Thinking of a career change? Or maybe trying to decide on your first career. For some, that may have them wondering about an HVAC degree vs HVAC certification.

What are the differences, and which one would be better for you? I can educate you on the differences but only you can decide on which path best suits your needs.

Both accredited and degree programs will provide an understanding of the core technologies needed to service and maintain HVAC systems, but a degree program goes beyond. The additional training can mean the difference between being a technician or someone in management or research and development.

And of course, with a degree, you’ll increase your earning potential.

Read on, as I delve into the differences.

HVAC Certificate or Degree: Which is Best for You?

To help you understand and choose which is best for you, let’s discuss the differences.

Course  CertificateAssociate DegreeBachelor’s Degree
Length  Less than a year2 years4 years
Classes-HVAC design & installation  
– Electrical  
– Refrigeration  
– Residential systems
 – Metal fabrication
– Electrical  
– Heat pumps  
– Technical physics
– Commercial HVAC system design  
– Conducting and analyzing energy audits
– Contractor issues  
– Control theory  – Hydronic system design  
– Load analysis  

HVAC Certificate

If you’re just looking to get by with the fundamentals—what you’ll need to work as a technician—then a certificate program may be the right choice for you. You’ll have everything you need to maintain all components of an HVAC system.

However, if you dream of starting your own business, skip the certificate programs and get your degree.

Depending on where you live and the laws specific to your country, state, or province, programs will differ to some degree. The following information is US-centric, so if you live in Canada or the UK, be sure to check on local details as well.

Having said that, note that there isn’t a uniform licensing standard for HVAC employees in the United States. Due to this, some certification organizations have developed a specific standard of quality for HVAC professionals.

Remember, a certificate will provide you with the basics of practical HVAC issues, so you’ll cover things like theory, electrical skills, and more.

HVAC CERTIFICATION PROCESS
HVAC technicians are responsible for installing, maintaining, and repairing heating, ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration units, and systems.

Classes. The following is an example of a certificate course that would take 40 plus credit hours—note that credit hours typically equal about 15 hours of instruction—to complete.

  • Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Theory
  • Applied Math for HVAC Technicians
  • Basic Electricity and Electronics (DC-AC)
  • Commercial Equipment
  • Digital Electronics
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Laws and Regulations
  • Heat Pumps and Related Systems
  • HVAC System Design
  • Introduction to Building Construction
  • Introduction to Refrigeration and A/C
  • Motors and Controls
  • Residential Equipment
  • Safety

Note that not all certificate programs are created equally. You can find programs that range from a single semester or year to a more in-depth program such as the one detailed above. The shorter programs are more geared toward residential HVAC while the longer programs include commercial HVAC applications.

Regardless, there are admission requirements involved for those wishing to enter a program. The minimum is a high school diploma or GED. In most cases, this must include a 12th-grade math credit, but an English or business and communication credit is often necessary. You’ll have to check local requirements.

Lastly, in order to pass a certificate program, expect to achieve a minimum grade point average of 2.5.

Next Steps. One final note. In most cases, having your certificate is enough to sit for the EPA Section 8 exam which is mandatory for any HVAC techs who handle refrigerants. However, it would be wise to make sure the course you took covered the necessary study.  

HVAC Associate Degree

Moving beyond just obtaining an HVAC Certificate, the next step would bean associate degree in HVAC.

Obtaining an associate degree in HVAC will provide you with a broader scope of knowledge—knowledge that can help you advance your career. Even though HVAC is an industry where you’ll get a significant amount of knowledge from practical, on-the-job experience, your degree will provide you with the necessary foundation for entering the workforce.

With an associate degree you are ready to work as an HVAC technician but be sure to check your local laws and requirements. This is important as not all certificate and degree programs are the same, and in some regions, technicians only require a certificate while in others they need a degree.

Another point with regards to where you live.

In some areas, there’s often little difference between what someone with a certificate and a bit of experience and someone with an associate degree will earn. In other places, there is a significant difference. So again, always so some local research.

Here are some course details, but keep in mind that depending on where you live there may be some differences.

Course Length. While a certificate program will last from six to twelve months, an associate degree is two years. However, depending on your school choice and your program, it may take a bit longer.

Classes. In addition to what’s covered in a certificate program, an associate degree also covers the following. Note that these will go beyond the basics of what’s taught at the certificate level.

  • Electricity in HVAC systems
  • Heat pumps
  • Metal fabrication
  • Technical Physics

Next StepsWith an associate degree, you are ready to sit for the EPA Section 8 exam, which is necessary for handling refrigerants. You’ll also be ready for competency exams such as HVAC Excellence, NATE, and more.

Technician Installing HVAC Industrial System
The HVAC industry holds numerous career options.

HVAC Bachelor’s Degree

Finally, you have the option of going for your bachelor’s degree which offers the most comprehensive level of HVAC instruction.

Course Length. In most cases, this program will take 4 years to complete, however, if you’ve decided to move up from an associate degree and already have some of the necessary course credits, they are counted toward your new degree—meaning you won’t need the full four years.

Classes. Since each course builds on the last, the classes you take at this level will include the above-mentioned classes—certificate and associate—plus the following. In some cases, they will simply expand on what you’ve previously learned, or they may venture into new topics.

  • Commercial HVAC system design
  • Conducting and analyzing energy audits
  • Contractor issues
  • Control theory
  • Hydronic system design
  • Load analysis

Next Steps. Having a bachelor’s degree opens up the entire industry to you. Even though you’ll still be required to take further competency exams, you’re ready to step into the role of technician at the supervisory or contractor level.

With the added responsibility you can expect a higher salary. Or you can start your own business.

Conclusion

As is laid out above, the choice between an HVAC certificate or degree will depend on a few things. How much time you want to devote to your education, and what your goals are.

If you want to be in management or work on more complex systems, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree.

Hopefully, the information here will help you make the right choice.

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