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Analyzing Collision Damage: Estimates

Writing estimates can easily make or break a collision-repair shop’s business. The estimate is more than a financial barometer for the customer and insurance company –
it’s the first step in the repair process.

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Writing an accurate
estimate, though, is primarily the result of accurate collision
analysis, and accurate collision analysis comes only after determining
how much measuring – if any – is necessary.

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Should you measure at all? What equipment
and tools will you need? If you do decide to measure, how much
of your time can you spend analyzing damage and writing the estimate?
Will the customer or, more likely, the insurance company pay for
setup time so you can utilize your measuring equipment? Do you
have the right equipment for this task? What if the measuring
equipment is in use?

Most shop owners agree that unless the customer
or insurance company pays for the setup time, accurate and complete
measuring isn’t going to happen until just prior to the repair.
The eye is a wonderful tool for seeing damage, but it’s not very
good at measuring actual distances. Even if you choose not to
set up the vehicle for complete and accurate dimensioning, some
actual dimensions may help write the estimate.

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To properly analyze collision damage, you
need:

  • the right tools – mechanical and mental;
  • vehicle dimensions, either from the OEM or the manufacturer
    of your measuring equipment;

  • to be familiar with the metric system;
  • to understand vehicle construction;
  • to understand that every part or panel on an automobile has
    a relationship to everything else; and

  • to understand the different types of vehicle damage and how
    the forces of the collision relate to damage.

Tools: Mind vs. Machine

With all the technology on the market today, a technician’s job
has been somewhat simplified. Think about the training curve for
the inexperienced collision tech or estimator. How long does it
take to learn the computerized systems versus the mechanical systems?

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The answer is that the computerized systems are easier and faster
to learn. The tech sets up the vehicle and straightening equipment,
and the computer does the rest (it’s not quite that simple). The
tech hands over the measurements to the estimator or plans the
repair, depending how far along the job is. Pretty simple.

But is it too simple?

What happens when the collision estimators and techs of today
start to retire or move on to other employment and a younger generation
takes their place – a younger generation who has learned only
on computerized systems? Will they truly understand vehicle construction
and the interrelationship of every part and measurement on the
unibody vehicle?

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The human brain, like every other part of the human body, needs
to be exercised if it’s to function properly. Like the old adage
claims, "Use it or loose it."

It’s no different than the debate going on in our schools every
day about the use and application of pocket calculators for mathematics.
Calculators make long, tedious math problems easier. They make
fewer mistakes – if the right keys are pressed – and they are,
without a doubt, faster. The question is, do students really understand
math and the analytical-thinking/problem-solving skills that will
help them in everything else they do?

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Another factor to consider is: What if the computerized system
is tied up or, worse yet, broken? The equipment manufacturer will
make every reasonable effort to get you back to work, but you
still could lose the use of the equipment for two, maybe even
five, working days. Do you stop measuring, or do you use the "old"
mechanical system collecting dust in the corner? After all, some
productivity is better than none.

Let’s say you decide to use the mechanical system, but then realize
you never really learned how to use it because the computerized
system showed up one day and you said, "Life is good!"
– never thinking you might have to use the mechanical system someday.

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The important thing to remember here is this: Technology can make
the chore of measuring easier, but be sure your techs possess
enough understanding of collision forces so they – and your shop
– can survive without it.

Speaking of Technology

By now, the advantages of computerized measuring systems are obvious:
They compare dimensions of the damaged vehicles to data stored
in the computer, and the computer will then print a graphic picture
of the dimensions. The technician can readily identify which measurements
are out of specs and, more importantly, by how much.

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Shop owners/managers, customers and insurance companies all seem
to like this new technology – and most shop technicians like it,
too. It makes their job easier for two reasons: Hanging and rehanging
mechanical systems and writing down and tracking dimensions are
two chores that techs won’t miss.

The downside to this new wonder technology is the price tag. For
a shop owner who can’t yet justify the expense, you need to work
with what you have. The mechanical systems aren’t as easy to use,
but they will do the job – providing the technician does his.

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An alternative to computerized dimensioning and mechanical systems
is the universal laser systems, which have bars and rails just
like the mechanical systems and can have one or two lasers. Targets
are hung from the vehicle underbody, the length and width rails
are installed – which must be set up correctly or inaccurate measurements
will result – and vertical bars are used for upperbody measuring.
Setup time is typically one hour to one-and-a-half hours. Of course,
the technician must still compare existing dimensions to OEM specs
and monitor those dimensions as pulling progresses.

These systems will speed up measuring and provide a more accurate
"read" of dimensions. In fact, if you’re already skilled
in using a mechanical measuring system, learning to use the laser
version should be relatively simple. These systems do, however,
require a little more brain work from the technician than the
typical computerized versions.

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Dedicated benches with fixtures are another method of dimensioning.
When the fixtures are in place, the dedicated bench will measure
length, height and width. While they do involve considerable setup
time and different fixtures for each vehicle, these systems are
extremely accurate – and the technician isn’t faced with recording
as much data because the fixtures act as a go or no-go gauge.

Two measuring instruments that often are neglected in the high-tech
world are the old-fashioned tape measure and the simple tram gauge
– both of which read point-to-point measurements only. That’s
their pitfall. For recording data to aid in writing an estimate,
though, they may well be the most important measuring tools in
your arsenal. They don’t require any setup time, and you can take
them anywhere.

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They do, however, require skill and the mental discipline to read
them accurately. When using these instruments, you must use vehicle
spec sheets and be able to record the data – and to then interpret
what you’ve recorded. Keep in mind that the tram gauge will be
more accurate and easier to use over obstructions and, also, that
measuring from the near edge of a hole to the far edge of a hole
with a tape measure is the same as using a tram gauge hole-center
to hole-center.

Remember, too, that the tape measure and tram gauge will only
take one-dimensional measurements. Truly accurate dimensioning
will require three-dimensional measuring.

Damage Analysis

Damage has three forms: primary, indirect or secondary, and hidden.
Primary damage is the area directly affected by the force of the
collision. Indirect damage is damage that has been caused by the
collapse or crushing of the panel affected by the primary damage
– a front fender being pushed into the door is a good example
– and visual cues are as simple as gaps and misalignment between
exterior sheet-metal panels.

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Hidden damage is just that – hidden. You may not always see it,
but it’s there. Misalignment of mechanical parts or suspension
systems is a common example of hidden damage. Another example
is damage to the dash of many modern vehicles equipped with air
bags (it seems that deployment of both air bags can create havoc
with the dash and, for this reason, some car manufacturers are
recommending the replacement of the dash when both air bags deploy).

The key to analyzing vehicle damage is to not only be able to
recognize what happens, but to understand the relationships between
all parts on the modern automobile.

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When the vehicle is built, all parts are located via measurement.
Main structural parts are assembled first, which is where the
vehicle’s control points come into play. The rest of the body
parts, interior and mechanical systems are then located from existing
points.

Once you understand such relationships, it makes it a lot easier
to analyze damage forces. For example, if the front of the vehicle
is swung over, a change in width occurs. If the vehicle sustains
a dead-center hit to the middle front, there will be a change
in vehicle length; while that change happens to the entire body
length, typically the two lower rails are pulled closer together.
A twist, like in a multiple roll over, will likely cause a change
in height but may affect the diagonal as well. In truth, a multiple
roll over will likely affect changes in vehicle length, width
and height.

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One more example: Unibody vehicles have three sections – the center,
front and rear. Because the center-section measurements are the
key to the front and rear sections, if the center section is out
of alignment, it stands to reason that the front or rear will
be out as well.

These examples wouldn’t be obvious, however, if you didn’t understand
how every part or panel on a vehicle relates to something else.

Another useful "brain" tool is understanding the difference
between asymmetrical and symmetrical measurements. Asymmetrical
length, width and height dimensions will be unequal when comparing
the right side (passenger) to the left side (driver) of the vehicle.
This is why trying to use the undamaged side for a comparison
to the damaged side may not work. For this reason, always refer
to OEM specs or use an undamaged vehicle for comparison measuring.

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Art and Science

Estimating collision damage for the purpose of writing the estimate
or planning a repair sequence is both art and science. Modern
equipment can make the chore of making, tracking and calculating
dimensions easier, but no measuring device available can replace
the visualization or intuitive nature of understanding how collision
forces work.

Play Detective

Perhaps one of the smartest things you can do each time you write
an estimate or plan a vehicle-repair sequence is to find out the
circumstances of the collision. Was the vehicle hit by another
passenger car, a four-wheel-drive pickup, a tractor-trailer, a
motorcycle? Did it roll over down an embankment, or did a utility
pole jump out in front of it? How fast were the vehicles going?
How fast was the utility pole moving? What was the angle of impact?

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Don’t be afraid to visualize some of these collisions. By mentally
placing yourself in the vehicle and visualizing the collision-damage
sequence, you greatly improve your collision-damage analyzing
skills. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that
after several years of storing this "data" in your personal
computer (your subconscious mind), analyzing collision damage
becomes a whole lot easier.

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