HVAC Technician Apprentice – Alex Aro

HVAC ApprenticeAlex Aro is a writer, a musician, a student, and an apprentice. He struggles to work 50 to 60 hours a week while attending school four nights a week, and still make time for family.

I work for a company called Capstone Mechanical and we service retail stores. Our clients are Kohls, Best Buy, Dollar Tree. Mainly we’re just working on the rooftop units and all their cooling and heating needs. Every day I’m learning.

I was at Kohls for 11 years. It’s funny though, Kohls is kind of how I got the job. Last December I signed up for HVAC school. I didn’t really want to be in retail anymore, and [I learned] not a lot of people are going into the trades. It was new for me. It’s a stable career, they’re desperate, and people need their heating and cooling. So I started school in December, and by May, another kid in my class got a job, so that kind of inspired me, so I was like, maybe I’ll go try to find a job now.

Alex applied for a couple of positions that fell through before he could even get an interview. The couple of places he tried seemed hopeful but then just flaked out, or the building was always dark and no one was ever there. These sound like haunting job-seeker stories, especially in an industry that says its desperate for more workers. Finally, while at Kohl’s, he let a tech onto the roof and said that he was learning HVAC. The guy called his boss and got Alex a job.

Normally an apprentice, you would have to work 6,000 hours. Every state is different. Massachusetts has a refrigeration license, but New Hampshire has a certificate. But on the flip side, most of the buildings I do are gas heat. In New Hampshire you need a gas-fitting license; in Massachusetts you don’t need one. I work in Mass, New Hampshire, Maine. I’m in the process of getting all my licenses. I can get a certificate in NH, but I’m going to get my Mass license, and when I’m done with school here I’m going to school in NH for my gas license. A lot of the old time guys, they didn’t have all these regulations back in the day.

NETTTS in North Andover. It’s rough: Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30. Fourteen-month program. When you finish, the school grants you 4,000 accredited hours, so basically I only need to work another 2,000 hours. I’ve already worked 1,200 hours since I started this job in June. I’ll probably still wait a little bit longer before I take a test because I have a lot to learn. I work 50, sometimes 60 hours a week.

It definitely takes a toll on some things, like obviously my son misses me a lot and even trying to have a relationship puts a little strain on me and my girlfriend sometimes. There’s a lot of days when I don’t even get to come home, it’s like I’ve got to go right to school.

If it’s a simple PM, which stands for Preventative Maintenance, that’s usually just changing out air filters, checking the belts, replacing the belts if need be. Doing a general inspection of the unit. There were some situations where I’d get called in and I’d be like I have no clue what to do.

There’s plenty of resources. You can call the other techs. Every manufacturer of the unit has tech support as well so, there’s Carrier, Trane, York; all those brands have tech support. We call them up, some of them can be really nice, some of them can be assholes, but you give them the model and serial number of the unit you’re on, and they can pull up wiring diagrams. They know exactly how that unit should be running.

Really, that’s been the hardest part is just learning how to troubleshoot properly. You just have to know how the unit’s supposed to be running. Sometimes the electrical diagrams are just crazy. There’s just so much stuff on there, you just have to take a step back, trace one wire at a time.

You have to know a little bit of everything: it’s a little bit of electricity, a little bit of plumbing, you kind of have to know it all. But a lot of times, 80% of your problems are electrical problems. So you have to know how to read electrical diagrams, you have to know how to understand how electricity works. This was all new to me before I started school; I didn’t know nothing about nothing.

I was in a tight spot, and I was checking with my electric meter to see if I was getting power to the coil, and I had my little meters on the coil spots, but the power side of it was 460 volts, and I must have had my meter kind of sticking up a little bit, but it arced out to my meter, and suddenly there was this huge bang and a white flash in front of my face and it burnt half the tip of my meter. The whole side of the contactor was black; it blew out all the fuses. That was in a Kohls in West Lebanon, NH.

[My least favorite part is] winter. Ninety percent of the time, you’re on the roof. Thursday I was down in Saugus, and we had four units down. It was, I don’t know, 4 degrees. Every 15 minutes you’ve got to run back inside and try to warm up and come back and do what you can before you’re hands start going numb. Some days during the summer it gets 90, 95, but even then, those days weren’t really that bad when you get focused on working and keep some water with you.

I like this company a lot. I know from what a lot of techs have said too, the way they operate is not the way a lot of HVAC companies operate.

Retail sucks. Kohls, I got that job when I was 17, and I was like yeah, eff this job, whatever. Back then I was only going to be a writer, there was no other way.

[But in this industry] they’ll start you off between 18 & 22 dollars an hour. My company does profit sharing. Say I quoted out a 10 hour job and I get it done in 5 hours, so in my app I’m going to quote 5 hours, we’re still billing that company for ten hours, so that other 5 hours goes straight into the profit pool. And then twice a year we get bonuses. Last week, with all the jobs I did, I was bringing in $99/hour to the company. That all builds toward your bonus.

Once you have your license you can make $40/hr. A lot of the old timers are retiring. You’ll be making lawyer-money. Nobody’s doing it anymore. When I first started at school, my class was at 17 people, now we’re down to three.

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