Is Licensing Really About Safety, or Is It More About Revenue Collection?

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Forty-two states have some sort of statewide licensing requirement for working on HVAC systems. Even in states that do not have statewide licensing laws in place, individual cities and counties sometimes implement their own licensing regimes. Some of these jurisdictions overlap, often requiring contractors and service techs to hold multiple local licenses in addition to a state license… each, of course, charging their own separate fees.

On top of the state and local regulations, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has certification requirements for technicians dealing with environmentally sensitive refrigerants. A Section 608 certification is all but mandatory for anyone in the HVAC industry today.

No matter where you work in the United States, a major part of getting and keeping a job in HVAC means meeting some level of licensing requirements – municipal, state and federal.

Licensing can influence every aspect of your career, including:

  • What type of systems you can work on
  • The type of customers you can work for
  • The value of projects you can work on
  • What areas you can work in

Just what those requirements should entail, who should administer them, and how much they should cost remains a major point of contention within the industry and between businesses, industry trade groups, and the government. As licensing becomes more and more of a burden, a lot of technicians wonder if compliance is about really about public safety or if it’s just another way to raise government revenues.

It Started With the Hole in the Ozone Layer

The whole thing really kicked off in the early 1990s. With the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990, the EPA began restricting the release of ozone-depleting refrigerants into the atmosphere. Certifications under Section 608 of the act became mandatory for anyone servicing equipment that uses ozone-depleting refrigerants.

That started the licensing process, which then grew exponentially. It’s not uncommon now for a commercial HVAC mechanic to hold four or five separate licenses.

There is considerable suspicion among many technicians today that a lot of these credentials are there primarily to fill city and state coffers.

When Washington state passed legislation in 1999 to bring HVAC technicians in under the jurisdiction of the state’s Electrical License Board, there was widespread speculation that the process had been driven by strong electrician union interests eager to clamp down on independent HVAC operators. And by regulating a whole new industry, the state stood to gain by charging fees for licenses and permits for activities that many HVAC techs and installers saw as a basic part of the job and not something that would warrant licensure.

There’s often a lot of resentment among mechanics and installers that have to carry those cards, but for the most part they realize what the intent really is to make sure people in the trades are qualified.

It’s true that many people enter the field without any formal training or education. The industry continues to enjoy a reputation for high wages and low barriers to entry, which has the potential to draw in completely unqualified job-seekers.

In unlicensed jurisdictions, workers sometimes learn by just going through the motions, shadowing others on the job site with no real understanding of the logic or principles behind what they are doing. In some companies, generations of employees are taught this way. And in many cases, that costs customers money in the long run.

Compliance Comes With a Cost … That Mechanics Have to Cover

Getting and keeping an HVAC technician license is no longer easy or cheap. Most licenses cost between $20 and $100 per year. That’s before testing and other application fees, which can take it up to $500 or more per license. That adds up fast, particularly when you consider the time and cost of continuing education classes that many states like Florida and Kansas now require for license renewal.

Licensing laws can be a real problem for techs that work across state lines. Modern metro areas, particularly in the densely-populated east coast states, may extend into three or more states, stretching the service area for techs through multiple regulatory jurisdictions.

In some cases, states have worked to align their licensing requirements or to create reciprocal agreements that allow techs to get credentials without jumping through too many hoops. Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., for example, each have adopted reciprocal policies that allow technicians to easily apply qualifications for a license in one jurisdiction to become licensed in the others… although they’ll still be required to pay for the privilege.

But for technicians working in the Vancouver/Portland area on the Washington/Oregon border, life isn’t so simple. In 2013, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, which administers the 06a limited electrician license required of Washington HVAC technicians, stopped accepting test applications from apprentices who had completed the Oregon Limited Electrical Class B apprenticeship program.

Not only was this confusing to Oregon contractors and apprentices, whose 5-year programs had long been considered more than adequate to fill the Washington classroom and experience requirements, but when the Washington Electrical Board was asked to clarify the matter, they seemed equally uncertain why it had changed.

Arbitrary Rules and Overlapping Licenses

The Washington case may be a poster child for those who object to HVAC licensing rules. Not a single member of the Washington Electrical Board is from the HVAC/R industry, and for HVAC technicians, the ignorance over industry standards and practices (first-year trainees, for example, are allowed to run thermostat wires, but not allowed to connect them to the terminals until their second year) was a clear sign that the law had little to do with safety concerns.

Confusion and last-minute negotiation over implementation of the rule pushed the final deadline back twice, first to 2001 and then to 2002. Although a grandfathering process for granting licensure was put into the law to keep existing contractors from going out of business, some reported a two-year process and multiple issues getting their license.

But it’s the overlapping licensing requirements that draw most of the ire from the industry. The state of Maryland has fairly stringent HVAC journeyman licensing requirements, including mandatory apprenticeship experience or passage of a detailed examination. Meanwhile, the county of Anne Arundel, outside of Baltimore, also requires a separate HVAC mechanical journeyman license. The qualifications for that license? Have a state license already and fork over another $50.

To Some, Licensing Costs Are Well Worth the Price

To others, however, licensing laws are an important gatekeeper to protect an unwitting public from poorly educated and unsafe contractors. The reality is, some level of licensing is necessary to make sure mechanics are qualified for the work they’re doing and to ensure the contractors they work for are legitimate and properly bonded and insured.

Maintaining those standards can be a matter of life and death. New Hampshire’s recent HVAC licensing push, unfortunately, started with a tragedy.

In May of 2007, a stove fuel line severed by an untrained worker leaked gas into the basement of a Lake Winnipesaukee home. Ignited by a dryer, the ensuing conflagration burned 7-year-old Amilia Luhrmann to death. A starkly horrific reminder of the potential consequences of unqualified contractors working on HVAC prompted the state legislature to pass Amilia’s Law in 2007, extending mandatory licensing requirements to cover any contractor working on gas lines inside a home.

Today, anyone authorized to perform that kind of work in New Hampshire would have training and would need to prove competency through testing to be sure they know to cap the tank and remove the regulator, making such an accident impossible.

Many licensed HVAC technicians, more aware of the dangers than most, are fully in favor of maintaining strict standards in the industry. And quite apart from safety, some in the HVAC industry support licensing because it serves to enhance their qualifications and limit competition.

Once you have done the heavy lifting of meeting the requirements, licensing is both a badge and a selling point—a sign that you meet high standards and work in a reputable shop.

But safety remains the biggest justification and the major reason that most HVAC technicians calmly spend their time in continuing ed classes and fork over their license renewal fees. As technologies constantly shift, there are always new opportunities to make mistakes. Constant compliance with published standards helps avoid costly and dangerous problems.

The Card That Started it All

And when you circle back to the certification that started it all, the original Section 608 card, it turns out that it might have been the biggest and most successful public safety initiative of all time… as of 2016, scientists say that hole in the ozone layer, no longer being torn at by freely released CFC-based refrigerants like R-22, is starting to close itself again.

Some would argue that saving the human race from cooking in unfiltered ultraviolet radiation may be the clearest regulatory success yet for the HVAC industry.

Perhaps not coincidentally, of the many licenses mechanics and installers are required to hold from state and municipal licensing authorities, that Section 608 Universal card is often the one credential they are required to show on a regular basis. Whenever they need to purchase controlled refrigerant gases, mechanics, installers and contractors must prove they have the qualifications.

Without routine enforcement of state and local licensing laws, their effectiveness as a safety tool will remain limited… but even so, their function as a source of revenue will continue all the same.

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