Become an Air Conditioning Contractor: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Research the requirements to become an air conditioning contractor. Learn about the job description and read the step-by-step process to start a career in HVACR.

Do I Want to Be an Air Conditioning Contractor?

Air conditioning contractors install, repair and maintain the duct work, electrical equipment and controls found in residential and commercial cooling systems. This job can require indoor or outdoor work, depending on the problem being fixed. Some air conditioning contractors might travel to perform on-site repairs. Air conditioning contractors can work in tight spots and where the temperature is warm or cold. Some of this work can be seasonal, and busy periods can require overtime.

Workers in this field run the risk of on-the-job illness or injury, like shock from the electrical components themselves, or damaged skin or loss of sight from the refrigerants they use. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers have a higher-than-average rate of illness and injury received on the job. The agency also predicts that job growth will be strong from 2012-2022 because of the demand for new units and systems, as well as replacements of aging equipment.

Job Requirements

Becoming an air conditioning contractor usually requires completing on-the-job training or a postsecondary program in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR). These contractors might also need to earn state licensure and federal certification. The table below contains information on the basic requirements for air conditioning contractors:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Certificate, associate degree or apprenticeship program; some employers offer on-the-job training*
Degree Field HVACR*
Licensure and Certification Refrigerant handling certification from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is mandatory; licensing is also required in some states*
Voluntary professional certification can increase employability*
Experience Employers often request 2+ years of experience**
Key Skills Good hand-eye coordination, strong customer service skills, troubleshooting and time management skills*
Computer Skills Ability to use specialized HVACR computer-aided design, graphics, word processing, database and spreadsheet software***
Technical Skills Ability to use hand and power tools, including air gauges, refrigerant pressure meters and power hacksaws; familiarity with voltage meters***
Additional Requirements Physical strength*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Job postings by employers (November 2012), ***Occupational Information Network

Step 1: Complete Formal Training in HVACR

While it's possible to learn the HVACR trade through work experience, air conditioning contractors who have completed formal training often have better employment opportunities. Options include apprenticeship programs, which combine paid work experience with coursework, as well as certificate and associate degree programs. Apprenticeships usually last 3-5 years, while certificate programs require a year of full-time study. Associate degree programs take about 2 years to complete. Common courses include basic electricity, refrigeration, control wiring and sheet metal fabrication.

Success Tips:

  • Take electives in electronics and computer science. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the best job prospects will be available to air conditioning contractors who're adept at working with complex computer and electronics systems. Look for coursework that covers such topics as digital circuitry, microprocessors and industrial electronics.

Step 2: Earn EPA Certification

Federal law requires air conditioning contractors who work with refrigerants to pass certification exams designed to ensure the safe handling of these materials. Exam topics include refrigerant recovery, recycling, shipping and disposal for either high-pressure refrigerants, low-pressure refrigerants or small appliances. The EPA approves technical schools and community colleges as certification exam providers.

Step 3: Acquire Work Experience

Employers often seek air conditioning contractors who have 2 or more years of experience. Many states also demand work experience as a prerequisite for licensure. The amount varies by state, but can range from 2 years of work experience after the completion of an apprenticeship to 7 years of work experience for technicians who did not complete one of these training programs. Aspiring air conditioning contractors can meet these requirements by performing basic tasks alongside more experienced journeyman or master technicians in an entry-level position.

Step 4: Get a License

Every state sets its own qualifications for licensure, but all require air conditioning contractors to pass a licensing exam after earning the necessary work experience. They might also mandate that they pass criminal background checks and carry liability insurance or performance bonds. Minimum age requirements could also apply.

Success Tips:

  • Research continuing education requirements. Some state licensing boards require air conditioning contractors to complete around 4 hours of continuing education as a condition of license renewal.

Step 5: Earn Professional Certification

While professional certification isn't necessary for employment, it could improve air conditioning contractors' career opportunities. Professional associations, such as the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute and HVAC Excellence, offer credentials to technicians who meet work experience requirements and pass exams in specialized areas.

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