There aren’t many one-size-fits-all solutions in HVAC. Every install that’s done right requires some level of customization and every service call means looking at a different combination of factors to find the source of a problem.
The same goes with the job market. The kinds of jobs available in HVAC can be very different depending on the region— It’s no surprise that there are a lot more furnace installers in Alaska than AC guys, or that industrial centers would’ve offer much in the way of residential work.
But no matter where you go in this great country of ours, there is always a lot of HVAC work of some sort to be done, and the opportunities are increasing all the time.
A market research study done in 2015 tells the story. The HVAC market will increase by 6.8 percent every year at least through 2019. And from our conversations with many current industry professionals and shop owners, it’s clear that there aren’t nearly enough skilled mechanics and installers to go around right now.
The bottom line is there is no shortage of opportunities out there… service calls for residential and commercial systems come in non-stop, with every building or home that’s built there’s a new install, and every major building complex needs an on-site engineer who looks for opportunities to improve efficiency with hardware and technology upgrades.
It’s really just a matter of deciding how you want to spend your days, getting enough general construction or mechanical service experience under your belt to be able to hang on the jobsite, and then just going for it by getting the training you need to make it happen.
The Big Choice: Commercial or Residential HVAC Work?
The great divide in the HVAC industry is between residential and commercial/industrial services. Some companies work on both sides of the business, but even within those companies, technicians often fall into one specialty or the other.
Commercial work revolves around factories, office buildings, industrial refrigeration facilities, stores and restaurants, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings – you name it. If it’s not in a house, it’s considered a commercial system.
Commercial systems are big and usually custom-designed. But even a customized system uses off-the-shelf components, with modular systems mixed and matched to create the right combination of components to provide the correct balance of heating, cooling, and air circulation. Commercial HVAC units are characterized by heavy loads and high power, not to mention complex control systems capable of balancing those loads across multiple zones.
Because these systems are large and complex, many of the roles within the commercial HVAC field are highly specialized. Some of these include:
The kind of expertise required to specialize like this means more training and experience is expected of commercial mechanics and installers. On the other hand, that sort of expertise, and the fact that the unions are heavily involved in commercial jobs, pushes up wages for these guys.
Commercial work involves less customer face-time and more predictable hours than most residential positions.
All of this creates a lot of competition for commercial jobs. It is very difficult to start off in commercial HVAC work without prior experience and training. Even union apprenticeship programs, a traditional route that combines on-the-job training with formal classroom education, are starting to look for candidates who have some prior schooling in HVAC subjects.
Residential HVAC is focused on the home market. Installations are simpler and easier to plan, with packaged, split-systems that are relatively easy to size and install.
Residential technicians must be kings of customer service, since they usually interact directly with the paying customer. In many cases, they are responsible for their own scheduling and even for handling billing and collection on-site.
Some HVAC companies also rely on their technicians to serve as their salesforce. Technicians may be expected to evaluate and up-sell customers and may be compensated with a commission on top of regular pay.
These factors combine to make residential work a good fit for people that have a little bit of that gift of gab and who like the idea of driving to more than one job site in a day.
Responding to residential service calls can also make for some very long days and unpredictable hours. Residential firms are usually smaller and tend to rely on a rotating on-call schedule for emergencies. This means 90-hour workweeks are not unheard of for the most ambitious techs going for the biggest payday possible. With the right shop, the overtime can be off the charts.
There is more turnover and lower starting salaries for residential technicians, and this means that most people will start off on the residential side of the business.
Within both the residential and commercial categories, roles are broken down into the construction side of the business and the service side. The question you want to ask yourself is pretty simple: Do you want to be involved in designing and building HVAC systems or do you like the idea of troubleshooting and repairing them?
HVAC service technicians embody most of the extremes of the business: the work happens in all weathers, at all hours, often outside in the elements, and with unpredictable schedules– and repair work that is even more unpredictable.
More than anyone, service techs have to be able to think on their feet and be able to communicate with customers, suppliers, and other technicians.
You could be faced with any type of system under the sun, which could mean something from the last century, or something so new that the bugs haven’t been worked out. It also means you could encounter any kind of problem imaginable, from something as simple as a nicked wire or fried capacitor to something as complicated as a chronically restricted system with undersized ductwork.
Service work is often detective work. Technicians use their experience and education to devise diagnostic tests to narrow down potential causes behind heating or cooling issues. It falls to them to explain these problems to clients and to outline and estimate the cost of solutions.
Commercial service has less unexpected on-call time since most commercial firms are larger and better staffed for the demand. But the systems are more complicated and tracking down problems takes considerably more skill.
The construction side provides some of the most predictable work available in an industry where the variety of potential problems makes the work notoriously unpredictable. The hours can be long but there are no middle-of-the-night phone calls, no unexpected weekend work.
And because installation work is often closely aligned with construction jobs, it has a different sort of seasonality than service work—you will still be working outside a lot of the time, but usually during the warmer time of year.
The construction angle also means that installers frequently have the luxury of working in buildings with open walls where they don’t have to worry about pesky inconveniences like cutting through drywall or working around current occupants.
Installers have a lot of hard, physical labor coming at them, though. A service technician might get away with swapping out a control board or a fan motor, but an installer is going to be putting in complete units. This often means working with cranes, forklifts, jacks and handtools that can include drills and a Sawzall.
Because installations are directly linked to new construction and remodels, it also is tied to regional and national economic cycles. A service call comes in when people are boiling or freezing, whether they want it or not—a new installation only happens when people can afford it.
Sometimes You Choose Your Career Path… and Sometimes it Chooses You
You might have an obvious preference for the type of HVAC job you want to get into, but it’s rarely as easy as just making a choice.
Where you ultimately end up can have a lot to do with circumstances, the market in your area, and even pure chance. Of course, you can steer your career but you can’t always control exactly where opportunities will take you, so it’s good to stay flexible.
The clearest route into any type of HVAC job is to develop a solid understanding of HVAC technology itself, not just the traditional technical skills the job requires. Every aspect of the business is changing rapidly and completing a certificate or associate degree program at a community college or technical school is the bare minimum that most employers look for regardless of what type of role you might apply for.
Smart control systems like NEST thermostats and commercial damper control systems from companies like 75F are now common in all types of HVAC work and demand technicians with a good foundation in technology. And more than just a foundation, you also need the ability to continue learning even newer technologies as they keep coming to market. Things like:
Some of the more traditional training comes through industry-standard certifications like the ones available through NATE (North American Technical Excellence) or the federally-mandated EPA Section 608 certificate. Training on the more high-tech stuff often comes by way of manufacturer-based training sessions specific to their equipment and software. And some is from earning and maintaining state and local licensing, which may have initial training-hour and continuing education requirements.
Many smaller HVAC companies, particularly on the residential side, combine installation and service operations, without clear differentiations between the roles among staff. This can be a plus if you want to be involved in every aspect of system construction and repair.
It’s entirely possible to start off working either on an install crew or doing service calls, but many technicians recommend starting in service and moving on to becoming an installer after seeing some of the spectacularly wrong ways installations can be screwed up.
Starting off in installation you will learn the mechanics of putting together a modular system by the numbers, but you may not have a solid understanding of why it is put together that way. After a few years of taking service calls, you’ll have a much better idea why systems are built the way they are for a given application and how that can affect the performance of the unit over the long term.
Although many people want to go into commercial work, competition is tight and experience is almost always required. Starting off in residential is the default and just about the only reliable way to get the experience that commercial businesses demand.
Much of your career path will ultimately be a matter of preparing yourself for the career that you want and then jumping on opportunities as they come at you. You can’t always predict when the opportunity to land your dream job is going to come your way, but you can always take the steps to be prepared when it does.