The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers Local 49 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently celebrated the opening of two state-of-the-art labs at its training center — a pharmaceutical lab and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) lab. The labs, at 2,000 square feet each, will help train apprentices and journeypersons at Local 49 on testing, adjusting and balancing (TAB), fire life safety, ventilation, clean room, indoor air quality and much more.

Leadership at Local 49 decided early in the planning stages to build a pharmaceutical lab, which has the highest standards of labs of its kind. Chemicals in pharmaceuticals can be highly toxic, and contamination is prevented through air flow and pressurization levels set by TAB technicians in a clean room environment. The lab allows apprentices and journeypersons to learn, problem solve and run scenarios they will see on the job site.

“If you train to the pharmaceutical standards, you’re training to the highest standards,” said Vince Alvarado, director of implementation for the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI), the energy efficiency and TAB experts of SMART. Alvarado was the business manager at Local 49 when planning for the pharmaceutical lab began. “You don’t want contaminated air or chemicals to escape — air can escape through the outlets in the walls and ceilings. That’s why the standards are so high.”

Rooms are created through pressure gradients, where a positive room is a sterile environment and a negative room is for containment. This was especially important during the pandemic, when rooms had to be changed quickly to accommodate the situation, said Tony Kocurek, owner of Energy Balance and Integration and current International Certification Board (ICB) board member.

“It is a complicated setup,” he said. “These labs take a lot of coordination in their construction and setup. However, this pressure gradient and construction technique apply to many types of medical environments.” 

The labs fall in line with the reconfiguration of Local 49’s apprenticeship program, which, beginning in the fall, will include two years of general sheet metal knowledge with the third year as an exploratory year to investigate all sheet metal specialties. In their fourth year, apprentices will focus on the specialty of their choice.

The labs also align with jobs that will be made available through various federal funding opportunities such as ventilation verification, indoor air quality and energy efficiency. Federal funding sources are pushing for heat pump systems, which is another way Local 49 is getting ahead of the game, said Isaiah Zemke, current Local 49 business manager.

“The VRF lab is technology that doesn’t require fossil fuels, so that’s right in line with energy efficiency,” added Iris Urquidi, Local 49 training coordinator. “We’ll be able to certify our apprentices, and our apprentices will be ready for those jobs coming up.”

Through partnerships with manufacturers Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS) and Trane, equipment in the VRF lab will be updated accordingly, with the training center providing space and installation of equipment and controls as part of the learning environment. Screens also allow those in the pharmaceutical lab to view activities in the VRF lab so that simultaneous scenarios can be run in both labs.

“This is coming from the contractors’ needs, too,” Zemke said. “The pharmacy lab will help them figure out why things operate the way they do, why it’s balanced, not just the how.”

With the demand for this type of medical work on the minds of New Mexico contractors, it was important for Local 49 to “meet a need in our market to train and educate everyone on how to build these rooms,” Kocurek said.

“The same techniques that make a pharmacy lab also apply to making isolation rooms, operating rooms and many other types of rooms,” he added. “This lab can be used to teach everyone how to make these rooms possible, especially those in the sheet metal HVAC industry. People from all over the country can now come here to this lab and get trained and bring that training back to their hometowns for any type of similar work.”

Now that the labs are open, the next step is for them to become certified testing facilities by the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB).

“I’m excited for the students to start working in them and learning,” Urquidi said. “We’re going to provide certified apprentices to the industry, so they can do this work well into the future.”

For the industry as a whole, the labs fill a much-needed space, said Lisa Davis, NEMI administrator.

“The anticipation for the labs’ opening has been high among TAB professionals across the country since the idea was presented,” Davis said. “The ability to train, and eventually certify, our professionals on this level of skill, this level of equipment and environment, is truly exciting.”

NEMI is a not-for-profit organization jointly managed by SMART and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA). NEMI works with public, private and government organizations as well as companies nationwide to make buildings safer and healthier while improving energy efficiency.

NEMI also creates training and certification opportunities, so consumers know these workers — who ensure fire life safety systems are inspected, verify the indoor air quality in schools and make sure the heating and air conditioning systems in office buildings are energy efficient — are at the top of their industry and experts in their field. NEMI works with state and federal officials as subject matter experts to make sure legislation, implementation and safety align.