One thing all HVAC instructors agree upon is that one of the most important things they teach is safety.

"We're constantly quizzing our students about safety," said Les Haddix, an instructor at the Sequoia Institute in Fremont, Calif. "We show them videos on ladder safety, teach them to be conscious of loose clothing, we even tell them to make sure their shoes are tied. And then, of course, we test them on everything. Of course, we can't control what they do when they go into the real world and start working on the job. Hopefully, they'll be teamed with some seasoned pros who know the value of safe practices. But while we have them in class, we do everything we can to teach them to work safely."

"It goes beyond wearing safety glasses and the right gloves," said Luis Vendrel, an instructor at Lincoln Technical Institute in Union, N.J. "A technician must be aware of the danger not just from electricity, but from other risks on the job including ventilation, caustic chemicals, contact with refrigerant. There's so much to be aware of."

All the instructors interviewed agreed that technician safety is a combination of education and equipment. They provide their students with lists of tools and instruments they recommend, and most specify the same equipment.

A technician is shown using a meter to check the voltages across the control board of a blower with one hand. (Photo courtesy of Fieldpiece.)

The Right Instruments Make A Difference

Because electricity is a major safety risk on the job, all of the instructors agreed that instrument choice is critical. And they all recommended the same instruments.

"Safety involving instruments goes way beyond whether they have a UL or CE mark on them," said Haddix. "These days, most instruments have one or both marks and it's easy to choose the correct rating. But that's not the end of it. HVAC techs get into circumstances that most meters weren't designed for.

"For instance, we teach students to use only one hand when testing in a lockdown, tag out situation, because if they are using two probes and make a mistake, the current will travel from one hand to the other, passing through the heart. Even a small jolt can kill in those circumstances. But most multimeters make one handed testing very difficult. That's one of the reasons I recommend the Fieldpiece HS35 stick meter to my students."

Fieldpiece is a manufacturer of measuring instruments designed for field service technicians.

"We found that most instruments such as digital multimeters were really designed for the lab and were difficult to use in the field," said Rey Harju, founder and president of Fieldpiece. "So we decided to design a series of instruments that make the HVAC technician's job easier and safer. Our meters are ergonomically designed to fit into an HVAC technician's environment."

"The HS35 meter is ideal for my students' needs," said Haddix. "For one-handed testing it comes with alligator clips. The tech attaches one alligator clip to the black COM lead on the meter and connects to ground. He then inserts the red probe in the holder. Now he can hold the meter in one hand, put the other hand in his pocket, and touch the test points with the red lead from the meter. There's a magnetic strip on the back so he can attach the meter right to the box and use just the probe for testing. If he wants to do two-handed testing, he uses the black probe tip instead of the alligator clip. It's a heck of a lot easier than using a typical meter, and safer, too."

"The problem is that most instrument types were originally designed for laboratory use," said Scott Owen, an HVAC instructor at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb. "As such, they can present some serious difficulties for the field tech. For example, consider the third hand problem. To use most digital meters, the field guy uses two hands for the test leads and he needs a third hand to hold the meter. He often doesn't have a nice flat spot to put it down. And even if he did, there's a big chance he'd knock it over or pull it onto the floor with the test leads. Fieldpiece solved that by putting a magnetic strip on the backs of their stick meters. The HVACR tech is surrounded by metal surfaces. With the magnet, he can place the meter easily at eye level near his work and not have to worry about knocking it over."

Greater Safety Designed In

But how does an instrument designed for a field technician offer greater safety than one designed for lab use? Adolfo Wurts is senior research specialist at Fieldpiece and is also a certified HVAC technician. He said, "Our HS30 series of stick-style DMMs is 100 percent the result of input from HVAC field techs, and was designed for the specific problems they meet on the job.

"Field service guys work around a wide variety of voltages and they like to know when there are potentially dangerous voltages in their work area. Our meter includes a high-voltage indicator that activates both the meter's LED and beeper when a probe makes contact with a voltage over 30 V. The laboratory guys hate this feature in our meters because they typically leave an instrument connected for a long time and the noise is distracting. But field techs, who only make momentary contact, love it."

"Another safety feature we put in because of technician input is our NCV (non-contact voltage) button," said Wurts. "The meter will tell a tech from a distance if a wire has voltage on it or not. All you have to do is bring the meter near the wire and press the NCV button. If the wire is hot, the meter will beep and an LED will blink. The higher the voltage, the further away the meter activates.

"If there are several conductors in a confined area so that non-contact would not be viable, the tech can perform one-lead testing. He puts one probe tip from a lead into the stick meter, presses the NCV button, and then with only one hand touches a test point. The beeper and the LED will tell the technician if the wire is hot, even if it is surrounded by other wires."

Designed For Close Quarters

"Cramped quarters also create problems for field technicians that lab techs don't experience," said Bob Wilson, a paraprofessional at Oakland Community College in Hazel Park, Minn. "In an awkward or dark spot, the technician runs into another kind of three-handed problem - he can't operate the leads and see the readout on his meter at the same time. Fieldpiece solved that problem by putting a min/max/hold feature on their HS30 series. By pressing the min/max button before testing, the technician can concentrate his entire focus on the test leads. The meter will record the maximum voltage for later viewing or, by pressing the hold button, it will freeze the LED display."

Safer Hand Tools

"The hand tools these kids use are also important to their safety," said Leith. "We put together a list for students on what the complete HVAC technician's tool box should hold. The list is generic, but we offer specific recommendations. For instance, any hand tools from Klein are recommended. Not only is the quality the best, they take user safety seriously. We tell them not to try to cut corners on their hand tools."

Wilson agreed. "Their tools are designed for people who work daily with electricity," he said. "Every electrician has a bag full of Klein tools."

"The reason for our popularity among HVAC technicians and other electrical professionals is a combination of safety and quality," said Alan Sipe, senior vice president at Klein Tools. "Take our nine-inch side cutter pliers, for instance. We take extra steps in their manufacture. We smooth the outside edges to make sure they won't scratch or snag. And we use three different heat treatments in their manufacture: one for the head, one to make the cutting knives extra hard, and a softer one for the handles to make them more flexible and easier on the hands. It's not exactly ergonomics because ergonomics isn't really practical in situations where a tool is used repetitively over a long period, but it does make our side cutters more user friendly.

"As far as safety is concerned, we take special pains to make our tools the safest in the industry. Our screwdrivers have two layers of insulation and they are different colors so you can tell when the top layer is getting thin. But we see our built-in safety precautions as secondary. There's no substitute for good insulated gloves and proper technician precautions when working around electricity."

Refrigerant Safety

Electricity is not the only safety concern around HVAC equipment. Refrigerant can do significant frostbite damage to a tech if any escapes while connecting a gauge.

"I recommend Imperial low-loss fittings," said Haddix. "By using these with any hose connection, you eliminate the hazard of frostbite from escaping refrigerant. Of course, using the right gloves is also a must."

Leith agreed. "I like the quick-connect fittings from Imperial Tools. I haven't had any escape problems with them. I also recommend that my students use the Imperial Kwik-Charger manifold. Not only does it provide technician safety when charging a system, it is also fast and works with blends R-407 and R-410A," he said. "I was a little skeptical when Imperial introduced us to this new manifold, but I've become a big fan. It's a real time saver; adding liquid refrigerant is much faster than the older systems we use. It works great on the low side with absolutely no slugging. We've been using it about four months and I'd say it's at least 70 percent faster and it's not restricted to blends. You can change to traditional refrigerants by just twisting a knob. It offers additional safety for the technician by including a shutoff valve at the end of each hose to eliminate refrigerant being released when connecting or disconnecting."

So from precautions ranging from something as mundane as reminding technicians to tie their shoes all the way to hand tools, refrigerant fittings, and specialized instruments, safety remains a major focus of HVAC instructors throughout the country.

Jack Sine is a freelance writer specializing in the HVACR marketplace. He can be reached at

Publication date: 07/12/2004