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Preparing Your Shop for Electric Vehicles

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Hybrid vehicles are nothing new.

They’ve been on the road for more than a decade now, and have likely already been in your shop. But some new model electric vehicles—like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, for example—have posed questions for collision repairers. The biggest question: How will the electrical systems change repair processes compared to older model hybrids?

“There’s a lot of stigma out there that electric cars are dangerous,” says Tony Nethery, business development manager for COLORMATCH and instructor for I-CAR, adding that many shop operators and technicians are concerned about their safety.

In reality, repair methods aren’t much different on the newer electric cars than the older ones shops are used to, Nethery says.
So what’s causing all the concern? It’s a fear of the unknown, Nethery says. Many shop operators simply don’t have much experience dealing with the new electric cars yet. In fact, he says some shops are still turning down jobs on older hybrids for that same reason. If you’re one of those shops, you’ll want to get informed soon.

Electric vehicles are becoming more common on the road, and “can become a great thing for public relations if you can fix those cars well,” says Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), a nationally renowned trainer on hybrid and electric vehicles. “There’s a whole bunch of hybrids heading our way that people don’t even realize are being built yet.”

“There’s a whole bunch of hybrids heading our way that people don’t even realize are being built yet.”
— Craig Van Batenburg, CEO, Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC)

Repairers shouldn’t have much to worry about when working on electric vehicles, as long as they know what they’re doing. But there are some real dangers if shops are not equipped with proper training, tools and safety equipment. Here’s what you need to have—and know—in order to prepare your shop to work on these new model vehicles.

Knowledge is Power

Van Batenburg says knowledge is the most important factor in becoming comfortable with electric vehicles. That fear of the unknown completely goes away once people acquire the proper training.

And the training isn’t just for technicians, says Jason Bartanen, technical director for I-CAR. Estimators and insurers writing damage reports need to know the information as well.

What training is necessary? Repairers need basic safety training, they need to understand how hybrid and electric car components work, and they need hands-on training on how to remove high-voltage parts from a vehicle, Van Batenburg says.

Repairers need to know where a few things are located in the vehicles, too, says Jeffrey Poole, performance training coordinator for I-CAR. Some of these elements include the inverter, the high-voltage battery, the service-disconnect system, the electric air conditioning system, and where all the wires are.

Here are a few places to find the information on new hybrid and electric vehicles:

• I-CAR courses. I-CAR offers courses, Alto1 and Alto2, that deal with hybrid and electric vehicles. One course is on hybrid vehicles, and the other is on alternative fuels, Bartanen says.

• Vehicle manufacturers. OEM websites also have a lot of information related to extrication for emergency first responders, Bartanen says. A lot of the information about how to disable electrical systems and where electrical cables are located is applicable to collision repairers.
Visit oemonestop.com to find links to all OEM vehicles and websites, Nethery says.

• Information providers. Subscription-based software systems are available for shop owners to acquire vehicle-specific information.
A couple of examples: Mitchell OnDemand5 and ALLDATA Collision S3500.

• OEM certified repair programs. Some auto manufacturers require technicians to become OEM-certified in order to replace wiring harnesses or other parts of the high-energy system, Nethery says. You may want to send a technician to get OEM-certified training for a certain model vehicle.

• Part companies. All of the major companies that sell automotive parts offer basic safety classes, Van Batenburg says.

• Books. ACDC offers many books, training manuals and DVDs for everything collision repairers need to know about alternative fuel vehicles.

Visit fixhybrid.com for more information.

Safety Precautions

Repairing electric vehicles can be dangerous without taking precautions, Bartanen says. Here are a few things you need to know, and purchase, to repair electric cars safely:

• Class 0 high voltage lineman’s gloves rated to 1,000 volts. These gloves are needed for disabling the battery and handling high voltage parts to avoid electrocution.

• Removal of jewelry. Wearing jewelry increases the possibility of being electrocuted, Poole says.

• Goggles. Defective volt-ohm meters could actually explode when you’re checking voltage throughout the vehicle, Van Batenburg says. “It’s never happened before, but the possibility is there.”

• Protective body suit. Electrolyte contained in some electric car batteries is toxic, Poole says. You want to make sure you’re wearing protective clothing if you’re going to be near a vehicle that has been so severely damaged that it’s leaking electrolyte chemicals.

• Fiberglass pole. Some shops are buying insulated poles that can be used to pull technicians away from the vehicle if they get electrocuted, Nethery says. It’s an emergency piece of equipment.

“This isn’t absolutely necessary to have, but is something some shops are doing in order to be as safe as possible," Nethery says.

• Insulated hand tools. If you accidentally drop an insulated tool, it’s not going to short anything out or cause any sparks to fly, Poole says.

Tools and Equipment

The good news is that, currently, electric vehicles are not structurally different compared to other late model vehicles. But there are a few things you need in order to handle the electrical components:

• Category III volt-ohm meter rated to 1,000 volts. This meter is needed to check the vehicle’s voltage levels, Van Batenburg says.

• Battery charging equipment. Van Batenburg purchased two charging stations from General Motors for only $490 each. “They are the least expensive ones on the market, but they will charge any electric vehicle made in 2010 or later,” he says. “And you don’t need a different charging station for each different type of electric car.”

Van Batenburg says shops will definitely want to invest in a charging station, but he suggests waiting about six months before doing so. “There are at least a dozen companies coming out with charging stations,” he says. “The competitiveness of that industry will be strong,” which may cause the cost of the systems to drop.

• Wheel dolly. Wheel dollies should be used on the drive wheels for all electric cars, Nethery says. Electric vehicles use the drag on brakes to create electricity. If you push an electric vehicle through the shop, the drive wheels can charge the vehicle’s inverters, which can cause problems if you have pieces of the electrical system disconnected.

• Non-metal workbench. It’s dangerous to put high voltage parts on anything metal, Van Batenburg says. Wooden benches work, but can also become conductors of electricity if the bench gets oily.

Plastic-covered workbenches are ideal, Van Batenburg says. If you don’t want to purchase new workbenches, you could cover your existing benches with thick rubber floor mats or large mud flaps from 16-wheeler semis.

Processes to Keep in Mind

Make sure you obtain vehicle manufacturer recommendations and follow the procedures outlined in the service manual when you get one of these vehicles in your shop. You should know about recommended repair processes and methods before you start working on the vehicle, Poole says.

Auto manufacturers have outlined some basic procedures:

• Disable the electrical system. This has to be done to isolate the current to the high voltage battery, Nethery says.

• Use the proper oil. All electric vehicles have high voltage air conditioning compressors, Van Batenburg says. You need to use the factory oil replacement or a good, known equivalent for those compressors. The wrong type of oil will contaminate the system and cause it to shut down.

Shops may have to purchase a different charging and refrigerant recovery system for the electric air conditioning system, too, Nethery says. Those cost about $3,000 each.

• Don’t bake the batteries. The batteries in electric vehicles can never be put in temperatures above 150 degrees Fahrenheit, Van Batenburg says. That means they cannot be on the vehicle when it’s baking to cure a paint job.

• Test voltage throughout the vehicle prior to working on it. Wait five to 10 minutes after the vehicle is turned off before you start working on it, Van Batenburg says. Use your volt-ohm meter to test some of the components to ensure the vehicle’s voltage level is at zero before you start working. And before you start testing, make sure your meter works by testing a 12-volt source.

• Torque your connections. High voltage connections need to be torqued exactly to the right specification, Van Batenburg says. Any loose, high-voltage cable could create a massive fire and the entire car will burn up.

“The biggest investment the industry needs to make when it comes to hybrid and electric cars is education and information.”
— Jeffrey Poole, performance training coordinator, I-CAR

• Know your cables. You don’t want to cut through anything without first knowing where all the cables are, Bartanen says. This could be different from vehicle to vehicle.

High voltage cables are orange. Blue-colored cables represent an intermediate amount of voltage, between 36 and 42 volts, Van Batenburg says.

Remember, damaged orange cables always have to be replaced with a brand new part, Van Batenburg says.

Always Learning

Repairing electric vehicles is nothing that should cause you concern, as long as you know what you need to know. But technology in electric vehicles may change rapidly so it’s important for shop operators to stay up-to-date on new technology.

It would be very dangerous to assume that, just because you’ve worked on one type of hybrid vehicle, you’ll use the same procedure for all types of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are a diverse lot: there’s pure electric, extended range electric, or gas and electric hybrid, Bartanen says. Repair procedures could be different for all of them.

Fortunately, there aren’t too many big, expensive pieces of equipment you need to buy. “The biggest investment the industry needs to make when it comes to hybrid and electric cars is education and information,” Poole says.

“That’s the only way to feel comfortable that you’re doing things the right way and that you’re properly protecting yourself,” Bartanen says.

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