BUSRide Maintenance spoke with the following experts in the field of collision repair on when to outsource, special considerations, and potential risks and costs:
Brad Field – president and Jeremy Wolin
general manager – BRC Coach & Transit
Mark Polzin – president – Budget Truck and Auto
Jon Savitz – senior vice president, service operations
Ron Miller – director of service centers
Motor Coach Industries
Chuck Russell – collision & body shop manager
When and why should collision repair, remanufacturing or refurbishment be outsourced? Under what conditions should these operations be conducted in-house?
Mark Polzin: Collision repair, remanufacturing or refurbishment is outsourced because of the complexity of repairs. The liability involved in structural repairs holds mechanics, operators, and repairers accountable for said repairs for the life of the bus. If the bus is involved in another accident and injuries are incurred due to improper repair procedures, those parties are held liable. Also tying up a bay for repairs that take longer hinders routine maintenance work for bus operators.
Jon Savitz: A lot of the average shops aren’t going to be able to afford or have the tools that are needed to do complicated repairs. The specialized equipment and the technology that you’re employing is the biggest advantage to calling on a repair facility or collision specialist. We have all of the tools required for heavy repairs. Some of the high-tech tools that are less common are metal thickness gauges, paint thickness gauges, and laser frame alignment tools.
Ron Miller: For the smaller operator without a maintenance shop, any collision damage should be evaluated by somebody who has experience and expertise in collision repair. You can find a body shop for an automobile on any corner almost, but in the bus world, there aren’t a whole lot of companies that are doing collision work. OEMs are doing it. All seven MCI Service Centers are equipped to handle heavy-duty repairs including our brand-new San Francisco Bay Area location. There are a few third-party vendors now that are getting in the business and they’re involved as well. But as far as when an operator should say, “Hey, this is beyond my skill level,” especially when you start talking about structure, frame, suspension, and the use of measuring devices, frame equipment, welders, plasma cutters, etc., turning to us as an OEM is the most prudent course of action.
Chuck Russell: There are many benefits to outsourcing major collision repairs and refurbishment. Primarily, large jobs like these can bog down your shop. Many agencies need their bays and technicians available to perform running repairs or quick parts exchanges to get the buses back in service. Major collisions or midlife overhauls can take months to complete, and performing them in-house runs the risk of creating congestion in your shop and the possibility of your technicians getting called away often, dragging the project on for an extended period of time.
Also, rehabs and/or midlife overhauls are excellent candidates for state of good repair grants. Why pay for an overhaul out of your operating funds when you can bid out a turnkey solution, using federally-funded grants?
Brad Field: Most large fleets are rarely fully-equipped. At best, they have a technician that might be qualified. There are any number of safety concerns related to being properly equipped, and also licensing concerns, as well as regulations at the state and federal level. On the business side of it, what we tend to see, whether it’s municipal fleets or large motor carriers, is that they may have what they consider a qualified technician in place, but due to time constraints, it’s rare that they can dedicate a single tech to a large project.
What are the potential risks of conducting in-house repairs of this magnitude?
Polzin: A potential risk is liability of the repair for the life of the coach. Is your insurance company aware of the repairs you are doing in house and the scale of them?
Savitz: The size and weight of the windows now are getting bigger and heavier. It’s a challenge for people without the proper equipment to get these expensive pieces of glass on the bus without damaging the bus, breaking the glass or without hurting somebody or something.
While most operators focus on prevention, when heavy repairs are needed you need the proper equipment operated by experienced technicians.
Miller: The biggest risk an operator faces if they try to tackle something like this is the hidden damage that might have occurred in the collision. This is damage that exists but can’t be seen from a walk-around inspection alone. You need to know where to look and what kind of signs to look for in order to tell if hidden damage has happened to come up with the correct plan to repair it.
Russell: Many customers find that they will get into a major repair and realize that, after putting significant man hours into it, they don’t have the skillset or manpower to complete the work. This can delay completion of the bus and inadvertently increase the cost of repair.
Jeremy Wolin: As we’re getting more and more into an environmentally-conscious workplace, enforcement rules are becoming stricter. Let me give an example from Las Vegas, so you can look at it from a risk/reward standpoint. The risk of getting caught doing some of these repairs can be pretty devastating. Earlier this year, our Department of Motor Vehicles, which is our primarily regulatory agency for licensing in the state of Nevada, went through Las Vegas and they closed 74 shops, with customer vehicles inside. It was a $10,000 fine to get the doors reopened, and then you had to pay another $10,000 for proper licensing and bonding.
If the facility was not properly outfitted for such type of business there were additional fines levied against the business. A large majority of the businesses closed this year in the compliance sweep were not reopened due to fines, licensing fees, Osha Violation fines etc. and fire department sign-off.
Please describe your capabilities in this arena – what structural and cosmetic repair options are available for buses to achieve OEM specifications?
Polzin: We have a frame machine with a 65’ deck with four pulling towers that have the capacity of pulling 50 tons each. We train our technicians to not only operate the machine and equipment, but take in to account the manufacturers’ recommendations on where we are to splice structural repairs. These procedures insure longevity and the safest repairs.
Savitz: We don’t just handle collisions, we also take in fire restorations and flood restorations. We also do facelift upgrades with more modern looking front caps, rear caps, tail lights, headlight packages, so an otherwise well-performing coach can have the curb appeal of a newer model.
Miller: As an extension of the OEM, there’s really nothing we can’t do. We have seven service centers now in North America. Four of them have paint booths and the capability to do collision work. As a company, there’s really nothing we can’t take care of, from changing the oil in your coach to major collision repair. Since we have access to MCI Parts we can even fabricate bus parts when necessary and reverse-engineer obscure parts for older coaches. And most importantly, we do our work to OEM standards. We think that counts for a lot.
Russell: CoachCrafters, Inc. has a longstanding history of partnering with the OEMs to provide OEM parts, engineering support and troubleshooting where needed. We offer frame straightening, structural repairs, mechanical diagnosis & repair, full paint & decals, fiberglass body repairs, and flooring and interior repairs.
Field: We handle heavy collision repair with structural damage down to what we call soft trim. When we do a structural repair, we make it stronger than the factory. Our specifications are tighter and our gaps are better. Both in Canada and in the US, BRC is capable of performing repairs from $100 to $500,000 and everything in between. This includes everything from electronics repair to fire restoration. We also build our own wiring harnesses.
What electrical components require specialized attention after damage, so that equipment can function properly?
Polzin: Where the coach is damaged determines what kind of electrical components you may run into. You can run into several computers, collision avoidance sensors, AC components, DPF Components, etc.; Were harnesses cut? Was there an electrical surge for power lines?
Savitz: Today’s complex electrical systems can sustain damage far from the area damaged in a collision or the location of a fire. Nodes, TCM’s, ECM’s and multiplex panels could be shorted or damaged due to the heat traveling through harnesses and conduits. The repair facility should anticipate the need for advanced diagnostics and have technicians well versed in electrical systems on staff.
Miller: Electrical damage from a collision is usually when a wire harness is either cut in two or partially cut, or a power cable shorts out because it was pinched in the collision. Some of our competitors will repair a wire harness. It is our opinion that the best way to repair it is to replace that harness, so it depends on what vendor you talk to and sometimes what insurance adjuster you talk to. People will have varying opinions on this, but at MCI we take the same OEM approach to electrical harnesses. We don’t splice; we replace, so operators are less likely to end up with Frankenstein wiring problems later on. Again, the coach comes back to the customer in like-new OEM condition.
Russell: Destination sign equipment, ECU and ABS modules as well as a Battery Energy Storage System EV-40, better known as a Hybrid, which has major electrical components and numerous wiring harnesses throughout the bus, all require special attention.
Field: Most of the systems are run with onboard computer system software package- plug-and-play software. What ends up happening is you finish rebuilding the coach, and you install that component and you then may realize the module isn’t working upon plugging it in. Unfortunately, some of those modules will run up to $10,000. There could be five to 10 modules on each motorcoach. We do motherboard repair and rebuilding of modules in-house. Again, sometimes it’s honestly a $2 diode on a $5,000 module that has failed. We do diagnostics, and we replace the diode on that motherboard and then it’s operational.
What “hidden” factors can drive up collision repair costs?
Polzin: Unforeseen damage usually comes into play with every major collision. You cannot determine the extent or how far damage has traveled until you do a complete tear down of a coach. Structural and electrical issues are very common in major repairs and a lot of time are found in different locations from the original collision. Understanding how the accident happened and how momentum may have traveled through the bus is very important information when mapping a repair. Did the coach go off the road? Were their passengers? Seatbelts? Did the tow company damage the coach? Tow companies damage buses every day towing or up righting coaches. All are important questions in every collision. There are a variety of factors that play into unforeseen or hidden damage so it is important to get a timeline of events.
Savitz: Our practice is to replace any severely damaged component. Such as repairing a front axle that took a hit on the tire will usually include replacing the steering gear box, as well. The same goes for tire rod ends and every part that took a shock. We’ll usually replace that. I put it on the estimate. We want to make sure people understand, because I certainly don’t want to over-repair, that it’s what’s needed to ensure safety after we’re done. For example, we’ve had a dent in the front bumper that resulted in a cracked transmission case.
Miller: Sometimes we have inner city buses that will run over an open manhole cover and it will cause several thousand dollars of damage to the structure. Yet, if you saw the bus sitting there, you wouldn’t even know it. There are no body panels bent, there’s no visible damage. Everything is under the floor and structural.
Russell: You may inspect a vehicle and think that the damage is superficial, only to discover after disassembly that you need expensive structural or mechanical components. If those parts have long lead times, the bus can be sitting without making much progress and working out of sequence runs the risk of increasing labor costs. That’s why it is so important to allow your estimators the opportunity to inspect the bus on a lift whenever possible, so they can get better visibility.
Wolin: When we talk about electronic components, we’re talking about engine control systems, transmission control systems, etc., so they’re very major parts. All of these motherboards are encased in waterproof-sealed housings. There is no physical way to put your eyes on them. You have to put the bus back together and plug all the different components in to find out what’s operating. What may drive that repair cost back up is that you plug back in a component after the repairs were done for road testing, you find out a component has failed and then you unfortunately have to spend numerous hours disassembling the interior or exterior again to get access to that component.
Please discuss special considerations for corrosion and fire damage.
Polzin: When undergoing a corrosion repair, it may look cosmetic more than anything. Usually that is not the case, however. Something that started as cosmetic can lead to something major and can be caused by a variety of items. Contamination before paint and improper sealers on bare substrate are usually the problem. Corrosion can lead to holes and sometimes the holes are a lot deeper than they appear. This requires the entire area to be cut out to insure all of the corrosion is eliminated, because it may be coming from the back side. Fire damage may be contained to a small area but the material to put a fire out will travel far beyond the fire. The smoke created causes most of the damage and it can span the entire coach.
Savitz: With fire damage, mitigating odor can be extremely challenging and time consuming. You have to take the bus completely apart and clean every part, inside and out. Smoke gets inside of the walls- you have to go all the way down to the frame.
When you have corrosion, you want to make sure you have good metal there. Any corrosion that reduces the original metal thickness by 20 percent or more needs to be evaluated. You have to start asking questions. Do you want us to replace this section of the frame? A fully-equipped shop has the tools and equipment required to allow us to make informed recommendations on repairs.
Miller: If we have a structure that has corroded to where it’s no longer sound, really the only repair is to replace it. In instances like that, which typically happens with buses that have some age on them, you have to ask yourself, “Does the repair exceed the value of the bus?” Fire damage can be minor to major to totally wiped out. It just depends on the extent of the event. If you determine that the vehicle is repairable from a numbers standpoint, then you have to determine- the severity: How hot did things get? Is the structure compromised? The damage will tell a story, whether it’s collision or a thermal event, a technical professional can read the signs and repair from there.
An experienced technician will also consider where the bus has been operated? In what part of the country? That way they know where to look for issues.
Russell: Fire damage is expensive to repair because even if an item wasn’t directly damaged, it may be smoke damaged or a component may be undamaged, but the component it interfaces with is damaged. Fire restoration often unearths hidden damages throughout the restoration process.
Corrosion is commonplace on buses that don’t have stainless steel frames, and even more prevalent when those buses service cold/ snowy climates. Just like cancer, it spreads if not properly removed and treated as well as undercoated.
Field: A good majority of motorcoaches are still manufactured with mild steel, which allows for corrosion. Now the more preferred method of manufacturing is stainless steel, which doesn’t allow for corrosion. However, that being said, you still have dissimilar metals. They react to each other and create a corrosive type of acid that eats away at both metals.
In a fire situation, what ends up happening is all the corrosion protection at the factory level that’s been installed typically has been melted off or burnt during the fire. You could also have heat-related metal distortion, which in turn you would have to cut out the metal and replace all damage areas.
What technological advancements are “moving the ball forward” in collision repair, refurbishment and remanufacturing?
Polzin: The manufacturers are leading the way by publishing programs, training, and resources that are driving the knowledge for mechanics and technicians. Making in-house portals and resources available for everyday technicians has really made a difference.
Savitz: Newer buses have electronics that help to monitor tire pressure, engine fires and more. There are numerous innovations to assist operators to manage their fleet via telematics, the internet and automated email alerts. These systems help to detect mechanical failures in real time to prevent more serious losses These systems are helping companies control the risks, while preventing catastrophic situations. Things can be prevented. But, if something happens, we’re here to help get you going again.
Miller: All of our coaches feature tire-pressure monitoring and fire suppression systems that can help drivers avoid incidents. That’s also why we invest in handling features like Anti-Lock Brake Systems, Electronic Stability Control and Automatic Traction Control, along with digital wheel-end sensing, side-view cameras and more, including collision-avoidance systems that are going on vehicles nowadays. Looking forward there will be more autonomous vehicles. There are predictions of a decrease in collisions as these vehicles hit the market and are on the street, because apparently, they drive themselves better than we do. I think that technology is the most interesting thing out there right now.
Russell: Paint technology improved formulas that provide a better finish and durability. Laser measuring equipment can provide more accurate repair work in regard to frame pulling and body alignment. There are also new adhesives being used to install specific non-structural panels.
Wolin: Probably one of the biggest leaps that we’ve seen in the manufacturing industry or collision and repair industry is the use of modern-day adhesives. As we move through this industry, we have found that the rivets and mechanical fasteners are starting to become a little obsolete because the adhesives that are used nowadays are stronger. Also, the use of water jet cutting has become readily available. If you have parts that aren’t available, you can have them re-manufactured, generally at a local level. Laser jet cutting and the welding machines have advanced leaps and bounds in the last 10 to 20 years to where they’re very user-friendly. Laser measuring equipment has become mainstream in the marketplace.