The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning industry is rich with job opportunities for a variety of skill levels. For example, you can work in sales and marketing, automated controls, or design and engineering, but the sections that drive the industry are residential and commercial installation and services.
If you want a stable, lucrative career in HVAC, you should consider the residential or commercial sections of the industry. While both share many fundamental principles surrounding the installation of heating and cooling systems, there are some drastic differences in the designs of the systems, daily working conditions for technicians, average salary, and more.
Read on to learn more about commercial vs residential HVAC work and decide which avenue best suits your career goals.
What Does Residential Mean in HVAC?
The term residential specifically refers to the HVAC system used to heat and cool your home or small business. These systems exist specifically to create a more comfortable living or working space. When comparing residential vs commercial HVAC systems, the residential systems are significantly more complex. The products that make up the various types of residential heating and cooling systems include:
- Air conditioner. The air conditioner typically contains a split system with an outdoor unit that condenses heat and an indoor unit that evaporates heat.
- Furnace. The furnace heats the home using four main elements: the burner to burn fuel, the blower, the heat exchangers, and the flue to rid the air of by-products from the burning process.
- Ductwork. To heat and cool an entire home, your residential system needs a ductwork system that runs throughout the house to distribute the heating and air conditioning. However, ductless systems are available if you only need to heat or cool a single room.
- Air handler. Most systems have an air handler to pump the air throughout the home through the ductwork system.
- Heat pump. Heat pumps use the air from outside to heat and cool the home. These are more common in areas with less harsh climates.
- Thermostat. The thermostat is the control system used to manage the temperature in the home. These range from basic controls directly on the system to elaborate, programmable smart home systems.
Working in residential HVAC installation and servicing requires varying levels of education, licensing, and experience. You may start as a trainee, apprenticing under a technician at the advanced level and work your way up.
What Does Commercial Mean in HVAC?
Commercial HVAC systems serve the same purpose as residential HVAC systems. However, commercial systems heat and cool large buildings, which is why they are significantly larger and often more complex than residential systems. The complexity of a commercial HVAC system depends on the size and type of building. For example, it may need multiple thermostats and control systems to cover every room and floor. In addition, some areas of the building may need different heating and cooling settings.
Essentially, residential HVAC systems are relatively standard in size. Commercial systems are custom and suit the building, containing more equipment to accommodate the variations. Ultimately, commercial systems have more temperature and humidity control.
What is the Difference Between Commercial and Residential HVAC Work?
Just as there are considerable differences in the residential vs commercial HVAC descriptions, there are notable differences in the work job requirements and compensation as well. To better understand which area may work best for your career goals, you should consider all the elements involved in HVAC work. Read on to learn more about salary and insurance, licensing, and job requirements.
Commercial vs Residential HVAC Salary
If your primary career concern is salary, you may find more lucrative opportunities in commercial HVAC work. According to Zip Recruiter, the national average annual salary for a residential HVAC service technician, a mid-level position, is $58,363. That amounts to roughly $28 per hour before taxes. Talent.com reports a national average of $63,375 in annual pay for a commercial HVAC technician at the same level, amounting to approximately $32.50 per hour. On the high end, you can make nearly $83,000.
Keep in mind that salary depends on many factors. You may see increased pay in areas where HVAC workers are in high demand. Check the job listings in your region to see the average in your area. Keep in mind that you can move from residential to commercial HVAC work relatively easily with additional training.
Residential vs Commercial HVAC Insurance Requirements
Only contractors who own an HVAC business have insurance requirements. The state sets the specific requirements, but most will need workers’ compensation insurance. In addition, contractors should consider purchasing commercial property insurance to cover company equipment, professional liability insurance to cover possible malpractice cases, and commercial auto insurance to protect company vehicles.
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Residential HVAC Licensing and Job Requirements
To become a residential HVAC technician, you can start at the entry level as a trainee and advance to a contractor or journey-level technician. The positions available include:
- Residential trainee. Most companies prefer some formal HVAC training, but you can typically start working as a trainee without prior experience. Trainees assist installers with equipment and other elements of the job.
- Residential installer. Installers need at least 1-3 years of work experience as a trainee under an installer and a basic understanding of company requirements and industry standards.
- Residential service technician. Service technicians need a minimum of 3-5 years of work experience to diagnose and repair issues with HVAC systems.
- Residential service manager. You can become a service manager with five or more years of experience or an HVAC technology degree. Service managers supervise the work of technicians and work with dispatchers to ensure customer satisfaction.
The most advanced level in residential HVAC work is the contractor position. Contractors need journey-level licensing and more than five years of experience. Some standard licensing for contractors include:
- C20: Warm-Air Heating, Ventilating and Air-Conditioning Certification
- C38: Refrigeration Certification
- C-4 Boiler, Hot Water Heating and Steam Fitting Certification
- C46: Solar Certification
Depending on the business they conduct, contractors may have all or only one of these.
Commercial HVAC Licensing and Job Requirements
There are many similarities in the advancement path when comparing commercial vs residential HVAC requirements. The commercial positions available include:
- Commercial trainee. Trainees require no experience but will advance faster with post-secondary HVAC training.
- Apprentice. With a high school diploma and no experience, you can work full-time for pay under the supervision of a professional-level technician and take apprenticeship courses at night. With 4-5 years of experience as an apprentice, you can graduate to a journey-level technician.
- Tradesperson. You need at least 1-3 years of training to become a tradesperson who assists the lead installer and journey-level technician in the installation and maintenance of commercial systems.
- Commercial installer. Installers need 1-3 years of work experience and work under a lead installer or supervisor.
- Facilities maintenance technician. A facilities maintenance technician is a mid-level position requiring 1-3 years of work experience. They specialize in preventative maintenance and work with commercial HVAC/R and plumbing systems.
- Commercial service technician. A service technician is a high mid-level position requiring five or more years of experience and a strong understanding of HVAC/R diagnostics.
- Journey-level commercial HVAC technician. These technicians need a minimum of five years of experience and the completion of an apprenticeship.
- Commercial service manager. Service managers need five or more years of experience, the completion of an apprenticeship and EPA certification.
A commercial contractor or facilities manager is the highest level of advancement for commercial HVAC workers. To be a commercial contractor, you must have a minimum of four years of experience as a journey-level technician. You must also receive one or more of the same licensures required for residential contractors. Comparing residential vs commercial HVAC contractors, you will find many similarities in their job descriptions.
A facilities manager coordinates and supervises all the maintenance operations for HVAC/R, plumbing, and electrical systems in a building. They need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in an HVAC-related field.
Each state mandates its own licensing requirements for advanced-level HVAC workers. However, there is one federal requirement. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, following Section 608 of the Clean Air Act, requires EPA technicians to pass a test to earn EPA certification.
Four tests cover different topics and allow technicians to handle specific types of appliances. The four certificates are:
- Type I is for the servicing of small appliances.
- Type II is for the disposal or servicing of high-pressure appliances. This does not include small appliances or motor vehicle air conditioning systems.
- Type III is for the disposal or servicing of low-pressure appliances.
- Universal covers all the allowances of the first three types.
Each test contains questions on core topics:
- The environmental impact of refrigerants
- Knowledge of the Clean Air Act and Montreal Protocol
- Knowledge of Section 608 regulations
- Replacements for refrigerants and oils
- Facts from the refrigeration process
- The Three Rs: Recover, Recycle, Reclaim
- Recovery techniques to avoid mixing refrigerants
- Shipping standards
- Safety regulations
- Dehydration of the system after service
As you consider residential vs commercial HVAC work, you can begin preparing for the EPA certification tests. You can even test for EPA certification anytime and access a free online study guide.
What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Residential HVAC Work?
Residential HVAC work has its pros and cons. For example, some benefits of residential work include:
- Residential systems are more straightforward than commercial systems.
- Because many small companies specialize in specific systems, you can become an expert in one type of system and eventually make more money in sales.
- Residential technicians get more direct-customer time, making troubleshooting and problem-solving more satisfying.
- There is job security in residential HVAC.
- There are many opportunities to advance in the field.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to working in the residential HVAC industry. Examples include:
- Most companies are smaller, giving employees less chance to unionize and lowering the barrier to entry.
- While becoming an expert in one system is lucrative, it can become dull over time.
- There is less outdoor time than in commercial work.
- Most residential technicians work for companies that require them to be on-call for a certain number of days each month, making hours somewhat irregular.
Residential technicians also do a significant amount of sales work, especially those working for smaller companies. That can be a benefit or a drawback. If you enjoy sales and the client-facing experience, you may see it as a pro. On the other hand, if you prefer the quiet of working alone, you may not enjoy this aspect of the job. The main benefit to the sales side of residential work is that you can make extra money on commissions.
What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Commercial HVAC Work?
When discussing commercial vs residential HVAC systems, the benefits and drawbacks of commercial HVAC work are relatively balanced compared to residential. For example, some benefits of working in the commercial HVAC industry include:
- Commercial technicians deal with various systems, making the job experience interesting.
- Commercial technicians can unionize.
- There are more specializations available in commercial work.
- The work hours are more stable than residential work.
- The pay is typically higher than residential technicians.
- You can advance in the field.
The drawbacks of the commercial HVAC industry are fewer but still worth considering. For example, some cons include:
- The work requires a significant amount of time outside on the roof of large buildings. Technicians deal with sun exposure, pouring rain, and other types of unpleasant weather.
- During a recession, commercial technician jobs are less safe than residential.
When comparing commercial vs residential HVAC work, one drawback to both is the physically demanding aspect of the job. The settings are different, but both require work hours in less-than-pleasant conditions.
Is Residential or Commercial HVAC Work a Better Choice?
Whether or not you prefer commercial vs residential HVAC work depends on personal preference. Both are lucrative career choices with a promise of job stability. The benefit of the HVAC industry is the room for advancement and lateral movement across the industry.
If you do not find satisfaction in residential or commercial HVAC work, you can try sales and marketing, automated controls, or design and engineering. Before you start, check your local state regulations to learn more about the education, training, and licensing requirements.