Hybrid Collision Repair: Safety FirstPosted 6/15/2006
By Andrea Betts Menendez
First Things First
"Read, read, read," advises Mike Schoonover of Schoonover Bodyworks Inc. in St. Paul, Minn. "Read anything and everything you can to learn more about the vehicle."
Schoonover's shop has repaired more than a dozen hybrids. "All of our techs attended the I-CAR hybrid class, which was very informative," he said. "We purchased the necessary tools and safety equipment and bought a toolbox that is strictly used for hybrid repairs." The toolbox contained electrical lineman's gloves, which Schoonover identified as the most important item (see "Hybrid Safety Tips").
Education is essential to safely and successfully repairing a hybrid car. Technicians must be able to identify a hybrid's key electrical components, which generally include a high-voltage, nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack; a 12-volt auxiliary battery; high-voltage cables wrapped in orange insulation; a power control device or inverter and a service disconnect. Always consult the manufacturer's service manual when repairing a hybrid vehicle, as each model is slightly different.
A proper repair also requires an accurate assessment of the damage. "We recommend checking the hybrid system for proper operation before repairing the body damage if at all possible," said Craig Totten, instructional designer for the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR). Severe damage to the expensive hybrid system could lead the insurance company to deem the car totaled.
Disabling the High-Voltage System
All authorities agree: the most important thing to know is how to disable the high-voltage (HV) system. "This must be done before doing any work to the vehicles," stressed Totten. "It's like taking the bullet out of the gun."
Basic steps for disabling the HV system include the following:
Once the HV power has been isolated to the battery pack, techs can either avoid the battery during repairs or remove it after disconnecting the HV cables. When working on his first hybrid, Schoonover took no chances. "We had a technician from the Toyota dealership we work with come over to assist us with pulling the battery from the vehicle, which was a Prius."
First, take care not to subject hybrids to high temperatures. "Turn down the heat of your spray booth, as NiMH batteries don't like heat," advised Craig Van Batenburg, AAM, owner of the Automotive Career Development Center. While technically, normal bake temperatures can be used with proper monitoring, Van Batenburg recommends keeping the temperature well under 140 degrees Fahrenheit. He also suggests painting all hybrids at the end of the day and allowing them to dry overnight.
Totten noted that techs should use common sense when performing tasks like welding. "Don't apply heat right next to the battery pack without removing it first," he said.
Hybrids can be jump-started according to manufacturer instructions. A dead high-voltage battery, however, is another story entirely.
"[NiMH batteries] have a very high self-discharge rate, as much as 30 percent per month. Meaning if they are left sitting for a period of two to three months, they will go completely dead," Totten explained. "Running the gasoline engine on the vehicles is typically the only way to recharge them, so it is recommended to start a hybrid that is sitting every two to three weeks and let it run for 20 to 30 minutes to keep the batteries charged, as long as the damage does not make it impossible to do so."
Anyone who has worked on a Honda Insight knows that it differs from other hybrids in one important respect: its body panels are aluminum. More and more automakers are using aluminum and other lightweight material like plastic and laminated steel to improve fuel efficiency. While the Insight is the only aluminum-intensive hybrid currently on the market, aluminum is showing up in hoods, decklids, suspension parts and subframes everywhere.
Because of its unique properties, repairing this metal requires special techniques and equipment, such as a stud welder and an aluminum MIG welder. The equipment investment runs around $7,000 or $8,000, according to Mike West, collision chairman for ASA-Washington and owner of Southtowne Auto Rebuild Inc. in Tukwila, Wash. Which shops should learn to repair aluminum? Some say it's a question of cost/benefit, but West disagrees. "Everyone should know how to repair aluminum," he said. "Because Ford, Buick, Lincoln, Toyota, Honda all [use] some aluminum.
Knowledge is Key
Schoonover emphasized the importance of gathering information about any hybrid vehicle that arrives at the shop. "We download the most current hybrid information from I-CAR and the OEM Web sites," he said. "We also utilize data from trade Web sites and magazines.
"As you do when working with airbags, always treat these systems with the respect they deserve," said Totten. "Once a technician understands these systems and knows the proper procedures to follow, the fear factor associated with them goes away."
Hybrid Safety TipsFollow manufacturer instructions for moving a hybrid. Always tow with the drive wheels off the ground. Pushing a hybrid can generate electricity, so using wheel jacks is often recommended for moving the car around the shop.
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