Trade Schools for HVAC
Virtually every building in the country has some type of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC-R) system hooked up to control the internal temperatures and air quality. Without these complex systems, our homes, offices, schools, stores, and other facilities would be either too hot or too cold, depending on the season. HVAC-R mechanics and installers (aka technicians) are specially trained to install, maintain, and repair these systems to ensure they work properly and without disruption.
Because their skills are needed everywhere, HVAC-R technicians are always on the go, traveling to work sites where they may have to perform tasks outdoors or in tight spaces. Due to the various hazards associated with the job, such as risk of electrical shocks or pulled muscles from moving heavy equipment, HVAC-R techs must understand and follow many safety protocols to prevent mishaps.
This knowledge and their necessary technical skills are taught in HVAC-R training programs at trade or vocational schools and community colleges. HVAC-R workers also learn through apprenticeships, or via a combination of both.
What Is A Trade School for HVAC?
As explained by the Center for Employment Training, trade schools “focus on hands-on careers that require a base level certification or a specific number of on-the-job supervised hours to enter.” A job in HVAC falls under this category of “hands-on career” types.
HVAC trade school graduates can apply for apprenticeships, if they are 18, hold a high school diploma or GED, and, in some cases, have a valid driver’s license. They may also need to pass a drug screening to qualify.
What to Expect at a Trade School for HVAC
Your HVAC trade school experience will be very practical. Trade schools are laser-focused on teaching the knowledge and technical skills necessary to get started in this dynamic field. They are a great way to establish a strong foundation prior to beginning an apprenticeship, which can take three to five years to complete. The more formal HVAC-R education a worker has under their belt, the shorter the apprenticeship should be.
Length of HVAC Trade Schools
Trade schools for HVAC typically take between eight to twelve months to complete, with graduates earning a certificate. Short programs focus on preparing students to start in a particular area of HVAC, such as air conditioning.
Longer programs are available for students who want to branch out beyond a single area of specialization. Students can also enroll in a two-year associate in HVAC-R, usually offered at community colleges or four-year schools.
Types of Classes at HVAC Trade Schools
HVAC trade school classes are a mix of academic and hands-on learning. Ideally, students will already possess a basic understanding of general math, algebra, physics, and electronics. HVAC trade school websites will generally list their full curriculum along with an overview of the skills you’ll pick up, such as:
- How to read blueprints
- How to set up residential and commercial HVAC-R equipment
- How to perform routine maintenance, troubleshoot problems, and conduct repairs
- How to braze and solder pipes and fittings, and
- How to work safely with hazardous equipment
Section 608 Certification
Future HVAC-R workers who plan on servicing refrigerated equipment will likely need to study for Section 608 certification. This refers to the Clean Air Act of 1990’s Section 608 rule (or, more specifically, to 40 CFR Part 82, Subpart F), which requires that “technicians who maintain, service, repair, or dispose of equipment that could release refrigerants into the atmosphere must be certified.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees Section 608 certification, but trade schools can help prepare students for the exam.
The EPA offers four basic certification types:
- Type I: for servicing small appliances
- Type II: for servicing high- or very high-pressure appliances
- Type III: for servicing low-pressure appliances
- Universal: for all types
Tuition rates for HVAC Trade School
HVAC trade school tuition rates vary but community colleges and vocational/trade schools tend to have much lower tuition and fees than four-year universities.
- Certificate programs may cost about $3,000 per year
- Two-year associate’s degree could range from $3,000 up to $15,000 per year
Salary After Graduation from HVAC Trade Schools
HVAC-R technicians have a median annual wage of ~$49,000, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Top earners can make over $78,000 a year, while apprentices and entry-level workers may start at under $40,000, depending on worker qualifications, who the employer is, and which state they work in. Indeed, geographic location plays a big part in how much HVAC-R workers earn. Here are the top five locations with the highest annual mean wage:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
Types of HVAC Classes or Topics
Common heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration classes offered via HVAC trade schools include:
- Airflow and indoor air quality
- Basic electricity
- Building codes
- Heating fuels and heat pumps
- HVAC-R theory
- Installation and service
- Mechanical drawings and diagrams
- Principles of electric, gas, and oil heat
- Refrigerant types
- Safety practices
- Soldering and brazing
- Troubleshooting and problem solving
- Venting and duct systems
Students can also take HVAC classes at certain community colleges, which may offer either a certificate or associate in HVAC technology. An associate degree will require general education classes in addition to the core HVAC subject matter and electives. As a result, an associate degree takes longer — usually about two years, if going full-time.
As with any associate, programs require the completion of 60 semester units, and students must generally maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher to graduate.
Of the total number of credits needed for a heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration associate degree, about one-third must be focused on the major, with related electives helping to round out the core requirements. Grades for core classes may need to be at least a C (or passing) or better to count for credit.
While several aspects of HVAC-R are best learned in-person, many programs are nevertheless offered via a hybrid method (online and in-person), since apprentices will gain hands-on experience during their apprenticeship anyway.
There are bachelor of science degree programs dedicated to heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration technology, but these are not aimed specifically at future HVAC-R technicians. Those finishing a four-year degree in HVAC-R technology may seek advanced career paths in sales engineering, design engineering, or project estimation and management.
Most bachelor’s degree programs take four years if attending full-time, though some engineering programs can take an extra term or two. Part-time attendance can take up to twice as long, depending on course load. An HVAC trade school can lay a strong foundation for workers who want to start as technicians but later finish a bachelor’s to qualify for higher-paying roles.
What Can You Do After HVAC Trade School?
After HVAC-R students finish their trade school, they can start their apprenticeship. After completing their supervised apprenticeship on-the-job training, they can apply for a state license (if needed) and start working as a journeyman HVAC technician based on their area of specialization. Common jobs include:
- Median Salary: $58,083
- Career Outlook: +5% (2020-2030)
A residential HVAC career involves working on residential air conditioning units, furnaces and boilers, and other HVAC-R equipment and systems.
- Median Salary: $63,375
- Career Outlook: +5% (2020-2030)
A career in commercial HVAC involves working on larger HVAC-R systems for commercial buildings such as malls, offices, schools, etc.
- Median Salary: $58,681
- Career Outlook: +5% (2020-2030)
Commercial refrigeration jobs require work on units found in warehouses, grocery stores, and other cold storage areas.
- Median Salary: $55,409
- Career Outlook: +5% (2020-2030)
An automotive or marine service technician usually works on vehicular climate control systems.
Certification and Licensure
Whether an HVAC-R worker graduates from a trade school program or not, they may still need to complete an apprenticeship. The length will depend on their educational background and relevant previous work experience. Following their apprenticeship phase, HVAC-R technicians must obtain a license in some states.
Licensure requirements differ from state to state, but in general, technicians must pass an exam proving they are ready to work on their own at the journeyman level. Each state has its own exam requirements. Check with the applicable state’s examining board before preparing for a test, to ensure you study the right topics.
In addition to licensure, there are also optional certifications to qualify for certain jobs. These can include:
- EPA Section 608 certs
- Employment ready certs
- Speciality certs
- Professional level certs
- Master specialist certs
- Educator credentialing certs
O*Net offers a thorough listing of 129 HVAC-R certification options, such as:
- Basic Refrigeration and Charging Procedures Certification
- Carbon Monoxide Safety Certification
- Combustion Analysis Certification
- Electrical Certification
- Gas Heat Certification
- Green Awareness Certification
- Heat Pump Certification
- Light Commercial Refrigeration Certification
- Residential Air Conditioning Certification
More info here.
Salary and Career Information by State
Each state has its own criteria for HVAC-R apprenticeships, licensure, and promotion to journeyman and beyond. The variables are usually related to the number of apprenticeship hours or the number of years of experience an HVAC-R tech has finished.
Those desiring to work with refrigerants must get EPA Section 608 certified. Advanced HVAC-R technicians may also apply for a contractor license. In addition to journeyman licensing, HVAC-R techs can also apply for several specialty certifications.
Best HVAC Programs
Because of the high demand for qualified HVAC-R technicians, there’s no shortage of trade schools, community colleges, and four-year universities offering relevant educational programs. Below are five such schools from our top HVAC schools ranking report, to get you started on your search for a program that fits your needs!
With cool temps year-round, it’s no surprise Alaska has ample HVAC training opportunities. The University of Alaska in Anchorage offers an Occupational Endorsement Certificate in Refrigeration and Heating to provide students “with the technical skills required to install, diagnose, and repair modern commercial and residential heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC/R) systems.” This cert program is offered via the Matanuska-Susitna College.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello is an affordable public school featuring a 16-credit certificate of proficiency in HVAC/R Technology Fundamentals and 37-credit HVAC/R Technology technical certificate. Both programs provide an excellent launchpad for anyone who wants to learn the ropes quickly so they can get started in their new profession. The school also offers in-state tuition rates for regional residents in nearby states.
Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College offers an associate’s in HVAC Technology, plus a certificate, technical certificate, and several HVAC-related workforce certificates. Classes are taught in a lab by experienced HVAC-R professionals who focus on hands-on practice with furnaces and air conditioning equipment. There are even opportunities to gain real-world experience by helping local community organizations with their HVAC needs.
Florida’s Miami Dade College is home to a unique HVAC Apprenticeship Training Program, offered “in partnership with State-registered and approved Apprenticeship Sponsor Agencies.” The technical certificate program runs four years, combining academic classes with actual On-the-Job training, aimed at preparing graduates to work as journeymen. Classes are offered on seven different campuses, making the program very accessible for residents.
Founded in 1946, Southwestern Illinois College now has three campuses — in Belleville, Granite City, and Red Bud. The school features a 45.5-credit HVAC certificate program or an Associate in Applied Science in HVAC/R. Students with financial need can apply for the Otten HVACR Tool Scholarship, which may help offset costs. SWIC also has a variety of helpful career services for grads!
HVAC-R trade schools may be less expensive than a four-year university, but they still cost money. That’s why we recommend spending some time searching for HVAC-R scholarships that can help offset those costs. The fewer out-of-pocket expenses you have, the more you can focus your attention on your academic studies!
ASHRAE offers dozens of generous HVAC-related scholarships, such as the undergraduate engineering scholarship, university-specific scholarships, Society Chapter scholarships, regional scholarships, high school scholarships, and more. Eligibility criteria, award amounts, and deadlines to apply vary. In general, applicants will submit an application form, transcripts, a financial need analysis, an essay, and letters of recommendation. Make sure to check out the “Top Ten Tips” to boost your odds!
The EGIA Foundation Scholarship awards “deserving students seeking an HVAC technical education.” Preference is given to high school seniors or students aged 18-26 enrolled in an accredited HVAC program. Applicants must have at least a 2.0 GPA and will submit a financial need statement and essay explaining why they want to obtain an education in HVAC. Award amounts are for $2,500 and the deadline to apply is March 31.
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Education Foundation administers ~60 sponsored scholarships ranging from $1,000 - $2,500+ to students attending, or planning to attend, a PHCC-approved program related to plumbing-heating-cooling at a trade school, college, or university. Some restrictions apply. Online applications are due no later than May 1st each year.
Oil and Energy Service Professionals (OESP) has given out ~$300,000 in Dave Nelsen scholarships since 1999. Awards are usually for $5,000. Eligible students should be “currently attending or planning to attend a technical college or trade school within the next 12 months” to pursue an education in HVAC-R or plumbing. Applications must include a 500-word essay, letters of recommendation, and a completed form. Submissions are due around mid-March.
Note: Use our handy Universities.com scholarship finder tool to explore additional opportunities!
How to Get Started on an HVAC Degree
If you’re at least 18, have a high school diploma or a GED, understand basic math, and are interested in pursuing a good-paying career in HVAC-R, then you’re probably ready to apply to a HVAC-R program at a trade school, community college, or university! If you’re not sure if you want to dive in just yet, there are workforce readiness programs that can help you understand a bit more about the HVAC-R career field.
Not all HVAC techs go to a trade school, but it can help you learn the basics so your apprenticeship experience will go smoother. In fact, having some HVAC-R trade school credits will demonstrate your commitment to the industry, which in turn might help you land a competitive apprenticeship when the time is right.
You might also want to review apprenticeship requirements to learn what is needed to be competitive. Students who live near a Job Corps training site and meet eligibility requirements may be able to apply for a federally-funded HVAC program!
After you’ve completed your academics, it’s time to apply for a sponsored apprenticeship which will consist of a mix of OJT and technical instruction. The more you learn at school, the shorter the apprenticeship experience should be.
After a sufficient number of supervised apprenticeship work hours are completed (the number of hours varies by state), you can sign up to take the licensure exam (if needed in your state). After you pass your state’s requirements, you’ll be a journeyman HVAC technician able to work independently.
From there, additional work experience and optional specialty certifications can qualify you for advancement opportunities, such as moving up to be a master-level technician. Many workers go on to complete an HVAC-R bachelor’s to qualify for better positions. Some launch their own businesses and hire other technicians to work for them!
Why do HVAC-R technicians charge so much?
- HVAC-R technicians are highly trained professionals who possess specialized, much-needed skills and who take time to travel and bring tools to job sites, so they are compensated accordingly.
Is HVAC-R a good career field?
- Becoming an HVAC-R technician is a great career choice for those who are interested in the work and can commit to the apprenticeship method of learning while doing.
How long is an HVAC-R apprenticeship?
- Paid HVAC-R apprenticeships can take up to 3-5 years, though that time can be shortened by completing some basic courses via a trade school program.
Do HVAC-R technicians need a college degree?
- HVAC-R technicians can learn the education and skills through trade schools for HVAC or a community college program. HVAC-R technicians don’t have to have a college degree, but it could help increase pay and open you up to more career opportunities.
Do HVAC-R technicians need a license?
- Some states require HVAC-R technicians who have completed their training to acquire a license to work independently as a journeyman. Those who work with refrigerants need to pass an EPA Section 608 exam.
How much do HVAC-R technicians make?
- HVAC-R technician wages vary by specialization, experience level (journeyman, master), the state they work in, and other variables, with salaries ranging from $25,500 to $80,500 per year.
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