There will be moments on the job when you’re stuffed into a roasting attic, sweating from places you didn’t even know you could sweat from, cutting your knuckles on sheet metal, on your fourth consecutive twelve-hour day, and you’ll think to yourself, “What the hell ever possessed me to become a residential HVAC technician?”
Then you’ll climb down out of the attic, flip the breaker back on, and feel cool air pouring out of the vents. The kids hoot, the wife brings you a glass of lemonade and the man of the house gives you a hardy slap on the back.
You think about the big paycheck you’ve got coming for the week and that boring office job you didn’t take and the fact that no supervisor was breathing down your neck… and then you’ll remember:
Money, independence, variety, and job-security … these are the things that bring people into residential HVAC work and keep them there for a long and lucrative career.
The Reality of Residential HVAC: From Sales to System Design
Residential work is a different world than what you might learn about in most HVAC technical programs. After spending months and months learning the refrigeration cycle, how motors work, the physics of gas and liquid refrigerant flow and electricity, it can be a shock to learn how much of the job is about sales and customer service… soft skills that instructors probably won’t talk too much about.
Residential HVAC technicians and installers serve the home heating and air conditioning business. They install, service, and replace residential HVAC systems, working alone and independently. Dispatchers pass along the jobs, but it’s often the responsibility of the technician to set up appointments, get details from the customer, even handle billing.
In many companies, residential technicians are also system designers and salespeople. Their compensation may even be largely commission-based, providing a quick route to good money for anyone with the right social skills and some salesmanship.
People Skills Are Critical To the Job
More than any other HVAC career path, working in residential means working with people. Part of being independent means your employer expects you to be the face of the company when dealing with customers. Keeping them happy is the biggest part of the job.
You’re in and out of private homes all day long. Some of them will be pristine and others look like junkyards, but every homeowner will expect you to be respectful of their property, and should be respected as the king of their castle. For you it’s a job site; for them, it’s home.
Customer service isn’t something that gets covered much in training but it’s an absolutely vital skill for residential HVAC techs. In a sense, it’s just as important as any technical skills you might learn.
School teaches you technical skills and troubleshooting, but, as one retired 30-year veteran of the industry we talked to put it, “How do you teach somebody communication skills?”
For the most part, you have to pick up people skills on your own, but don’t think that employers and managers won’t care. Every residential technician will be evaluated on how well they handle customer relationships.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of individuals who worked in retail before, or while they were going to school, have a little bit better knowledge on how to handle the customers,” says Kyle Buscher, a technician and service manager in Minnesota. “We’ve had a few guys who were strictly doing construction, and those were the guys that seem to have the hardest trouble with customer service.”
Residential is Quicker to Adapt to and Integrate New Technology
Customer service may be front and center but residential techs also need real technical chops. In some ways, high tech is coming to residential even faster than to the commercial/industrial side of the industry. With smaller, more modular and less expensive systems, the residential side of the industry can more easily adapt to changing technology and integrate high-tech components into existing systems:
Customers can be extremely informed and have high standards, which means technicians need to be even more knowledgeable about cutting edge HVAC innovations and Internet-based home-management systems.
Technology isn’t just changing the HVAC-system side of the business, though. Smart phones and the Internet are dramatically changing how the work gets done. A hacksaw, pipe wrench and voltmeter alone just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
- Apps like iManifold allow techs to plug in numbers to calculate system capacity and perform onsite troubleshooting.
- AAB’s Smart Tools offer plug-in sensors that turn a smartphone into a temperature sensor, airflow meter, or humidity detector.
- Job scheduling is often handled online and customer contacts may be conducted through text messaging.
- When the job is done, more and more service techs are taking care of the bill by swiping a customer credit card through a Square reader right on site.
Better Efficiency is the Upside … But it Comes at a Price
Customers are also increasingly sensitive to environmentally-friendly and green building standards. Their motivations to retrofit equipment can be driven not just be cost-efficiency standards but also by environmental standards. As a technician, you’ll have to become intimately familiar with efficiency standards and understand how programs such as the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit affect customer purchasing decisions.
But technicians have to walk a fine line. They know, for instance, that smart vents have the potential to burn out compressors if the system ducting isn’t resized. The knowledge is only half the battle, though; explaining to a customer why it’s not as easy or cheap as it looks on TV is the real challenge.
And new technologies introduce an entirely new category of problems that never existed a generation ago in residential HVAC. Technicians in the ‘80s never had to worry about a customer’s thermostat getting hacked and held hostage. Those challenges, and the right solutions to them, are still evolving, and any residential tech in the industry today is going to be part of that evolution.
Residential Will Give You All The Work You Can Handle
Because customer service is more important and staffing levels are lighter in residential companies, the work usually leads to plenty of overtime and late night, on-call hours.
“Residential, you spend a lot of time doing a lot of work,” says Mike DeRicco, a Pittsburgh area service technician who spent 15 years working in residential HVAC. “Meaning that you may work eight hours a day, but you might do 10 service calls in that eight hours.”
Successful residential techs thrive on the energy that comes with that fast pace. Walking into a new situation, assessing the problems, and coming up with a solution feeds the beast… you can feel like a hero ten times a day.
“Residential is much more personal,” says Buscher. “It’s much more face time.” And for many residential technicians, that is part of the draw. Working lonely hours on a strip mall roof doesn’t appeal to them.
Control Your Own Paycheck With Residential Sales
Some shops structure their business so that technicians also serve as salespeople. If you have any natural sales skills, this can be a big plus for residential jobs, because you can immediately start making good money—being paid a commission essentially puts your earning potential in your own hands.
The down side of this arrangement is that some of those same shops cut the base salary to incentivize sales. If sales isn’t your thing, you can find yourself under a lot of stress and pressure… and possibly even earning less than entry-level wages.
There is also an ethical quandary that sometimes comes with sales work that some technicians find uncomfortable. But this is easily resolved by getting back to the customer service perspective, as one retired HVAC foreman pointed out to us.
“You’re representing a company. You want to sell a product, you want to sell service, but you also are representing that client,” … “If you are working with somebody and you have a relationship with them, you have a responsibility to them to give them fair and honest appraisals.”
Getting Started in Residential HVAC
Most HVAC service techs in the industry today started off on the residential side of the business. Turnover is higher in residential firms and the education and experience standards required to get an entry-level job are relatively low. If you’re looking for a job right out of your training program, your best bet is to become a residential service tech.
That trend is only going to accelerate. According to a 2015 market research study by the Freedonia Group, the U.S. HVAC market is expected to grow by 6.8 percent annually through at least 2019. Although the larger part of market value is currently on the commercial side, Freedonia believes that residential unit replacements and new construction installs will dramatically outpace the rest of the market in the next few years.
Getting a Foot in The Door
Getting an Education
Getting a License
Apprenticeships Bring Experience and Education Together
A Lifetime Career Opportunity
“Where there is challenge, there is also great opportunity for those who want to go into the trade. I look at it like they are like doctors. They are coming in and diagnosing equipment, going through checkups.” Angie Snow, Owner of Western Heating and Air Conditioning in Orem, UT
Snow went on to say, “We need to look at it like that. Doctors are specialists in their field and technicians are specialists in their field. They have the ability to make a lot of money. There are less and less people in the trade who have the ability to fix and diagnose. The amount of money you can make, there’s a lot of opportunity there.”