NATE Certification: Traditional Pathway – Core & Speciality

This guide will provide you with everything you need to know to obtain your NATE Certification with the Traditional Pathway, which includes the Core exam and one Specialty exam.

If you have been working as an HVAC technician for two years, getting your NATE certification is a great way to take your career to the next level. Having your NATE Certification demonstrates you have real, working knowledge of the HVAC industry to your employer, clients, and peers.

What the NATE Certification is & who should get it

North American Technician Excellence (NATE) is the nation’s largest nonprofit certification organization for heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVACR) technicians.

NATE offers many certifications for aspiring and current HVACR technicians to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in different areas.

The NATE certification—the principal certification offered by NATE—is mainly for technicians with two years of experience.

However, there are other certifications offered. These other certifications for technicians with 6-12 months of experience include the NATE Ready to Work certification and the NATE HVAC Support Technician certification.

In addition, for technicians with more than two years of experience, NATE offers specialized professional certification exams, such as the Low-GWP Refrigerants certification, Ground Source Heat Pump Loop Installer certification, and HVAC Performance Verifier.

There are two ways to earn your NATE certification.

The first is the Traditional path—taking the Core exam and one Specialty exam—which this guide goes over.

The second is an alternative pathway called the NATE Certified HVAC Professional (CHP-5) exam, which consists of five areas of specialties. You can learn more about the NATE CHP-5 pathway here.

What’s required for the Traditional Pathway of the NATE Certification

The Traditional pathway includes two exams, the 50-question Core exam and the 100-question Specialty exam.

  • The Core Exam. This tests your knowledge of basic concepts, the construction industry, and HVACR. These areas of expertise are called KATEs (Knowledge Areas of Technician Expertise).
  • The Specialty Exam. With this part of the Traditional pathway, you choose one of several focus categories for either installation or service specialties, each with their own KATEs.

You can choose to take your exams with a live online proctor system or in a physical, in-person testing center.

Each test has a separate cost; the Core exam costs $136 through live, online proctoring, while most of the Specialty exams cost $146.

To take an exam, you must make a payment through your myNate account.

Core exam

The Core exam tests the candidate’s overall knowledge of the HVACR industry, including safety, tools, basic construction, basic science, achieving desired conditions, taking measurements, and basic electricity.

You have 1.5 hours (90 minutes) to complete all 50 questions in the Core exam.

The exam is broken into seven categories, some of which have more questions than others.

Here is the number of questions you can expect for each section:

  • Safety (18%) – 9 questions
  • Tools (10%) – 5 questions
  • Basic Construction (8%) – 4 questions
  • Using Basic Science (10%) – 5 questions
  • Achieving Desired Conditions (14%) – 7 questions
  • Taking Temperature and Humidity Measurements (14%) – 7 questions
  • Basic Electrical (26%) – 13 questions

Specialty exams

NATE separates the Specialty exams into two categories: installation specialties and service specialties.

Installation specialties focus on materials an installation technician should understand, while service specialties focus on materials a service technician should understand.

Here is a list of the installation speciality exams:

  • Air Conditioning
  • Air Distribution
  • Air to Air Heat Pump
  • Gas Heating (Air)

Here is a list of the service speciality exams:

  • Air Conditioning (English & Spanish)
  • Air Distribution
  • Commercial Refrigeration
  • Heat Pump (Air to Air) (English & Spanish)
  • Gas Heating (Air) (English & Spanish)
  • Hydronics (Gas)
  • Hydronics (Oil)
  • Light Commercial Refrigeration
  • Oil Heating (Air)

The questions cover what 80% of technicians have an 80% chance of experiencing during a year on a national level.  

You get 2.5 hours (150 minutes) to take your Specialty exam.

Each installation Specialty exam is broken into the following categories, with estimates of how many questions are in each category:

  • Installation (43%) – 43 questions
  • Service (10%) – 10 questions
  • System Components (27%) – 27 questions
  • Applied Knowledge (20%) – 20 questions

Each service Specialty exam is broken into the following categories, with estimates of how many questions are in each category:

  • Installation (15%) – 15 questions
  • Service (45%) – 45 questions
  • System Components (25%) – 25 questions
  • Applied Knowledge (15%) – 15 questions

How to get your NATE Certification through the Traditional Pathway

Obtaining your NATE certification through the Traditional pathway only takes a few simple steps. The most difficult part is gaining the years of experience and studying that the exam requires.

To get your NATE certification through the Traditional pathway, follow these steps:

  1. Work as an HVAC installation or service technician for two years.
  2. Register for a myNate account through the NATE website.
  3. Choose your Specialty exam.
  4. Prepare a list of references and study materials for your exam.
  5. Study for your Core and Specialty exams and take a training class (if desired).
  6. Once you are ready, choose whether you wish to take an online proctored exam or an in-person exam.
  7. Register for your NATE Core exam.
  8. Take your exams!

How to find help preparing for the NATE Certification exams

There are plenty of resources to help you prepare to take your NATE exams.

To prepare, you can take a NATE-approved class from a NATE-recognized training provider, study on your own with study guides and practice tests, or attend the NATE Training Academy.

NATE-recognized training providers

NATE does not conduct the classes provided by NATE-recognized training providers, but they have been certified to meet the standards of NATE materials.

NATE provides a list of NATE-certified training providers or you can ask your local NATE exam provider if they offer a course.

The course should review all materials that are covered on the exam to help you prepare.

Study on your own

If you function well as a self-learner, you may prefer to use study guides and practice exams.

You can purchase NATE-certified study guides online through the NATE online store. However, NATE only offers a study guide for the Core exam, for $20, but not for the Specialty exams.

Study guides for the Specialty sections are available through other websites, such as RSES. You may also find practice exams online on sites such as this one.

So, you’ve taken the exam. Now what?

How you get your exam results depends on how you took your exam.

If you take your NATE exams online, the tests are scored upon submitting your exam and are provided immediately.

If you take an in-person paper exam, then the test must be sent into NATE to be scored. Test results are posted to your online myNate account within 2-3 weeks.

If you pass your exams, NATE will mail you your certificate. You can then list your NATE certification on your resume or add it to your LinkedIn profile.

In addition, you may wish to inform your current employer that you have obtained your certification. Your NATE certification will demonstrate to your employer and clients that you are knowledgeable, well trained, and highly experienced. It may also lead to a better salary for you as an HVAC technician.

If you do not pass the exams the first time, you can reassess your skills and prepare to take the exams again. A detailed score report will become available in your account with the percentage of correctly answered questions for each exam topic domain which will help you determine on which areas you need to focus for the re-take.

Maintaining your NATE Certification

Once you have received your NATE Certification, you will need to maintain your certification. Technicians are required to renew their certificates every two years.

Renewal requires earning 16 hours of continuing education hours (CEHs) over two years or re-taking the Specialty exam, as well as paying the $25 renewal fee. Many places offer CEHs, either for free or for a fee.

If you do not renew before your expiration date, you have a 120-day grace period to renew, otherwise, your certification will expire.

If your certificate expires, you will have to complete the certification process again.

Traditional Pathway vs. CHP-5 for NATE Certification

The Traditional pathway is the original method of obtaining your NATE certification, whereas the CHP-5 is a newly developed method to meld on-the-job training with their certification and training.

The CHP-5 pathway features five categories of exams, each only 30 questions versus the 50-question Core exam and 100-question Specialty exam.

Look at the subjects that each group of tests covers to decide whether the Traditional or CHP-5 pathway is better for you.