Saturday, 31 May 2003 10:00

Candid review of Strom shop operations continued

Written by Dick Strom

In last month's column, you read a candid review of our shop operation on Banbridge Island, near Seattle, Washington. The review was conducted by Mark Olson, owner of Future Forensics (www.futureforensics.com), and co-owner of Verifacts Automotive. Olson specializes in auto damage investigations and supplying "expert witness" testimony in auto-related court cases. 

This month, Olson continues his critique of on-going repairs at Modern Collision Rebuild. Olson's visit was unannounced and, therefore, quite candid. I think you'll find it instructive - I know we did.

Seam sealing, rust guarantees

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In answer to a tech's question, "Is seam sealing included in crash manual labor times?" Olson answered, "While the seam sealing labor is included, the cost of sealing materials is not. New cars come with a limited rust warranty (such as three years on some models) because the manufacturer knows that even factory E-coat-dipped vehicles will eventually rust.

"So, how can repair shops afford to offer a lifetime warranty? If you are offering a lifetime warranty, it's most likely because your competitors do. Auto manufacturers know that all vehicles, even heavily E-coated ones, will eventually rust out. So, to limit failure, you must go beyond what the manufacturer offers."

Commenting on some incomplete plug welds on a bedside, Olson pointed out, "The idea is to start the weld at the center, getting good penetration there and then spiraling to the outer edges of the plug-weld hole, being sure that the hole is completely filled with weld that sufficiently penetrates all of the panel to which this panel is being welded.

"Any part of the hole left un-welded will cause the entire weld to fail when exposed to sufficient stress. You are expected to produce welds that will react in the next collision the same way the factory welds did in this collision - and partial or poor-penetration welds won't react the same.

"And don't use those spot-weld remover bits that leave a pilot drill hole that must be welded up; it's much better to use a spot weld remover of the type with the adjustable C-clamp wherever possible, so you can regulate how much of the weld you are removing, without damaging the panel underneath."

Pinch-weld prep for glass

Olson continued, "When replacing a roof panel [as well as some quarter panels], remember that the glass is designed to be part of the vehicle's structure. So, rather than painting the pinch-weld before reinstalling the windshield, cover the pinch-weld with tape after applying epoxy primer to it. Never use acid-etching primer. Then after the roof is painted and you pull the tape off the pinch-weld, you have brand new E-coated metal that the W/S urethane will stick to (check with your paint manufacturer and the OEM).

"Remember that the shear strength of basecoat paint to the factory E-coating, and the clearcoat to the basecoat, may not be strong enough to pass a lap-shear test. If there is a weak bond there it doesn't matter how strong the W/S urethane is; it might come apart in a future accident. A number of manufacturers are now recommending this area remain unpainted. And since Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards say that windshields are a structure component, the W/S must be installed in such a way that built-in structural integrity is maintained.

"Possibly the paint is of itself strong enough when properly applied, but did your painter allow for the proper flash-time, considering temperature and humidity, plus any number of other possible considerations? Painting this pinch-weld may not affect the vehicle when it's taken through a carwash, but will the bond stay intact if involved in a subsequent collision?"

The rules (at the time of repair) prevail

"Many times it's not so much that you're doing it wrong (although sometimes this is the case); it's more often a matter of not knowing what the right way is. The bad part is that they keep changing the rules, and the rules that were current when you did the repair are the rules you're going to be held accountable for in a court of law. You're the professional; you're supposed to keep up with the current rules.

"The customer doesn't have to know the rules, and adjusters, technicians, and many shop owners, though they should, often don't keep up with factory authorized repair procedure changes. But you have to know the rules, because you're the professional, and it's your neck that's on the block."

Implement recheck system

"It happens to us all that sometimes we get so involved in a job that we forget to do, or only do partially, some of the small but necessary steps in a repair. So, a better method is to agree with your shop's co-workers to check out each other's work so you can take care of any errors or omissions before it goes to the paint department. Of course your co-worker isn't likely to be too critical of your workmanship because 'what goes around comes around.' But there is real benefit in catching any mistakes you might have made before the vehicle is painted.

"Having such a re-check system agreement between the paint and repair departments will assure better repairs. Knowing your work will be re-checked before it advances to the next department will make all techs much more conscious of the repairs they perform, producing a better end product, fewer re-dos, and fewer headaches for the office.

"To the painters; don't paint over something that's not right. If the weld isn't right, don't paint over it or cover it with seam sealer. Repair techs, when the painter is finished, check out his work to be sure he has paint covering all the nooks and crannies, and seam sealer surrounding all welds. Work as a team, and ask others to check over your work. Eventually, this will raise the standard of quality in any shop."

Note improperly performed repairs

"Documenting improperly performed previous repairs is very important. When a previously-repaired vehicle ends up in your work stall, write down any problems you see and give your list to your office so they can inform the vehicle owner, freeing your shop from assuming responsibility for someone else having taken shortcuts."


Frame rails; to replace or not

Olson asked, "What do you do about a frame rail that you just can't get right? - you pulled it, you squared it, you beat it around with a hammer and it's still not right - so what do you do? (One of the best examples of this is the Jeep Grand Cherokee with trailer hitch- you just can't get it right). Again, the rules you will be held to specify that if you can't get it back to the same state and shape, you must remove it and replace it: Cut and dried!

"On a Jeep and most other Chrysler products, because Chrysler makes no provision for sectioning rails, you can't section the rail; you have to replace it back to where the frame members were joined together in the factory. You may be allowed to section a rail on some other vehicles, but Chrysler has drawn the line, saying, 'If we don't have a sectioning procedure you can't section that rail'… and they don't have a procedure on sectioning most rails. You can find information on sectioning through the I-CAR Tech Center (1-800-TECH990).

On the Grand Cherokee replacing a rail will additionally involve R&I of the fuel tank, the back seat, carpeting, suspension, etc. But right is right. If you do something contrary to the manufacturer recommendations and a problem arises later, you're liable for it because you didn't follow manufacturer (and/or other reliable research testing firms, such as TechCor) recommendations.

"The main point is, don't guess at the repair; use manufacturer or researched recommendations. It can't be stressed too often that the goal in any repair is, if that vehicle is again involved in a similar collision, that it will react in the same way as it did in this collision, which is as originally manufactured.

"Honda used to say, 'Do not section quarter panels.' But when you ordered a quarter panel from Honda, they'd send you the whole side of a car. How many whole sides of a Honda have you actually installed in your career? You didn't replace the whole side when all it needed was a quarter, and so you went against the manufacturer recommendations, and you probably didn't know it.

"So the jeopardy is that if you don't replace panels according to what the factory recommends at the time you replace them, if it later fails, the manufacturer won't have to take the heat… because you will. Since that time, Honda has changed to allow sectioning, but again, according to researched recommendations."

Document, document, document

"Most of the cars we repair don't have a roof seam, so the database time your crash program indicates is to section through the sail panel, even though your database says, 'replace quarter panel.' Now, lets fast- forward that to a court of law. The judge or prosecuting attorney (who know nothing about unibody construction) will ask you, 'Did you, or did you not, replace the entire quarter panel -- yes or no?' When you reply, 'No, I didn't,' the court may reply, 'But it says right here on your final billing, "Replace quarter panel."

Obviously, you didn't do what you said you were going to do, but instead sectioned in the panel.' So now, in the eyes of a court of law, because you didn't take a minute to write the clarifying line into your estimate and final billing stating 'section in panel according to database,' you are in the wrong, even though you did it correctly as specified in the database of your system. If you document every step of the repair process, then you're protected. Compose your paper-trail so it can easily be comprehended by anyone, even by those who don't have a clue about collision repair, because few judges, jurors and attorneys do."

California BAR now checks quality

The California Bureau of Automotive Repair [BAR] has recently begun doing quality and proper repair inspections in conjunction with their fraud inspections; in other words, the California government agency is now also checking the quality of repairs.

"In their fraud inspections, the BAR is looking at things such as did you section the quarter and charge for the whole thing, to which shops say, 'What's the difference? We did it exactly as we always have.' But remember, the customer doesn't know what your crash database does or does not allow.

"When your paperwork says 'Replace quarter panel', and you sectioned it in, even though your crash database says sectioning in the sail panel is the accepted way, the court isn't likely to rule in your favor. So, again, document to the office (through notes, change-order sheets, or whatever) everything you do in the repair, so when the job is done there's a paper-trail of accountability.

"And if your shop doesn't presently have a means for your techs to communicate with your office [ours does] to insert these seemingly small items in the final billing, they'd best establish one. The final billing that the customer walks out the door with is the paperwork that will be looked at if they go somewhere else.

"Shops can't continue putting things under the carpet, because from now on there are re-inspection services checking, and they know where your dirt is likely to be located under your carpet. They won't be checking all the time, but certainly enough of the time to put you out of business. If the customer or re-inspection company finds one discrepancy, you usually will be required to just re-repair it correctly. Normally, though, when they find one discrepancy they'll find more, which could escalate to a DV claim. So cover all your bases, giving them no reason to dig."

What initiates DV claims

"Most of the DV claims I'm called on to assess are initiated by customer complaints that the car doesn't drive right, or the paint doesn't match. That's what normally starts the DV process. The problem arises when the customer complains to the insurer who refers them back to you. But they may not want to have you re-repair their car; why should they trust you to re-repair their car when you did it wrong to begin with.

"So the customer may call someone like Future Forensics. When this happens, I try to do whatever I can to convince the vehicle owner to give you first shot at re-repairing it correctly. But most re-inspection services don't offer you this courtesy (many are assessing DV to pull cars into their own shop, or that of an acquaintance).

And quite frankly, by this late in the game the customer is most likely disgruntled with you, anyway. So you're the one who gets hurt because the cost of re-repair could be as much as three or four times your original repair bill. You have no control over inherent DV; it's repairer-related DV - the improper repair - that is your problem."

We can't change our past

"We all have that repair in mind right now, the one in which we reasoned, 'That kink under the battery tray isn't worth worrying about; just cover it with heavy undercoat and send it down the road.' I've allowed some questionable things to slip through my hands too when I owned a shop. The point is that we can't change what we did yesterday, but we can change what we do and how we do it from this moment on.

"I state again, the goal of any repair is to put the vehicle back to the same state and shape as it was originally manufactured, so that it reacts the same way in the next collision as it did in this collision, and is cosmetically correct. Isn't this what the customer wants, and is owed?"

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, 9270 Miller Road, NE, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; (206) 842-8056; email: moderncol@aol.com.