Friday, 07 February 2014 18:35

Shops Weather All Kinds of Winter Weather Disruptions but More Polar Vortex Coming?

This January added another new meteorological term to collective vocabulary even though the phenomenon it describes has been known since 1853. January 2014 started off with a frigid slow-moving cyclone known as a polar vortex that wrought havoc throughout the midwest and eastern parts of the country with record-breaking low temperatures and icy winds.

Worse news perhaps is that the polar vortex will get stronger and move farther south later in January, causing cold to intensify in the Midwest and East and drought to build in California and the West. Impact from the another surge of very cold air may include the already familiar risks from below-zero temperatures including life-threatening conditions and frostbite. The new invasion of frigid air will produce lake-effect snow downwind of areas of open water. While much of Lake Erie has frozen over, most of the other Great Lakes are still open. Some areas immediately downwind of Lake Erie may get colder with a late January outbreak (compared to the last) as a result.

Beginning on Thursday, January 2nd, the polar vortex spewed snow and freezing rains throughout the country until about Tuesday, January 7th. Over two dozen states from the Midwest to the Northeast and even the Southeast were impacted by this cold front, so it’s no surprise that this unusual event also affected many businesses nationwide, including collision repair facilities.

Tiger’s Body Shop in Chicago fortunately did not suffer many ill effects, according to Greg Yonan, a member of the family that owns the facility. “It was really cold, and though there may have been an increase in accidents related to the icy road conditions, we haven’t seen the effects yet. Monday, Jan. 6, was so cold that we had several appointment cancellations because people didn’t want to leave their homes.”

Though their equipment worked fine since the inside of their shop was well-heated, the water coming in from the street froze, and they had to wait for the city to come out and solve that problem. Overall, though, Yonan notes that it has been business as usual.

Mike Hartman, owner of Hartman Auto Body Inc. in Waterloo IN, noted some effects from the weather because “when a major storm is forecast in advance, people heed the warning and stay off the streets. It also impacted volumes quite a bit. We have had a couple of cancellations each week for the last three weeks because customers do not want to get out in the snow or extremely cold temperatures.”

In terms of operations, Hartman experienced several cold-related technical difficulties; “our paint booth quit working when it was -18 degrees Fahrenheit and -40 degrees Fahrenheit on the wind chill. I had to go on top of the roof, which had 12 inches of snow on it, to reset the main computer module. What a trip! It’s also harder to write a very accurate estimate when customers bring their car in and it is covered with snow, ice and salt. We would really like to have the vehicle for half a day so we could wash it and let it thaw out.”

Debbie Ross, Office Manager at Route 1 Auto Body in Fairfield, CT, their shop was lucky enough that the unprecedented low temperatures didn’t really have a negative impact on their business or their equipment. “We have been able to service all of our customers. Other than wearing more layers of clothes, we have been lucky… We did have a few new customers whose collisions were a result of sliding on black ice but not many. I think that because the worst weather was on a weekend, there were less people on the road because they didn’t have to be.”

For Don Mallon Chevrolet in Norwich, CT, the Polar Vortex generated more business, according to Collision Manager, Dawn Barden. “It has actually brought us more business, more front and rear bumper covers cracking upon a minor impact, instead of flexing. One of the customers said that a shopping carriage rolled into her front cover, and it left a hole in it . They are breaking like ice or glass shattering… I do not think that it has affected our business in a negative way here in the collision center; however, in our service department, it has definitely slowed them down; people do not want to drive out in the colder weather unless they have to!”

Don Mallon Chevrolet did suffer some technical inconveniences due to the weather, though. “Our paint booth sprinkler heads froze and broke, leaking in the booth and making us two days behind on paint after repairs were made. My painter says that it is taking more time for the bake cycle now, and we have added an additional heater in the paint mix room as we have water-based paint which is at a greater risk of freezing now with the low temperatures. The heater in our office has not been able to keep up with the colder weather either, plus my customers’ cars are having issues with the lift gates freezing because the gate shocks grease probably froze,” Barden said.

Craig Camacho, Marketing Director at Keenan Auto Body Inc. in Clifton Heights, PA, notes that their volumes have increased by 25% across the board.

“Claim volume has increased in our entire servicing footprint, directly related to the recent low temps, snow and ice… Our tooling and machinery was not affected one bit, but our locations were hindered by the snowfall and the need for snow plows and salt.”

Though Keenan Auto Body experienced some delays due to their technicians being unable to work, Camacho looks upon this dilemma graciously. “As they say, family first. Many of our employees and techs were home taking care of their own driveways and walkways, ensuring their families’ safety and the safety of others as their primary focus. Our customers were made aware by our staffs that, due to the low temperatures, heavy snowfall and ice developing, there may be delays in completing their vehicles on time.”

Rich Tornetta, Marketing Communications Manager of eight CollisionMax Auto Body and Glass Centers in PA and NJ, notes quite a few issues caused by the Polar Vortex. “Customers sometimes would not show up for their scheduled estimate appointments or repairs. This could be due to cars not starting, being buried in snow or the roads not being adequately plowed and salted for safe travel. The weather has delayed our technicians who’ve had issues making it in to work on time due to unsafe driving conditions, cars not starting or being plowed in by passing trucks. We’d spend time digging out vehicles to be repaired and then gaining access to the parts in the storage facilities which are commonly located outdoors. Some mornings were spent plowing and shoveling outside bays to get cars in. Once the vehicles got into the shop, we’d sometimes use heat guns and/or air hoses to melt and remove the remaining snow/ice. The time spent cleaning the storage facilities is time not spent repairing vehicles, so this had a negative effect on production.”

Tornetta said that CollisionMax had to postpone valet delivery of vehicles to their customers because of the unsafe driving conditions, and there were also delays with parts deliveries which, in turn, caused delays in repairs. He adds, “below freezing temperatures made mobile auto glass repair and replacement difficult for our technicians both due to unsafe travel conditions and because their fingers would get numb within minutes of being outside.”  There were also some technical difficulties as “the spray booth and older equipment tend to fail during cold streaks because they’ve been working overtime,” Tornetta explains.

On the positive side, Tornetta notes that “collision workflow is up about 15% compared to what we normally run. Our glass business saw a spike in volume as well, due to the extremely low temperatures which caused many windshields with small chips to crack. In some instances, increased non-drivable volume has caused extended scheduling on drivable repairs.”

As we move further south, we see less impact from the cold weather. According to Assistant Manager Walt Link, at Nalley Collision in Doraville, GA, suffered few effects caused by the abnormally cold weather. A few employees were delayed due to the snow, but the cold weather did not impact volumes or cause any problems with equipment.

“We had a bit of ice in the parking lot, but we didn’t have an issue.” Link is uncertain whether volumes were affected as business seems to be picking up as usual after the holidays, with numbers appearing to be consistent with last year.

Alysia Hanks, Office Manager of Lakeway Collision in Mandeville, LA, states “the weather didn’t really affect us in anyway, except that our guys hate working in the cold, so production slowed down a lot!”

The Polar Vortex is a regular circulation of strong winds surrounding the Arctic Pole, but normally, these winds keep the coldest air trapped in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Occasionally the vortex can become distorted, permitting this super cold air to travel further south. Though it is inconvenient and certainly unpleasant, the Polar Vortex of early January 2014 seems to have had little long-lasting impact on most shops’ operations.

However, meteorologists say the during the third and fourth weeks of January, more changes will take place. The high amplitude pattern is forecast to get more extreme.pattern will gradually change the current mixture of Pacific and Arctic air in the Canada Prairies and the North Central U.S. to all Arctic air. The air will get significantly colder over the Canada Prairies and the much of the eastern half of the nation as a result.

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