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Commercial HVAC Technicians Working Inside Industrial Building

Commercial HVAC work comes with a view. Modern industrial-grade HVAC units usually get mounted on the roof of the building. Whether two stories up or twenty, that’s where commercial HVAC mechanics spend most of their time, out in all kinds of weather, in all seasons, working while the world goes by below.

That also makes it a job with wind, rain, and scorching sun. But no one who climbs those heights to service a compressor or replace a motor would trade places with any of the office drones stuck in the cubicle farms below them.

Commercial HVAC jobs pay good money, offer considerable independence, and provide a sort of stability that can be hard to find in any American industry today.

The Most Coveted Jobs are on the Commercial / Industrial Side of the Industry

Finding a job in a commercial HVAC operation is the golden ticket for a lot of technicians.

Pay scales for commercial work are among the highest in the industry. Commercial technicians are usually more experienced, highly trained, and are more likely to be in unions than their residential counterparts.

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These factors all contribute to higher salaries.

At the same time, commercial work tends to be more regular than residential. Commercial clients are generally less likely to require after-hours service in the first place, which reduces the need to be out on jobs outside the regular 9-5. And commercial firms are staffed to handle after-hours service calls anyway, so technicians rack up fewer unexpected calls in the middle of the night.

With Experience Comes Independence

Commercial techs are often given a company truck and a schedule and sent off to get the job done… doing it their own way, relying on their own experience and knowledge, with no one looking over their shoulder.

“Commercial is more call, clock in with a district manager or the property manager. You’re just there to get a signature. People don’t bat an eye about the price, they don’t ever try to argue.” Kyle Buscher, Service Manager

The hours are a lot more predictable, too. According to Mike DeRicco, a 26-year veteran in the industry “…in the commercial trade, you might do one or two service calls, so it’s a lot slower pace, but you still work the same amount of time each day. It’s not so strenuous, driving around, trying to get all that work done in one day. And the on-call is a lot different, too. When you’re doing commercial work, most of the time you don’t go out after hours.”

Someone back at the office handles billing and price negotiations—if you’re a commercial tech, you get to focus almost entirely on the work. It’s a big plus for guys that don’t enjoy the face-time and customer service aspects of residential work.

Freedom Can Mean Freedom to Fail

The independence comes with a price, though. Commercial systems are big and complicated and if you’re going to take on a big job for a major corporate customer, there is a lot riding on the outcome. Mistakes that could get glossed over or easily fixed on a home install will come back to haunt a commercial HVAC business.

And the work is more complicated than ever. Technology is changing the industry rapidly.

“If you don’t follow it, you kind of get lost,” says DeRicco. “The best thing you could do is keep up with things as they change.”

Commercial HVAC Jobs Fall Into Every Category

One surprise to many newly minted HVAC mechanics is all the different types of jobs that fall into the category of commercial HVAC. Big systems have a lot of components and there is a high degree of specialization within what are collectively known as the “pipe trades.” The business covers a range of different specialties, including:

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    Refrigeration mechanics

    Work on major industrial refrigeration systems, including restaurant freezers and cold storage and large chiller systems in office or apartment buildings.

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    Steam fitters

    Steam-driven heating systems are still common in many parts of the country, and the unique behavior and safety requirements of steam systems require specialists to work on them.

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    Sheet metal workers

    Modern office and industrial complexes, not to mention condo and apartment buildings, can have miles and miles of sheet metal ductwork installed for ventilation and air conditioning. Sheet metal workers are specialists in measuring, bending, and welding ductwork for these installations.

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    Pipe fitters

    A lot of piping is required to carry hot and cold liquids or gases through big commercial heating and cooling systems. Pipe fitters lay and connect that piping, becoming experts in welding and bending pipes made of various materials that resist corrosion and insulate their contents.

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    Industrial controls

    Building management systems control everything from temperature to fresh air turnover to lighting and security. Those systems evolved largely from specialized HVAC controls designed to balance and run systems efficiently, and industrial controls experts program and install those integrated systems.

And there are even more highly specialized subsets within these roles that find a niche in particular industries. There are, for instance, refrigeration mechanics who primarily serve the marine manufacturing industry, putting in cold storage systems on fishing vessels.

Technology Is Changing the Commercial HVAC Industry

The technologies you need to master are slightly different for each of those specialties. Some controls technicians become expert computer coders, reprogramming solid-state Building Management System (BMS) software in the field. Pipe fitters become master welders, working with different metals and in confined spaces to create leak-proof joins.

Every aspect of the job is affected by new technologies. Entire building designs are influenced now by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Features like shading and glazing, passive solar heating, or heat recovery ventilators are all things commercial HVAC mechanics are responsible for understanding, installing, and managing on new buildings.

“The biggest improvement I’ve seen is building automation. There are a lot of companies coming out doing a lot of things that can take into account the weather outside, how sunny it is, the solar gain on the side of the building, kind of offsets so that every building in the office is the exact same temperature.”Kyle Buscher, Service Manager

Although it takes some effort to keep up with new technology in the field, some of that tech is also making life easier for technicians. Fanless compressor technology, for example, will reduce wear and tear and result in fewer trips up to the roof to make replacements. And companies like 75F are rolling out Internet-based monitoring and management systems that can allow you to take care of some issues without ever leaving the office.

Buscher, whose company works with some clients that use these systems talks about how the system informs them of problems even before the client detects a change in temperature: “The data from it, where you can figure out exactly how much it costs to cool this office, how much do you need to heat that office in a building. A lot of times we’ll get a call from the company, 75F, saying, ‘Hey, there is an issue going on at this building.’ We go over there, and they don’t even realize the issue is happening yet.”

Getting Started in Commercial HVAC

More money, fewer hours, fewer customer service hassles… what’s not to love about working commercial HVAC?

Everyone else is thinking the same thing, which makes for a lot of competition every time a position opens up.

Very few technicians go to work directly on the commercial side of the business. Most will put in time working in residential firms before they have accumulated the experience necessary to be considered for a commercial position.

Education and Experience Are a Must for Commercial HVAC Positions

Today, it’s nearly impossible to get a commercial side job without first completing an HVAC technical school program and getting several years of experience under your belt.

“People in that end of the trade like some experience, usually from a residential company. Start there and get at least 5 years of experience and then try to move on because you will make more money in the commercial end of the trade.” Mike DeRicco, Service Technician

Increasingly, states and municipalities are requiring professional licensing for HVAC technicians. Most of those programs also involve certain minimum standards for education or experience. Virginia, one of the most stringent, has qualifying options ranging from a bachelor’s degree plus one year of hands-on experience to 240 hours of training plus four years of experience.

Apprenticeships Combine Requirements Into One Program

In other states, apprenticeships are the most common route into the field. These programs require finding a sponsor that will offer on-the-job training plus classroom education, in a combined program that can run for up to five years.

After spending your time working under the supervision of a master mechanic, you will become a journeyman, capable of working on your own and supervising apprentices yourself.

Unions are often involved in promoting the apprenticeship model, and in many areas, commercial work is heavily unionized. It’s possible to get into a union apprenticeship and begin working directly in commercial HVAC, but unions are extremely selective.

Non-union apprenticeships are sometimes available, but generally less common in the world of HVAC.

Certifications and Licensing

State or local licensing isn’t the most important certification you will need, however. The EPA Section 608 certification is the one coveted by almost every employer.

According to one 30-year industry veteran we talked to with four different licenses in two different states, his Universal 608 certification was the only one he was ever actually asked to show on a job.

Learning doesn’t stop when you get to journeyman status and get credentialed, however. The industry changes rapidly and big commercial buildings can save thousands of dollars in heating and cooling expenses by taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies.

Mike DeRicco told us, “You know, everybody’s trying to get the power consumption down, so just about every aspect of a machine has changed. All the motors are high-efficient motors, you have high-efficient gas burners in them. They now have variable frequency drives on the motors, so now the speed of the motors can ramp up and down, so that it uses less energy when it can as opposed to running at 100 percent all day long like years ago.”

Keeping up with those changes means keeping industry certifications like NATE (North American Technical Excellence) current, and going to manufacturer training programs to learn the ins and outs of their systems.

“Manufacturers are constantly coming up with new technology, new equipment, and you’ve gotta stay up on everything,” DeRicco continues.

But meeting that challenge is all part of job satisfaction for commercial HVAC technicians.