What You Need to Know About Hybrids Before Doing Collision RepairPosted 6/10/2005
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM
Are we going to get into the hybrid repair market in a big way or let the dealerships - once again - take more market share? The choice is yours.
I recently received a call from a hybrid owner who had a hybrid-related problem.
The question was simple: "Have you trained anyone who can look at my car?"
"Yes," I replied. "[I've trained] many techs, but I don't know who is ready to handle repairs." I hesitated to send her to a dealership because she wanted an independent to fix her hybrid. In her geographical area, I didn't know which independent shop had taken hybrid repair to heart.
When my Insight was hit, I knew that Franchi Brothers Autobody in Worcester, Mass., was the place to go. They had many Acura NSX customers so the aluminum repair should be familiar, and hybrid cars had been worked on there many times.
This lady trusts independent shops, both collision and mechanical (which includes transmission shops). She wants independents to be able to work on hybrids. This should be no surprise to you.
What are some of the things you need to consider before doing collision repair on this new type of vehicle? Just as when unit body came into being, collision shops need to think about education, a new level of safety precautions, new equipment and some trial and error. For mechanical and transmission shops, hybrids pose a bigger obstacle but nothing insurmountable.
From a personal safety aspect, I believe the high-voltage part is certainly a serious consideration. But that has been blown out of proportion. I say that because it is still gas tank removal and repair that is the single largest threat we have to our personal safety.
If the original equipment manufacturers took half as many precautions in the service procedures and redundant features of the gasoline storage system as they have in the high-voltage storage systems, the risk of fire, death and injury related to onboard gasoline storage systems (gas tanks) could be reduced substantially. Onboard gasoline storage is an issue that really needs attention. In one small way, the Toyota Prius has lessened that threat as the entire gas tank and everything in it is an assembly now.
Back to high-voltage systems: Recently I heard about a salvage (recycling) yard that had a 2004 Toyota Prius that had been towed in. It was totaled, hit hard in the front end. The salvage yard owner was afraid to touch it - literally. He had heard way too many stories about electrocution, fires and explosions. This hybrid was his first one, so I don't blame him for being afraid.
I called and made him a deal: I would train two of his staff members on hybrid safety for free in exchange for me getting to keep some of the hybrid parts. With the deal made, I drove over with my son, Mike, and we went out to the car.
It was in a puddle and couldn't be easily moved. Rule No. 1: Don't work in puddles. It was dragged a few feet where it was a bit safer. I had my 1,000-volt rubber gloves with me and a CAT III certified digital volt ohm meter (DVOM). With tools in hand and my digital camera, we set out to do what most collision shops find themselves faced with when a hybrid is towed in - render it safe to work on and, in this case, remove the high-voltage (HV) battery.
Once an orange wire is dislodged, a series of events takes place in milliseconds. A set of contactors (these are relays that must work every time) go to their normally open positions, and three large and dangerous capacitors discharge. This keeps the high voltage contained to the HV battery pack, much like fuel tanks in a race car that use a sponge-like device to keep the fuel in the tank.
Taking no chances, I put on the rubber gloves so I could remove the large orange service plug (Fig. 2). But before I could do that, I required a jumper pack, as this car had no hatch key (only a transmitter) and a 12-volt battery that was dead. After the hatch was opened, we had access to the high-voltage battery. Even though it was dead, we disconnected the 12-volt battery for one more measure of safety.
More precautions were used, such as getting out the DVOM every time we had to disconnect an orange cable (Fig. 3). Disconnected high-voltage (HV) cables (Fig. 4) allow for the removal of the HV battery. The HV battery removal was successful - no sparks (Fig. 5)!
After that, we did a last go-around with electrical tape to isolate and tape any orange wire leads that were dangling. The two of us carried the high-voltage battery pack into the storage facility; there it would sit until it was sold.
There was one more consideration: We needed a way to slowly trickle charge this 201-volt nickel metal hydride (NiMH) assembly. At the present time this is not available, but is being developed. If these NiMH batteries sit for too long, they will discharge and after a period of months they may not be able to sell due to degraded cells.
These expensive NiMH batteries need a lot of cooling to survive so please don't roast them in your paint oven. Try to schedule the hybrids as the last jobs of the day so they can dry overnight. The cooling systems in the cars shoot for 90 degrees Fahrenheit maximum. The warning labels say 140 F, but less heat is better.
Disposal of old NiMH batteries is just a phone call away. The hybrid OEMs - Ford, Honda, Toyota and Lexus - are set up to ship any old NiMH batteries back to southern California where they are kept until enough pile up for recycling. That has not happened yet as the HV NiMH batteries last a long time. The Toyota battery packs can be rebuilt, but Honda and Ford say theirs cannot. That may change as time goes by.
Other liabilities you should consider are from the transmission side. Hybrids are becoming more about transmissions than anything else. The Allison Division (a design and manufacturing company) has in production a hybrid transmission that is currently used in many buses. It is not without problems, but is being refined. A smaller version of that transmission called the AHS2 looks to be General Motor Corp.'s answer to the hybrid highway. Time will tell but one thing is for sure: Transmission repair will be a large part of hybrid repair work in the future.
Repair shops will also get visits (as many do now) from hybrid owners who need everything from a simple oil change to someone to deal with more complex problems. Smart repair shop owners are already gearing up and doing hybrid repairs. For example, Roger Lawson, a shop owner from Pittsburg, Kan., recently bought a Honda Insight after attending one of my hybrid classes at Vision. He sent me the following e-mail: "I procured a 2003 Insight today with only 31k miles on it. Drove it back from Topeka, Kan., which is about 150 miles or so from home. Got an average of 67.9 mpg. Absolutely loving the car. Have had a few customers and friends look at it. Of course, the first question they ask is, 'Do you have to plug it in at night?'"
Lawson plans on being the first independent hybrid service center in town. The car will get him noticed for sure.
Andy Fliffic, owner of RadAir in Cleveland, just ordered two Ford Escape hybrids to promote his shop and have a marketing edge.
Both Fliffic and Lawson are forward-thinking shop owners.
Another shop owner in the Midwest was asked by a regular customer who had just bought a 2002 Prius if she could get an oil change there. The owner opened the hood, made sure the filter was in stock (it is a standard Toyota filter used on other models) and said "yes."
A young tech, with no prior knowledge of hybrids, drove the warmed-up gas/electric car into his bay. The internal combustion engine never started as it was in electric mode at the time. Not hearing the engine running, he went to work, hoisting the car into the air, swinging the oil drain bucket under the oil pan, removing the drain bolt and reaching for the oil filter. When the filter was removed, oil started flying around the shop.
The engine was in "standby" mode during the first part of the oil change. When the voltage level dropped, the onboard computer started the engine so the HV battery could recharge. The tech only needed to remove the key, but he failed to do this when he drove this hybrid into the bay.
A quick-thinking tech in the next stall got the situation under control before any damage occurred. Lesson: Know what you are doing before you change the oil or anything else on a hybrid car or SUV. You don't know what you don't know.
What do you need to know before any service is done? First, learn how to shut down the HV system for simple service. Next, learn how to depower the entire car for hybrid service and repairs. Own a CAT III certified DVOM and a pair of 1,000-volt rubber gloves (Fig. 6). Get up-to-date information and send your techs to school. Buy a book, get a DVD - do something to learn more about these cars.
In most cases involving a hybrid, collision shops are flat bedding the car to a dealership to have them de-power the high voltage system or remove the battery pack. Once you learn how to do this, it can be done easily and safely in-house.
Welding is the same as on any other car. Know where the danger is and avoid it. Not too many techs weld a gas tank in the car, as common sense would keep you away from such a potential bomb.
Armed with an electrical background and less than $500 worth of tools and safety items, you can be in the hybrid business.
Scan tools are another story. Presently, a factory scan tool is needed in many service cases. If it is a simple component replacement, after you reconnect everything and drive two drive cycles, the warning lights on the dash may reset, as hybrid systems are part of the OBD-II system. By EPA rules, the hybrid system must work for the emissions to be as low as they were when the feds tested it. There are times when you can't get around not having access to a factory scan tool.
Do you continue to tow all hybrids to the dealerships or have you learned the safety aspects and do it yourself? Will you keep sending hybrid owners to dealerships? Talk to your staff and see who wants to be the hybrid expert. Pick someone who is knowledgeable in electrical systems, loves to learn and sees a good future in this industry. Then get to work learning hybrid systems. It will pay off in the future, as hybrids are not going away.
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