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How to Become an HVAC Technician in California: Career Guide

HVAC technicians are vital in maintaining a comfortable and clean indoor environment, as well as food production and storage. From the manufacturer to the retailer, at home or at work, if it must be heated, cooled and conditioned, there is an HVAC-R technician making it happen. The future for HVAC technicians looks bright, with jobs expected to be available for some time to come.[1]

Find out more about what an HVAC technician does, the education required to become a technician, HVAC salary possibilities and more facts you need to begin your HVAC technician training.

What Is an HVAC Technician?

HVAC-R technicians – which stands for heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration – oversee systems that control the humidity, temperature and overall air quality in homes, businesses and other buildings. HVAC techs play a vital role in sustaining climate-controlled environments, making it possible for food, medicine and other perishable items to be stored and transported.

Some techs specialize in such areas as commercial refrigeration, radiant heating systems, solar panels, or testing and balancing.

HVAC installers are mainly responsible for setting up systems. Installers typically work with builders and property owners to replace existing systems and install new equipment on structures still being constructed. Because of this, they tend to be more involved in the construction industry than technicians.

Once setup is done, it now becomes the responsibility of the HVAC technician to maintain and repair these systems. Because of their duties, HVAC techs are more likely to work alone, and in direct contact with clients and customers. HVAC technicians may be on call and can work irregular hours since they are called upon to fix malfunctioning systems.[2]

What Does an HVAC Technician Do?

Typically, HVAC-R technicians are full time employees, and will work until the job is done. Employers assign HVAC techs to resolve customer issues. Self-employed technicians may be contacted directly by customers.

Daily duties may involve troubleshooting failures, analyzing system data, customer education, sales, report writing and. 

An HVAC technician’s job duties often includes:[3]

  • Cleaning and maintaining HVAC systems
  • Discussing system malfunctions with customers
  • Inspecting and testing HVAC systems and components
  • Installing electrical components and wiring
  • Keeping records of work performed
  • Recommending maintenance to improve system performance
  • Repairing or replacing worn or defective parts

Why Become an HVAC Technician?

HVAC technician jobs are expected to be good over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says the number of jobs for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers is expected to grow by 4% between 2019 and 2029.[1] The growth in sophisticated climate-control systems should also drive demand for HVAC-R technicians.

The BLS also says that although HVAC-R installers may experience up and down periods of employment, maintenance and repair work usually remains stable.

HVAC Technician Salary in California

The median annual pay for Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers was $48,730 in May 2019.[4] The pay also breaks down further based on the industries techs worked in. Here are the pay averages and the top industries they’re employed in as of May 2019:

Industry Average pay
Wholesale trade $52,430
Educational services $52,260
Retail trade $48,620
Plumbing, heating and air-conditioning contractors $47,380

California is one of the top states for employment of heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers , with 29,650 jobs in May 2019.[5] The average annual wage was $59,550. 

Of the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers, four are in California:

Metropolitan area Annual mean wage 
Fairbanks, AK $78,540
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA $77,010
Napa, CA $76,570
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $76,480
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT $72,630
Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, HI $72,560
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $71,460
Barnstable Town, MA $70,100
Anchorage, AK $68,800
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $67,750

How to Become an HVAC Technician in California

There are a few steps to take if you’re interested in being an HVAC technician. Typically, technicians should have a postsecondary education, some specialized training and work experience. Here are some of the milestones along the road to becoming an HVAC technician.[6]

  • Get education

Many HVAC technicians receive postsecondary instruction from technical and trade schools or community colleges. These heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (sometimes called HVAC-R) programs generally last from six months to two years and lead to a certificate or an associate’s degree.

  • Get training and experience

New HVAC techs usually work alongside experienced technicians. At first, they perform basic tasks of maintenance and cleaning, but with experience will move on to more difficult tasks, such as brazing/welding refrigerant piping, troubleshooting electrical circuits and major component replacements.

Some techs may instead be trained through apprenticeships, lasting from three to five years. 

  • Get licenses, certification and registrations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires certification for all technicians who buy, handle, or work with refrigerants. This is commonly called the Section 608 Universal certification. Many trade schools, unions and employer associations offer training programs to prepare students for the exam.

Some states and localities may require additional HVAC technician certification, licensure or registration to work. 

In California, HVAC technicians aren’t required to be licensed, but HVAC contractors must be. These licenses – Class C 20 Specialty Contractor License: Warm Air Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning – are issued by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board. Contact the board for more information.[7] 

Do I Need to Do an HVAC Apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships are traditionally used to teach someone a trade alongside a mentor. The apprenticeship is an on-the-job training program that bypasses college or vocational training. This type of training can take several years to become a journeyman and then a licensed Contractor.[8]

Apprenticeships are not required, though, especially for those who pursue an HVAC degree or certificate. 

Do I Need to Join a Union to Work in HVAC?

Each state has its own requirements regarding unions and work. For example, California is not a right-to-work state, so an employer may require you to join a union as a condition of employment.[9] You can contact your own state’s labor agency to find out whether it requires union membership.

There are two major unions for HVAC technicians:

  • The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (United Association or UA)[10]
  • The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART)[11]

Each association offers information and apprenticeship programs for those interested in HVAC.

Are There Any HVAC Certifications?

The EPA Section 608 Technician Certification is necessary for anyone handling refrigerants. There are several levels of this certification. There is also one certification that certifies excellence in the HVAC field.[12] 

These certifications include:

  • EPA Type I Certification – This is for those who service small appliances, such as window air conditioners.
  • EPA Type II Certification – This is for those who work with high-pressure systems.
  • EPA Type III Certification – This is for those who service low-pressure systems.
  • Universal EPA Certificate – This is a certificate that covers all EPA types.
  • North American Technician Excellence (NATE) – This is a national certification that recognizes excellence on two levels: those new to the industry, and those with additional experience.

Where Can I Work as an HVAC Technician?

HVAC technician jobs are available all over the nation. For those working in California, a tech only needs to join a union, join an HVAC company or just begin their own company. 

HVAC technicians work mostly in factories, homes, hospitals, office buildings, schools or stores. The majority of HVAC techs (66%) work for plumbing, heating and air conditioning contractors.[13] 

There are several large companies and contractors in Central California that hire HVAC technicians. Recently, Inc. published a list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies, which included three companies in the region.[14]

  • Kuubix Energy, which installs solar power units, ranked 47. The Visalia-based company has grown by 5,899% over three years.
  • Comfort Now, also based in Visalia, is ranked 4,311. The HVAC company has grown 77% over three years.
  • Lee’s Air Conditioning, Heating & Building Performance is ranked 4,744 nationally. It has grown by 62% over three years out of its base in Fresno.

Find Your Path in HVAC Technology

SJVC is committed to hands-on training in the skills you need as an HVAC Technician. Learn more about our program and exciting opportunities.

How Should I Choose HVAC Technician Training?

There are two main ways to get the training you’ll need, and the good news is most employers prefer either one for their applicants: postsecondary education, or apprenticeship.

With a postsecondary education, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the HVAC field, with hands-on instruction. Classes at HVAC schools also can teach you more in-depth skills and theory. Remember, though, that you’ll pay for the opportunity. But you also get what you pay for, because you can receive a better education. With the degree and certification, an HVAC technician can begin the process to start their own company.

Apprenticeships let you begin working right away, with what is essentially on-the-job training, sometimes sponsored by a union that you’ll have to join. You can start earning money, but your education will be restricted to what you’re doing at the time, which may leave your knowledge narrow if you’re working in only one area of the HVAC field.

Apprentices usually earn about half of what experienced workers do. Their pay can increase as they learn more on the job.[4]

Should I Get an HVAC-R Certificate or Associate Degree?

As with most education options, more school is generally more advantageous. A certificate will take only several months, and could lead to employment soon thereafter. An associate degree can take up to two years, but will give you broader knowledge with which to begin your HVAC career.

Many studies have shown over the years that those with a college degree can earn more money in their lifetime than those without one – as much as 75% more.[15]

Can I Study HVAC Training Online?

HVAC training is best learned in person, since it’s a hands-on profession. There is little substitute for getting to work with the air conditioning, heating and other units in a real-life situation. There are also clear advantages to working side-by-side with an experienced HVAC technician.

What Will I Learn in the HVAC-R Program at SJVC?

Students in San Joaquin Valley College’s Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration program learn:

  • Electrical theories
  • Heating and cooling principles
  • How to diagnose mechanical and electrical problems
  • How to properly install, service and replace equipment

Among the classes required in the HVAC-R program are:

  • Theory and Applications of Air Conditioning – This course introduces, discusses, and demonstrates the practical applications of the physical properties of air (psychometrics), blueprint, interpretation, floor plan layout, calculating building heat loads, air distribution systems, types of air conditioning equipment and systems, codes, and installations. This course also introduces various heating systems and EPA, Section 608.
  • Theory and Applications of Electricity – This course introduces, discusses and applies electron flow theory, magnetism, electrical generation and power and refrigerating system components and circuits. This course identifies and discusses the control devices used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, practices electrical drafting skills, interpretation of pictorial and ladder wiring diagrams, and problem analysis, using various diagnostic techniques for domestic and light- commercial ventilation, refrigeration, and air conditioning systems. 
  • Theory and Applications of Refrigeration – This course introduces, discusses, and practices the physical laws of matter, heat transfer, gas laws and equations, pressure and temperature conversions, refrigerants and refrigerant recovery-recycle-reclaim methods and equipment. The refrigeration cycle, basic refrigerating systems and applications, codes, installation, safety practices, and EPA information are topics covered in this course. This course discusses and applies the principles of theory and fundamentals to problem analysis and diagnostics for residential, light commercial, and commercial refrigeration systems. Students will practice the basics of brazing. 

Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration program graduates at SJVC will also have the opportunity to earn EPA 608 certification.  

Kickstart Your Career as HVAC Technician

Small class sizes, individual attention, and hands-on training in the skills you need. Learn more about HVAC technology with SJVC.

Learn More About HVAC-R Training at SJVC

If you’re interested in the growing field of HVAC, consider SJVC’s Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration program. It is available at the following campuses:

SJVC also offers students and graduates career services, a career resource guide and job search assistance.

Request more information to find out more about the HVAC-R program. 

Visit https://www.sjvc.edu/admissions/consumer-information/ for important information on program outcomes.

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