Specialized Career Options in HVAC
Many skilled workers in HVAC—heating, ventilation and air conditioning—perform a mixed bag of duties on the job. They may install a new system one day, work with sheet metal for ventilation ducts the next, and then diagnose and make a repair to a system that isn’t working. You can choose to go into general HVAC, but after getting some experience you may choose to specialize. Being certified and trained in a specialty may open up more job opportunities or even offer the chance to earn more.
Some workers choose to focus only on the installation of new HVAC systems. This can be a great choice if you are planning to work in an area with a lot of new construction. The organization North American Technician Excellence (NATE), which is the leader in nationally certifying HVAC workers, offers certification in installation. There are four different options for installation specialties through NATE:
- Air conditioning systems
- Air distribution, which means installing ventilation ducts
- Heat pumps
- Gas furnaces
HVAC installers make a little bit more money on average than workers who do installation, maintenance and repair, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Maintenance and Repair
Specializing in maintenance and repair doesn’t require any additional certification. If you become an HVAC technician through a degree program and apprenticeship, you will be prepared to maintain and repair most types of systems. From there, you can choose to focus on these areas by landing the right job. Look for contractors who do this kind of work as opposed to installations.
Commercial work in HVAC means installing, maintaining and repairing larger, more complicated systems in big buildings. As compared to residential work, this can involve bigger jobs that take more time to complete and that require more workers to handle.
These jobs generally pay better than residential ones, but specializing in commercial installation and repair will require more training. You will need to work with a contractor doing commercial work to learn and train on the job or find an academic program or apprenticeship that focuses on commercial HVAC. Expect an average annual salary around $57,000 for a commercial position.
Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
Another specialty that may pay a little more than general HVAC work is air conditioning and refrigeration. Handling refrigerants requires special training, because they are hazardous materials that are strictly regulated. The average annual income for these specialists is around $58,000. Some colleges offer HVAC programs that specialize in refrigeration and air conditioning installation and repair.
There are other specialties that generally don’t constitute a separate career but that can be added to your resume and certification list. These specialty certifications are offered through testing with NATE. Having one or more specialty certifications demonstrate that you are capable of doing quality work on specific types of systems or components:
- Air-to-air heat pumps
- Gas heating
- Gas or oil hydronics—water heaters
- Oil heating
- Air distribution and ducts
How to Train for an HVAC Specialty
In order to specialize in one specific area of HVAC work you will need the appropriate training. A smart way to get into this career is to start with a general HVAC program, either at a college or in an apprenticeship role. This will prepare you to work as a general HVAC technician but also puts you in a position to find a specialty.
If you are interested in specializing, you will need to find a professional in that field willing to train you. This could be a part of your first apprenticeship program. Alternatively, you can look for your first post-apprenticeship job with a company that focuses on installation, commercial work or another specific area, so you can train while you work.
Any area of HVAC is a good choice for a career. The general average salary, according to the BLS, is $47,080 per year. With a specialty, you may be able to earn more, but even if you only generalize and work with a residential contractor you can expect to earn a good living.