Do I need to go to a heating and air conditioning school all?
The answer depends on the state you are in and what you wish to do. For example, to “do” HVAC in Alabama you pass a state exam, pay a fee, and you can be licensed as a Heating and Air Conditioning Contractor.1 Unless you intend to work on industrial sized equipment, this is probably enough for that state.
On the other hand, in California, you will need four years experience, HVAC training, sit for two different exams and cough up $500.2
An easy way to find out what is required in your state is to look up HVAC for your state’s board of licensing. Another way is to contact schools that offer HVAC in your area and ask. Since demand for HVAC schooling often parallels state requirements, schooling that is offered usually matches what’s needed.
Certificates vs. degrees
Community colleges typically offer associate degrees in HVAC, although some will offer mini-programs for certifications only.3,4 Other types of certificate programs exist, some as short as just a few days. These are typically hands-on and cover the basics only.5
The question of whether you need a certificate or a degree depends largely on your role in the HVAC field. For entry level technicians a certificate, associate’s degree or even just an apprenticeship is usually enough to gain employment. As you progress up the pay scale (and the size of the systems involved) either more experience or more education is required – all the way up to a bachelors degree in environmental engineering or HVAC system design.
One key aspect of certificate training verses degrees is the ability to add skills as needed. So, for example, working on a specific company’s product may require you attend a company-sponsored program. Some companies also offer “clinics” that may be free or low cost.6
Experience in the HVAC field in your area will give you the best feel for which of these will help you meet your career goals. A general division in the subject comes between residential and commercial HVAC, with commercial systems leaning more toward degrees with certificates and apprenticeships more common in residential applications.
Who should I talk to?
Since HVAC is practiced primarily within set territories, one good idea is to call companies local to you. Even better, pay them a visit. Their certifications are usually on display, and, when they aren’t too busy, most technicians are happy to discuss the ins and outs of education offered. In some cases, just showing up and demonstrating your interest is enough to get a foot in the door. Any contacts you make will be extremely useful later when seeking employment.
You can find out who is licensed in your state for HVAC by consulting your Secretary of State’s website. License information is publicly available. Why not contact someone who is newly licensed to find out about their experiences?
Talking to counselors and HVAC tech schools directly can give you good information, but it may be a bit shaded towards getting you to sign up. In some situations, a school is primarily a money-making entity and the sales pressure can be high. Ask specifically about job placement and what their stats are with new graduates.