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Still playing catch-up Challenges

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AKRON—More than a decade has passed since the first consumer vehicles fitted with tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) entered the U.S. market, but industry acceptance of the technology has taken a little longer to catch up.

In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentations (TREAD) Act, mandating that, beginning with the 2008 model year, every new vehicle sold in the U.S. and weighing less than 10,000 pounds must be equipped with TPMS.

In November 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published results of an effectiveness survey, concluding that TPMS “was estimated to result in a statistically significant 55.6-percent reduction in the likelihood that a vehicle will have one or more severely underinflated tires”—saving both lives and money.

For an increasing number of tire retailers, the technology also offers financial benefits in the form of sensor and service pack sales, but industry adoption has been a gradual and somewhat rocky climb, said Sean MacKinnon, director of automotive training development for the Tire Industry Association (TIA).

Dealers were “used to doing their job a certain way for so many years with very little changes, and this is a huge change that just got dropped on them without any preparation, warning or education,” he said. “It seems like the whole industry is playing catch-up to learn it.”

Mr. MacKinnon, who is responsible for leading TIA's Advanced Instructor training courses of three-and-a-half days, said almost a full day of that is spent dealing with TPMS-related issues and learning to use available tools and equipment.

He noted that, in the last few years, attitudes towards TPMS have shifted as dealers “open up to the fact that it's not going anywhere.”

“When I first started doing this, the guys did nothing but complain about TPMS,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “Now I'm finding they're not complaining anymore—they're asking questions like, 'What types of tools should we have? How should do we sell this?' They're turning their focus on educating because they see the value in it.”

Paul Wise, director of product management and marketing for sensor manufacturer Schra-der International Corp., agreed that adoption of TPMS repair and replacement services has “gotten a lot better” as a result of standardization in the aftermarket, best practices and “the realization that now probably four-in-10 cars com-ing into their bays are TPMS-equipped.” And that number likely will climb to nine-in-10 within the next decade, he added.

According to Messrs. MacKinnon and Wise, one of the best ways to take advantage of this growing segment is by replacing TPMS service packs, which typically include a rubber grommet, hex nut, washer, valve core and valve cap—components that wear and become corroded over time.

For those who continue to put up a fight over changing service packs, Mr. MacKinnon said he asks them one question: How much money do you make each year selling rubber valve stems?

“They give me a figure and I say, 'All right. How many cars manufactured today or in the last five years have come with standard rubber valve stems? Where's your money going?'” he said.

“That opens their eyes. Then they realize they can make more money off of the kits than the valve stems.”

Adding this service not only is advantageous from a profit standpoint, but it's also the right thing to do for the customer, Mr. Wise said.

“On the industry front, the RMA (Rubber Manufacturers Association), the TIA, the AMRA (Automotive Maintenance Repair Association) and Schrader—everyone has collectively said this isn't some wild idea,” he said. “Replacing the service pack every time you break down the tire is a must-have for a host of safety and related reasons. The valve and the sealing components are wear components.”

According to Messrs. MacKinnon and Wise, one of the first steps to offering TPMS services is acquiring a diagnostic tool and making sure employees know how to use it properly.

“The best thing for a dealer to do is, No. 1, get a good tool in the shop that they're comfortable with and understand and have ev-erybody trained on it so they know what to do,” Mr. MacKinnon said.

Modern advanced TPMS tools “do everything you want,” Mr. Wise said. “They ping the sensors, they activate the sensors, they tell you what's going on, they can program programmable sensors like our EZ-Sensor and they can do an audit documentation trail, which is really important for that 'Test before touch' process.”

“Test before touch,” he said, is a general industry phrase signifying to automotive technicians that they should make certain all of the sensors on a vehicle are functioning before moving the vehicle.

“That's a huge deal,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “If you get every tire dealer to start doing that they wouldn't have as many issues in the shop because they'd have it figured out right up front.”

In addition, all employees—including those working at the sales counter—should have an understanding of what TPMS does.

“Everybody in the shop should be educated on what TPMS is, especially up at the front,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “When they're selling to the customer they can educate them on the importance of TPMS. It's a safety feature. Your average driver has no idea why they're there and why they need to replace that kit.”

Mr. MacKinnon said he often recommends that dealers display old, corroded service packs in a fish bowl—or “jar of shame”—to show customers what can happen if the TPMS units on their vehicles are not maintained.

This and other point-of-sale displays can help to make TPMS more tangible for the consumer and also provide a visual aid when educating them about the importance of replacing service packs.

“That's what keeps the air in your tire, and if you don't change that you could end up stranded or possibly in an accident from a rapid loss of air at highway speeds,” he said. “They don't last forever; they will fail.”

Mr. MacKinnon stressed that it's vital to talk to consumers, not at them. Dealers will get much better results explaining why it's the right thing to do rather than telling customers what to do.

It's also beneficial to dealers to keep things simple from a product standpoint. Standardizing sensor offerings via programmable and multi-format sensors is an easy way for dealers to get on board with TPMS service while also keeping inventory to a minimum, Messrs. MacKinnon and Wise said.

“If you are just starting out, you're in a much better spot than you would have been back in 2005,” Mr. Wise said. “In '05 there was no programmable sensors and no advanced diagnostic tools, so now again it's an inventory question for these retailers. Given that all these different car types are coming in for service, programmable sensors make a great option because you can program a blank sensor for whatever car comes in.”

Mr. Wise said Schrader's own programmable EZ-Sensor offers 90-percent market coverage with two SKUs.

In addition, it's crucial to standardize selling practices, Mr. Wise said, adding that market leaders have “set the precedence” for the industry.

“You walk up to the counter, there's a counter display, the counter man has been trained, the screens on his computer are flow-charted to have that discussion and before they touch that car they're pinging each sensor with a handheld diagnostic tool,” he said. “Just like there's no confusion when they sell you tires and walk you through the tire sale process, for market leaders there's absolutely no confusion on what they do with TPMS.

“...Training your people on what to say and why is really the route to go,” Mr. Wise continued. “The actual content is about safety. The federal government has more than proven that the originating legislation in the TREAD Act was valuable to saving lives, saving money and preventing accidents.”

Offering TPMS-related services comes with its share of difficulties.

Sometimes, even after the importance of replacing service packs have been explained to them, customers still don't want to pay the extra amount. Often in these situations reminding the customer of their significant investment can be helpful.

“I tell them, 'Look, you just spent $1,300 on four tires. It's probably not a bad idea to spend another $10 to ensure they have the right (amount of) air in them so they last,'” Mr. Wise said. “In a lot of cases, if the customer declines to change a kit out and that kit fails and causes a tire to fail, a lot of people won't warranty that tire because they didn't replace the kit.”

Mr. MacKinnon said many dealers aren't even giving customers a choice anymore.

“They're saying, 'Your car has TPMS, it's going to be X-amount of dollars extra per wheel.' They find a price they can live with, and it's a flat fee,” he said.

According to Mr. Wise, most market leaders that Schrader supplies with sensors and service packs will not touch the vehicle if the customer refuses.

“In certain cases we've seen leading providers do the service anyway for free because they believe it's the right thing to do,” he said. “That's not saying they do that all the time or they provide free TPMS service, but a lot of them would rather replace a service pack themselves after the customer refuses than lose that customer or send that vehicle back out impaired. Others will say, 'Look, we're not going to service the vehicle if you don't want to do this.'”

In some recent cases, misinformation from car dealers has caused consumers to question the need for replacement service packs, Mr. MacKinnon said.

“What I've seen lately is complete un-education at the car dealership level,” he said. “I'll have one of my tire dealers recommend to the consumer replacing these kits for the seal, and then that customer will go to the dealership and the dealership says, 'No, you don't need to replace those. They don't know what they're talking about.'

“Then I call the dealership and they think we're talking about the whole sensor. They have no idea that there are these kits.”

Mr. MacKinnon said every sensor manufacturer recommends changing out service packs regularly “just like you would a valve stem.” Sensors don't need to be replaced unless they're not functioning, but corrosion and other factors can reduce their life.

“Sensor manufacturers used to say the sensors would last 10 years or 100,000 miles,” he said. “...When we start getting into the real world with the climate changes and the driving habits, we're starting to see maybe more around four to five years. It's more of a mileage thing.

“Once you get over 60,000 miles that's when we start to see these things fail.”

Another thing to pay attention to is proper valve core torque, Mr. MacKinnon said.

“The valve cores that you put into these aluminum stems on clamp-in sensors have a recommended torque range that's 3 to 5 inch-pounds,” he said. These aluminum clamp-in sensors require a nickel-plated valve core. The reason it has to be nickel plated is so it doesn't react with the aluminum and develop galvanic corrosion.

“What happens is even if the tire dealer is using a nickel-plated valve core, if they're using a standard valve core installation tool there's a good chance they're going to over-torque that valve core,” he continued.

“And what the studies have shown from the manufacturers is at about 7 to 10 inch-pounds that nickel plating can strip, exposing the brass or other dissimilar metal and causing corrosion. It's very, very easy to hand-tighten a valve core to 10 inch-pounds.”

Mr. MacKinnon recommended that dealers use specially designed valve core torque tools, which are preset to give way after a certain level of torque.



To reach this reporter: wschertz@crain.com; 330-865-6148.
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Previous | Published March 18, 2019

Where can you expect to see the most growth in 2019?

Tire sales
45% (34 votes)
General automotive service
15% (11 votes)
Brakes, shocks and other undercar services
7% (5 votes)
Add-on business
15% (11 votes)
Anywhere we can get it.
19% (14 votes)
Total votes: 75
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