Now, it is true that you’ll study the same basic principles of chemistry and physics, and that all the same equations for moving, heating, and cooling volumes of air will apply wherever you go. But the fact is that once you slam the door on your work rig and head out on the job, you’ll find a lot of regional variations that affect the gear you use and the systems you work on every day.
Across the U.S. technicians in different regions regularly deal with different:
Your education in HVAC principles is just a foundation to build on. Ultimately, it’s the things you know about the systems used in the homes and buildings you work in everyday that will make you successful in the field.
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Different Weather Leads to Different Demands for HVAC
When you rub a couple of brain cells together it seems obvious: the concerns an HVAC tech in Anchorage has are going to be pretty different from their counterpart heading out on a job in the French Quarter in New Orleans.
This goes beyond the obvious issues like you probably aren’t going to find a lot of gas heating systems in Louisiana and not so many swamp coolers in Alaska: the characteristics of construction styles and local custom create differences as well. Doing an installation in a Louisiana shotgun shack is a different proposition than putting a system in a log cabin, even if the gear were all the same.
This tends to be even truer in residential settings than commercial, but even the big boys have to learn to play by regional rules.
You’re Not in Missoula Anymore
In 1996, a brand new luxury hotel in Hawaii had to shut its doors and go through a $6 million refit when mold took over the guest rooms. More than 40,000 square feet of sopping gypsum wallboard was ripped out and replaced, along with 300 in-room HVAC units… all because the original system design was depressurizing the building slightly, sucking in warm, moist tropical air that made quick work of any hygroscopic material in sight. Making matters worse, the system wasn’t appropriately designed to dehumidify the air it was bringing in itself, adding to the problem.
The same system might have worked just fine in Missoula (if anyone was building 300-room luxury hotels in Missoula) and maybe that’s where the contractor was from. In any case, they sure didn’t know much about how to build a system for conditions in Hawaii.
It’s not just contractors, though. Customers don’t always have the best perspective either. The recent infatuation with air-source heat pumps is a case in point. Chances are, you’ll run into a residential customer no matter where you are who has heard that the magic reversing machinery conjures either heat or cold out of thin air, a two-for-the-price-of-one deal that they absolutely have to have.
But a good Minnesota HVAC tech knows—and can explain—that a heat pump was designed for a mild, coastal climate, and isn’t as efficient in a sub-zero Minneapolis freeze. With well-developed distribution systems and low transportation costs, natural gas is a more sensible choice, which explains why more than 70 percent of Midwest furnaces use it.
Making matters even more confusing, another regional factor that HVAC techs have to contend with are the Department of Energy SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) standards. SEER ratings are an industry-standard system for comparing system efficiency. But DOE only breaks the country down into three regions, North, South, and Southwest, each with different SEER requirements on new equipment installations.
How Systems Differ by Region
No matter what part of the country you end up working in, you’ll need to pick up that local knowledge. Here is a brief overview of regional characteristics for HVAC work across the U.S.
Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Northeast
Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Midwest
Characteristics of HVAC Work in the South
Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Southwest
Characteristics of HVAC Work in the West
HVAC Microclimates Are Real
Even within a broader geographic area, there may be pockets of particular systems that are out of step with the region as a whole. In parts of rural Northern California, for example, high electricity and propane costs result in communities who rely on oil heating every bit as much as Yankees up in the Maine Highlands.
And though the Northeast as a whole doesn’t favor central air systems, almost 70 percent of New Jersey homes, newer and larger than their counterparts across the Hudson, use it.
For successful HVAC technicians and contractors, it comes down to not just knowing the technical principles of the business, but also the unique needs of the customers … a lot of which comes down to the climate they live in.