The risks of reconditioned wheels

Sept. 26, 2013
While reconditioning once-damaged wheels reduces repair costs, the risks are just as real and far more significant for repairers.

Along with many other potentially devastating liabilities faced within the collision repair industry, as a repairer and now industry advisor/consultant/coach, reconditioned wheels has been one of my greatest concerns in this regard for some time. While called for, and employed across the country on a daily basis, these reclaimed and repaired wheels may often pose serious and significant safety concerns.

My concerns began back in the mid '90s when I replaced a repaired wheel obtained from a supplier listed within the repair estimate prepared and provided by my customer’s insurer. Several weeks after delivery, the customer came back with a concern over his tire going flat. He’d taken it to his tire store to have the slow leak repaired only to find that his tire was fine and that it was the wheel itself which was leaking air. The leak wasn’t around the bead but through the rim where a repair had been performed and where a remaining crack or fissure remained. I realized then that once-damaged and repaired wheels are susceptible to having remaining flaws and defects and the distinct liabilities they posed for me and other repairers.

While the opportunity to recondition once damaged wheels surely proves to reduce repair costs for insurers and consumers, the considerable risks of failure and potential for serious property damage, injury and even death, and the associated liabilities, are just as real and far more significant for repairers.

Perhaps no entity understands this better than the Original Equipment Manufacturers such as BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford, GM, , Honda, Nissan, Toyota and others who have released written statements making their positions known that, other than minor cosmetic refinishing, the repair of damaged rims in not recommended. Obviously this is to avoid associated liabilities and to safeguard the integrity of their product and name-brand reputation.

The concerns with the use of reconditioned wheels are numerous but none more tangible than when their use is in direct conflict to the vehicle’s original manufacturer’s recommendations, and as such, contrary to the Collision Repair Industry’s Established Standards of Proper Repair, which was ratified and re-established in 2012. As such, the question begs to be asked: If that is
the “Standard of Proper Repair” why than do insurers continue to call for reconditioned wheels? Perhaps even more so, if it is not in keeping with Collision Repair Industry’s Standards of Proper Repair …why then do repairers continue to use them in the repair of their customer’s vehicles?

Simply stated; if the vehicle’s original manufacturer does not approve the use of repaired, reconditioned, refurbished or restored wheels, then a collision repairer should not use them, and if they elect to do so, they may incur significant liabilities in the event of their failure. Liabilities that the insurer will not bear since they would be the first to tell you and the courts, that they only provide payment for proper and thorough repairs; they do not perform or recommend repair methodology; that is left up to the repair professionals.

Imagine for a moment, a family traveling down a rural highway at highway speeds when all of a sudden, without warning, the vehicle lurches to one side; the driver loses control and then begins to cartwheel down the road. It comes to rest as a smoking hulk of metal in a field of debris. There is no movement in the vehicle as the occupants are seriously injured…or worse.

After an initial investigation, measurements, photos and interviews with witnesses, the wreckage, along with all its remnant parts and debris, is loaded up and carted off to a salvage holding yard.

Upon inspection and ensuing investigation (which generally follows accident related fatalities), it is found whereas both front and rear suspensions have been crushed, bent and literally ripped from the vehicle.

Three of the wheels are severely damaged and the tires are flat. Because of the severity of the damages, no definitive finding as to what caused the loss of control is found and as such, the incident may be attributed to driver error, driver fatigue, excessive speed for conditions, or perhaps it will merely be listed as “cause unknown” and no further investigation is undertaken.

As such, no-one will ever know that the true cause of the loss (and the loss of life) was due to the catastrophic failure of a once damaged and repaired alloy wheel; a “reconditioned wheel” that was called for in the vehicle’s prior repair.

While this story is totally fictional and not based upon an actual occurrence, it does illustrate what has likely occurred since the advent of alloy wheel repair.

Back in 2007 Fox News did a story regarding concerns associated with remanufactured wheels wherein the vice president of the Insurance Information Institute stated: “There's no evidence that reconditioned rims have ever caused a major accident.” And she may be right, simply due to the fact that no one can differentiate between a wheel that had been “reconditioned” and one which had not. It’s important to note too that she went on to say, with laser accuracy I might
add: “Repair shops make final decisions on parts”, simply meaning that insurers bear no responsibility or liability should a failure occur as they don’t make repairs or determine repair methodology…that is left up to the repairer who is expected to adhere to industry best practices such as adhering to accepted and “established industry repair standards.”

Figure 1

The concern remains that in the event of a loss there may be no evidence of which to find or even suspect a wheel’s failure. Furthermore, there are no identifying marks to identify the wheel was repaired and re-introduced to the vehicle. Along with future tire rotations, tire replacements etc., the once damaged and reconditioned wheel, as in a shell game, will get shuffled and lost among the other three original undamaged wheels.

To make matters worse, while the original damaged wheel had only minor superficial damages to its finish (e.g. “curb rash”), the delivered replacement wheels are generally from the supplier's inventory of pre-repaired wheels of which its original severity and nature of damages is unknown. This exchange is done to expedite repairs to increase productivity and reduce claims related costs such as rental expense. The replacement wheel may have been badly damaged as those illustrated in Figs. 1, 2 and 3.

Figure 2

So what exactly does the term “reconditioned” mean? The following are the definitions according to several sources of dictionaries.

tr.v. re·con·di·tioned, re·con·di·tion·ing
To restore to good condition, especially by repairing, renovating, or rebuilding
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company)

(tr) to restore to good condition or working order

Figure 3

(Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged)

tr.v. re·stored, re·stor·ing, re·stores
1. To bring back into existence or use; reestablish:
2. To bring back to an original condition:
(The American Heritage® Dictionary)

While the terms or definition of the words Black’s Law Dictionary, the word part:

Restitution: n 1. Return or restoration of some specific thing or condition. 2. Compensation, reimbursement or loss caused by another; a remedy available in tort and contract law

Figure 4

As such, it is doubtful if reconditioned or re “restored” or “reconditioned” to “pre-loss condition” or that they properly indemnify and/or provide “restitution” to a first-party insured or third-party claimant. This of course would be left to the legal community to make that determination on a case-by-case basis as each situation may differ. In my expert opinion; a once damaged and repaired wheel is no different than a once damaged and repaired vehicle and as such; a “reconditioned”, “remanufactured” or “refurbished” wheel is nothing more than a “repaired wheel” which may have hidden and unknown remaining defects and potential significant safety issues just like a severely damaged and repaired vehicle. And as such, aside from the potential for failure, a repaired wheel would not have the same value as a wheel with no history of damage and repair; and as such would not be “like kind and quality” (“LKQ”) to that of an original undamaged factory wheel.

Figure 5

A market for reconditioned wheels exists for the individual consumer who seeks a cost effective alternative to new OEM or custom wheels. Of course they are subject to the same concerns as to function and personal safety, and as such, mandates to offer a moderate level of consumer awareness and protection would be both reasonable and prudent.

Last year, while inspecting a vehicle at a repairer’s facility, I saw a reconditioned wheel that had been being delivered for a repair on a Dodge Nitro. Upon first glance it became apparent that remaining damages were evident as illustrated in Figs. 4, 5 and 6.

As shown, the five mounting holes were damaged and elongated. It appeared as though the
wheel’s lug nuts had not been properly tightened and had come loose and as such, the wheel’s
holes began to wallow-out against the threaded stud bolts. Had this not been found, such
overlooked remaining damage would likely cause a failure in proper seating of the rim to the hub
and its lug nuts. This would likely become a problem ‘down the road” with the lug nuts coming
loose causing damages to the vehicle. Had this rim been mounted and installed and delivered

Figure 6

with the vehicle without the defects being noticed, it would have been virtually impossible to try to establish, let alone prove, that the failure was due to the wheel repairer’s negligent oversight.
The repairer would have no doubt been blamed for not properly tightening the wheel and would have inherited all liabilities associated with the wheel’s failure; exposing the shop and its
technical staff to significant liabilities.

Another example found while at a repair facility was a repaired wheel for a late model Ford pickup, where once again, upon a casual inspection, a sizeable and easily discernible crack and
deformation remained in the rim’s outer lip…in two separate areas! This wheel was to have been installed on the right front of the repaired vehicle and an impact with a pot hole or while off road could have easily caused the rim’s lip to break away, deflating the tire causing a potential loss of control and potentially life-threatening accident.

Figure 7

As illustrated in Figs. 7, 8 and 9, upon comparioson, the lip of the repaired rim measured 36.5 mm at one side and 29.5mm at the other (where a repair had been performed). This 7mm difference was due to turning/lathing the wheel during repair. While the renewed paint finish looked very nice, there were remaining deep scratches, divits and deformations in the metal of the outer surface which were clearly visible. Such remaining issues were excessive, and as such, this wheel was not in acceptible condition for re-use.

At present, the companies which perform the reconditioning of damaged wheels have little to no rules or regulations of which to abide by or by which their performance is rated and/or governed. Although some “wheel repairers” claim to place a label identifying the wheel as repaired, such labels could easily be removed by intent, inadvertently upon handling or as a result of weather conditions and time. Having such labeling inside the tire, whereas it is not readily visible will not alert a potential buyer or investigator to the existence of a once damaged and repaired wheel. Once a reconditioned wheel is delivered to the distributor or consumer it is thereafter; “out of sight and out of mind.” As such, those who repair damaged wheels have no accountability and no incentive or liabilities to ensure their repair meets a level of “Like Kind and Quality” to the original undamaged wheel in function, safety, appearance and value. Once the rim is repaired and delivered, it becomes lost among the millions of other wheels on the roadway and may pose as a ticking time bomb to an unsuspecting driver and their family.

Figure 8

The first time the vehicle’s wheels/tires are rotated, the once damaged and "repaired” wheel is lost among the others. Even more concerning is that these ‘damaged and repaired’ wheels have ended up in salvage yards and other outlets whereby the pool of used wheels has been tainted. Should failure cause injury and/or death to the occupants or one will know if it was
the failure of a once damaged and repaired wheel; thus leaving no accountability to those who called for the replacement, who allowed the replacement and/or those who performed the replacement! For those consumers who have “repaired wheels” installed onto their vehicles, they, their passengers and others on the roadway become unsuspecting participants in a game of high speed Russian Roulette!

Figure 9

So what can be done to correct this obvious lack of oversight and accountability and offer better protection for the unsuspecting and totally vulnerable consumer? The wheel repair industry must
have guidelines and standards. Such standards for the repair of once damaged wheels would include the requirement of the
wheel repairer to indicate the Who, What, When, Where and How as follows:

  • Who: What company and specific technician(s) performed the repair?
  • What: What severity and type of damage was repaired (crack, scuff, etc.) and what testing was performed?
  • When: When was the repair performed?
  • Where: Where on the wheel was the damage and repair?
  • How: How was the repaired wheel tested (i.e. mere magnetic flux, Eddy Current, Ultrasonic testing etc.)?

Each repaired wheel should have permanent markings heavily stamped on the back side (not
inside) visible to clearly show the area(s) of damage and repair by using symbols such as arrows, the repairer’s designated “I.D. Brand” such as Acme Wheel Repair would be AWR, the
date of repair, the technician’s designated number, the method of repair (e.g. polishing = P,
refinishing= R, grinding= G, welding= W, straightening= S etc. whereby one could easily
determine the location and extent of the wheel’s damage and repair as well as who performed
the repair. This would also enable a wheel repairer to determine if a core, which had been
previously repaired, is suited for further repair or to be scrapped for recycling.

Unfortunately, as in most any industry or profession, there are the best, the least best, and
everything in between. Few industries want more regulation, however, where the unwary
consumer may be placed in harm’s way, and are not in a position to protect themselves,
regulation, whether it be self regulated with ample oversight, or federally regulated, is necessary
to safeguard those who may fall victim to poorly performed repairs.

To the benefit of the wheel repair industry, elevated responsibilities will enable all wheel
repairers to become accountable for their actions. Such accountability will no doubt raise the bar
in quality and service and eventually eliminate those who fail or refuse to meet the minimal level
of requirements.

I encourage repairers to discuss such issues with their liability insurer regarding using once
damaged and repaired wheels, salvaged suspension parts and aftermarket parts in repairs to see if any limitations or policy wording may deny coverage in the event liabilities arise out of their use.

Repairers should take a very close look at the potential risks and liabilities that once damaged
and repaired wheels present to their customers, themselves and their business. Repairers should follow Industry Best Practices and adhere to the Collision Repair Industry’s Standards of Proper Repair and seek, fully understand and adhere to the original manufacturer’s recommendations for repair and replacement in all facets of repair.

Rest assured that should a claim be levied against you and your business for such failure and
resulting damages, it will boil down to one or more of three basic causes:
• Negligence
• Gross Incompetence or
• Intentional Disregard

About the Author

Barrett Smith | President, Auto Damage Experts

Barrett R. Smith, AAM, is president of Auto Damage Experts, Inc., a consulting and expert assistance business.

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