Best HVAC Certification Programs

Oct 20, 2021

What is a Certificate Program in HVAC?

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) are the main areas of focus in HVAC certificate programs. Students have a chance to learn about HVAC systems and their components, which together allow buildings to be temperature-controlled and have air circulation. Understanding the science and mechanics behind these technologies goes hand in hand with instruction in their installation, maintenance, repair, and replacement. Depending on the certificate program, students might also learn about refrigeration technology. When this element of the industry is also highlighted, the acronym is sometimes changed to HVAC-R, HVAC/R, or HVACR.

It can be hard to imagine a time before air conditioning, especially during the summer months. Because of this, whenever a new building goes up, HVAC technicians are almost certainly involved. Given this ubiquity, it's no wonder that HVAC specialists are in constant demand. As one would expect, the field is best suited to those who like hands-on work, especially with machines.

What is the Difference Between a Certificate and a Degree in HVAC?

The biggest difference between certificates and degrees earned on campus is credit hours. Certificate programs in HVAC can range from 11 credit hours to 51. For reference, a standard college course consists of 3 credit hours, so a certificate in HVAC may only require one to pass four or five classes. The closest degree to a certificate is an associate degree, which typically takes sixty credits to complete. A career as an HVAC technician can be pursued with either a certificate or an associate degree. Earning a certificate has the advantage of only taking six months to a year in most cases, while an associate degree will likely be more thorough over the course of its longer curricula.

Should I Get a Certificate in HVAC?

Post-graduation job opportunities are largely the same in HVAC whether one holds a certificate or an associate degree. Associate degrees are often seen as time and money-saving alternatives to bachelor's degrees, and in HVAC this also holds true for both certificates and associate degrees. Those who wish to get into the field as quickly as possible should focus on certificate programs, as most can be completed in a year or less. Since certificate holders can apply to many of the same positions as associate degree holders, those in the former group can save a year or more of time that would have otherwise been spent studying. Beyond saving time, they also get to avoid a year or more of tuition payments and can begin earning money while their degree-track peers are still in school.

What is the difference between a Certificate Program, a Professional Certification, and a License in HVAC?

Completion of a certificate program indicates to employers that one has a basic working knowledge of HVAC principles and technologies. Earning a certificate allows one to apply for several positions within HVAC, such as HVAC technician or contractor. Professional certificates show employers that workers are equipped to handle specialized tasks. These may cover areas certificate holders missed in their education or be used to tout a skill on one's resume, such as ESCO Group's Water Heater Certification. Other professional certificates can be mandatory, as is the case with EPA Section 608 Certification, which refers to a section of the Clean Air Act that regulates the emission of refrigerants. Workers dealing with technology that might expose refrigerants into the air have to obtain Section 608 Certification, exams for which are offered by the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society.

Licenses are somewhat more complex. Every state has its own requirements regarding licensing for HVAC professionals. Some states do not mandate licenses, while others make a distinction between technicians and contractors. Certain states, like Georgia, require contractors to be licensed but not technicians, and some states, such as Illinois, do not have state-level licenses but have cities and counties where licenses are mandated. A number of states have mandatory apprenticeships where one must work under a master HVAC technician or contractor to gain a license. Each state and locality that has licensing requirements also has a board that oversees and issues them, though which municipal authority handles this also varies. These are usually a board or department of commerce, labor, or construction. A good resource for understanding state and local licensing requirements would be a student's prospective or current HVAC program coordinator.

Career Options after Completing a Certificate Program in HVAC

After earning a certificate in HVAC, most graduates choose to continue their education or enter the workforce. A career in Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, or Refrigeration can deal primarily with all or some of these elements, or simply be one part of a person's job. Most graduates from HVAC certificate programs will likely aim for a position where HVAC is in their title, but other options exist as well. Some roles in the industry only deal with installing HVAC systems, and others will have contractors performing maintenance on HVAC equipment, plumbing, electrical systems, and anything else that needs fixing.

HVAC Technician

Becoming an HVAC technician requires at least a certificate or the completion of an apprenticeship. One could say that it is the standard profession in the field. HVAC technicians need to be able to install, repair, and perform maintenance on a variety of heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. Because of this, HVAC technicians have to be mechanically well-rounded and have no issue working in a variety of environments as their job might take them to any building that depends on air conditioning and ductwork. Whether or not an HVAC technician has to obtain certification or licensure beyond their education or training depends on the state or locality in which they work.

HVAC Inspector

HVAC inspectors come around whenever the owner of a building wants to have their heating, cooling, and ventilation systems looked at with a keen eye. This might occur right after or during a new construction project to ensure that everything is in proper order or might be done at a later date to get an estimate for repairs or replacements. Familiarity with relevant building codes and regulations are necessary to conduct such inspections.

HVAC inspectors are typically expected to have working experience as technicians in the field, but this does not preclude those who have certificates. In addition to the mechanical knowledge, any HVAC technician would be expected to have, inspectors must all be good at communicating various aspects of their profession to those outside the field. Depending on the state, city, or county HVAC inspector may be required to obtain licensure or certification.

General Maintenance Worker

When something is amiss with a building's air conditioner HVAC technicians are not always the first ones on call. General maintenance workers are expected to be able to maintain, repair, and sometimes replace a variety of systems in one or more buildings. A model maintenance worker is a jack-of-all-trades with the ability to tackle a variety of problems. Not every issue requires a specialist, and a maintenance worker with specialized skills is likely to be a more attractive job candidate than one without any specific proficiencies. Maintenance workers do not need certification, though a few states mandate licensure. Most general maintenance workers with licenses will have them for sub-disciplines within their jobs like plumbing or electrical work.

Courses for a Certificate Program in HVAC

An education in HVAC will break down the trade into its constituent parts and the scientific principles behind them. To this end, certificate programs will examine the various systems that allow buildings to be heated, cooled, and ventilated. A course might be as broad as ''Heating Systems'' and cover different methods and mechanical setups that go into heating homes, offices, and other buildings. Such a course might examine the pros and cons of systems that rely on gas, oil, solar, and hydronics (a heating or cooling system achieved through the circulation of water based on its temperature). A course might also focus on just one of these areas for the sake of depth.

Of course, heating and cooling systems do not function in isolation. Electricity and electrical wiring, pipes, ducts, and a general knowledge of construction and building layouts are also necessary for the installation and maintenance of HVAC systems. In addition to all this, many certificate programs also offer courses on refrigeration technologies.

Blueprint Reading

When a building is first being constructed installing an HVAC system is fairly straightforward. However, there is more to the field than just installation. Most HVAC systems are partially or fully embedded in walls or ceilings, and thus accessing them requires an understanding of basic architecture and the ability to read blueprints. For example, without knowledge of construction plans, one cannot safely or easily access a unit or system that is behind a layer of drywall. These courses also typically deal with industry standards, terminology, and best practices for contractors while working on site.

Electrical Fundamentals

HVAC systems are not entirely self-contained. Most interface with other parts of the buildings they occupy to heat, cool, or circulate air. Electricity and electrical wiring are commonly relied on by HVAC systems as power sources. While HVAC technicians differ from electricians when it comes to training, there is some overlap in their fundamentals. HVAC students learn about AC and DC currents and circuits, how to wire motors and equipment controls, and the principles of electrical safety.

How Long Does a Certificate Program in HVAC Take?

The majority of HVAC certificate programs take six months to a year to complete. Students can expect their courses to be spread across one to three semesters of instruction. Most certificate programs recommend that students take four to six courses per semester. Some HVAC programs have mandatory internships or externships, but these are usually done as part of a course. An internship or externship will require additional time outside of class, though it will not extend the time it takes to earn a certificate. With campus-based HVAC certificates, semesters follow the traditional fall and semester schedules, so one is unlikely to find a program that has summer semesters.

How to Choose a Certificate Program in HVAC

There are several things to keep in mind when considering HVAC certificate programs. One of the most crucial considerations is a program's accreditation status. Accreditation means that a program has been reviewed by an outside authority and deemed to have met certain educational standards that guarantee skills taught there will transfer over to the industry. This ensures that students will get their money's worth, and also serves as a guarantee to any government body or private group that might wish to support them with student aid. Attending an accredited program is usually a prerequisite for most forms of tuition assistance, so a student interested in scholarships and other awards should limit their search to accredited programs. ESCO Group certifies individual HVAC programs and is among the leading accrediting authorities in the field.

Beyond accreditation, students also have to consider their willingness to travel. When it comes to campus-based certificate programs, many will opt for colleges in their vicinity to cut down on travel time and expenses. Choosing a nearby college will also help one better understand state and local rules and regulations since curricula that touch on these topics will generally be specific to wherever the college or university is located. Alternatively, if one is interested in hybrid learning or a fully online education they should double-check their certificate program's website or contact their program's coordinator for details.

How to Get into HVAC Certificate Programs

Nowadays, most college certificate programs ask new students to begin their enrollment by applying through an online form. During this application, open enrollment programs will ask prospective students to submit their high school diploma, General Educational Development (GED) test scores, or equivalent exam results. Most community colleges follow this model, though some universities and technical colleges will as well. As for institutions with more selective admissions processes, common asks include SAT or ACT test scores, letters of recommendation, and essays. Some programs allow students to take placement tests in lieu of submitting SAT or ACT scores.

Given that many certificate program students will be fresh out of high school, it is rare for professional experience to be a prerequisite for enrollment. Most HVAC certificate programs are designed for people new to college. Beyond their coursework being considerate of this, most certificate programs also help guide students via academic advisement. Academic advisors can help plan out a student's path through a certificate program whether their course load is full-time or part-time.

Cost of a Certificate Program

Tuition varies based on what kind of institution one attends and one's residency relative to the institution. Colleges, universities, and trade schools commonly calculate their tuition costs on a per credit hour basis, so the more classes a degree has the more expensive it will be. Private institutions tend to be the most expensive in terms of tuition, with credits usually costing between $400-$500. This means that a three-credit-hour course taken at a typical private institution will cost $1,200-$1,500.

Trade schools, or technical colleges, are often more affordable than private liberal arts colleges, with course credits costing $200-$300. Public colleges, most of which are community colleges, tend to be the most affordable as their credits cost about $100-$200. Most HVAC certificate holders will graduate from a public college or trade school, and if we use 30 credits as an average for earning an HVAC certificate, those who graduate from public colleges are likely to spend $3,000-$6,000 on tuition, while those who graduate from trade schools will owe $6,000-$9,000. Many community colleges also discount their tuition for students who live in-state or in-district. Of course, because of how most institutions calculate their tuition the cheapest certificate programs are likely to be those with the fewest required courses.

That said, tuition is not the only consideration one has to account for when budgeting for their HVAC certificate. If a student plans to live on campus they will have to come up with money for room and board. Those who choose to commute instead will replace these costs with the price of gas or other transportation fees. Additionally, most courses will ask students to buy or rent textbooks.

Financial Aid and Scholarship Resources for Certificate Programs

Several disciplines have nonprofit organizations and foundations invested in financially supporting the next generation of professionals in their field. Luckily for HVAC students, this includes their field as well. The EGIA (Electric and Gas Industries Association) Foundation is a nonprofit with the goal of promoting HVAC as a career path and swelling its ranks through scholarships. HVAC students enrolled in an undergraduate program at an accredited institution can apply for a $2,500 scholarship that will go toward covering the cost of their tuition. Grade Point Average (GPA), financial need, and career intentions are all considered when selecting among applicants for this scholarship.

Another opportunity for those pursuing HVAC certificates is the Rees Scholarship Foundation, which offers financial assistance to those pursuing associate degrees, certificates, and diplomas. A five hundred word essay, transcripts, and attendance of an accredited institution are all an HVAC student needs to be considered for this scholarship. Applications are handled through the Rees Foundation's site.

HVAC students are lucky to have so many options specific to them, but that does not mean they should overlook common sources of student aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the US Department of Education's main financial assistance program. Applying for FAFSA can be done online, and like most other forms of student aid, it requires applicants to attend an accredited institution. Students whose applications are accepted receive money each semester to offset the cost of their tuition. Those with a greater financial need generally get more financial assistance. State and local governments are another avenue for student aid that one might look into. Information on these opportunities can usually be found on the site for a state or municipality's department or board of education.

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