LAS VEGAS (Dec. 28, 2016) — Federally mandated automotive tire-pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) turned 10 this year, but was the technology's birthday cause for celebration?
Depends on who's talking.
For consumers, that tiny yellow symbol in the instrument panel that refuses to turn off can be annoying, worrisome, confusing and expensive.
The same negatives — or worse — can befall technicians and shop owners who fail to follow recommended vehicle-specific procedures, use the right equipment or get regular training tune-ups, experts in automotive service, diagnostics and training cautioned at a Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show seminar for tire retailers in Las Vegas.
The major takeaways from the often-fascinating session: TPMS is here to stay, customer and employee safety is paramount, embrace technology and learn to recognize when and how TPMS work can boost revenue and cement customer loyalty.
The panelists, Shawn Pease of the Tire Industry Association, Mark DeKoster of Ferris State University and Harlan Siegel of Launch Tech USA, had hands-on tips — some illustrated by case studies — for the nearly 100 attendees. Here are some highlights if you weren't there.
When approaching a TPMS problem, technicians should confirm the customer's concern, visually inspect, check for any technical service bulletins, perform non-intrusive testing such as removing the wheels to check the brakes, and, finally, analyze the vehicle's computer network, said Mr. DeKoster, an associate professor in automotive management, who also is an ASE master technician and former service director for a GM dealership.
Good bidirectional scan tools with relevant OE-level functions can be found priced from $799 to $1,895, he said.
If a factory tool isn't practical and a generic is used, Mr. DeKoster recommended that tool should have flash and recalibration capabilities. If the bulk of a dealership's business traffic becomes primarily one or two brands, a factory scanner should be considered.
Each TPMS system is different. Sensors can change from year to year.
Radio frequency interference or electromagnetic interference from today's vast use of electronics — or even the steel belts in run-flat tires — can block or degrade the signals from TPMS sensors, Mr. DeKoster said.
TPMS can be integrated into various modules. For example, some push-button start systems "talk to" the TPMS network. The technician must be prepared to analyze the network.
Scan tools can be used to reset the values of the TPMS if warranted. Before altering the settings, check with the tire maker's information and recommendations.
Mr. Siegel, vice president of diagnostics for scan tool supplier Launch Tech USA, stressed the importance of accessing all available data by doing a complete scan, hitting all the modules so the customer can be alerted."The OEM is not always logical," he pointed out. Shops should be using an OE-enhanced scanner, especially with indirect TPMS, Mr. Siegel said.
Illustrating that troubleshooting TPMS can be like solving a forensic case, Mr. Siegel gave an account of a late-model Audi that triggered a low-pressure code. When inflation was checked manually, all four tires were within their recommended PSI range, but while the vehicle reported three tires were at 37.91 psi, the left rear tire was showing 35.91. Why the discrepancy?
The TPMS was the indirect type, so why was that tire/wheel combo going slower? A graph was generated from the scan tool and the culprit turned out to be a tire that was the wrong size. ("Or the other three were wrong," Mr. Siegel said with a wry smile.)
The correct scan tool can reset steering angles, release brake pads on vehicles with electronic parking brakes and reset maintenance reminders, he pointed out. A tool that has all access and code clearing for all makes, models and modules can help shops keep the customer from walking out the door.
"Go for the gravy. It's easy to do. Don't sublet this stuff," Mr. Siegel said. Mr. Pease, TIA's director of automotive tire service, echoed that advice, telling Tire Business that shops must go all out to keep customers from turning elsewhere. "They only have to try a competitor one time and like them, and now we've lost them," he said.
When TPMS arrived, a lot of techs didn't want to touch it, Mr. Pease told his SEMA Show audience. "Very few people knew what it was. They were afraid of it because it was an unknown."
But times have changed. "Now it's common place," he said. "There's a lot of meat on this bone. There's a lot of money to be made."
Consumers who customize their vehicles with aftermarket wheels and tires are just one way the scan tool can help the customer and generate income.
Altering the parameters of a vehicle often means resetting the TPMS to reflect the change in tire diameter or load. An appropriate scan tool gives the tech control and the ability to update the tire inflation placards.
"Supplemental placards are not required by law, but it's a great way for everybody to be on the same page," Mr. Pease said. "We may put the updated information in notes, we let the customer know what the air pressure is, but sometimes technicians are still old school and just read what's on the door jamb and will put 80 psi in everything."
If, for example, tires are upgraded but the door jamb sticker is left alone and says 35 psi, that pressure may no longer have the capability to carry the weight of the truck.
"So you have to increase the pressure, and if we increase the pressure we also want to go one step further and make sure that the computer works like it's supposed to work and that it comes on when that tire is underinflated by 25 percent," Mr. Pease said.
TIA recommends that all tires be treated as though the TPMS was the direct type so if there is a sensor inside the tire, it won't be damaged during dismounting.
Thoroughly communicating before and after TPMS work is essential to good customer service and can be a good defense in court—or in the court of public opinion, Mr. Pease said.
"Take that extra step to explain to them that when they leave they may have a light on and that maybe three blocks down the road it's going to turn off," he said. "If you don't, for those first three blocks what are they going to think? We broke their car. But they're busy, so they're not going to come back right now."
TPMS technology is in constant flux, making it vital that the correct data, such as model year, and/or the vehicle identification number be used anytime there's work being done.
Mr. Pease said the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) is a great resource for anyone in the automotive tire business interested in standard practices and recommendations. For instance, TIA recommends that technicians use TPMS valve replacement kits or "service packs" whenever new tires are installed.
"They need to do it because it is recommended by RMA," Mr. Pease said. "If the customer has an accident and somebody is hurt by a blown tire or there's damage, their lawyer is going to grab the RMA book, open it up and say, 'How come you didn't recommend it? It says right here on page 30, recommended with every single service.'"
The key is to keep learning, Mr. Pease said.
"I hear this all the time: 'It's common sense stuff.' Or 'You should know that stuff.' Well, it's not known-knowledge stuff. We're not born with TPMS knowledge. We're not born with tire knowledge. A lot of us learned it the hard way by doing it the wrong way, and then having to redo it."
To prevent mistakes, wasted time or calls to hotlines, TIA wants to be an information resource.
"TIA is just trying to put it out there," Mr. Pease said. "We want to put it all in one spot to make it easier for the technician to understand. It's the little things that make us good technicians. The little things separate us from being just a parts changer. Technicians are where it's at. We need to push the training and we need to push the tools."