AKRON—Perhaps it's possible to "make do" and continue approaching the light truck and sport-utility vehicle market with the same time-tested equipment and products your shop always has used for mounting, balancing and aligning passenger tires and wheels.
But replacing antiquated service equipment and similarly updating your inventory of related tools and products will help establish your dealership as a specialist in the increasingly important LT market.
What's more, it also will reduce labor costs and probably improve your shop's bottom line in the bargain, several dealers and suppliers told Tire Business.
Questioned as to what equipment, products and accessories they considered most useful in servicing LT and SUV tires, these experts offered the following recommendations:
A European or rim-clamp tire changer to help protect the finish of costly original equipment and custom wheels;
A wheel balancer that permits so-called "match-mounting" and "tire optimization" processes in remedying the vibration, ride and handling complaints of an increasingly demanding SUV and LT clientele;
Alignment racks and lifts capable of accommodating the new heavier and longer-wheelbase light trucks and SUVs—some of which sport "dualie" rear wheels requiring runways with increased track width or clearance;
A computerized wheel-alignment system featuring up-to-date vehicle specifications and other software programs that simplify the technician's task and shorten the time required;
Accessories such as lift extensions or blocks to engage the frame when the vehicle's increased height makes frame-contact otherwise difficult; plus
A sufficient supply of aftermarket alignment components, such as cams, camber sleeves and other items used to make alignment corrections.
Sometimes the necessity for updating a shop's equipment makes itself painfully obvious.
John Stickley, a technical service adviser in Pittsburgh and active in the Tire Dealers Association of Western Pennsylvania, said he's seen dealers turn away potential service business because their racks and lifts can't accommodate some of the new heavier and longer light trucks and SUVs.
Pete Liebetreu, product manager for racks and lifts at Hunter Engineering Co. in Bridgeton, Mo., said that while units with an 8,000-lb. lift capacity once accounted for the bulk of the company's sales, most of its lift business today is done in the 12,000-16,000-lb. range.
Most buyers, he said, want racks and lifts that can handle anything in the LT and SUV category that comes through the door.
"There's really no alternative," he said. "If you can't fit the vehicle on the rack, you're out of luck." Obviously, this is equally true of other types of service work in which alignment racks are used, he added.
Runway width is yet another area to consider in selecting a lift rack. Runways need to accommodate the wide-track width of some heavy-duty vehicles—particularly those with dual tires on their rear axle, he said.
In response, Hunter has widened each of its runways by three inches, he said, thereby providing a full six inches of additional track width. And even then, "a dualie will be running on the inside wheels and a portion of the outside wheels will be over." But it's acceptable in that situation, he added.
While some dealers think solely in terms of pickups and SUVs, light truck size can vary considerably. A Ford F-350 will have twice the wheelbase of a Chevy/Geo Tracker, but both are classified as light trucks, he said.
Ford Motor Co., for one, considers any kind of flatbed or stake bed truck it sells as a chassis cab to be a light truck. Some of those vehicles are fitted out as rollback carriers and wind up as wreckers. They're so large, some wrecker owners find their own lift rack won't accommodate them, Mr. Liebetreu said.
A computerized alignment system also can mean the difference between accepting and having to turn away business, some dealerships have discovered.
Matt Matlock, training manager for the Tirecraft Auto Centers chain in Sherwood Park, Alberta, found that six of that dealership's 46 company-owned outlets—mostly those located in rural areas of Alberta—need new computerized alignment equipment capable of supplying technicians with up-to-date service specs on newly introduced vehicles—particularly SUVs.
Mr. Matlock said one store manager told of having turned away as many as eight jobs during the last two months because his shop's alignment unit lacked computer capability and its service techs did not have the necessary specs.
Years ago, the alignment specs on most vehicles were pretty much the same, Mr. Matlock said. "Nowadays, there are different specs for nearly every vehicle."
Books containing specifications for most vehicles are widely available, said Denny Bowen, Hunter Engineering's product manager for alignment products. But having to look for the specs in a book is time-consuming and costly compared with getting them automatically from a computer. The lack of computer capability means an alignment machine is probably outdated and should be replaced, he said.
"Anyone with equipment older than 1980 ought to consider updating—whether they can get specs or not," Mr. Bowen contends.
The last two decades, he said, have brought lots of technological advances to help service shops do alignments quicker, better and more profitably.
As an example, he cited Hunter's ABC software program, which is part of its WinAlign 3.0 computerized alignment system. ABC, which stands for Automatic Bushing Calculator, addresses the needs of millions of light trucks that use front-axle bushings to accomplish alignment adjustments. Mr. Bowen said.
The traditional method of correcting an alignment angle was to remove the existing bushing from the assembly, replace it with a zero bushing and remeasure the car to determine what bushing is needed and the correct orientation of that bushing. The technician then would take the assembly apart once again and install the correct bushing at the correct orientation.
"You really do the job twice, if you follow the OE (original equipment manufacturer's recommended) procedure," he said. By comparison, the ABC software greatly simplifies this process, cutting in half the time normally needed.
Scott Hillman, in charge of Hunter's application test group, said the program also permits fine-tuning the adjustment by altering the orientation of the bushing and observing the resulting change in camber and caster on the computer's monitor.
The software also offers the option of changing the size of the bushing to determine whether another size will suffice. "A lot of shops don't keep a big stock of bushings," Mr. Bowen said. Thus the program allows for maximum use of a shop's bushing inventory while helping the technician complete the job as rapidly as possible.
One challenge answered by Hunter Engineering and other manufacturers, he said, is the increasing need for onboard training in how to use its units. Faced with increased employee turnover and a shortage of experienced technicians, dealers and other service providers are demanding equipment that leads techs through complicated service procedures.
In Hunter's case, this has resulted in the inclusion of three hours of video training built into the company's WinAlign system, he said.
Anyone who argues that there's not enough profit in a $19.95 alignment job to pay the $20,000 to $40,000 cost of computerized alignment equipment is viewing the picture too narrowly, Mr. Bowen said.
Alignment is potentially one of the most profitable service operations in any shop, he said. "It's the key to a lot of chassis parts sales, which along with the extra labor involved, are very profitable...."
If labor cost is an issue, shop owners should look for newer equipment, he said. "With newer equipment, I can get a set of readings in three minutes that would have taken 20 minutes on a 1980s machine."
Norman Prinzo, marketing manager for Akron-based Myers Tire Supply Co., said that while a modern alignment setup and computer instrumentation are important, dealers also need a sufficient supply of aftermarket components, such as cams, to properly carry out alignments.
"A lot of adjustments can't be done simply by turning something," he said. "You have to put in some of these kits (such as four-wheel-alignment and camber sleeves) to do it."
The biggest problem most service people face with LT/SUV tires, he said, is centering the wheel properly on the balancer. For this, "you need special cones, spacers, stud plate adapters and flange plate adapters," Mr. Prinzo said.
Meanwhile, some sort of a restraining device, such as a safety cage, also is necessary when inflating light truck tires to 60 psi or more, he said. Similarly, a torque wrench can be helpful when reinstalling the fasteners of light truck wheels—some of which require as much as 140 ft.-lbs. of tightening pressure. An impact wrench accomplishes the task as well, but there's always the danger of going overboard and ruining those expensive wheels.
Mr. Prinzo also advised care when replacing the valves in light truck tires. Some tires require pressures that exceed the recommended limits on snap-in-type valves, he said.