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HVAC technicians: The hot job that keeps us cool

As record heat made its way across the country in late June, you can bet more than a few people were singing the praises of their air conditioners. Provided compliments of the HVAC industry, air conditioning is just one of the modern perks many take for granted.

However, providing cool air in the summer and warm air in the winter requires a multitude of professionals working behind the scenes. From engineers to installers, the HVAC industry is what one expert calls a "never-ending field."

For career-minded individuals, both industry sources and government data agree: HVAC workers are in high demand and have the potential to earn excellent incomes.

'Golden age' for HVAC industry

Representing the different aspects of the industry, HVAC stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning. More recently, the term HVACR has been used to recognize the growing importance of refrigeration within the field.

While the HVAC industry is not new, many experts see the field as taking on greater importance thanks to increased emphasis on energy conservation. So much so that Tim Wentz, a vice president for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, says the industry is entering a golden age.

"I think the trends towards building performance and project integration will completely transform the HVAC industry," he said.

Rather than being a secondary consideration when it comes to building, Wentz says the new trend is to fully integrate HVAC components into a construction design right from the start. Then, HVAC systems are being developed and evaluated based on how well they actually perform instead of measuring them against basic minimum standards such as code compliance.

Ultimately, the goal for many of today's systems is to improve efficiency, conserve energy and be environmentally friendly. Reaching those goals means increased demand for skilled workers ranging from the engineers who create the design to the mechanics who service the units.

Alternative energy creates new opportunities

Along with increased demand for energy efficiency, HVAC workers are benefiting from the emphasis on alternative energy sources.

"It actually brings more work for us," said Adam Kent, a HVAC installer and fabricator in Grand Rapids, Mich.

According to Kent, geothermal systems in particular require not only more ductwork but can also add to the complexity of a project. Other emerging trends he has seen during his 15 years in the industry include increased interest in outdoor snow-melt systems and in-floor heating systems that improve efficiency.

Wentz says the economic challenges of recent years have slowed the implementation of alternative energy technologies. However, he says the field is poised to take off and offers exciting opportunities for HVAC workers.

"The potential for alternative energy use is enormous and for those professionals who enjoy working in a new, cutting edge and highly evolving environment, this would be a great career path," said Wentz.

Entering the HVAC field

Within the HVAC industry, there are a number of different career options.

"It's a never-ending field," said Warren Lupson, Director of Education for the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, "an emergent industry that will never go away."

While the employment opportunities may be endless, perhaps the most accessible point of entry is as an HVAC technician such as an installer or mechanic. While HVAC engineers might need a bachelor's degree, technicians can often be ready to enter the workforce in two years or less.

"Mainly, they look for a two-year degree," said Kent when asked what employers prefer.

However, there are also one-year certificate programs that may be appropriate for someone with previous work experience. Other certifications are available for specialties such as refrigeration or geothermal installation.

Still, "the more schooling you have, the better," said Kent, "especially on the technician side."

Salary and job outlook for HVAC technicians

Lupson said the industry is projected to add a significant number skilled workers in coming years.

"The biggest thing is installation of heating and cooling equipment cannot be outsourced," he said.

Government data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics backs up industry claims that HVAC is a hot field. According to bls.gov, demand for heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers is expected to grow 34 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Income potential can vary depending on an individual's education, experience and employer. Bls.gov found technicians earned mean pay of $45,540 in 2011. Additionally, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that refrigeration, heating or air conditioning certificates provide one of the largest returns for men as compared to other certificate programs. Researchers at the university calculated that males with HVAC certificates earned 13 percent more than the median for males with certificates in all fields.

Individuals working in a specialized niche may also earn more than those performing more generalized HVAC work. In 2008, MEP Jobs, an online job board for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing fields, conducted one of the only comprehensive salary surveys of the industry. The results of that survey found chillers technicians were the highest paid HVAC technicians at an average of $65,000, while refrigeration technicians were close behind with average annual salaries of $60,000.

However, HVAC careers are about more than just money.

"A skilled HVACR workforce is critical to being able to meet the energy efficiency goals of the county and the world," said Lupson.

And here you thought HVAC technicians were just the guys who kept you cool in the summer.