Not All Certifications Are Created Equal

September 5, 2002
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Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series on industry certification. In this installment, The News takes a look at three of the more well-known certification programs in order to determine which exams are offered and how the programs differ from one another.

Currently, there is no mandated certification in the HVACR industry. Certification is strictly voluntary for technicians who want validation of their HVACR knowledge level. With this in mind, individuals have a few choices when it comes to industry certification.

They can either earn certification through a union or an independent HVACR association. Some individuals try to obtain as many different certifications as they can.

But since one nationally accepted method of certification has yet to emerge, there may be some confusion about the programs available. Some might believe that all certifications are the same.

The News recently took a look at three well-known certifying bodies to find out which exams they offer. HVAC Excellence, North American Technician Excellence (NATE), and the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) all offer certification. Each of the organizations may have the same goal — to test technician knowledge — but each has its own methods and ideologies. The goal of this article isn’t to favor one organization over another, but to provide the plain facts on the important aspects of each certification program.

HVAC EXCELLENCE

HVAC Excellence is a nonprofit organization supported and funded by the Educational Standards Corporation (ESCO). According to Bill Allred, executive director for HVAC Excellence, the goal of the organization “is to raise the level of competency for all technicians in the HVACR field.”

Exams: HVAC Excellence offers 11 different certification exams. They include Electrical, Air Conditioning, Commercial Air Conditioning, Commercial Refrigeration, Heat Pumps, Geothermal Heat, Gas Heat, Electric Heat, Oil Heat, and Hydronics I & II. The electrical exam is a prerequisite for the other 10 exams. Individuals who pass four of the available exams earn Senior Level Certification, while individuals who pass all 11 available exams will earn Master Certification.

Each exam costs $25, and certified technicians must recertify every five years. In order to recertify, individuals must take one exam, which covers new technologies in the areas in which they have been certified.

According to HVAC Excellence, its Electrical Exam has a passing rate of 70%, while the Air Conditioning Exam has a passing rate of 69%. Each exam in the HVAC Excellence series has a lower passing rate because they become increasingly more specialized, according to Allred.

Availability and training: HVAC Excellence has over 3,000 proctors across the country who can provide testing for the organization. These recognized sites include training facilities, supply houses, and wholesalers. Many training facilities and vocational programs also offer training for the HVAC Excellence certification. The courses are refresher courses, not training specifically designed around test questions.

Support and development: Allred says that HVAC Excellence has a board of directors who help in directing association plans in the United States and Canada. The board is made up of attorneys, educators, technicians, and recent HVACR graduates. New members are rotated on to the board every two years to contribute new perspectives.

HVAC Excellence also has an extensive educational committee. According to Allred, the committee is comprised of 78 voluntary members who help in the writing and reviewing of certification exams. Each year, available members will gather for a major review. Questions are analyzed for clarity and phrasing to make sure that each question is fair and precise. Allred says that one new test is created every six months.

Exams are created from a database of questions contributed by several individuals in the industry. Questions are submitted by instructors, training centers, contractors, and a variety of other sources. The educational committee will then analyze over 2,500 questions and narrow them down to 500 for possible inclusion on the exams.

According to Allred, HVAC Excellence receives a great deal of its support from ESCO and a number of training facilities across North America. Major backing comes from instructors who are looking for a certification to test student aptitude.

Visibility: HVAC Excellence provides literature and information on its certification to suppliers and training facilities. Testing is sometimes provided at industry events to reach more technicians.

NORTH AMERICAN TECHNICIAN EXCELLENCE

NATE was formed in 1996 and is also a nonprofit organization. Its vision is to “develop and promote excellence in the installation and service of HVAC equipment and systems.” The organization also wants to eradicate technician stereotypes by separating professional technicians from the unqualified ones.

Exams: NATE offers certification for either installation or service technicians. These two branches are also divided into five specialties: Air Conditioning, Air Distribution, Air to Air Heat Pump, Air to Air Heating, and Air to Air Oil Heating. Technicians must pass a 50-question core exam and a 100-question specialty test with a score of 70% in order to be certified in that specialty. Each core exam costs $65 and each specialty exam costs $85. Discounts and reimbursement are available for technicians in New Jersey who register through the Eastern Heating and Cooling Council (EHCC) and for military veterans who qualify under the Montgomery GI Bill.

NATE-certified technicians must recertify every five years. There are three options for recertification. Technicians can retake the specialty test in which they are certified; they can take 30 hours of verifiable NATE-recognized continuing education courses and then take a 50 question specialty test; or they can complete 60 hours of NATE-recognized continuing education over a five-year period and take no test.

Since its inception, NATE has certified over 11,500 technicians across the 50 states, Canada, and seven other countries. Passing rates for NATE certification have risen over the past three years. The current success rate is 66%.

Availability and training: NATE has partner organizations that can proctor and administer NATE tests. Distributor members, manufacturers, and chapters of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES), and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors — National Association (PHCC) can administer the test. Utility members, education members, and other NATE supporters can also proctor the exam.

Training is only available through NATE’s partner organizations. NATE does not provide training but offers training tools, which can be used by educators to help technicians prepare for the NATE exams. The Knowledge Areas of Technician Expertise (KATE) help training facilities align their courses with the NATE knowledge base and can be used as a syllabus by technicians studying for the test.

Support and development: NATE has the support and backing of several industry associations and organizations, including ACCA, RSES, and PHCC. Other members include the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI), the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Wholesalers International (ARWI), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Building Performance Institute (BPI), the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the Northamerican Heating, Refrigeration & Airconditioning Wholesalers (NHRAW), the Department Of Energy (DOE), and the Environ-mental Protection Agency (EPA). NATE is also supported by several manufacturers, including Lennox, Trane, Bryant, American Standard, York, Carrier, Nordyne, Rheem, and many more. All of these associations and manufacturers have representatives who serve on the NATE board of directors.

The process of validating the knowledge base and preparing questions for each exam is handled by a technical committee comprised of 120 members. These members must agree on the knowledge base for each exam. To create each test, representatives of the industry are surveyed as to what skills are required for specific industry jobs. Once these required skills are identified, questions are written. Each question is multiple choice, and the committee is responsible for creating questions that are clearly worded to have one definitive answer.

These tests are then validated before they are released. The NATE knowledge base gets a checkup every five to seven years to make sure that questions are still pertinent. The NATE technical committee also meets twice a year to review, analyze, and make recommendations for corrective measures on questions. Each and every NATE question is reviewed before it is used on a test. If a question is statistically unsatisfactory, it is revised or rewritten until it accurately represents the knowledge base, according to NATE.

Visibility: NATE has used several outlets to make itself known to not only the industry, but to consumers and homeowners. The association has been featured in several mainstream media outlets including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, and Better Homes & Gardens. It also has a presence in several trade journals (including the “Fundaments” page in The News), as well as consumer reports. NATE also provides its Consumer-Contractor-Connection Web page, where consumers can enter their zip code or telephone area code to find a contractor employing NATE-certified techs in their area. NATE also provides NATE logos, which companies can place on their vans. The NATE logo has also appeared in advertising for NATE’s industry partners, including several manufacturers. Soon, NATE will begin to allow contractors to use the NATE logo in their advertising — and it will appear in consumer advertising.

REFRIGERATION SERVICE ENGINEERS SOCIETY

The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society has had a presence in the industry since 1933. The association says that its mission has been to advance the HVACR industry by furthering the education and skills of service professionals. RSES offers educational meetings, seminars, and workshops all over the country to accomplish this goal. RSES started offering its first certification in 1935. Today, RSES has three separate certification exams.

Exams: The three separate RSES certifications are: Certification Member (CM), Certification Member Specialist (CMS), and National Technician Certification (NTC).

The CM exam is only open to RSES members and is a full trade exam covering multiple areas of the industry. According to Robb Isaacs, executive vice president for RSES, the CM exam is very in-depth and covers commercial and residential applications.

Members must have passed the CM exam before taking the CMS. The CMS is a more in-depth exam and covers one specific industry subject.

The NTC exam is open to anyone in the industry. The exam is not as in-depth as the CM exam, and covers specific areas, such as heat pumps, heating, gas furnaces, air distribution, hydronics, etc.

The CM exam is free of charge, the CMS exam costs $25, and NTC exams can cost between $50 and $75.

The CM and CMS exams certify individuals for life, while the NTC exam requires individuals to recertify every five years. Some individuals do not have to retake the NTC exam if they accumulate a certain number of continuing education units over the five-year period.

According to RSES, passing rates for the CM exam fall in somewhere between 20% and 30%, while CMS exams have a passing rate of 20%. NTC exams have a passing rate of around 50% to 60%.

Currently, there are 3,000 CM members of RSES, and 750 CMS members.

Availability and training: CM and CMS exams can be taken at any RSES chapter or chapter function. The NTC exam can be taken at a chapter or a proctored educational site. Individuals can prepare for any of the exams at 428 cites across the country devoted to RSES training. Full training is available for each exam. Short courses from one to two hours are available, as well as more lengthy and in-depth courses that can be three full days of training.

RSES also has an online bookstore with training materials and educational opportunities.

Support and development: Isaacs said that most support for the CM and CMS exams comes from heat pump and electrical utilities. He also said that RSES is currently working with PHCC to offer exams and training materials for its members. Isaacs noted that some manufacturers are also looking at helping to support and back RSES exams.

RSES has a 17-member board of directors that is responsible for running the organization as a whole. The organization also has a seven member educational committee, which helps to write and validate RSES exams.

RSES noted that exam questions are revised every six months and are compared to passing rates. Each question is analyzed separately for clarity. Every four months, a different exam is looked at and analyzed. Also, an exam is completely rewritten every two years.

Visibility: RSES helps to create interest in its certification through the RSES Journal. The journal publishes updates on current members who have received CM and CMS certification.

Next Week: Part 2 of the certification series will address issues that technicians and contractors have about certification.

Publication date: 09/09/2002

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