionals, including EPA Section 608 testing. RSES also provides training courses with available continuing education credits (CEUs).
  • National Inspection Testing Certification (NITC) offers certificates in STAR HVACR and HVACR Brazing for experienced professionals. Candidates for STAR Refrigeration mastery will need to have three years of experience in the field. Those looking for brazing certification will be required to pass a practical examination. 

Job Outlook and Salaries for HVACR Professionals

According to Projections Central, heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers are facing a projected job growth of 12.6 percent between 2018 and 2028. This data translates to an estimated 46,300 new jobs over the course of the ten-year period, with the potential for 42,800 job openings yearly. These possible job openings include new jobs created when current workers leave the industry entirely for retirement or other reasons.

Refrigeration jobs in particular offer a certain amount of stability. The use of refrigeration is a necessity in many industries, with goods and technology that would be severely damaged if the equipment was to malfunction. Therefore, HVACR technicians who specialize in refrigeration should be able to expect a stable future in the career. 

The salary outlook is similarly good, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting average annual salaries of $51,420 in 2019. The reported range of HVACR salaries in the same year was $30,610 to $77,920, possibly reflecting a range of experience, geographic diversity and career certifications. The total reported number of jobs for professionals in the HVACR field was 342,040. 

According to the BLS, the industries that employ the highest numbers of HVACR technicians are building equipment contractors, merchant wholesalers, direct selling establishments and commercial and industrial machinery equipment contractors.

Industries with the highest pay for HVACR professionals include heavy and civil engineering construction companies, aerospace and parts manufacturers, monetary authorities and the telecommunication industry.

However, the presented data reflect all HVACR professionals, not only those who specialize in refrigeration. In fact, working as a refrigeration specialist may change your typical work environment considerably. In general, HVACR technicians can find work anywhere there are goods, people or equipment in need of refrigeration. 

HVACR technicians earned the highest wages in the District of Columbia, Alaska, Connecticut and Maine, with the lowest earnings reported in the southeastern states, Idaho, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Salaries have a tendency to vary, depending on the locality in which an employee lives. These variations can often be explained by the supply and demand of the professionals in the area, the cost of living and a number of other factors. In fact, it is necessary to point out that lower wages might not accurately reflect the standard of living for those employed in the profession in that area. If salary concerns are high on your list, you may benefit from researching local salaries versus your typical cost of living. 

Working as an HVACR Technician

HVACR technicians often work in residences, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, office buildings and factories. Their work involves the installation of new refrigeration systems as well as the maintenance, troubleshooting and repair of existing systems. The systems they typically work on include ice machines, HVAC units, refrigeration storage units and beverage machines. In-depth knowledge of all components of the systems on which they work is essential to the HVACR technician’s performance, as it is their job to keep these systems functioning optimally. 

The typical duties of an HVACR technician include using gauges and instruments to test system functioning, dismantling malfunctioning systems to troubleshoot them, inspecting and testing equipment for leaks, installing the proper wiring to connect a unit with a power source and keeping maintenance and repair records. On a less frequent basis, HVACR technicians will perform mechanical overhauls, braze or solder pipes, use acetylene torches and charge systems with refrigerant. HVACR technicians will need to know how to read blueprints and schematics while doing installation and repair work. 

The profession comes with a great deal of responsibility for public safety. The chemicals used as refrigerants carry known risks and need to be handled carefully. HVACR technicians need to understand how to work with these chemicals properly while following local building codes and EPA regulations at all times.

HVACR technicians have work duties both indoors and outdoors, depending on the type of system they are repairing. Working in uncomfortable conditions is expected in the industry, meaning repair work can occur in tight areas with poorly functioning climate control. HVACR technicians also work off-hours, on-call and overtime reasonably often, as an ill-timed malfunction will still need immediate repair. 

Successful HVACR technicians are skilled in the areas of problem solving, analyzing and organization. A background in math and physics is helpful for the profession, as are good communication skills, which will be needed for meeting with clients. The job is highly physical, so good physical conditioning is a must. 

The profession has one of the highest rates for injuries and illnesses of all careers. On-the-job hazards can include burns, muscle aches and strains, electrical shock and injuries sustained from handling heavy equipment. As such, it is crucial for those entering the field to possess both good motor coordination and a working knowledge of industry safety standards. 

Your Future in the Industry

With refrigeration technology playing such a crucial role in so many industries, it’s easy to imagine a bright future for anyone in the career. For more evidence, consider that HVACR technicians are hired by well-known organizations such as the United States Army, Johns Hopkins University, the Walt Disney Company, Siemens, Daikin Applied, the Cleveland Clinic and Trane Technologies. If this is the career for you, there is no need to wait. You can get started right now by fulfilling your prerequisites and finding a training program or apprenticeship in your area. Regardless of where you begin, who you choose to work for or what path your future employment takes, a career as an HVACR technician promises to provide you with a stable and secure future.