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  Mechanical Feature

Servicing Hybrid Cars

Posted 6/10/2005
By Rocky Womack

Increased hybrid sales means increased service opportunities. Is your shop prepared to service hybrid vehicles? If not, learn how you can meet the challenges of servicing hybrids and how this growing car market can create new business for your shop.

Honda currently offers three hybrid vehicles to choose from: Accord hybrid sedan, Civic hybrid sedan and the Insight hybrid 3-Door.
With recent gas prices climbing near $4 per gallon in various areas of the country, and the federal and some state governments offering tax break incentives to purchase a hybrid, more car buyers will turn to these vehicles in the future. Already, automakers are answering the demand and increasing their offerings of hybrids to consumers. The increased popularity means independent service professionals will see a greater number of hybrids in their shops, as these vehicles need maintenance. What is a technician to do?

"Suck it up and learn how to work on them, because they are going to be here," said Dale Bright of Dale Bright's Auto Service in Chino, Calif.

Without proper training and awareness, an independent shop owner could lose part of his business. "If 20 percent of all vehicles on the road in 2011 are hybrid as projected, then potentially you could lose 20 percent of your business," said David Castiaux, electric vehicle program manager and instructor at Mid-Del Electric Vehicle Center of Technology in Del City, Okla., a division of Career Tech. "If I was a hybrid owner in your area and knew that your shop wasn't trained in dealing with hybrids, I would most likely take it to a business that was."

That means lost business. Castiaux says many independent shop owners turn these vehicles away because of the "fear of the unknown."

Turning them away is not the answer, suggests Darrell Halsey, project launch development supervisor with the University of Toyota, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. of Torrance, Calif. He says that as hybrids become mainstream, not only with Toyota but other manufacturers, shop owners will need more technicians to service these vehicles.

Recognizing the hybrid's popularity and need for future maintenance, Toyota University has certified about 3,800 technicians nationwide in Prius diagnosis and repair. Halsey says the number increases daily.

Ford Motor Co., which came out with the Escape hybrid, has certified about 2,000 technicians exclusively at Ford dealerships, says Bryan Olson, marketing manager for the Ford Escape in Dearborn, Mich.

Service professionals won't need to sweat hybrid maintenance, as long as they obtain the proper training. If shop technicians cannot train right away, Castiaux said they could do some self-study and research, then follow the manufacturer's instructions.

"It's just a different animal," Halsey said. "It's not different as far as practices, but it is important to refer to the manufacturer's repair manual."

Bright says once a technician learns how to work on hybrids and takes his time, he can deal with any safety issues. "If they are skilled as a technician, they should approach everything that way," he says.

Introduced in the summer of 2004, the Escape hybrid is Ford's entry into the hybrid world. In its first full year of production, Ford expects to build 20,000 units to keep up with demand, which has been high.
For safety, automakers have color-coded (orange) the wiring of high-voltage systems. "The biggest challenge is understanding what you are dealing with, understanding how hybrids work, how they are put together and the most important aspect - safety," Castiaux says. "Don't mess with systems and components that you don't understand. Read and heed all manufacturers' cautions, danger notes and warning decals. Even without training on the specific manufacturer's high-voltage system, you can do a lot of maintenance on hybrids if you know the information above.

"The technicians must now have an understanding of high-voltage power, control systems and how it drives the vehicle; along with that comes acting safely and having the proper safety gear and maintaining it," Castiaux adds. "One note of caution: with the high-efficiency electric motors installed in most hybrids, the wearing of pacemakers and other magnetic devices require extra caution while replacing an electric motor."

Castiaux said he is unaware of any hybrids requiring preventive maintenance on the high-voltage systems, except to top off some fluids. He advises technicians to refer to the vehicle manufacturer's specifications when replacing fluid types and determining the amount to use.

The braking system on hybrids saves maintenance repairs, too. "The reason brakes require less maintenance on hybrids is because when the electric motor is not being used as a motor, quite often it is used as a generator," Castiaux says. "When you remove your foot from the accelerator pedal while driving the electric motor, it is being used as a generator to replenish the high-voltage battery. When you put your foot on the brake pedal while moving, you're telling the computer you want to slow down. The generator then makes even more energy to be put into the high-voltage battery while the generator's drag is being used to slow your vehicle down, quite often without the brake pads making contact."

Why mention the braking system? Eventually, technicians will need to replace the pads. Because it is an electrical braking system developed by engineers, Olson says the replacement of the pads on a Ford Escape hybrid requires a high-pressure hydraulic that could cost about $2,000. Because pads are seldom replaced, independent shop owners should evaluate whether investing in such equipment would pay off in the long term based on their anticipated servicing of hybrids, advises Olson.

When working around the stainless steel coolant heat-storage tank on the 2004 and 2005 Prius, Halsey advises caution. The bottle contains hot engine coolant under pressure. The good news is: The thermos bottle keeps the coolant in reserve for use in warming the cylinder head during cold engine start, he says. This saves the environment by reducing hydrocarbon emissions on a cold start. He suggests referring to the vehicle repair manual for coolant service precautions.

Castiaux, who has taught courses at the Mid-Del Electric Vehicle Center of Technology on electric drive vehicles since 1996, says technicians must be careful when jacking and lifting hybrids, which have smaller engines and transmissions. They could damage the high-voltage cabling under the vehicle.

Special precautions are necessary even during routine oil changes. "The engine will start or stop automatically whenever the ignition key is on and the vehicle is in ready mode," Halsey says. "In ready mode, the engine starts whenever the high-voltage battery requires charging. During service, it is important to shut off the key and remove it from the ignition." In that scenario, Halsey says if a technician has drained most of the oil out and the vehicle starts, he may not be able to reach the car in time before engine damage occurs.

"So it's vital that he always remembers to take the keys with him," Halsey said.

Replacing the large battery pack poses a challenge as well. Castiaux advises service professionals to seek training, practice safety and use the proper equipment and tools in replacing the battery packs. He warns service professionals to follow those guidelines and nothing else. "You are dealing with a chemical storage device that has the potential to do you serious harm - either with electrical shock or chemical burn," he said. "In the past, a technician dealt with what we all call a dead battery, although the battery quite often still could have 11 volts available. On the hybrids, a dead battery could have around 300 volts left in it - that could be fatal!"

Another challenge involves what to do with these 200-pound battery packs. Olson says many independent shops are not used to handling batteries this size. They also must deal with recycling them.

The Toyota Prius was the first full hybrid model produced by an automaker. It leads the pack in hybrid sales worldwide.
For collision repair, Toyota offers hybrid courses for technicians working at designated collision repair shops. "If an independent [collision repair] shop owner wants training, he needs to be sponsored by a Toyota dealership," said Roger Larsen, body service supervisor, Technical & Body Training Development, at the University of Toyota.

As mentioned, technicians need the proper equipment and tools when working on hybrids. Craig Van Batenburg, AAM, owner of the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC) in Worcester, Mass., which specializes in hybrid training, suggests investing in factory scan tools and practice safety. He says independent technicians who do well will. "They just need to get trained," Van Batenburg said.

Castiaux advises technicians to purchase and use the proper safety gear when working with the high-voltage battery system. He suggests using high-voltage gloves rated at 1,000 volts or higher and have them lab-certified every six months. In addition, he advises service professionals to wear a full-face shield and rubber apron. Technicians also should use tools insulated for high voltage. Castiaux says vehicle manufacturers suggest using specific tools when doing maintenance. For instance, Honda has available a battery lifting device and tool to remove and replace the electric motor.

While the high-voltage battery system is a concern, Van Batenburg says most technicians forget that the gas tank can be the most dangerous device on a vehicle. Remembering the precautions of newer electronic systems is important, but keeping in mind the basic safety issues is just as advisable.

Today, most of the training on hybrids comes from manufacturers, but Van Batenburg wants to change that. In the future, he hopes to certify independent technicians in hybrid maintenance and repairs so manufacturer training will not be their only option.

The board of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) in Leesburg, Va., planned in May to discuss whether to certify ASE technicians in hybrid maintenance, says Craig Blouir, an ASE educator and instructor. He didn't release a time frame for possible certification.

The manufacturers have built modern hybrids that have caught on with the general public because of their environmental and fuel efficiencies. Larsen said hybrid sales are skyrocketing, meaning dealerships or independent shop owners will need more skilled technicians to work on these vehicles. "If there's a major trend taking place, you don't want to miss out on it," he said.

Today's auto shop owners may heed the advice of the experts and learn maintenance on cars of the future. "Hybrids are going to be a source of business," Bright says, "and they are a source of income."

Rocky Womack is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.

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