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If DC were a state it would offer the highest average annual HVAC technician salary in the nation…The US Department of Labor
It is illegal in Washington D.C. for anyone without a refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic’s license or steam engineer’s license to perform work installing, maintaining, repairing, or replacing HVAC systems in the District.

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The licensing processes for obtaining these credentials are managed by Pearson VUE on behalf of the DC Board of Industrial Trades.The city uses the apprentice/journeyman/master system common to many other trades for refrigeration credentials and a slightly less stringent apprenticeship system for steam engineers.

For refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics, acquiring a journeyman’s license requires:

  • Completing a four-year apprenticeship program, with a minimum of 8,000 hours of clock time
  • Completing HVAC-R classroom-based education
  • Passing a multiple-choice examination

OR

  • Obtain a formal designation certificate from a nationally recognized Refrigeration/Air Conditioning trade organization or Refrigeration/Air Conditioning labor union stating that you have:
    • Passed the organization’s exam
    • Have achieved journeyman status
    • Remain in good standing with the organization

The second option, called the waiver option, is primarily for students participating in union apprenticeship programs that include their own testing and certification, as is the case with apprenticeship programs available through United Association. This option allows technicians from nearby states (whose service areas frequently overlap the D.C. Metro area) to use their apprenticeship work in those locations to easily qualify for a D.C. license without having to test into it.

For a specialist steam engineer’s license, required to work on boilers and some particularly large refrigeration systems, the requirements are:

Although formal education in trade schools or community colleges is not required for any of the Washington D.C. credentials, attending a reputable HVAC-R program can still provide a solid boost to your career in the field. As HVAC work becomes increasingly technology-based, classroom education becomes more and more important to hiring managers and apprenticeship programs alike. Getting a certificate or associate’s degree in HVAC-R can be the step up that you need to get a solid start as a technician in Washington, D.C.

Progressing Through the HVAC Licensing Phases (Apprentice, Journeyman, Master) and Earning EPA Certification

Custom HeadlineBecoming an Apprentice

HVAC Technician installing a new external air conditioning unit

Since all categories of HVAC licensing in Washington, D.C. require some degree of on-the-job experience, the district offers apprentice credentials both in refrigeration and air conditioning and for steam engineers. Both credentials cost $175, including a non-refundable $65 application fee. Forms are available online.

Critically, however, you cannot be granted an apprentice license until you have joined an apprenticeship program (for refrigeration mechanics) or found an entry-level job working under a currently licensed steam engineer (for steam engineers).

Fortunately, the city’s Department of Employment Services offers up-to-date lists of all registered apprenticeship programs in the district on their website. Both union and non-union apprenticeships in your field may be available, so be sure to check both lists. All programs will offer you at least the minimum number of required experience hours, and also commonly include some hours of classroom education.

For union apprenticeships, you will, of course, have to join the union, and you will typically be sent to work on whatever union jobs are available in your field. In non-union apprenticeships, you will be employed by a single business and work on projects only for their clients and customers.

Steam engineering apprenticeships, with their lower experience requirements, do not need to be so formal and in fact the city does not require that you be in a formal apprenticeship program to acquire that experience. You can simply find a job working for a currently licensed engineer and acquire your operating apprentice license without undertaking a complete apprenticeship program.

Becoming a Journeyman Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic or Steam Engineer

Once you have acquired the necessary experience to sit for your exam (or claim a waiver, if you have a journeyman certificate from a union or trade organization), you will again have to make an application with Pearson VUE.

The application must be notarized and include $260 (covering application, exam, and license fees) and a number of other forms and items including:

  • Two 2×2” photos
  • Copy of government-issued photo ID
  • Exam scheduling form
  • Formal education certificate from trade school or apprentice program (not required for steam engineers)
  • Verification of licensure at apprentice level (not required for steam engineers)
  • W2 forms validating experience
  • Certificate of moral character (not required for refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics)
  • Section 608 certification (not required for refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics)

The exams are based on International Code Council standards and cover various topics based on the exact license classification you are attempting. Details of each exam, including study guide reference, can be found in the ICC Examination Information Bulletin.

The tests are computerized but must be taken at an approved Pearson VUE exam site—there is only one in the city, at 1100 4th Street SW.

If you fail to pass the exam, you will have to wait for a minimum of six months before being allowed to re-take it.

EPA Section 608 Certification Requirements

Required by the city for steam engineers, and a national standard for HVAC techs and installers, the EPA Section 608 certification validates your knowledge of the regulations and safe handling procedures for dealing with certain controlled refrigerants (such as ammonia and Freon) designated in Section 608 of the Clean Air Act.

There are four different categories of Section 608 certification:

Small appliances service and repair (self-contained appliances with 5 pounds of refrigerant or less)

Many school and apprenticeship programs include a Section 608 examination as a part of their regular curriculum, and provide the necessary instruction you will need in order to pass on the first attempt.

Advancing to Master Mechanic or Senior Engineer Status

For steam engineers, advancing to more senior levels involves gaining the experience and testing into different classification levels. There are 8 classifications, some of which run parallel rather than being progressive, as detailed on the Municipal Steam Engineers Regulations.

For journeymen refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics, advancing to master level is more straightforward. There are two categories of master refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic available:

  • Unlimited – Licensees are permitted to work with any class of HVAC installation
  • Limited – Licensees are limited to working with systems of up to 25 compressor horsepower only.

You must have a total of eight years experience working with the relevant types of systems including your four-year apprenticeship. For the limited license, experience with larger system types will also count. Your experience must be verified and signed off on by an existing master refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic licensed in DC.

For either license, the exam, application, and license fee comes to $260. Many of the same documents are required for the master application as the journeyman application, but if you have already provided those documents with your journeyman application, you do not need to resubmit them.

License Renewals

Licenses expire every even-numbered year on September 30th. You should receive a renewal notification from Pearson VUE approximately 90 days before expiration, notifying you of the cost of renewal and providing renewal instructions.

There is no continuing education requirement for any license level.

How to Become an HVAC Contractor in Washington D.C.

The Board of Industrial Trades also handles contractor licensing for Washington D.C. HVAC contractors. You must have a contractor’s license to engage in business installing, repairing, maintaining, or replacing HVAC systems in the district. Additionally, you must either be licensed as a Master Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic or employ someone who is in order to be able to pull permits for such work.

You do not, however, have to have a master’s license in order to become a contractor. D.C. has two levels of contractor licensing, both available in limited and unlimited categories:

  • Refrigeration/Air Conditioning Contractor
  • Master Refrigeration/Air Conditioning Contractor

Limited licenses in each category restrict you to working with systems of 25 compressor horsepower or less while unlimited has no restrictions.

To obtain a master level contractor license, you must also have your limited or unlimited master mechanic license.

You can become a contractor without having a master-level license personally, but you must then also employ a designated master licensee to oversee the work the company performs.

The license cost is $185, including application fee. Additionally, you will have to provide a $5,000 bond, and an additional $5,000 bond if you have a designated master who is not the licensee. The designated master must also hold a 20 percent ownership stake in the company or be a bona fide member of the corporation.

There is no examination for a contractor’s license. Renewals coincide with the mechanic’s licenses and are due by September 30th of even-numbered years, making it easy to keep both licenses up-to-date.

HVAC-R Job Prospects and Industry Growth in Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. represents an unusual market for HVAC installers since the actual area of the city is only about 70 square miles. Although the city has over half a million residents, the market for service and construction professionals overlaps considerably with neighboring Maryland and Virginia, meaning that many licensed D.C. Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanics will actually be based outside the city itself and rely on demand from within the District for only a portion of their business.

Nonetheless, construction in the city has been strong over the past few years, particularly in the residential sector. This is expected to drop off over the next few years, but demand for HVAC service technicians in neighboring Virginia and Maryland is expected to increase by 15 percent and 13 percent respectively over the next decade. This likely indicates that the D.C. market as a whole will enjoy a similar bump.

HVAC Technician Salaries in Washington, D.C.

If DC were a state it would offer the highest average annual HVAC technician salary in the nation at $66,320 ($33.88 per hour) according to 2015 figures from the US Department of Labor 2015. As a city it still does great, ranking fifth in the nation for providing the highest average HVAC technician salary in the nation.

HVAC Technician Salary in D.C. (median)
$66,320
HVAC Technician Salary in D.C. (top 10%)
$80,960

There are several factors underlying why HVAC salaries and demand are so high in DC:

  • Climate – the average high in July is 88.4 °F while the average low in January is 28.6 °F
  • Cost savings – in 2016 the US Energy Information Administration reported the cost of electricity in DC’s commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors is more than that of Maryland or Virginia’s
  • Government regulations – DC has adopted legislation that requires minimum HVAC energy efficiency standards and encourages HVAC retrofits and upgrades, which stimulate this sector

DC’s Energy Conservation Code mandates 30 percent more energy efficiency through increased requirements for insulation levels, air sealing, and HVAC building systems. HVAC systems are specifically identified as being a key factor that can provide the flexibility the district needs to achieve its energy savings needs and reach its goals in the long term.

If the Energy Conservation Code is a stick then DC’s Sustainable Energy Utility is a carrot. This utility offers a range of different rebate options that businesses and residences can use to help fund upgrades to more energy efficient HVAC systems. In turn this also drives up the demand for HVAC technicians to carry out these upgrades.

The DC Department of Employment Services projects that between 2014 and 2024 there will be 100 HVAC technician job openings throughout the DC metro area.

HVAC Technician Salaries in the District of Columbia Metro Area

The following HVAC technician statistics are sourced from the US Department of Labor in May 2015:

  • Hourly Wages

    • Median wage – $31.79
    • 75th percentile wage – $35.66
    • 90th percentile wage – $38.92
  • Annual Salaries

    • Median salary – $66,120
    • 75th percentile salary – $74,180
    • 90th percentile salary – $80,960

Historic Annual Salaries

  • 2011

    • Median salary – $61,380
    • 90th percentile salary – $73,410
  • 2012

    • Median salary – $59,550
    • 90th percentile salary – $73,360
  • 2013

    • Median salary – $59,980
    • 90th percentile salary – $74,560
  • 2014

    • Median salary – $62,350
    • 90th percentile salary – $77,380