Independent auto service shops whose business includes changing tires had better get their shop personnel up to speed on the care and feeding of tire pressure monitoring devices.
A dealership's inability to service them properly could mean paying for damaged sensors, lost business or both, attendees at a seminar on the issue at the recent SEMA Show heard.
Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) are mandated on at least half of each car maker's models starting next September and ramping up to 100-percent fitment by September 2007. That's according to the latest proposed rule, which is still subject to change following an evaluation of public and industry comment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Regardless of when the mandate takes effect, several car makers already are equipping vehicles with TPMS, and dealers are advised to get their personnel trained in how to unmount and mount tires on wheels with sensors.
If a sensor is damaged during a tire change, it likely will cost the dealership $100 or more to replace it plus the time and cost involved in procuring the sensor and reinstalling it, panelists cautioned. A shop not equipped to deal with TPMS runs the risk of losing that customer to the car dealership channel.
``In many cases, the lowest paid employees are the ones changing tires,'' said Craig Knarich, owner of Pit Crew Tire Service in Palm Harbor, Fla., ``and if we don't get them training in how to recognize a wheel with a TPMS and how to change that tire properly, we're going to have a lot of broken sensors and unhappy customers.''
Mr. Knarich commented during the seminar on his own experiences with TPMS.
At the same time, dealers' custom wheel business could be affected as well, panelists said. There is no industry standard regarding the design and/or placement of TPMS, said John Maxgay of General Motors Corp., and an increasing number of custom aftermarket wheels are not designed to accommodate a sensor.
In many cases, he said, the larger wheels have valve stems placed out of the way so as not to ruin the look. But this placement often means the customer's standard TPMS unit can't be retrofitted to those wheels, and the dealer is faced with telling the customer his pressure monitoring system won't function with the wheels he or she has picked out.
This could be a ticklish situation for dealers. According to federal law: ``A manufacturer, distributor, dealer or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter unless the manufacturer, distributor, dealer or repair business reasonably believes the vehicle or equipment will not be used (except for testing or a similar purpose during maintenance or repair) when the device or element is inoperative.''
However, Claude Harris, director of NHTSA's Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance, said laws governing federally mandated safety equipment apply to new vehicles when they're sold for the first time. After that, the owner of the vehicle is responsible and if he/she chooses not to get a malfunctioning device fixed, that's his or her problem. ``We don't regulate consumer preferences,'' he said.
The way the law is written, the TPMS is not required to work with replacement tires/wheels, Mr. Harris said, but dealers need to be aware that when the system/monitor interface is interrupted-that is, when the monitor is absent or rendered inoperable because of a wheel changeover-the car's system will continue to function and keep looking for a signal. When it is unsuccessful in this task, it will alert the driver there's a problem until it's resolved.
In this case, the shop that serviced the wheels needs to tell the car owner he or she will see that warning light continuously.
``I would urge service shops to take the high road and not remove the devices,'' Mr. Harris said.
He also cautioned that dealerships that install electronics-stereos or other aftermarket electronic devices-need to be aware that certain systems emit extraneous signals that could interfere with the operation of the TPMS.
Mr. Maxgay noted that GM and other OEMs are concerned about aftermarket tire balancing or flat repair materials that are inserted into a tire cavity. Any extraneous material inside the tire could plug the pressure sensing hole in the monitor, rendering it inoperative.
Another concern yet to be addressed fully is that of re-setting a system to different baseline tire pressures, as in the case of a plus-two or plus-three wheel changeover that requires a higher tire pressure than the OE norm.
Smartire Systems Inc.'s Al Kozak said systems can be reprogrammed to accommodate this, but this ability is not available yet with most systems.
SEMA's Wheel Industry Council is looking to update the wheel servicing guidelines it developed two years ago with the Tire Industry Association to include information on the proper dismounting and mounting techniques on wheels with TPMS, said Frank Bohanan, a technical consultant to SEMA.
Illustrating the complexity of the issue, Charlie Gorman of the Equipment and Tool Institute pointed out that TPMS servicing guidelines from the car makers vary from company to company, with some OEMs requiring the direct, valve-stem-sited monitor be removed from the wheel before the tire is dismounted.
Mr. Gorman suggested makers of tire mounting machinery should be involved in the tire/wheel servicing guidelines involving TPMS because their equipment is integral to the process.
He also cautioned dealers to get informed about which systems allow tires to be rotated without having to reprogram the system, and/or to find out how to recalibrate the system after a rotation or tire or wheel replacement.
Also, at this point, Mr. Gorman said, there is only a limited selection of effective aftermarket diagnostic tools that would allow independent garage owners to test a TPMS after a tire/wheel changeover or monitor replacement to ensure it's functioning properly again. Each vehicle maker's system is distinct and these tools are for the most part limited to the car maker's dealership network.
Several shop owners in attendance questioned whether this complexity of servicing various systems in effect ties the vehicle owner to the car dealership, therefore limiting the independent dealer's business potential.