Clark's Corner: Basic Maintenance

Basic Maintenance

Sadly, for many shops, the maintenance schedule for their shop equipment looks like this: when it breaks, we’ll fix it. Maybe.

clarkRegular readers know how strongly I feel about a clean shop. Even in cluttered and dirty shops that look like a bomb went off, the repair work still can fly out the door correctly fixed – but only if all the shop’s tools and equipment work right. Technicians who are idling because the welder won’t feed wire, the hydraulic ram won’t pull chains, the booth heater won’t heat or the air compressor won’t compress enough air is a costly mistake, as labor time is the most expensive thing in any body shop. Sadly, for many shops, the maintenance schedule for their shop equipment looks like this: when it breaks, we’ll fix it. Maybe.

It seems like every single body shop I visit has at least one masking machine that sits unused in the corner because it’s missing a wheel. Or a tension spring or an axle cap. The people who work there routinely make sophisticated structural, mechanical and electronic repairs to $50,000 cars, but no one is smart enough to fix the masking tree? Evidently so.

Quality Benefits

The reality is that most well-made collision repair equipment and tools are very durable and will continue to perform with little or no attention from the technicians. However, much as the various equipment manufacturers would like their customers to service their equipment at frequent intervals, if it’s still working, “Why bother?” appears to be the common shop rule. I advocate for a once-per-year major maintenance sweep. Use slow shop time to schedule wall-to-wall attention on everything that enables your shop to fix collisions profitably.

Often, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has a low workload and is a good opportunity to take the necessary equipment off-line long enough to make repairs and perform the various flushing, draining, patching, changing and charging necessary to begin the New Year with top-performing gear. Alternately, service all the paint shop equipment and airlines in the fall and the metal shop equipment and air in the spring. Putting it on your calendar in ink is the key, in my book.

Who Will Do the Work?

Most of the necessary tasks can be handled by the shop techs if they would just schedule the time to do them. Electrical, plumbing (gas line, water, compressed air) or HVAC air replacement issues will require a professional. As a former small business owner, I’m a big fan of buying local. As a 45-year veteran in our industry, I’ve observed that not every local plumber or electrician understands body shop compressed air or spraybooth air flow very well. In my experience, hiring professional compressed air and spraybooth service companies for a once-per-year stem-to-stern checkup is money and time well spent. No such vendors in your neighborhood? Simply suggest that your local folks make contact with the equipment manufacturer for some advice before they begin.

To Do What to What?

On my ideal once-per-year, preventative, production-maximizing, shop-wide checkup, I would:

  • Test all the electronic sensors on the air replacement system (weather is hard on your roof)
  • Examine the drive belts, pulley bearings, fan blades (balance goes out with overspray)
  • Vacuum all ducts, caulk and replace rubber seals, plumb and align panels
  • Measure the load on all shop electric motors (find the one running hot before it fails)
  • Update the measuring system software; same with paint scales (newest programming)
  • Replace all worn filters, screens, breakers, oils and fluids with fresh ones
  • Service all the hydraulic pumps, from the frame machine to the floor jacks
  • Perform whatever welder cleaning and lubrication their makers suggest
  • Confirm that the shop’s fire suppression system and individual extinguishers are ready

I acknowledge it would be a time-consuming, hard-to-schedule and pretty expensive week if your shop did all those things each year. I predict, however, if you did budget for this week, that the reliability and top performance of everything from the perfect infrared wavelength to the ideal compressor head temperature would keep everyone at work fixing cars every day – not fixing the shop’s equipment.


The most common sound in any body shop might be compressed air escaping. If ever there was an easily done shop maintenance task, stopping those air leaks would sure qualify. A professional compressed air service team might bring a sonic detector, similar to the device dealerships use to wand around interior seams finding wind noise in new cars. I contend you can find most of the leaks with a less sophisticated device. Listen. The more air drops in the shop, the more opportunities for leaks. Unlike gas fittings that should be checked with liquid for tightness, 175 PSI air leaks are easily detected with your ears.

Your shop’s airlines are somehow fixed in place, and your air hoses and the connections on each end are in motion all the time. Lots of the hissing noise can be fixed with new quick couplers, fresh hose ends and some thread tape. Look for the main wearable, moving part in every shop air pressure regulator, the diaphragm, to have worn out and no longer be air tight. Keeping a few spares in your desk is ten bucks well spent. Production shop airlines that are mounted near overhead doors or other disruptive activities can crack or shift over time.

Stopping the hissing noise is very satisfying. When you can stand in the silent shop and the only noise is the coffee pot, you know you’ve completed the project successfully. And to good benefit, too: less wear on the compressor pumps and motors, fewer dollars in electricity costs, better tool and spray gun performance, and, pleasantly, less shop noise. Even if you have no plans to remove and rebalance your exhaust fans or replace all the air over hydraulic pumps with better ones this year, finding and fixing the shop’s air leaks is a done-in-a-day project. The best kind!

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