Local 49 opens trailblazing VRF lab to secure the future for New Mexico sheet metal workers

June 12, 2024

Variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are on the rise, making up an ever-growing portion of the HVAC market share in the United States. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Local 49 is taking proactive steps to ensure VRF work is performed by SMART members.

On April 16, 2024, the local welcomed representatives from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US (METUS) to its JATC to open the first-ever METUS VRF lab in the U.S.

METUS representatives joined Local 49 members and SMART leaders to officially open its new VRF lab.

“This collaboration between the Local 49 JATC, Trane and Mitsubishi showcases cutting-edge VRF technology and provides hands-on training for apprentices and industry professionals,” explained Local 49 Business Manager and Financial Secretary-Treasurer Isaiah Zemke. “Our curriculum is tailored to the latest advancements in VRF technology, ensuring industry relevance.”

VRF HVAC systems offer sophisticated, energy efficient heating and cooling by using a single outdoor condensing unit to provide hot and cool air through indoor units, utilizing heat pumps or heat recovery systems. With a greater national emphasis being placed on such environmentally beneficial and cost-effective technologies for commercial and multi-family residential buildings, the demand for VRF expertise will only continue to grow – and as of today, the only METUS VRF lab in America is in the Local 49 JATC. (Importantly, Zemke noted, METUS is New Mexico’s exclusive vendor for all the state’s air moving equipment.)  

Not only does that ensure Local 49’s apprentices have the skills needed to take on VRF work in New Mexico — the lab can also function as a de facto organizing tool, bringing nonunion workers in need of training to the one place where they are guaranteed to witness, without any interference, the union difference.

“It’s going to be the future of heating and air conditioning,” said Local 49 member Miguel Lopez of Butler Sheet Metal, who led apprentices in helping build the lab.

The journey to the April 16th ribbon-cutting had an unexpected origin. Local 49 President Chuck Lees is an avid fly fisherman. As it turns out, so is Trane Sales Representative Larry Anderson. Years ago, through their shared love of fly fishing, the two men forged a relationship that led to collaborations on testing and balancing work — and, some time later, the idea of a VRF lab. Thanks to the friendship between Lees, Anderson, Zemke and the rest of the local, labor and the manufacturer swiftly established a partnership, and METUS signed a memorandum of understanding with Local 49 for the JATC’s innovative new lab.

“Basically, Mitsubishi supplies all the VRF equipment and will replace it with any new, updated equipment,” Zemke explained. “Our obligation on the training side is to make sure that we install it and put in all the controls.”

For Local 49 members, the VRF lab couldn’t have come at a better time. The state of New Mexico is applying for a variety of grants to perform work related to lowering emissions and building a green economy. One example of that work: constructing and retrofitting multi-family housing. Thanks to its in-house VRF training, Local 49 anticipates being able to take on those jobs from start to finish.

“For low-income housing, they would do an assessment of the windows, the roof, the HVAC system,” Zemke explained. “So, it will be our testing and balancing contractors that can go do that assessment. And then we would have our contractors go and install these Mitsubishi split VRF systems.”

The new lab demonstrates how vital it is for labor unions to be active and forward-thinking when it comes to training, organizing and collaborating with management-side partners. Zemke views it as an example of “organizing the work” that will benefit all the entities involved.

“When all the parties come together — the training center, the labor union, the contractors — we can build great things together,” he concluded. “And that’s basically what we’ve done with this.”