Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2004   by John G. Smith

Big Equipment, Bigger Returns

Spend wisely when sourcing major tools like lifts and compressors. Your shop's productivity is at stake

When sourcing the major equipment that will serve your shop for years to come, it’s important to balance your zeal to save a few bucks with the potential to grow your business. After all, you might be surprised by the difference that some of your options can make.

For example, times have changed since many shops bought their last lifts, suggests John Van Loenen, Hofmann Balancing’s national sales and marketing manager for Canada. Modern overhead designs keep the shop floor clear of electric and hydraulic controls, he says. And perhaps the biggest difference has been the adoption of ever-higher capacities.

“In the days I started 27 years ago, the lifts were 5,500 lb. Today they go at 9,000 lb. and up,” Van Loenen says. “Ten thousand [pounds] is going to become the standard.”

However, there are arguments for the purchase of even stronger lifts, says Dennis Moise, Canadian sales manager for Mohawk Resources. Sure, cars have become lighter, but their sales have been matched by ever-larger SUVs and pick-ups. With a heavier lift, a shop can accept heavier business that would otherwise be turned away to competitors.

Just keep in mind that there are disadvantages to going too big. A 15,000-lb lift may be low enough to pick up a car, but large enough to handle a Yukon that shows up in the service bay. Lifts with 18,000 or 20,000 lb capacities may not be able to reach under smaller vehicles, he says. “You’re going to wind up having to pick up the car with a floor jack and setting it on the lift.”

Granted, there are differentials in price. A 9,000 lb. lift can cost $5,000 to $7,000; its 15,000-lb. counterparts can double that. But Moise suggests looking around the shop for any $10,000 turquoise tool boxes, which can put the investment into perspective.

“This is probably the cheapest tool in your entire shop, and it’s one that you use the most … a garage can’t repair cars unless it has a lift.”

Once a lift is purchased, it can last a decade or two if you care for it. Moise says minor components might need to be replaced after three years of service, and active shops may want to replace the equipment every eight to 10 years to ensure lift problems don’t lead to, well, downtime.

But that means an extra $5,000 cost can be recovered with just another $500 per year in sales.

“That’s one service call per year,” Moise says. “When an F350 comes in for an oil change, it doesn’t come in and out for $9.95”.

When choosing a style of lift, Van Loenen suggests the most versatility will be found in a two-post design. But 20 per cent of the market still purchases four-post and scissor lift designs, the latter of which can help higher shops maximize their floor space, he says.

And in-ground lifts can offer additional flexibility in tight spaces.

“We’re finding a tremendous resurgence in the in-ground product,” says John Rylee of Rotary Lift. “Most people looking at this haven’t been in the in-ground market for many years. They’re thinking of fluid leaching into the soil, into the pit, into the ground, into the streams. That’s the old style product.”

Lifts are now available with polymer cassettes that prevent those problems, he says.

“It’s certainly easier to install, because you’re dropping the entire mechanism and cassette into the ground, and we’re also reducing the fluid [that leaches from the pit]. Now it’s environmentally friendly, and the cassette and the mechanism make it easier to service.”

In-ground installations will cost more than above-ground designs, but they may offer an easy way to expand a shop with a limited amount of property. By saving 1/12 of the floor space when compared to other lift designs, you’ll be able to fit as many as 10 lifts along one side of a 65-foot shop, he says, adding,

“It’s all about productivity. How much more productive and efficient I can make my technicians, how many more jobs I can run through my shop.”

A series of lift attachments could also mean additional business opportunities.

“Speed lanes” that come in the form of three-foot aluminum ramps can create affordable quick lube bays, Moise suggests. Turf attachments can let those who service municipal fleets pick up lawn mowers. And one of the most important additions to a lift could be the truck pick-up pads for models that don’t have truck extensions, ensuring the equipment can handle the automotive market’s growing number of light trucks.

“We’ve integrated air and electric outlets on the lift so [a technician] doesn’t need to run hoses across the shop,” Rylee adds. “We’ve got features and holders and air reels on the lift, so everything is dedicated to the product … it increases productivity.”

Modern lifts are also available with electronic controls that can be used to raise or lower the device with the push of a touch pad, says Rylee. And the same device can be used to verify pick-up points on the vehicle, offer maintenance reminders, and detail safety procedures.

There’s another advantage to the single-touch controls. “If you have a traditional lift with two-hand operation, to expedite raising a lift, a lot of times a technician will tie off the locking lever so he doesn’t have to hold it up,” he says. “That creates a very unsafe condition.”


Meanwhile, your choice of compressor will play a key role in operating an array of shop tools, and it’s important to consider the trade-off between related costs and features.

“If you [simply] go for sticker price, you can expect to have more downtime,” says Devair’s Frank Quinn. “When it comes to re-purchasing, you have to weigh out the installation cost with the downtime you can expect over a reasonable period of time, say five years.”

An average garage won’t use a compressor 100 per cent of the time, leaving it to pump up an occasional tire or power a pneumatic tool, he says. But the costs of downtime increase substantially with multi-bay operations, since a dead compressor will idle several mechanics at a time.

When choosing the size of a compressor, one of the most important figures to consider is its CFM (cubic feet per minute) displacement, which reflects the amount of air used to perform a job. The statistic itself is merely a multiple of bore, stroke and rpm, but it’s the true indication of the compressor’s efficiency.

As the pressure (reflected in PSI or KPa) increases, the CFM will drop, meaning that you can create a higher CFM at a lower pressure. Just keep in mind that individual tools may require a specific pressure.

“In terms of maintenance, if you want to maximize the operation of that compressor, and also the lifetime, the biggest thing you can do is drain the tank every day,” Quinn adds. “[If moisture accumulates], you have less air on demand and your pump is going to be working overtime to keep up.”

If you’re scratching your head wondering when you last drained your compressor, you aren’t alone. “Draining once a year is more likely than daily,” he says. “We’ve been to some shops, the thing’s almost gurgling… the reservoir was half a tire load.”

A way to ensure the tanks are always properly drained is to source a model with a time- or pressure-activated automatic drain.


Like the floors under lifts, the clutter surrounding alignment machines has also been removed with the advent of cordless heads, says Richard Fawcett, a product trainer with Snap-On tools.

On the surface, there may not appear to be a reason to go with a high-end design, he admits. “Each machine is just about as fast, so you’re not going to see as much of a difference there.”

But the added profits come once you consider the time required to operate the different levels of machines, he says. Entry-level machines are simply more difficult to operate.


Meanwhile, new vehicle technology has created a demand for upgraded engine analyzers, suggests Fawcett. Earlier versions of the diagnostic equipment were hooked up with a pick-up lead around the Number 1 spark plug, and a pattern lead over the coil wire. But that isn’t possible on vehicles that use coil-over-plug ignition systems, so complete tests become four individual tests, the results of which have to be compared to manufacturer specifications.

“The technician has to make his own diagnostic opinion about what passes and what fails,” he says of that set-up. “More often than not, they don’t have the ability to look at the ignition system with the scope. It’s all by guess and by golly.”

And since it can take 4 1/2 hours to replace the plugs on a Ford pick-up, “you want to make sure they are, in fact, faulty,” he adds.

It’s simply a matter of having the right tools for the job.

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