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Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers - What They Do

Heating and air-conditioning systems control the temperature, humidity, and the total air quality in residential, commercial, industrial, and other buildings. By providing a climate controlled environment, refrigeration systems make it possible to store and transport food, medicine, and other perishable items. Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers—also called technicians—install, maintain, and repair such systems. Because heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems often are referred to as HVACR systems, these workers also may be called HVACR technicians.

Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems consist of many mechanical, electrical, and electronic components, such as motors, compressors, pumps, fans, ducts, pipes, thermostats, and switches. In central forced air heating systems, for example, a furnace heats air, which is then distributed through a system of metal or fiberglass ducts. Technicians maintain, diagnose, and correct problems throughout the entire system. To do this, they adjust system controls to recommended settings and test the performance of the system using special tools and test equipment.

Technicians often specialize in either installation or maintenance and repair, although they are trained to do both. They also may specialize in doing heating work or air-conditioning or refrigeration work. Some specialize in one type of equipment—for example, hydronics (water-based heating systems), solar panels, or commercial refrigeration.

Technicians are often required to sell service contracts to their clients. Service contracts provide for regular maintenance of the heating and cooling systems, and they help to reduce the seasonal fluctuations of this type of work.

Technicians follow blueprints or other specifications to install oil, gas, electric, solid-fuel, and multiple-fuel heating systems and air-conditioning systems. After putting the equipment in place, they install fuel and water supply lines, air ducts and vents, pumps, and other components. They may connect electrical wiring and controls and check the unit for proper operation. To ensure the proper functioning of the system, furnace installers often use combustion test equipment, such as carbon dioxide testers, carbon monoxide testers, combustion analyzers, and oxygen testers. These tests ensure that the system will operate safely and at peak efficiency.

After a furnace or air-conditioning unit has been installed, technicians often perform routine maintenance and repair work to keep the systems operating efficiently. They may adjust burners and blowers and check for leaks. If the system is not operating properly, technicians check the thermostat, burner nozzles, controls, or other parts to diagnose and correct the problem.

Technicians also install and maintain heat pumps, which are similar to air conditioners but can be reversed so that they both heat and cool a home. Because of the added complexity, and the fact that they run both in summer and winter, these systems often require more maintenance and need to be replaced more frequently than traditional furnaces and air conditioners.

During the summer, when heating systems are not being used, heating equipment technicians do maintenance work, such as replacing filters, ducts, and other parts of the system that may accumulate dust and impurities during the operating season. During the winter, air-conditioning mechanics inspect the systems and do required maintenance, such as overhauling compressors.

Refrigeration mechanics install, service, and repair industrial and commercial refrigerating systems and a variety of refrigeration equipment. They follow blueprints, design specifications, and manufacturers' instructions to install motors, compressors, condensing units, evaporators, piping, and other components. They connect this equipment to the ductwork, refrigerant lines, and electrical power source. After making the connections, refrigerator mechanics charge the system with refrigerant, check it for proper operation and leaks, and program control systems.

When air-conditioning and refrigeration technicians service equipment, they must use care to conserve, recover, and recycle the refrigerants used in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. The release of these refrigerants can be harmful to the environment. Technicians conserve the refrigerant by making sure that there are no leaks in the system; they recover it by venting the refrigerant into proper cylinders; they recycle it for reuse with special filter-dryers; or they ensure that the refrigerant is properly disposed of.

Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers are adept at using a variety of tools to work with refrigerant lines and air ducts, including hammers, wrenches, metal snips, electric drills, pipe cutters and benders, measurement gauges, and acetylene torches. They use voltmeters, thermometers, pressure gauges, manometers, and other testing devices to check airflow, refrigerant pressure, electrical circuits, burners, and other components.

Other craft workers sometimes install or repair cooling and heating systems. For example, on a large air-conditioning installation job, especially where workers are covered by union contracts, ductwork might be done by sheet metal workers and duct installers; electrical work by electricians; and installation of piping, condensers, and other components by pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Home appliance repairers usually service room air-conditioners and household refrigerators.

Work Environment
Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers work in homes, retail establishments, hospitals, office buildings, and factories—anywhere there is climate-control equipment that needs to be installed, repaired, or serviced. They may be assigned to specific job sites at the beginning of each day or may be dispatched to a variety of locations if they are making service calls.

Technicians may work outside in cold or hot weather, or in buildings that are uncomfortable because the air-conditioning or heating equipment is broken. In addition, technicians might work in awkward or cramped positions, and sometimes they are required to work in high places. Hazards include electrical shock, burns, muscle strains, and other injuries from handling heavy equipment. Appropriate safety equipment is necessary when handling refrigerants because contact can cause skin damage, frostbite, or blindness. When working in tight spaces, inhalation of refrigerant is a possible hazard.

The majority of mechanics and installers work at least 40 hours per week. During peak seasons, they often work overtime or irregular hours. Maintenance workers, including those who provide maintenance services under contract, often work evening or weekend shifts and are on call. Most employers try to provide a full workweek year-round by scheduling both installation and maintenance work, and many manufacturers and contractors now provide or even require year-round service contracts. In most shops that service both heating and air-conditioning equipment, employment is stable throughout the year.

Education & Training Required
Many heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers receive their primary training in secondary and postsecondary technical and trade schools and junior and community colleges that offer programs in heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration. These programs can take between 6 months and 2 years to complete. Others get their training in the Armed Forces.

High school students interested in some initial training for this industry should take courses in shop math, mechanical drawing, applied physics and chemistry, electronics, blueprint reading, and computer applications. Some knowledge of plumbing or electrical work and a basic understanding of electronics are beneficial for an HVACR technician. Secondary and postsecondary students studying HVACR learn about theory of temperature control, equipment design and construction, and electronics. They also learn the basics of installation, maintenance, and repair.

Three accrediting agencies have set academic standards for HVACR programs: HVAC Excellence; the National Center for Construction Education and Research; and the Partnership for Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Accreditation. After completing these programs, new technicians generally need between 6 months to 2 years of field experience before they are considered proficient.

Many other technicians train through apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programs frequently are run by joint committees representing local chapters of the Air-Conditioning Contractors of America, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors—National Association, and locals of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association or the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada. Local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Home Builders sponsor other apprenticeship programs. Formal apprenticeship programs normally last 3 to 5 years and combine paid on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Classes include subjects such as safety practices, the use and care of tools, blueprint reading, and the theory and design of heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems. In addition to understanding how systems work, technicians must learn about refrigerant products and the legislation and regulations that govern their use.

Applicants for apprenticeships must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Math and reading skills are essential. After completing an apprenticeship program, technicians are considered skilled trades workers and capable of working alone. These programs are also a pathway to certification and, in some cases, college credits.

Those who acquire their skills on the job usually begin by assisting experienced technicians. They may begin by performing simple tasks such as carrying materials, insulating refrigerant lines, or cleaning furnaces. In time, they move on to more difficult tasks, such as cutting and soldering pipes and sheet metal and checking electrical and electronic circuits.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)
Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers are required to be licensed by some States and localities. Requirements for licensure vary greatly, but all States or localities that require a license have a test that must be passed. The contents of these tests vary by State or locality, with some requiring extensive knowledge of electrical codes and others focusing more on HVACR-specific knowledge. Completion of an apprenticeship program or 2 to 5 years of experience are also common requirements.

In addition, all technicians who purchase or work with refrigerants must be certified in their proper handling. To become certified to purchase and handle refrigerants, technicians must pass a written examination specific to the type of work in which they specialize. The three possible areas of certification are: Type I—servicing small appliances; Type II—high-pressure refrigerants; and Type III—low-pressure refrigerants. Exams are administered by organizations approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such as trade schools, unions, contractor associations, or building groups.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Because technicians frequently deal directly with the public, they should be courteous and tactful, especially when dealing with an aggravated customer. They should be in good physical condition because they sometimes have to lift and move heavy equipment.

Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics and Installers - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Geothermal Heating Technician
A Geothermal Heating Technician Program will teach a student how to perform construction related tasks in the residential market dealing with the design, installation and servicing of ground source or geothermal heating and air conditioning systems. A Geothermal Heating Technician student will become ...more
Heating Technician
A Heating Technician Program will teach a student how to perform construction related tasks in the residential market dealing with the design, installation and servicing of heating, ventilation and cooling systems through forced air or hydronic means, often including either sheet-metal/duct work and/or ...more
Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic
The Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic Program is designed to teach a student how to make, install, repair and service residential, commercial and industrial cooling and heating systems. A student will also learn how to measure, cut and connect piping using welding and brazing equipment. The ...more
Transport Refrigeration Mechanic
The Transport Refrigeration Mechanic Program will teach a student how to repair, maintain, overhaul or modify refrigeration units, engines and accessories used in highway transport carriers for the purpose of transporting food and other refrigerated items in a cool or frozen state. The Transport Refrigeration ...more