Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2009   by CARS Magazine

Checking On The Maintenance Interval

Too many technicians, shops letting profits go by missing underperformed maintenance work on belts and hoses, oxygen sensors

It’s hard right now to find good news for the independent service provider industry. The news is filled with stories of increasing economic problems, rising unemployment and people responding by tightening their money belts. For an independent looking to find extra revenues, the prospect seems bleak.

Randy Chupka, marketing manager, automotive replacement market with Gates Canada Inc. sees things differently. In fact, he finds an untapped profit potential in the care and replacement of belts and hoses, more than most would imagine. He cites a recent AIA Outlook study that found on the road today there are upward of 1.8 million belts that have underperformed maintenance work on them, as well as some 400,000 coolant hoses that have underperformed maintenance work.

“There are lots of opportunities for technicians and shops to take advantage of products that are failing,” he adds. “There are belts and hoses out there that are showing signs of wear and are in need of replacement.”

The reason why shops miss this profit potential is many simply overlook regularly inspecting belts and hoses. “Today’s vehicles are so complex that if the serpentine belt fails, for example, that vehicle does not move. It is important that belts and hoses be inspected and replaced regularly before they fail,” Chupka says.

A regular inspection routine is not hard to implement, and signs of wear on belts are easy to spot and can tell a lot about what exactly is going with the vehicle’s mechanical parts. Rib chunk-out, where there is heavy rib cracking or chunks of rib having broken off from the undercord, could indicate the belt is being subjected to high heat or stress, or the tensioner is worn. Pilling, where there is silvery streaking in the bottom or the grooves, could be a sign that the tensioner is again worn or that the belt is misaligned. Belts can also suffer from gravel penetration, misalignment or damage from fluid contamination, such as coolant or oil. The technician will recognize this by the belt appearing shinny or soft and spongy; or the top ribs of the belt being pointed instead of flat or the tensile cords are peaking through at the bottom of belt grooves.

To catch such problems, it is recommended shops adopt a simple and easy-to-use checklist approach for belt inspection, outlining procedures and what to look for in order to catch problems early. As an example, the checklist can include such simple things as inspecting belt tracking, checking for play in the tensioner pulley or arm, and moving the tensioner arm across the entire range of motion to see if it is moving smoothly and freely in order for the belt to operate properly.

Timing belts are another issue. Usually they are the ones customers hate having to replace because of the time and cost involved. But there is a great benefit here for some extra profits as well. Ken Edwards with CRP Industries Inc. says every technician knows that replacing a timing belt involves more than the belt, as it also includes such things as the water pump, idlers and tensioners, as many have to be removed in order to replace the worn belt. Edwards says it is best that since the timing belt is being replaced, technicians should replace these parts also as they will likely be near the end of their useful life.

“It takes two to three hours to just change the (timing) belt and since you have to remove all of those other components, it is obvious that you should change them as well,” says Edwards. “You don’t want a customer coming back a week later complaining of a failed water pump after you had spent time earlier removing it to replace the belt.”

To make it easier for technicians to replace all of these parts, CRP offers the Pro Series Kit which includes in one package a water pump, tensioner, timing belts and idlers. The 70 kits cover more than 266 vehicle applications for import and domestic makes.

Gates’ Chupka says such kits are a boon to technicians, cutting down on work times and costly call-backs to jobbers to order additional parts.

“A new feature of our company’s kits is the inclusion of cam and crank seals, which we have included with 60+ part numbers,” he adds. “And the current kit line has handful of water pumps, but Gates is soon to release a complete kit line of kits with water pumps includes and be in the 50 SKU range.”

Hose maintenance poses a different set of problems for technicians. Unlike belts where damage and wear is obvious to a visual inspection, it is rare for hoses to show outward signs of problems, especially at the early stages of problems. The simplest test, one which technicians know but sometimes neglect, is to squeeze the ends of the hose and feel for softness or mushiness, which is a signal that the hose has to be replaced. If there is leaking around the clamp area or any signs of abrasions -again, these are signs for replacing the hose. Another problem sometimes encountered is electrochemical degradation, where the different metals in the engine compartment combine with the coolant to cause an electrical charge and a chemical reaction to happen that slowly eats away at the hose. The fix for this is to find a hose replacement that is resistant to this kind of electrochemical decay.

Don’t forget the oxygen sensors

Dave Ehle, chief engineer, vehicle electronics with Delphi Products and Service Solutions says maintaining oxygen sensors today pose rather unique challenges to technicians. Unlike older designs, from the seventies or early eighties, oxygen sensors are made to last in many cases up to 150,000 kilometers before needing to be replaced. In some cases, this is longer than most people will bother owning the vehicle before replacing it with a new one.

Because of the durability of the newest oxygen sensors, technicians have two ways to check for problems. One is using a scan tool to make sure the sensors are working properly and helping maintain proper emissions. Many of today’s sensors, such as Delphi’s Planar oxygen sensors are made to provide faster light-off time for improved emissions performance and better fuel control. Robert Bosch’s Planar Ceramic oxygen sensor as well provide faster response times using an integrated heater to help achieve that improvement, especially during cold weather starts. Replacing older oxygen sensors for newer ones with improved response time and sensitivity can improve fuel efficiency, which is one way to upsell customers on new sensors.

The other thing technicians are encouraged to do is to visually inspect sensors periodically.

Sam Sgro, marketing manager with Robert Bosch Inc. says oxygen sensors fail early because of two things: how a person drives their vehicle and contamination. Looking at an oxygen sensor can pinpoint very quickly what kinds of problems an engine is having and what is contaminating the fuel mix which is shortening the life of he sensor. If the sensors show signs of contamination, then the technician can show the customer and recommend a more careful examination of the engine and systems in order to properly fix the problem.

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