Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2014   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Hybrid Maintenance

The profit potential for shops is huge; but only if they get the training and get their message out to the public

Service operations looking for new profit centres may want to give serious consideration to hybrid vehicle maintenance.

Once a vehicle only for enthusiasts, hybrids are fast becoming mainstream. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were a little over two million hybrid-gas/diesel-electric vehicles on U.S. roads in 2011. Consider the Toyota Prius. It was once a vehicle dismissed as a toy for celebrities or the wealthy looking to appear more ‘green’ than their colleagues down the street. Green Car Reports finds that last year the Prius was one of the top selling brands in California.

Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC), a respected North American trainer on hybrid and electric vehicles, says hybrids are going to become a major part of any service operation’s core business; the question is, whether technicians and shop owners are willing to make the investments in training needed to profit from the growing number of hybrid vehicles on the road.

“There are a lot of guys in their fifties and sixties who don’t want to do it,” he continues. “And for those shops that do have the expertise and trained staff, less than ten per cent feel comfortable advertising that they service hybrids.”

Van Batenburg adds that some technicians are thrown by hybrid vehicle maintenance as some systems behave differently on a hybrid than on a traditional gasoline or diesel vehicle. Hybrids lack a traditional starter, the braking system is brake-by-wire and sometimes the vehicles can throw warning lights that take a bit of time to diagnose.

“There is a great opportunity for auto repair facilities to redefine their businesses by adding hybrid service to their offerings,” adds David Taylor, hybrid product manager at Dorman Products. “The good news is that customers will drive hundreds of miles to get service done by a well trained, well equipped shop. When I owned my shop in North Carolina [Taylor Automotive], we drew customers as far north as Canada and west to Texas; and the current owners have continued this success. I have found that hybrid owners are flocking from dealer service bays seeking a more satisfying experience. If we are willing to do our part to capture that market, we will continue to reap the benefits for many years to come.”

Tom Mackenzie, shop foreman and technician with Taylor Automotive, says that technicians already have many of the needed skills and expertise to work on hybrid technologies, and “if you have a good grip on electricity, you follow the proper procedures for the vehicle and test the key component, there is nothing difficult about them. Some technicians have this fear that the systems are too complex to work on or that you need lots of specialized training or that the technology could kill them. The opposite is true.”

What You Need To Know

David Hobbs, field trainer and course developer with Delphi Products and Service Solutions says many of the underlying mechanics of a hybrid vehicle are similar to today’s traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles. However, because of how hybrids operate, with their combination of gasoline and electric systems, technicians have to keep top-of-mind that those normal maintenance routines and intervals will be different.

“When we cover hybrid maintenance and repair, that question [is there are lot similarity between hybrids and traditional gasoline vehicles?] comes up a lot,” Hobbs continues. “Let’s take the topic of oil changes. Technicians know that a great deal of your time is stopping at read lights or operating at low speeds. This means the gas engine will not be running. And this could go on for several blocks or even several miles, if you happen to be operating at a low throttle. Because the engine is not running, the oil is not breaking down. So going by the conventional three to five thousand mile oil change, or more if using a synthetic, now flies out of the window.”

Air conditioning presents a unique set of issues that technicians will have to confront. First, the old mechanical belt system that ran the air conditioning systems in early hybrids has largely been sent out to pasture. Take the Prius as an example. In 2004, the Prius moved to electric compressors and the Ford Escape hybrid in 2010 moved to using electric compressors. The Volt has always used electric compressors for operating the air conditioning system. So why is this suddenly an issue?

“There are two types. The types that receive three-phase voltage AC from the inverter to operate the compressor,” says Hobbs. “In 2010, we have electric compressors that use DC voltage. [There is a] positive and negative cable from the battery pack, but on top there is a small inverter and it tells the system to change the DC to AC.”

Hobbs continues that this becomes an issue when it comes to what kind of oil to use in maintaining the A/C system. Traditionally, systems would use PAG oils to lubricate and maintain the system. However, using PAG oil will actually harm the air conditioning system in a hybrid. Instead, what is needed is polyolester or ester oil (POE). Hobbs adds that it is critical that technicians avoid mistakenly placing PAG oil into a hybrid A/C system as it will damage the system. If using a refrigerant machine, it is critical that it either be one specific to hybrid vehicles only, or a dual-purpose machine that prevents cross-contamination.

“Many of the systems that require routine maintenance on non-hybrid vehicles will also require maintenance on hybrid vehicles since the gasoline-powered drivetrain is still used,” adds Dorman’s Taylor. “Many of these systems, such as brakes, will require less frequent service due to the fact that hybrid vehicles use regenerative braking in the place of friction braking at all but the slowest speeds. Most hybrids do require specialized fluids for motor oil, transmission fluids and A/C service, due to the proximity of high voltage systems and overall fuel savings qualities.”

Taylor continues that even the batteries on hybrids should not give technicians nightmares or concerns, as some suggest. “With hybrids having been on the road in the U.S. for fifteen-plus years, most experts will agree that with the exception of a few recalls, the hybrid batteries need no maintenance or service prior to when the vehicle illuminates a warning light to indicate a problem. Performing service prior to that time has not proven to extend battery life or improve fuel economy.”

You Need To Tell People You are a Hybrid Shop

Craig Van Batenburg finds it surprising that shops that do take the training and get the expertise needed to successfully service hybrids, do very little to advertise their services to the hybrid community. To rectify this problem, Van Batenburg started the Hybrid Shop Locator website, now part of his ACDC training website ( The website helps shops get known to hybrid vehicle owners and helps hybrid owners find service operations that are qualified to service their vehicles.

Dorman’s Taylor agrees that service operations need to be more proactive when it comes to promoting their hybrid service work and expertise. But the work will pay off in the end. “They need to build a quality website that offers the consumer ample information about why they should trust your shop with their hybrid vehicle,” Taylor continues. “Hybrid car owners are particular about details, so if you and your staff are not paying attention to the details, hybrid service may not be something to consider. And actually familiarize yourself with hybrid vehicle operation by owning or renting one for an extended period of time. It is pretty embarrassing when the first customer arrives and you don’t even know how to start the car or what the normal operation for a particular model is.”

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