Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Mechanic and Installer
Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Mechanic and Installer
Education and Training: Trade school, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training
Salary: Median—$17.43 per hour
Employment Outlook: Very good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics install, maintain, and repair cooling and heating equipment. Air-conditioning and heating equipment makes the air inside buildings cool in summer and warm in winter. This equipment is also used in cars, buses, and trains. Refrigeration machines are used in restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and homes to make ice and to keep food cool or frozen. Without mechanics to install the proper equipment and fix it when it breaks down, many comforts of modern life would not exist.
Mechanics may specialize in one type of equipment. These specialists are called air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics, furnace installers, oil burner mechanics, and gas burner mechanics. They may also specialize in installation or in maintenance and repair. Many workers are qualified in more than one of these areas.
Air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics install and repair many different sizes of machines. A machine or unit may be large enough to cool an entire building or small enough to fit into a window to cool only one room. These mechanics follow blueprints and manufacturers' instructions to install the motors, compressors, condensing units, evaporators, pipes, and ducts that make up refrigeration or air-conditioning units. Because they must connect ducts and refrigerant (cooling) lines, mechanics must know how to weld and fit pipe. To do the necessary electrical work, mechanics must handle soldering irons and read wiring diagrams. The mechanics also put in refrigerant, the substance that makes refrigeration systems work. The refrigerant flows through the system and transfers heat from the inside of the refrigerator to the outside air. Finally, the mechanics check to see that the unit is working properly.
When air-conditioning or refrigeration equipment breaks down, mechanics determine the cause and make repairs. They test the equipment, electrical circuits, and control box, and they look for leaks in the system. They may remove worn parts, repair or replace them, seal leaks, and add refrigerant. In the winter, air-conditioning mechanics inspect the systems and do required maintenance work, such as overhauling compressors.
Furnace installers follow blueprints and manufacturers' instructions to put in oil, gas, electric, and multifuel heating systems. The installers must know how to install fuel lines, pumps, air ducts, and fans. They must know how to connect the electrical wiring, control box, timer, and temperature regulator. Once the furnace or heating unit is in place, the installer must test it to make sure it is working properly.
Oil burner mechanics service and maintain heating units that burn oil. The mechanic must check all the parts of an oil burner. These parts include the electrical controls, the burner nozzles and feed lines, the blower fan, and the air ducts or water pipes and radiators.
Gas burner mechanics fix and adjust heating systems that use natural gas. These systems include everything from large industrial furnaces and heating units to relatively small household stoves, clothes dryers, and water heaters.
During the summer, when heating systems are not used, mechanics do maintenance work, such as replacing filters and vacuuming vents, ducts, and other parts of the system that may accumulate dirt, soot, or ash.
Tools used by air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics include hammers, wrenches, metal cutters, screwdrivers, electric drills, pipe cutters and threaders, welding torches, and electrical testing devices.
Education and Training Requirements
Air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration systems are becoming more sophisticated. While it is still possible to enter this field through informal on-the-job training, most employers prefer to hire workers with technical school or apprenticeship training. Because cooling systems require the use of refrigerants, which can be hazardous to the environment, all technicians must be certified to handle such materials..
A high school education is important. It should include classes in mathematics, mechanical drawing, physics, blueprint reading, machine shop, and electricity. Job seekers should also know something about microelectronics—the miniaturization of electronic circuits and components—because this technology is being used in equipment controls.
After high school, job seekers can join either a union apprenticeship or an on-the-job training program. They may have to pass a test and be approved by a joint labor-management committee. Apprenticeships usually last four years. Once in the program, trainees work under a qualified mechanic. They also take courses to learn the more technical aspects of the trade. After completing the apprenticeship, they become fully qualified mechanics.
Contractors and other employers run on-the-job training programs. Like union apprenticeships, the programs include both classroom study and supervised work experience. In both types of programs trainees are paid for their work, but at a lower rate than a fully qualified mechanic. Generally, wages increase as the trainee's skill grows. Many vocational/technical schools and junior colleges offer courses in air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration that may reduce the length of the training period or, in some cases, qualify graduates for a beginning job.
Getting the Job
There are many places to look for a job in the air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration industry. A good place to start is the Yellow Pages under "Air-Conditioning—Equipment and Service," "Heating Equipment," and "Gas Furnaces." Listed under these and related headings will be companies to contact about a beginning job. Fuel oil dealers and gas utility companies may have job information, the local office of the appropriate labor union will have information about apprenticeship programs, and newspaper classified ads and state employment offices can provide job listings.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics are already at the top of their craft. They may advance to become supervisors or be given responsibility for servicing all of the units in a certain area. Some mechanics start their own service and repair shops or become contractors or equipment suppliers.
Employment in this occupation is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. The need for air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics will increase with the construction of new buildings, and many job openings will result from the need to replace workers who retire or leave the workforce. Mechanics will be needed to replace old systems and to service the increasingly complex electronics of new systems, in part because of new laws requiring more efficient units.
Air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics work on construction job sites, in repair shops, and in homes—anywhere there is climate-control equipment. They may work outside in any kind of weather or inside in buildings that are too hot or too cold because the equipment is broken. They often work in cramped positions and are sometimes required to work in high places. They may be exposed to electrical shocks and may suffer burns, muscle strains, and other injuries from handling heavy equipment.
The number of weekly working hours varies within the field. For those who work for a contractor, equipment supplier and installer, utility company, or other firm, a forty-hour week is normal, with extra pay for overtime. Mechanics who own and manage their own businesses often work longer hours, including nights and Saturdays. Mechanics who provide repair service must be prepared to make emergency house calls.
Where to Go for More Information
Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute
4100 North Fairfax Dr., Ste. 200
Arlington, VA 22203
American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers
1791 Tullie Circle NE
Atlanta, GA 30329-2305
Air Conditioning Contractors of America
2800 Shirlington Rd., Ste. 300
Arlington, VA 22206
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association
180 S. Washington St.
P.O. Box 6808
Falls Church, VA 22046
Industrial Heating Equipment Association
P.O. Box 54172
Cincinnati, OH 45254
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings for mechanics vary, depending on where they work. The median wage in 2004 was $17.43 per hour. Mechanics may receive health and life insurance, paid vacations, and pension plans. Some air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration mechanics and installers are members of unions.