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Heating, Air-Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics

People always have sought ways to make their environment more comfortable. Today, heating and air-conditioning systems control the temperature, humidity, and even the cleanliness of the air in homes, offices, factories, and schools. In addition, refrigeration systems make it possible to safely store food, drugs, and other perishable items. Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics are skilled workers who install, maintain, and repair such systems.

Heating, air-conditioning, or refrigeration requires more than a single appliance. In central heating systems, for example, a furnace heats the air that is then distributed throughout the building through a system of metal or fiberglass ducts. Mechanics must be able to work with the complete system, the ducts as well as all the machinery.

Mechanics may specialize in installation or in service--maintenance and repair. Some work only with certain equipment, such as gas furnaces or commercial refrigerators. However, mechanics may do both installation and service and work with heating, cooling, and refrigeration equipment. The following are some specific jobs in this field. Furnace installers, also called heating equipment installers, follow blueprints or other specifications to install oil, gas, electric, solid-fuel, and multifuel heating systems. After setting the equipment in place, they install fuel and water supply lines, air ducts and vents, pumps, and other components. They then connect electrical wiring and controls, and check the unit for proper operation. Some workers install solar-energy systems that collect and circulate solar-heated water or air.

Oil burner mechanics keep oil-fired heating systems in good operating condition. During the fall and winter, when the system is needed most, they service and adjust oil burners. If a system is not operating properly, mechanics check the thermostat, burner nozzles, controls, and other parts to locate the problem. The mechanic corrects the problem by adjusting or replacing parts. During the summer, mechanics do maintenance work, such as replacing oil and air filters and vacuum-cleaning vents, ducts, and other parts of the heating system that accumulate soot and ash.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics install and service central air- conditioning systems and a variety of refrigeration equipment. Mechanics follow blueprints, design specifications, and manufacturers installation instructions to install motors, compressors, condensing units, evaporators, and other components. They connect this equipment to duct work, refrigerant lines, and electrical power source. After making the connections, they charge the system with refrigerant and check it for proper operation.

When air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment breaks down, mechanics diagnose the cause and make repairs. To find defects, they test parts such as compressors, relays, and thermostats. During the winter, air-conditioning mechanics inspect the systems and do required maintenance, such as overhauling compressors. Some air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics also service heating systems.

Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics use a variety of tools, including hammers, wrenches, metal snips, electric drills, pipe cutters and benders, and acetylene torches, to work with refrigerant lines and air ducts. They use voltmeters, thermometers, pressure gauges, manometers, and other testing devices to check air flow, electrical circuits, burners, and other components.

Cooling and heating systems sometimes are installed or repaired by other craft workers. For example, on a large air-conditioning installation job, especially where workers are covered by union contracts, ducts work might be done by sheet-metal workers; electrical work by electricians, and installation of piping, condensers, and other components by plumbers and pipe fitters. Room air-conditioners and household refrigerators are serviced by home appliance repairers.

Working Conditions

Mechanics work in homes, office buildings, factories--anywhere there is climate control equipment. They carry their tools and some spare parts to the job sites in trucks and are dispatched to jobs by radio or telephone. For major repairs, mechanics transport broken machinery or parts to the repair shop.

Mechanics may work outside in cold or hot weather or in buildings that are uncomfortable because the air-conditioning or heating equipment is broken. Mechanics often work in awkward or cramped positions and sometimes are required to work in high places. Hazards in this trade include electrical shock, burns, muscle strains, and other injuries from handling heavy equipment.


Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics held about 230,000 jobs in 1990. About half worked for cooling and heating contractors. The remainder were employed in a wide variety of industries. Fuel oil dealers employ most oil burner mechanics. Mechanics also work for food store chains, school systems and hospitals, manufacturers, and other organizations that operate large air-conditioning, refrigeration, or heating systems. Approximately 1 out of 7 mechanics is self-employed.

Jobs for heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics are found throughout the country.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics start as helpers and acquire their skills by working for several years with experienced mechanics. New workers usually begin by assisting experienced mechanics and doing simple jobs. They may carry materials, insulate refrigerant lines, or clean furnaces. In time, they do more difficult jobs, such as cutting and soldering pipes and sheet metal and checking electrical and electronic circuits. In 4 to 5 years, new mechanics should be able to do all types of repairs and installations.

Many high schools, private vocational schools, and junior colleges offer programs in heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration. Students study heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration theory and design and construction of the equipment. They also learn the basics of installation, maintenance, and repair. Although completion of such a program does not assure a job, employers may prefer to hire graduates of these programs because they require less on-the-job training. These programs also help students determine if they have an interest and aptitude for the trade.

Apprenticeship programs are run by joint apprenticeship committees made up of locals of the United Association of the Plumbing and Pipe fitting Industry and some local chapters of the Air-Conditioning Contractors of America and by local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors. In addition to on-the-job training, apprentices receive 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in related subjects, such as the use and care of tools, safety practices, blueprint reading, and air-conditioning theory. Applicants for apprenticeships must meet requirements of local apprenticeship committees; for example, they may have to have a high school diploma or pass a mechanical aptitude test. Apprenticeships last 4 years.

When hiring, employers prefer high school graduates with mechanical aptitude who have had courses in shop math, mechanical drawing, electronics, and blueprint reading. A basic understanding of microelectronics is becoming more important because of the increasing use of this technology in equipment controls. Good physical condition also is necessary because workers sometimes have to lift and move heavy equipment.

To keep up with changes in technology and to expand their skills, experienced mechanics may take courses offered by heating and air-conditioning equipment manufacturers and by associations such as the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America.

Mechanics can advance to positions as supervisors. Those with sufficient money and managerial skill can open their own contracting careeres.

Job Outlook

Employment of heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Employment will increase as more homes and commercial and industrial buildings are constructed. In addition, growing concern about energy management and conservation should prompt installation of new energy-saving heating and air-conditioning systems in existing homes and buildings. Most job openings, however, will result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the occupation for other reasons.

Employment of heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics usually is not as sensitive to downturn in the economy as some other construction occupations because maintenance of existing systems and installation of new, more efficient equipment in existing buildings make up a large part of their work. Because people and careeres depend on their heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration systems, the need for mechanics to do maintenance work is relatively strong even during economic down turns.

Because the high earnings and good job prospects of this trade attract many people, beginning mechanics may face competition for jobs as helpers or apprentices. Graduates of training programs that emphasize hands-on experience and those with related work experience will have an advantage in getting a job.

Workers under 25 years of age have traditionally filled most raining slots, a group that is expected to shrink through the year 2000. If employers and unions aren't successful in attracting more applicants to training programs, serious shortages of qualified workers could develop.


Median weekly earnings of air-conditioning, heating, and, refrigeration mechanics who were not self-employed were $430 in 1990. The middle 50 percent earned between $335 and $590. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $275 a week, and the same proportion earned more than $755 a week.

Apprentices receive a percentage of the wage paid experienced workers, about 50 percent at the beginning of their training and about 85 percent during the fourth year. Mechanics who work on both heating equipment and air-conditioning frequently have higher rates of pay than those who work on only one type of equipment.

Mechanics usually work a 40-hour week. However, during peak seasons, they often work overtime or irregular hours. Most employers try to provide a full workweek the year round, but they may temporarily reduce hours or lay off some mechanics when the season is over. Employment in most shops that service both heating and air-conditioning equipment is fairly stable throughout the year.

Some mechanics are members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe fitting Industry or the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.

Related Occupations

Heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics work with sheet metal and piping, and repair machinery, such as electrical motors, compressors, and burners. Other workers who have similar skills are boilermakers, electrical appliance servicers, electricians, pipe fitters, plumbers, and sheet-metal workers.

Sources of Additional Information

For more information about employment and training opportunities in this trade, contact local heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration contractors; a local of the unions previously mentioned; a local joint union-management apprenticeship committee; a local chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors; or the nearest office of the State employment service or State apprenticeship agency.

For more information on career opportunities and training, write to:

Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, 1501 Wilson Blvd., Arlington Va. 22209.

Air Conditioning Contractors of America, 1228 17th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Associated Builders and Contractors, 729 15th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Refrigeration Service Engineers Society, 1666 Rand Rd., Des Plaines, Ill. 60016.


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