Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2006   by Andrew Brooks

Learning to catch the problem before it breaks

Educating customers can make the upselling of belts and hoses easier.

Despite how much some us like to think otherwise, we’re still a long way from the no-service car: the real, actually existing no-service car that actually needs no service. “Change the oil, check the wipers, maybe replace a filter or two and I’m good to go” is about as far as most car owners go when it comes to preventive maintenance. And that fantasizing causes no end of trouble for the people who have to keep cars in running order.

It’s natural to be wary about parting with cash for something intangible. The problem is this reluctance tends to persuade service managers to think twice before adding apparently mundane – but essential – items like belts and hoses to an estimate, especially when a cost-conscious customer balks at the numbers. The result is belts and hoses, essential as they are to the smooth operation of the electrical, cooling, steering and air conditioning systems are among the most undersold items in the service technician’s armoury. And the power to change this state of affairs lies with the technician – who stands to benefit the most if belts and hoses get their due.

Giving belts, hoses their due

The importance of hoses and belts is probably one reason they tend to get skipped. There are so many different types on the market for so many types of vehicles it’s way beyond the capacity of any service station to stock even a fraction of what is available. Heater, throttle body and radiator hoses, especially on imported models, are custom molded, but even simpler, popular domestic models also vary enough to make inventory a problem. And when replacement requires an overnight order, the manager gets a bigger headache … and the car owner is even more reluctant.

“Replacement is more costly versus 20 years ago, when a simple V-belt or two was recommended to be replaced,” says Marc Therrien, account executive, replacement products with Goodyear’s Engineered Products Division in Toronto. “With drives more complex and serpentine belts much more critical operating all accessories, shops now have to recommend not only the belt but also the tensioner, which can add to consumer costs.” The same goes for the timing belt system, he says, with tensioners again a big part of the picture.

“I don’t know if it’s true that belts are undersold,” says Sandy Wallace, marketing communications manager with Gates Canada in Brantford, Ont. “In the case of the timing belt, for example, a new one is around $100. That’s nothing compared to the cost of replacing the engine when it breaks. So the economies are there. For us, prevention is a strong message we take to our accounts.”

Customer suspicion that upselling belts and hoses is a money grab does contain at least a tiny grain of truth: preventive maintenance of any kind is always a safer, more predictable quantity to the technician. Compared with troubleshooting work, its inventory requirements are relatively easy to anticipate, the labour and time required are predictable, and scheduling is a whole lot easier. Sure the work is routine, and no one ever got rich from it, but from a business manager’s perspective the cost-profit ratio is nice and predictable, and the demand is stable. That makes preventive maintenance a winner for all concerned.

Belt and hose makers are onside too, for obvious reasons, only from their point of view the customer is the service center as well as the driver. Gates runs trade ads around its tensioner products to create awareness among drivers, installers and automotive products outlets. And a new Belt Failure Merchandiser for service centres includes actual examples of belts that demonstrate eight different breakage/wear patterns, including misalignment, rib separation, cracking and chunk-out, with an explanation of each.

“We’ve also launched a new program called Toolbucks,” says Wallace. “The accounts register with the program, and they can get a rebate for every belt or hose of ours that they sell. We also offer premiums – flashlights, tools and MP3 players.”

Winning hearts and minds

As always, one good way to get the customer onside is to enlist the help of the car manufacturer itself by refer to the prescribed maintenance intervals laid out in the vehicle’s manual. Odds are a hefty percentage of drivers are seriously overdue. And, for newer vehicles anyway, there’s always the motivation to maintain warranty protection.

Belts are exempt from the electrochemical degradation that plagues hoses, but they are prone to other ills. Because they run under tension and are deformed very rapidly under severe temperature conditions, they are prone to physical breakdown. They are also dependent on the smooth operation of pulleys and tensioners to keep them at the correct tightness and prevent slippage. Some cooling fans, for example, are driven by a belt-driven fan clutch, and if the clutch belt loses tension the resulting slippage can degrade cooling system performance. So customer awareness can make the case for an ounce of prevention.

“Typically, technicians will check for cracking or chunking in the cushion section of the serpentine belts,” says Therrien. “Usually if there’s even one crack detected it’s a strong signal that the belt is at the end of its natural life and should be replaced.”

Performance-motivated customers aren’t usually hard to sell on a more advanced product, but the technician might have to work a bit harder to make them see the benefit of performance products in this area. An upscale product like Goodyear’s Gatorback line of timing belt kits has the NASCAR name behind it and can be positioned for flexibility, cool running and high tensile cord strength. Gates has introduced its Micro-V belt line, which has a shorter “truncated” profile. Gates says that this increases flexibility, reduces heat buildup and enables higher-speed operation, among other benefits.

New and notable

One newly released technology that aims to increase the number of applications that can be filled from basic stock is Goodyear’s E-Z Coil. This consists of a bendable metal coil that can be wrapped around straight heater hose and then bent to hold a desired configuration. Goodyear says that E-Z Coil meets 26,000 automotive applications and helps managers avoid having to keep some 200 molded heater hose SKUs designed for specific vehicles.

Gates for its part has come out with Unicoil, a product with similar features. “We came out with Unicoil this year,” says Wallace. “As cars get smaller the hoses in the engine have to bend in more and more complex ways, and it becomes a chore for the service center to even try to stock everything. The coil lets the technician bend the hose in any required pattern, and the hose won’t crimp and restrict flow.”

Automotive research and development is creating new possibilities for belts and hoses. New materials include DuraForm Flex from 3D Systems, which can be used as a substitute for urethane, silicone and rubber parts. DuraForm Flex is good for harsh operating conditions as it doesn’t break down in the presence of alcohols, ethers or hydrocarbons and it can handle high heat.

Among synthetic rubbers, EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer), noted for its heat resistance, is also suitable for hoses while polychloroprene, resistant to oil and gas, is used for hoses as well as gaskets. Tango, manufactured by Stratasys, has properties similar to rubber and is ideal for a wide range of automotive applications.

Some warning signs that belts and hoses may need to be replaced.

Educating drivers about them is probably still the best way of getting buy-in for a spot of preventive maintenance.

Obvious signs of belt wear include cracks, uneven wear patterns, chunk-out and rib separation. Cracks are an obvious sign with hoses too, as well as blisters and outright breaks. But some hoses, such as those that carry antifreeze, corrode from the inside out, and while this deterioration isn’t visually obvious, a soft, spongy feel is one clue.

Most belts failures are caused by faulty belt tensioners and pulleys, some of which may actually have shorter service lives than the belt itself. If they’re not replaced as required to maintain proper tension, even a brand new belt can wear very quickly.

Lost tension can lead to a belt slipping or jumping. Gates sells its Micro-V belt/tensioner kit around such known problems as the tendency of serpentine belts on Chrysler 1996-2000 Caravan and Voyager minivans to jump when the vehicle is driven through water or snow.

Be wary of over-tightening belts. This can promote bearing failure, for example in the water pump shaft bearings.

Belts and hoses should obviously be checked at any seasonal transition.

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