Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2007   by Nestor E. Arellano

Winter can be tough on drivers, but a profit boon for independents

Technicians have numerous opportunities to educate, sell car owners on the importance of winter maintenance

Winter is usually when the worst defects or neglected maladies of a vehicle make themselves apparent. The winter season also packs the most potential for misery coming from frequently overlooked tasks such as topping up vital auto fluids or ensuring an adequate battery charge.

For example, the thought of investing in winter tires only enters the minds of some drivers when their car is already skidding into the gutter on a set of badly word rubber radials at the first snow fall, or all-seasons that are really not able to handle harsh Canadian winter driving conditions.

Helping a customer embark on a winterizing maintenance program well before the winter season begins can save them from a lot of hardship down the road, or at the very least winding up in a ditch during a snow storm.

But how do you go about convincing them of the need to prepare their vehicles for the winter months?

“In regards to selling winter maintenance, the reality that it is often not until the first snow hits that people realize that winter is really going to come,” said Bruce Eccles, owner of Bruce Eccles Auto Service Inc. in Dundas, Ont. “We can tell them right now to start thinking of doing a seasonal service check, but it is only when that first November freezing rain storm comes that they begin to think they had better get those tires checked.”

The problem is that by then it is often too late. So the best shops, SSGM has found, take the time right now in the waning days of summer and the early days of fall, to remind their regular customers about winter maintenance. They mail flyers, special winterization packages and even remind them when they come in for an oil change that Old Man Winter is on the way. And they put those customers on a winter maintenance program as part of their regular maintenance inspections and work.

“I will offer a bumper-to-bumper inspection specifically for getting ready for winter,” added Rocco Soranno, owner of the Toronto-based North/South Auto Sales. “That inspection will give me a very good idea of the condition of the vehicle and what works needs to be done to get ready for winter.”

While much of what will be covered here is not new to experienced technicians, it is surprising how new a lot of this is to car owners and provides an excellent opening for winterization up-sell opportunities and increased profits for the shop.

Sight for sore eyes

“Out of sight and out of mind” is a common excuse for sidestepping badly needed maintenance chores. But the most elementary and cheapest winterizing procedure is staring motorists in the eye, and an easy sale to make.

Keeping the windshield clear to ensure a clean line of sight is a basic requirement for any driving condition, whether it be a heavy downpour or a sudden blizzard. Yet windshield wipers are one of the most neglected items in a car, according to Cameron Young, national sales manager for Robert Bosch Inc., of Mississauga, Ont.

There is a reason for that. Windshield wipers just seem to be there and do the job when required. However, when a winter storm hits, those wipers have to move a lot of snow, deal with ice and often high levels of wind that can buffet a car on its drive to work and later back home. Because of these harsh conditions and the greater need for the wipers to work at peak performance for the safety of the driver and passengers, it is recommended that technicians take the time during a winter maintenance program to check the blades for wear and ask the owner whether he or she notices the wiper not behaving properly or doing a poor job of moving rain or snow.

Heavy-duty wipers made especially for winter months are an option. Ordinary wipers can quickly become packed with ice and snow, causing streaking and poor performance. Winter blades are made so that the rubber boot keeps snow and ice from getting into the blade’s components and then freezing up. This provides a consistent wiper performance and improves overall safety.

“Wipers should really be inspected every season and changed every 12 months,” suggested Young. “During winter months, some customers are tempted to go for the heavy-duty wipers, but regardless, what drivers need to be told is that they must have good quality blades. For example, the Bosch Icon blade has no metal structure and the blade relies on a dual-rubber technology to eliminate chatter and ice build-up.”

Liquid Assets

If wiper blades are often neglected by drivers when winter hits, the same goes for such things as antifreeze and other fluids. Some car owners probably suspect a “cash grab” when technicians suggest vital fluids change said Dennis Favaro, marketing manager of Vavoline Canada Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.

Favaro, himself, doesn’t think that all auto fluids should changed for winter driving, “but levels and concentration should be checked shortly before the season begins for possible top up or flush and refill.”

During summer months, it is possible for coolants to have been diluted due to topping off the solution with water. If the coolant is low in glycol, it needs to be topped off with a concentrated solution of anti-freeze. If the glycol concentration is too high, the coolant has to be flushed and a new solution added.

Many drivers believe that coolants do not have to be changed very often. But while antifreeze products are now rated to last up to five years in some cases, it is recommended that coolant be replaced every two years and the vehicle given a regular coolant systems flush, especially when winter is starting to approach.

“With coolant, I will check the coolant strength and its conditions,” North/South’s Soranno added. “If it is crystal clear, then it’s fine. But if I notice contamination, that it has become murky or mixture is getting close to its freezing point, I will recommend to the customer that they get a complete flush.”

It is also recommended that technician check if the water pump is leaking or if hoses to and from the engine and radiator are showing signs of deterioration. Another fluid that needs to be checked is the break fluid. Technicians must make sure that it is at the proper level and that no leaks are present in the system or that no air has seeped into the lines.

Treads of thought

The most vital and important maintenance item for winter driving are the tires. But despite frequent warnings, most drivers keep the all-season tires they have been using through the summer on their cars well into the winter months.

While all-season tires are adequate for the most driving conditions, all-season treads simply do not provide the needed traction for winter driving, according to Normand Latremouille, winter segment manager for Michelin North America (Canada) Inc. in Laval, Que.

He said some drivers have the mistaken notion that snow tires are only needed when the roads are full of ice and snow.

“The truth is all-season tires do not perform well even in dry roads when the pavement is cold,” he added.

Rubber used in this type of tire loses flexibility as the temperature drops. The loss in flexibility greatly diminishes a tire’s ability to grip the road. According to the Rubber Association of Canada, when the temperature drops to below seven Celcius, the compounds used in standard tires begin to lose elasticity, resulting in the aforementioned loss of traction or grip. The formulization of winter tire rubber, however, allows the rubber to remain flexible under extremely cold conditions, thereby improving grip, critical in winter driving.

As well, it is recommended that technicians take the time to check the tread depth as well as for signs of wear or sidewall damage. All the shops contacted by SSGM said that if any of these problems are discovered, they need to be pointed out the customer along with an explanation of the safety hazards these problems can mean for them, and why they should replace the tires if severe. Checking the tires pressure is critical and it offers a great
opportunity to educate drivers on the importance on regularly checking tire pressure in order to ensure safe driving in winter months.

Something technicians must remind drivers as well is that if they decide to purchase winter tires the tires should be installed on all four corners of the car to ensure proper traction. The temptation is to save money by only asking for winter tires in the front of the car if it is a front-wheel drive vehicle or just for the back tires. While the driver may think they are saving money, a technician and shop owner must point out that such a choice is inviting trouble. For instance, if winter tires are installed only in the front of a front-wheel drive car, the rear wheels will inevitably lose grip when taking a corner or when the car hits a bad patch of winter road and the rear of the car begins to fishtail. This is a hazard not only for the driver, but for anyone else on the road. The same goes for putting winter tires on the back only.

If there is one problem with selling winter tires, it has been the unseasonably warm weather some parts of Canada have been experiencing during the winter months. Ontario last winter did not any substantial snow fall until well into January and there were some days before that snow that temperatures reached into the mid-teens and flowers and trees started to bloom.

“Most clients know that there is a difference between regular tires and snow tires,” said Bruce Eccles. “And the biggest selling point for winter tires is when there is a big snow storm and people can’t get out of their driveways or get home because the car is stuck in the snow at work. But last year, we had so little snow, it was a hard sell. That could all change this year with a big snow storm early.”

Bright lights

The more light you have, the more you can see and the safer you’ll be.

This is one simple rule that Rinaldo Sardella, national account manager for GE Lighting Canada follows.

Toronto losses approximately six hours of sunlight in the winter and the farther north one travels, the less daylight one gets. “The coming of the winter months always presents an opportunity to promote road safety and up-sell from standard bulbs to high output units,” said Sardella.

He said GE standard lamps provide adequate lighting, but the company’s ultra-bright Nighthawk units claim 30 per cent increased brightness over the standard original equipment halogen, plus they give off that white or blueish light that is so in vogue with the high end manufacturers. Incidentally, a similar product is also available from Osram/Sylvania Ltd, should that be your supplier of choice.

If this simulated HID look is not enough for your client, there are retrofit kits available, but Sardella did have some reservations. He cautioned that true HID units come as a ballast and lamp assembly. Some aftermarket vendors might purport to sell HID units that do not come with ballast, he said.

Further, over time, headlamp lenses tend to grow dull from constant exposure to the elements. Auto shops can offer a lens restoration service as an added or separate service, Sardella said.

Spray-on lens restoration kits that polish dull lenses to their former splendor are available.

For those willing to step-up to a full blow (and legal) retrofit kit, there are a myriad of possibilities. Robert Bosch Inc. has its Xenon lighting technology for improved nighttime visibility. The company said, the bulbs provide 2.5 times more illumination than standard incandescent lamps but eat up only 35 watts of power compared to the 55 watts needed by most halogen lamps.

Once the right lights are installed, technicians must also check that they are properly focused — trained on the road ahead and not the oncoming vehicle.

Get a boost

Anyone who has stood out in the cold, booster cable in hand waiting for a kindly motorist to give him a boost knows how winter can be a drain on car batteries. Still most motorists choose to ignore the signs of a dying battery. Winter and summer are the two seasons that take a heavy toll on batteries.

High temperatures will corrode the internal components. Come winter, the battery might look fine on the outside, but the damage inside will prevent the unit from getting the charge it needs.

Batteries can last a long time in places with moderate weather, such as Canada’s West Coast. But the extreme variations between cold and hot weather in other parts of the country shortens a battery’s life. A battery can lose as much as 35 per cent of its power when temperatures take a dive, something that is not unusual during the variable Canadian winter.

“What I like to do is visually show the customer what I’m looking at and what I’m finding with their battery,” said Debra Richardson, service writer for Wally Clayson’s Master Mechanic in Toronto. “I will show them what the voltage of the battery should be and where the battery is right now. So if their battery during the test drops to 6-Volts and it should really be at 9.6-Volts, I will explain to them what that means and what will happen. I will tell them that the battery only starts the car and you start you are running on the alternator, unless something happens to the alternator and then you running on your battery. So you really need a strong battery for that scenario. I find that an educated customer is the best customer.”

North/South’s Soranno does a battery check on all cars coming into his shop when the winter months start to approach, and “I will tell the customer whether they have a weak battery or if it is on the borderline. If it is, I will tell them that the battery will likely fail when it gets cold.”

While everything written here is rather old-hat, as the expression goes, it is surprising how often car owners need to be reminded of them. Technicians have a great opportunity to educate their customers on the importance of this kind of winter maintenance. Sure, some customers might be hesitant, but they can be reminded that the cost of doing these kinds of inspections, replacement of worn items or purchase of such things as batteries and winter tires are a small price to pay for the added safety they will provide.

Reference List

GE Lighting Canada

Honeywell Consumer Products

Michelin North America (Canada) Inc.

Osram Sylvania Ltd.

Robert Bosch Inc.

Vavoline Canada Ltd.

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