Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2001   by Jeff Hutton

Belt & Hose Service: More Than a Parts Game

Top shops standardize inspection process and customize client relationship

Belt, tensioner and hose products are changing as OE technologies become available for the aftermarket. But focusing more attention on the human side of your accessory business — while installing top-quality product — can assure greater success.

Today’s most profitable shops are moving away from ‘selling product.’ Instead, they check clients’ vehicle components following a standardized inspection process, and build client relationships based on service and education.

“A shop today is not in the parts game, they’re in the knowledge and relationship business. You need to slow down and build the relationship,” says automotive industry consultant Bob Greenwood, president of E.K. Williams & Co.

The better shops’ productivity is way above average because they get way more involved with their clients. “You’re doing way more business with them, so you’re more efficient and therefore more profitable,” says Greenwood.

More on raising profits later.

Belt Failure? Check tensioner at the same time

When a belt is cracked, you need to educate your client on why it needs to be replaced, says Dennis Forbes, owner of Forbes Service Centre in Hamilton, ON. “Years ago, cars had two or three belts, but nowadays one belt drives everything — on 90 per cent of vehicles. So the customer needs to know that it runs the water pump, the alternator and the steering.

“Most technicians will sell a belt because it’s cracked. But before you call the customer, check the belt tensioner as well to see if it’s seized up or falling apart. If it is, it should be replaced at the same time.”

Forbes’ data shows that tensioner replacement is an absolute must for 10 per cent of the belt replacements done in his shop. And 30 per cent of the time, he recommends a new tensioner to prevent future problems.


tension your belts…

“Improper tension is one of the primary causes of premature belt failure,” says Michael Lehmkuhl, marketing manager for Goodyear Replacement Products.

But proper tension controls belt slipping, reduces bearing loads, lessens heat build-up and extends belt life, according to Goodyear maintenance guidelines. After setting proper tension, “run the engine for five to 10 minutes so the belt can seat in the pulleys. Then readjust the tension to proper manufacturer specs.”

Other Goodyear

tips for a top-notch installation and longer belt life:

1. Check that driveshafts are parallel and pulleys are aligned before removing the old belt.

2. Never use tools to pry an old belt from the pulley, or to position a new belt, as this can damage the critical tensile cords. Simply loosen the belt until you can remove it by hand.

3. After the old belt is off, check the pulleys for worn grooves and abrasive residue, rust, oil or grease. Clean, repair or replace the pulleys (nylon pulleys are especially vulnerable to wear).

4. Ensure the new belt is correctly sized by checking top-width and outside circumference dimensions.

5. Always replace both belts of a matched set, to ensure even distribution of drive load.

6. Keep poly-V drive pulleys clean. Undercord ribs become uneven when damaged by debris lodged in the pulley, causing a loss of pulling power.

7. Check that engine parts are not leaking oil onto the belt — an oily belt will slip. Oils also accelerate belt wear, causing the rubber compounds to become weak and spongy and the layers to separate.

New material

in OE belts

The OE market for belts is moving to a non-neoprene construction, says Lehmkuhl. “EPDM polymer (ethylene propylene diene monomer) in the construction of poly-V belts at the Original Equipment level provides the heat resistance and long-life characteristics that the OE manufacturers are requiring.” On the downside, EPDM is not as oil resistant as neoprene. It may be one or two years before EPDM belts are available in the aftermarket.

However, he says that automatic tensioners for Poly-V belts are now available in the aftermarket, with sales representing 10 per cent of Goodyear distributors’ purchases, versus less than one per cent five years ago.

“Vehicles with automatic belt tensioners are tending to enter the period of their lifecycle where it’s time to replace the tensioner, ” says Gates Canada product manager Randy Chupka.

Automatic tensioners prevent belt slip by maintaining a constant tension throughout the operating range. They also help damp belt and accessory vibrations, and maximize accessory drive component life.

Like all parts, tensioners don’t last forever. But the most frequent cause of failure is actually careless belt replacement, according to Gates. “If the old belt isn’t removed carefully, the tensioner may spring down and crack. And if the new belt is too short it can snap the tensioner.”

Tensioner replacement procedure and product varies widely depending on the vehicle — you may need to remove just one bolt, or many components. In any case, it is recommended to replace the fixed idler pulley (if one is used) plus the belt at the same time, as these components will normally be near the end of their life if a new tensioner is needed. After installation, it’s important to check that the belt is aligned and seated properly in the grooves of all the pulleys to prevent damage to the belt. Run the engine for five to 10 minutes, then stop the engine and visually inspect belt operation.

Generally, tensioners will self-adjust as the belt wears and stretches with age. But check the Belt Length Indicator — a pointer with two or three gauge marks — to see if the tensioner is still in its useful range. If the pointer is 95 per cent of the way to the maximum length mark, it’s time to replace the belt.

“It’s best to change all the components at once,” says Chupka. “This helps eliminate comebacks or potential labour claims.”

Inside the tube:

hose breakdown

can be hidden

The snaking network of hose under your client’s hood also wears down — from factors like oil, heat, ozone or abrasion. And electrochemical degradation can be especially tricky to spot since it causes striations — tiny moisture-filled cracks — to form on the inside of the hose wall. Electrochemical degradation may be hidden from a technician’s eye, but signs will show up about three inches from the end since it’s caused by heat plus buildup of a charge between the metal connector and the hose itself. With a cool engine, squeeze near the ends of the hose and then towards the middle. If the middle is firmer, the hose should be changed right away as it’s likely there is serious damage. Striation-resistant hose is available for the aftermarket from several manufacturers.

A soft, spongy bulge in the hose can indicate an oil leak — from the power steering, brakes or cooling system. And cuts or punctures can come from road debris, or direct contact with a belt, fan blade or other engine parts.

Extreme heat and ozone can lead to cracks and eventual hose failure. But EPDM-compounded hoses are not affected by ozone. Branched hose now used by many OE manufacturers provides a more leak-proof coolant system, and is more efficient for the auto manufacturers who want to optimize limited space under the hood while reducing assembly costs. So if any part of your client’s branched hose assembly has failed, there’s no choice but to replace the whole unit, which is more expensive than a single hose. “It’s important to tell your customer that if one branch of the hose has failed, the others are probably ready to fail,” says Gates Chupka, who adds, “OE-equivalent hose is relatively new to the aftermarket and increasingly popular. Now you can simply order an OE-equivalent upper or lower radiator hose as usual from your local parts store.” Chopka notes that while branched hose is found on cooling systems, there is some branched heater hose and in the future it may be found on fuel, oil and vapour recovery systems.

Less selling + more education = profits

A correct diagnosis or check-up plus top-notch installations are essential. But these steps alone won’t guarantee a shop financial success. Today’s most profitable shops still sell and install p
arts, but focus their attention on developing a strong relationship with their clients.

A lot of shops nowadays are operating on the myth that you have to ‘sell’ your customer, says Bob Greenwood. A better approach is to counsel and educate the client “based on how they’re using the vehicle such as kilometres driven per year, (whether it’s) city/highway/off-road and understanding the customer’s expectations of that vehicle. You take that info and compare it with what the manufacturer recommends (using the owner’s manual or the ALLDATA or Mitchell1 system printout of the maintenance schedule) on how that vehicle should be maintained.”

Greenwood advises giving the client that information and simply asking them, “What would you like to do?

The consumer is not stupid today, but they are nave in the sense of vehicle maintenance required. But once they’re informed, they can make the right decision for them. There’s no selling involved… just educate and inform.

Greenwood says that accessories need to be checked automatically to ensure the client’s vehicle is safe and reliable. This means shops need a standardized inspection process.

And forget about carrying the value line, he says. “Stick with quality. When you start selling an inferior product and it fails, the customer doesn’t blame the part, they blame you. Why risk your credibility all because of a price of a part? Quality pays…and better shops don’t want to jeopardize their reputation.”

It’s also essential to bring the labour rate up, says Greenwood, mentioning an example of $80 per hour for mechanical work and $100 per hour for diagnostics. “An average of $78 per hour is required to ensure you’re getting paid to even spend the time with the client.

“People like to be looked after nowadays. They’re there for the service,” says Forbes.

He adds: “The vehicle is their second biggest investment in life… the client needs us to tell them why it’s cheaper to service them properly every 5000 km or three months rather than when it breaks down.”

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