If you put two HVAC techs in a room together, no matter what part of the country they are from, sooner or later one particular topic is going to come up …

Is life better working on the commercial or residential side of the profession?

Residential HVAC technicians serve the home heating and air conditioning market. Their commercial counterparts take care of business and industrial installations. The scale of work is different—big buildings take big heating and cooling units—but the principles are the same. As Minnesota-based operations and service manager Kyle Buscher puts it, “It’s the exact same thing with just more wires, essentially.”

So coming out of school, technicians have a choice to work in homes, which could include everything from a humble single-family rambler to a sprawling estate or businesses and industrial settings, which could include everything from the local Starbucks to a major hospital complex.

Commercial

Commercial is widely seen as the place where the most money is to be made and it’s true that hourly salaries tend to be higher. But some of this is because commercial firms tend to demand (and therefore have to pay for) more experienced and talented technicians. The high pay rates in commercial may not be seen by a new hire for years and years and getting hired on in the first place is extremely difficult without experience.

Commercial shops are also more likely to be unionized, which commands higher wages across the board.


Residential

Residential can also be good money and you can see that money a lot faster than on the commercial side if you have the right personality for the job. Many residential technicians enjoy a degree of independence that is uncommon on the commercial side, and many residential firms pay commission to technicians who make sales… a quick way to boost your income without a lot of experience in the industry.

It’s not impossible to switch paths mid-career but it’s not always easy, either. Making the right choice when you are starting out will lead to a longer, happier, more productive career in HVAC.

Commercial HVAC: Big Systems, Bad Weather, Big Paychecks

Commercial HVAC systems are large and complicated. Hiring standards are often higher in commercial firms and they demand technicians who are willing to stay on top of the latest industry trends. Continuing education is usually required and competition is tight for those jobs.

Commercial tends to be more stable in terms of work hours. Emergency service calls from residential customers can and do come in at all hours, but few commercial establishments even notice if their system goes down after business hours. But that doesn’t mean that jobs are necessarily steady—some union guys end up working for twenty different companies in the course of their careers.

In a recession, when you’re the low man on the totem pole, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is, if that company is cutting back, you’re going.

The size of the business also affects this dynamic.

“A lot of times commercial companies are staffed to handle around the clock, whereas residential is basically your normal 7-5 and then whoever is on call takes all the night and weekend,” says Kyle Buscher, an operations and service manager whose firm works on both sides of the table. In a small outfit, this means a lot of overtime.

Due to size, unionization, and complexity, there is more specialization in commercial firms. Commercial techs show up, do their job, and go home. Contracts are arranged and negotiations are handled by someone else and the money is all changing hands between folks in the back offices.

On the other hand, a career in commercial HVAC means spending a lot of time up on the roof. You’re going to be outside and up high in all weather conditions, from pouring rain to baking sun. Commercial units are usually split systems, with compressor and condenser units located on the roof. Many commercial mechanics like a job that is outdoors most of the time.

Commercial work also brings in a greater variety of experiences. Commercial mechanics have to know all different kinds of systems and never know what they are going to encounter on a job, since commercial building installations are all custom.

And just because the invoice is going to some anonymous person in the accounts payable department doesn’t mean you’re entirely out of the customer service business. Commercial techs have to deal with building or office managers who can be just as demanding as any homeowner. Inevitably, there will also be folks in an office who think the system is running too hot while others simultaneously feel it is running too cold, and there will be no pleasing both of them.

Residential HVAC: Customer Service, On-Call, Sales-Focused

Residential systems are simpler and some folks in the industry think it’s easier to get started on residential work for this reason.

On the residential side, smaller contracting companies tend to dominate, meaning non-union shops are more common in most areas. According to Buscher, in some markets cost competition has all but eliminated union-based residential HVAC services. That leaves a lower barrier to entry for residential work, another plus if you are just breaking into the industry.

Many residential companies specialize or act as dealers for particular manufacturers. This is a great way to become an expert on those systems but it can also be boring dealing with the same gear day in and day out.

Residential HVAC techs have more direct customer interaction and have to be more customer-service oriented. Temperatures are often running as high in the customer as in the house on residential service calls and a good residential tech has to be able to cool the client down before even getting started on the job.

The flip side of this is job satisfaction. Being customer-facing is a kick for some techs, though. There is satisfaction in fixing a furnace for a shivering family on Christmas Eve that you’re not going to get by replacing a couple of sensors in a bland commercial office space.

“Residential is much more personal,” says Buscher. “It’s a lot more face time. Commercial is a lot of call, clock-in with the district or property manager, you’re just there to get a signature. People don’t bat an eye about the price, they don’t ever try and argue.”

There’s not as much outside work since fewer residential systems are split, but that doesn’t mean residential techs are in for a life of soft carpets and tea served in bone china cups—crawlspaces and attics are their domain, which may be out of the weather but are far from comfortable.

Residential techs are often expected to be salesmen. In addition to a fixed hourly rate, residential techs can make commission based on sales in many shops. Every customer interaction is an opportunity to sell add-ons or system replacements. Working in residential will involve writing invoices and sometimes negotiating.

Not all residential HVAC companies push their techs to sell hard, but many do. In some places, compensation can be up to 100 percent commission-based.

The fact that residential HVAC tech gigs are often so heavily sales-oriented comes as a shock to some new technicians. If you just hoped to show up to put in a solid day’s work installing piping, replacing heat exchangers, and performing other technical work, the fact that you are expected to push product on customers may be a little unpleasant.

Other techs, however, look at the sales-oriented aspects of residential work as a golden goose. If you have good people skills, there is always money to be made on commission for upgrades and replacement work.

And not all residential companies rely on technicians for sales. Knowing the gear doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding profit margins and warranty details. Buscher’s outfit has dedicated salespeople who field technicians can pass off prospective candidates to.

“It’s better to have someone who is trained to repair things, repair things, someone who is trained to sell, sell things. There is less room for error than when you have someone who doesn’t know very much providing a quote,” he says. “You can lose your butt on some of them.”

But his technicians still get a small bonus for spotting prospects that turn into a sale, which gives them an incentive to keep their eyes open and provide enough information to sales staff.

HVAC Careers Have Something For Everyone

The truth is that the skills between residential and commercial overlap and the best techs usually have put in time on both sides of the line. In fact, many commercial guys pick up residential work on the weekends to make some extra cash. And there are firms like Buscher’s that serve both residential and commercial customers, providing a broad experience to their technicians.

At the end of the day, your first job in the HVAC industry is likely to have a lot to do with what is in demand at the time. Like any other market, HVAC fluctuates… a big construction boom may lead to a lot of demand for commercial techs when you are starting out, for example. But like any career, it’s up to you to pursue opportunities that interest you the most.