Equip Your Shop for Hybrid Repairs
Paul Blaski knows that staying ahead of the competition means accepting change. Lately, that has meant preparing his shops to work on hybrid vehicles—a decision he knows is well worth the investment. “It’s very important to stay abreast of changes in the automotive industry,” he says.
As the training manager of Sterling Auto Body Centers in Northbrook, Ill., Blaski realizes that becoming a hybrid-savvy shop creates a great opportunity to distinguish his business from the competition. “It opens up an avenue of work for us,” he says. “If you have a choice in body shops, and one has a technician that has been trained in hybrids, you’re not going to bring your new hybrid into the one with no education at all. There is a competitive advantage to being hybrid-ready.”
Attending training courses to learn how to properly—and safely—repair hybrids as well as investing in a few important pieces of equipment isn’t difficult to do. Better still, it doesn’t have to break the bank. A year after Sterling recognized the need to prepare for hybrid repair, Blaski says his shops have heightened their awareness of changes in vehicle technology and successfully distinguished the business in an increasingly competitive market.
Watkins points out that the I-CAR courses teach technicians how to disengage the hybrid safely, rather than how to actually repair the battery. “Everything we’re dealing with is to disable the battery,” he explains. “As far as the repair of the hybrid system itself, that takes specialized training. I don’t recommend anyone just go in and work on the hybrid system.” If the battery has been damaged in the accident, Watkins says your best bet is to subcontract the work to a service center with technicians who are skilled in hybrid system repair.
In addition to safely disengaging the battery, Blaski says there are a few other critical differences in repairing a hybrid rather than a conventional car. For one, you have to move the car around the shop on a dolly, rather than pushing it around like you would your other repairs. “You can’t push a hybrid around the shop, because as you’re pushing the car, you’re recharging the battery,” he explains.
Heat is another issue: “When the vehicle is refinished, you have to be cautious of the heat ranges you put it through during the baking process. You have to be conscious of the temperatures so you don’t damage the electronics.”
Blaski says he spent $85 per technician
to enroll in training courses and about $600 per location to stock it with necessary safety equipment.
For Blaski, becoming hybrid-ready was not hard to do—and it was pretty easy on the income statement. “The first step was to identify the I-CAR training in our area,” he says. “The second piece was awareness to our folks that hybrids were a presence in the market.”
“It’s a simple matter of getting your people trained,” Watkins says. “I recommend not just training one or two people. Every technician should understand what a hybrid vehicle is.”
As for the cost of getting set up, Blaski says he spent $85 per technician to enroll in training courses and about $600 per location to stock it with necessary safety equipment (see sidebar). Depending on how many technicians you plan to train and how many locations you have, the whole process will probably run about $1,000—and open up a whole new market.
Learning how to handle hybrids has helped Blaski’s shop in two ways: “It has certainly sharpened our skills as operators and increased our level of knowledge,” he says. “It’s also helped us [create] a process in order to address change. Hybrids were the first major wave, [and] it’s helped us prepare for future vehicle changes as well.”
Watkins agrees. “In the long run, if you’re trying to survive and you’re turning away hybrids, you’re turning away a large part of the market,” he says. “There will be more and more hybrids out there. You can’t afford not to work on hybrid vehicles. You just can’t.”
Roy Watkins, area training coordinator for I-CAR, says auto body shops actually don’t have any choice in the matter of learning to repair hybrids. “The hybrid vehicle is not a passing fad,” he says. “They’re here to stay. [Shop owners] have to accept that these vehicles are going to be in their shops and they have to learn how to handle them safely.”
Safety education is the most critical part of working with hybrids, Watkins says. Because an electrical current runs from the battery to the engine, “working on a hybrid vehicle is more dangerous than a gasoline vehicle. [You] have to learn a whole new set of rules for handling the high voltage electricity.” Once the battery is disabled, however, the repair process is not much different than that of a conventional vehicle. “There is very little frame and structure difference between a hybrid vehicle and a conventional car,” Watkins says.
Blaski encourages his technicians to take hybrid repair courses through I-CAR. The first class the techs attend is Electric and Electric Hybrid Vehicles (ALT01). Once they’ve successfully completed that course, he recommends they sign up for ALT02.
“ALT01 will go into the basics on all the equipment you need and how a hybrid vehicle works,” Watkins explains. “ALT02 is very manufacturer-specific. It gives you a lot of information about each manufacturer’s vehicle but doesn’t go into the safety issues, so [you] really need ALT01 first.”
Blaski says the two courses have helped his technicians feel more comfortable working on hybrids. “They were really apprehensive at first,” he says. “Once they went through the class, it took away some of the mystery surrounding the vehicles. They’re not as apprehensive about approaching a hybrid for repair now. That was our biggest benefit—taking the mystery out it.”