It's been about seven years since new cars began rolling off the assembly line with federally mandated tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) and, for tire dealers and repair shops, the units have been a chronic headache.
It was more common a few years ago for inexperienced technicians to accidently break off the pricey tire pressure sensors attached to the wheels of the vehicles they serviced, then forcing the dealership to cover the cost.
Now the more common cause of premature sensor replacement appears to be corrosion.
If a brass valve core is installed into an aluminum stem or a brass cap is screwed onto an aluminum stem, galvanic corrosion will occur and cause the two dissimilar metals to fuse to one another, resulting in damage to the stem, core and cap, according to TPMS sensor maker Schrader International Inc. Galvanic corrosion can damage the TPMS sensor beyond repair, requiring replacement of the sensor.
“Right now the aluminum clamping sensors are getting corroded and when the dealer goes to remove a valve cap or check the air pressure or remove a valve core, the actual sensor breaks off,” said Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association (TIA) (see related story on page 13).
“It's a particularly common problem up in the Northeast and Midwest where they're using lot of ice-melting chemicals and road salt,” he told Tire Business. “We probably hear more of that than anything else, where the dealer goes up to check the air pressure and puts the gauge on the valve stem and the valve basically crumbles.”
According to a Conrad's Tire Express & Total Car Care executive in Cleveland, corroded valve stems are a more immediate problem than sensor battery life.
“You're in the middle of a tire repair or replacement and you have to go to the customer and explain to the customer the vehicle is equipped with a TPMS sensor valve assembly and that it's corroded to the point where it's no longer serviceable and the unit has to be replaced. And then you talk about the expense…. That's when we hear it (the complaints),” said Conrad's General Manager Dominic Umek.
Likewise, Jensen Tire & Auto in Omaha, Neb., has had issues with corroded valves when changing tires.
“Typically when you try to remove the valve stem from a TPMS system, especially if it's three years or older, they're frozen in place,” said David Roberts, Jensen Tire's general manager. “There's a lot of corrosion that builds up around the valve stem sensor mechanism, and typically they break a lot.”
Unfortunately, some customers are not so understanding when confronted with the bill for sensor replacement. Mr. Roberts said some patrons take the position, “You touched it last. You buy it.”
“That's probably the big issue we see—'It was fine when it came in here,'” he said. “And really, it could be as simple as doing a flat repair on a vehicle. We go to do a flat repair or replace tires and typically those are the problems we run into. You unscrew the valve stem cap and the whole thing will spin in place. It will spin around and it won't allow us to service it or when we try to service it, it breaks.”
When a customer complains that the dealership should foot the bill, “sometimes we do that for customer satisfaction, but it's really in how we present the issue to the consumer,” Mr. Roberts said.
“There are now affordable alternatives in many instances to the original equipment sensors that came on the vehicle. That's where you're seeing some inroads in affordability when it comes to replacing those,” he said.
“There are some universal systems that are coming out that allow us to more easily service them as opposed to the original equipment—and typically the original equipment systems are more expensive as well. So we can save the customer a little bit of money by utilizing a universal system,” he said.
“It's not in every case. Some cases you have to use the vehicle manufacturer's system. Whenever we can use a sufficient substitute, we'll do that as well.”
Ronald Brutt, president of the Tire Dealers Association of Western Pennsylvania, said, “Every dealer complains of the same scenarios—they cannot remove valve cores without breaking the stem; someone has put metal caps on the valve that becomes frozen and then cannot be removed; leaking seals where the sensor comes through the wheel; corrosion of the valve. The bottom line from all dealers is the elements and age are the culprits.”
“Sometimes if (a valve) breaks off in our hand, we're stuck paying for it because it's a no-win situation for the dealership in many cases, unless you can avoid it before it happens,” said Joe Durkoske, general manager of retail stores for Mercer, Pa.-based Flynn's Tire & Automotive Service.
“If someone puts the wrong caps on, they get corroded and then we have to let (the customer) know it may break or may not come off. So we do that so we protect ourselves that way. But of course, the customer is not happy that the valve stem is going to cost them.”
Mr. Durkoske noted that the dealership, which operates 18 stores in Pennsylvania and Ohio, has dealt with some customers who want to decline sensor replacement, “but then we have to explain to them that if it came in working, it needs to leave working the best we can.”
“It's hard to convince a person that they have to buy something. So we put it in for them and we eat it at a dealer store cost. There are those kinds of headaches,” he said.
Russ Fuller, president of Revolution Supply Inc., the maker of Oro-tek aftermarket TPMS sensors, said he visits numerous repair shops to conduct training and has seen many examples of galvanic corrosion.
“In fact, when we go out and train at a retail tire store, we recommend that they do what we call the ‘finger test.' So before they bring the vehicle into their shop, we recommend they test the caps to make sure they can take them off with their fingers. If not, we teach them to advise the customer there could be an issue with galvanic corrosion and that the sensor may need to be replaced.”
Oro-tek sensors are made with aluminum stems and aluminum caps to prevent galvanic corrosion, Mr. Fuller said. “Unfortunately, I can't stop the consumer from putting a metal cap on an aluminum stem, which is what causes the galvanic corrosion. All we can do is try to educate the marketplace, which we do on a regular basis.”
Rubber valve caps are also common, he said, however, “what people are doing is they are getting a chrome metal valve cap and putting it on (their wheels) because they think it looks better, not knowing that it will cause galvanic corrosion in those climates that are considerably wet around our country.”
In Northeast Ohio, where Conrad's operates 32 tire stores, the fluctuating weather has caused damage to a lot of TPMS valve stems.
Mr. Umek said the dealership routinely rebushes the valves when replacing tires on a vehicle. “We put new internal stems and the bushings and the seals and so forth. So we're rebushing it that way to hopefully keep it performing properly after the new tires have been installed. We explain that to the customer.
“It's an additional charge for the service we do when we replace those tires. So that is our preventive maintenance measure of trying to keep them from malfunctioning to the point where the customer is not able to maintain the tire by putting air pressure in them because the valve's gone bad,” he said.
Conrad's Mr. Umek said “it's not unusual to see a vehicle or two in a given week at a given store that has a TPMS light illuminated.” The customer is aware that the system is no longer functioning yet “has no desire” to have the unit serviced.
“Their perspective is, ‘I drove vehicles (for however long they've been driving) and never had such a system on one and it never was a problem before. I know I got to check my tire pressure from time to time, I don't need a light to tell me that I need to check my tire pressure.' So that's what their perspective is.
“To some degree, you get the opinion from the customer that it's overkill, it's overdesigned, it's a requirement that they just don't feel passionate about needing or feel any sense of lack of safety if it's not functioning properly.”
If the TPMS is not operable when the vehicle comes into the shop, Conrad's has a customer sign a document that they have been informed that it's not operating. “Often they come in knowing that,” Mr. Umek said.
“Obviously it's not an inexpensive proposition for them to replace all four sensors on the vehicle at the end of the battery life. It's not like it's a brake system or something such as that.”
So, he continued, No. 1—”the customer's awareness is relatively low on this system and then 2—their belief that it's something their vehicle really needs to stay operationally safe is just not high.”
The TDA of Western Pennsylvania's Mr. Brutt said he has surveyed some of the association members about the rate of customer refusal of sensor replacement. “I got answers between 25 to 50 percent and it seems to correlate to the demographics of the dealer location. It appears that dealers will, if the customer insists, replace the sensor with a regular valve rather than them getting involved in holding the car hostage as it seems some governmental agencies are suggesting they do. They feel it is the customer's decision and they document it accordingly.”
“Certainly the retailer is going to encourage the consumer to purchase new sensors. That would be a best practice…to maintain the system at all times,” said TIA's Mr. Rohlwing. “But if the customer declines and doesn't want the sensors, the dealer has the option of replacing that broken sensor with a snap-in valve stem and educating the consumer that their system is no longer operable as a result of that replacement.”
The price for replacement sensors varies greatly, depending on make and vehicle. Jensen Tire's Mr. Roberts recalled a customer who brought in a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck with four frozen sensors and was facing a replacement cost of $500 because the Toyota sensors were the only suitable replacement.
“He demanded we put regular valve stems on, which we declined. But of course, that's what customers do. We see quite a bit of it. They're shocked by the costs,” Mr. Roberts said. However, he estimated that fewer than 10 percent of his dealership's customers refuse replacement of sensors.
“I think the consumer sees the value in the TPMS system and being alerted to having a low tire. The tire pressure monitoring system is a great premise and it works well, but the durability and serviceability of the system is usually the issue.”
Customer awareness, liability
Flynn's Tire's Mr. Durkoske speculated that there is a very low incidence of customers coming in with intentionally disabled TPMS on their vehicles.
“Most people want their stuff working properly. Now that may change as these vehicles get older and people don't want to put money into them,” he said. “That could be something down the road that I could see could potentially be an issue. Right now they're newer cars, for the most part, and they're either under warranty or we try to be as economical as possible to get these things working. If it's just a matter of replacing a sensor, we're going to be less than half of what many (new car) dealerships charge.”
“The aftermarket service and repair community is well aware of the potential liability associated with not properly servicing a vehicle (or knowingly making inoperative a safety system in the vehicle), so they have, and continue to, prepare themselves, their technicians, and their shops to properly service TPMS-equipped vehicles,” said Paul Wise, director of product management and marketing for Schrader International.
“For the consumer, clearly they would not personally take out their seatbelts, or airbags, or make them inoperative. These safety systems are in the vehicle to do the job they are intended to do—keep the driver safe. TPMS is no different than seatbelts or airbags in terms of safety importance.
“TPMS warns the user of a dangerous low tire pressure situation, so the driver can take appropriate (and immediate) steps to ensure they are not having a blow-out situation, and can then carefully proceed to their nearest service and repair facility or filling station to add air to their tires.”
According to a Schrader survey, 96 percent of respondents said proper tire pressure was a critical safety element to them, but less than half could properly identify the TPMS warning symbol on their dashboards.
“Schrader, along with our aftermarket customers, continue to push the consumer awareness angle of TPMS so that all drivers know what to do when they see the warning symbol on their dashboard, and why it's so important to keep their TPMS system operationally through all seasons and tire changes (including winter tire changeover),” Mr. Wise said.
“The dealers need to state that the TPMS came into play due to the fact of issues with low-tire pressures causing death in the marketplace. So our federal government mandated TPMS sensors be put in all vehicles. So to maintain the safety of their vehicles we recommend they need to replace all the sensors,” said Revolution Supply's Mr. Fuller.
According to dealers he has talked to, more than half of their customers are refusing sensor replacement.
“The economy is affecting that or has been affecting that over the last couple of years,” Mr. Fuller said. “But the economy is starting to defrost a little bit. I think we'll see less and less push back as far as performing the necessary repairs on their vehicles.”
He encourages dealers to remind customers about fixing their inoperable TPMS during service visits.
“We have a four-step process that we recommend all the dealers go through to evaluate the TPMS system. And we tell the dealer, even though the customer may say ‘No,' you still need to do it. Right now they're getting no TPMS business and let's say 20 percent of the people will start saying ‘Yes,'” he said.
“It's very important that every retail tire store knows the state of the TPMS system when that vehicle enters their shop. If they don't, they could be accepting liability they don't need.”