Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineer

The Job and What's Involved

Air conditioning and refrigeration engineers use technical knowledge and practical skills to ensure that products such as heat pumps and refrigerant gases are handled in a safe and eco-friendly way, reducing the impact on the environment as much as possible. From maintaining a comfortable air temperature and humidity in a multi-screen cinema to keeping blood at the right temperature for lifesaving operations, the air conditioning and refrigeration industry covers a wide range of activities.

The work can be divided into two areas:

Refrigeration engineers install, service and maintain refrigeration systems in locations such as supermarkets, hospitals, food processing plants and research establishments.

Air conditioning engineers install, service and maintain systems and equipment which maintain the quality, temperature and humidity within buildings.

The work of an air conditioning and refrigeration engineer may involve:

  • Undertaking preparatory work.
  • Inspecting, testing, certificating and commissioning.
  • Identifying and rectifying faults.
  • Providing functional and technical information to customers.
  • Maintaining effective working relationships with fellow workers.
  • Overseeing work activities.

Air conditioning and refrigeration engineers generally work between 37 and 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday. They need to be flexible, as the hours worked will depend on the project, priorities and deadlines. They may sometimes have to work at weekends and at night. Some engineers work freelance or on short-term contracts and, as a result, working hours can vary from one week to another.

The job can involve working inside and outside, for example on the roofs of buildings, sometimes in cramped and uncomfortable positions. For some projects, ladders and scaffolding may be required.

The air conditioning and refrigeration industry usually involves working locally, travelling from one project to the next. However, some firms may require engineers to stay away from home for short or long periods. A driving licence may be useful.

First-year apprentices may start on around £10,000 a year.
Newly qualified workers may earn between £20,000 and £27,000 a year. More experienced engineers may earn around £30,000 a year or more.

Some employers may pay higher wages or reward workers through the use of bonus schemes. Overtime is often available. National rates are set for travelling time, travel expenses and the cost of accommodation.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The air conditioning and refrigeration industry is part of the building services engineering sector. There are around 4,500 businesses in the industry, employing around 24,000 people. The number of employment opportunities varies and depends on the strength of the economy.

Employers range from small or medium-sized companies that employ a handful of engineers to national, multi-service companies that employ thousands worldwide.

Vacancies for qualified engineers are usually advertised in local newspapers, Jobcentre Plus offices, and recruitment agency websites. It is also advisable to approach local companies direct to enquire about job opportunities.

It may be possible to gain an insight into the industry through a work experience placement whilst still at school.

Education and Training

The air conditioning and refrigeration industry requires candidates to achieve the relevant NVQ at Level 2 or 3 and a technical certificate in order to attain qualified operative status. Most people start as an apprentice straight from school or college and gain these qualifications whilst working. Apprenticeships at Level 2 and Advanced Apprenticeships at Level 3 in air conditioning and refrigeration may be available.

Applicants for Apprenticeships are expected to have a minimum of three GCSE's (A*-C), or the Diploma in either construction and the built environment or engineering at higher level. Applicants have to pass a colour vision test and may also have to take an aptitude test.

SummitSkills is the Sector Skills Council for the building services engineering sector. Further information on careers, training and qualifications in this industry is available on the SummitSkills careers website at

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Apprentices train on the job, spending time working alongside an experienced engineer. This is combined with off-the-job training in the form of day or block release at a college or training centre. Training typically lasts between two and four years.

Apprenticeships lead to:

  • Level 2 Certificate in small commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
  • NVQ Level 2 mechanical engineering services: small commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems in either installation or service and maintenance.

Advanced Apprenticeships lead to:

  • Level 3 Certificate in complex commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
  • NVQ Level 3 mechanical engineering services: complex commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems.

Apprentices are also expected to gain key skills in the application of number and communication at Level 2, and information technology at Level 1. Employment rights and responsibilities, F-Gas regulation, and the safe handling of refrigerants are also covered as part of the training scheme.

Refrigeration and air conditioning engineers are expected to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) throughout their career in order to keep up to date with changes in legislation and technology. They may apply to become members of the Institute of Refrigeration.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Refrigeration and air conditioning engineers should:

  • Be practical and possess good hand skills.
  • Be able to follow technical drawings, building plans and other instructions.
  • Be able to work carefully, methodically and safely.
  • Be able to measure accurately.
  • Be analytical with good evaluation skills.
  • Be comfortable working at heights and prepared to work in all weather conditions.
  • Be willing to work in confined spaces.
  • Be presentable with a pleasant manner.
  • Have good written and verbal communication skills.
  • Be good team players but also able to work on own initiative.
  • Be able to adapt to change.
  • Be good at problem solving.
  • Be reasonably fit with normal colour vision.

Your Long Term Prospects

Once qualified at Level 3 there are opportunities to gain higher-level qualifications, such as a HNC, HND, foundation degree or degree in building services engineering. These may lead to progression into technician, supervisory management or professional building services engineering roles.

Some engineers may move into design consultancy or teaching. Many qualified people run their own businesses.

Get Further Information

Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
Industry Board (ACRIB),
Kelvin House, 76 Mill Lane,
Carshalton, Surrey SM5 2JR
Tel: 020 8254 7842

Building Engineering Services Association,
Lincoln House, 137-143 Hammersmith Road,
London W14 0QL
Tel: 020 7313 4900

Institute of Refrigeration (IOR),
Kelvin House, 76 Mill Lane,
Carshalton, Surrey SM5 2JR
Tel: 020 8647 7033

SummitSkills, Vega House, Opal Drive,
Fox Milne, Milton Keynes MK15 0DF
Careers Helpline: 08000 688336

Women Into Science, Engineering
and Construction (WISE),
2nd floor Weston House,
246 High Holborn,
London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0408

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