Do You Need A License To Be An Hvacr Contractor?

January 8, 2002
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You’ve spent years in classrooms and in the field, plying the trade that you love so much. You’ve worked for someone else and now feel it is time to hang up your own shingle. If you are ready to embody the Horatio Alger success story, you might want to check with your state licensing board to see what, if any, license you need to operate legally.

Rather than a uniform national license that blankets the entire hvacr trade, individual state and municipal licenses dictate the rules, regulations, and codes for hvacr contractors. Uniformity is seldom the watchword when it comes to licensing. In some states, there are no licensing barriers and anyone is free to install, repair, service, and inspect equipment with little more than a toolbox and basic transportation.

How different are licensing requirements? Let’s take Pennsylvania as an example.

THE PENNSYLVANIA WAY

Pennsylvania has no statewide hvacr licensing laws, but certain municipalities have their own requirements. “Only plumbing is licensed in Pennsylvania, and even that is not statewide,” said David Yates of F.W. Behler, Inc., York, PA. “If I want to be an electrician, all I need to do is paint it on the side of my truck. Same goes for hvac work. Refrigerant handling is only governed by the federal government.”

John Williams Jr. of Carrier Corp., Warminster, PA, noted, “In Philadelphia we have two licenses we must have in order to work in the city. The first is a ‘Warm Air Installers License’ and the second is a refrigeration exam on the principles of refrigerant.

“Neither test is too deep. They are just there for proof that you know what you are doing. There are others, like the ‘Chimney Liner Certification.’ With this, the city will recommend your company if a person’s home fails inspection on their existing heating system’s chimney.”

“The sad fact of the matter is, we are not bound by a statewide standard,” stated Dave Bush of D&C Mechanical, East Stroudsburg, PA. “For example, Scranton, which only requires a r?m?nd a check for a permit to be pulled, is the only municipality that I work in that even requires that much. I’m in the Poconos, and here, it’s every hack for himself. Anybody can wire their own equipment with no basic electrical knowledge because there are no necessary inspections.

“What I’ve seen in other, licensed-required areas over the years is disparaging. The ‘licensed’ contractors get away with substandard work. No one says or does anything about them and thus, substandard wins the bids — and eventually becomes the standard.”

OTHER STATES WITH NO AGENCIES

In Kansas, “The state actually does require a license, but leaves it up to individual cities to enforce licensing however they see fit, including which code they will enforce,” said Brad Swanson of M&S Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc., Manhattan, KS. “Some cities are very strict, like Manhattan, and others could care less.

“Our city code department has sent many out-of-town contractors packing because they don’t have a Block License [given to engineers]. Some of those contractors will contact a licensed company, such as ours, to borrow their license to do the work. We stay away from this game because if you’re caught, you lose your license.”

New Hampshire is another state that does not require a license to perform hvacr work. A state-licensed master plumber has mixed feelings on the subject.

“I see the value and need for having a uniform curriculum and certification process,” said Craig Chartier of Heritage Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, Auburn, NH. “I also believe in the continuing education seminars required for license renewal each year. My only real issue is with the intent and integrity of the appointed individuals and/or board members.”

New York also has no statewide hvacr licensing laws.

“The only license that I am aware of, aside from an EPA refrigeration or stationary engineer’s license, would be a Dept. of Consumer Affairs and Home Improvement License,” said Michael Milazzo of Ice-Cap, Long Island City, NY. “The Consumer license is supposed to prevent employee moonlighting or working on their own, but it is done all of the time.”

ACCA STATE LICENSING SURVEY

The four states mentioned so far — Kansas, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New York — have no specific state agency to control licensing and regulation of the hvacr trade, according to the 2000-2001 State Licensing Survey conducted by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

As part of the ACCA survey, the following questions were asked of state licensing/regulatory agencies:

1. Does your state have a licensing law for hvacr contractors? (Yes/No)
2. Does your state have a licensing law for hvacr technicians? (Yes/No)
3. Do local jurisdictions require a separate license? (Yes/No)
4. If you answered no to Question 1, is your state working on legislation? (Yes/No)
5. If you answered no to Question 2, is your state working on legislation? (Yes/No)
6. Are your state licensing laws specific to the hvacr trade (or other construction trades, too)? (Yes/No)
7. Does your state offer continuing education in the hvacr trade? (Yes/No)

ACCA’s survey results, with updates from The News, are included in Table 1.

INSPECTION AND ENFORCEMENT

Just because state agencies pass laws and regulate the hvacr trade with licensing and testing requirements does not automatically guarantee that enforcement is a given. In some states, inspections are hampered for a number of different reasons. In Texas, it is a matter of numbers.

The state has two hvacr licensing inspectors. Jeffery Rinard, one of the two Texas Enforcement Division Investigators, said, “We have eight other investigators in other programs we regulate, who also assist in a/c investigations.”

Steve Wiggins of Quality Air Care in Lorena, TX, talked about the various laws that need to be enforced, such as the “Uniform Mechanical Code 1994.”

“The code contains this section,” Wiggins said. “Section 117 — Connection Approval 117.1 Energy Connections. It says that persons shall not make connections from a source of energy fuel to a mechanical system or equipment regulated by this code and for which a permit is required until approved by the building official.

“How many contractors connect and operate the appliance prior to calling for inspection? Does the International Code have a similar section on Connection Approval?”

Swanson said the codes in Kansas are “a mess.”

“The state itself works under the Uniform Codes for all trades. Each city adopts which code they will use,” he said. “Our city has adopted the International Codes. While this is fine and dandy some of the time, it isn’t if you do any state work.

“The International Codes are far more lenient than the Uniform Codes. What will pass on a regular basis within the city and their codes, will not pass the state codes and you’ll have to rip out the job and start all over again.”

Yates says whoa to more codes and inspectors — for now. “Before I’m willing to sign on for more regulation and inspectors, I want a statewide program and certification exams for those who are assigned the duty to inspect,” he added. “I would also expect to have a way to run out of town the ones whose egos run away with their senses.

“Then there’s the lost time from productive work spent traveling to each township to appear in person to obtain permits. Some [licensing departments] refuse to move forward into the electronic age. This results in huge amounts of wasted time.”

Wiggins added that enforcement is important for another reason — safety. “We do need rules and enforcement of those rules for public safety,” he said. “Letting contractors run amok is crazy, but some states do allow it.

“If we had a set of state standards that were well enforced, I could bid much higher on my jobs and get them without the fear of the ‘jackleg’ cutting my throat. This way I could afford to not cut corners and buy the best equipment, tools, and hire the best people. Customers would pay more, but they would also be getting a safer product.”

Dave Mason, owner of Climatech in Marlette, MI, agrees that uniformity is the key. “There should be a statewide regulation of inspectors,” he said. “It is really nice to know that you can expect the same basic things from place to place.”

Bush reflected on a topic that other contractors have talked about in the past. “My feelings on licensure on a statewide basis are bittersweet,” he said. “It may discourage moonlighters and hacks; or it may make it OK for legitimate contractors to lower their standards — as a survival technique.”

Publication date: 01/14/2002

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