The cost drove you to it, you say? You’re not alone. The price of replacement parts is the reason some repairers – and consumers – are considering the use of (or have already used) recycled air bags in vehicle repairs.
But if pricing is the main reason you’re considering recycled air bags, then you might want to ask yourself who’s saving the money and who’s assuming the risks or liability exposure. Do you get a written guarantee or warranty with the part? If so, does it cover injury or liability exposure? If it does, to what level? What do you base your decisions and rational on? Who or what do you use to defend your business decisions if you do end up in court or being sued?
Maybe this doesn’t seem likely, but keep in mind that safety-related systems are the most likely to create your greatest exposures – especially since, at the present time, all vehicle manufacturers take the position that only new OEM parts should be used when servicing supplemental inflatable restraint systems. As for I-CAR, it recommends that you follow vehicle manufacturer guidelines and recommendations.
I don’t know of a major insurance company that will knowingly agree to recycled bags either.
Because of the risks involved, the following thoughts and guidance will hopefully help you come to an informed decision.
System Parts: If It’s Not a Match, It’s a Danger
Late-model vehicles being repaired today have both driver and passenger-side frontal bags, and some of these are dual-stage deployment bags or modules. Side-impact air bags can also be mounted behind door trim panels, in seat-back outer cushions and in B-pillars, and side-impact curtain bags can be located in A-, B- and C-pillars, as well as along the upper roof rails. There are also deployment-type seatbelt tensioners that may involve seat-position sensors.
All these supplemental-restraint deployment devices work as systems in conjunction with impact sensors and control modules. These control modules may be separate for each type of deployment system the vehicle has or they may monitor multiple systems.
It can be a challenge at times to secure correct parts when working with an OEM dealer parts person who’s using systems that operate off the Vehicle Identification Number. These people have updated listings that tell them if the old part number’s been superseded by a new number and or part. In one case, a vehicle manufacturer stated that forward-crash sensors need only be replaced if physically damaged. Turns out these vehicles had three forward sensors, and if one was damaged, you needed to replace them as a matched set – a requirement that wasn’t listed in the original service information.
If a supplemental restraint system doesn’t have correctly matched parts, the whole system could operate incorrectly or completely fail during a future collision. As a result, vehicle manufacturers specify that any supplemental restraint-system part should only be serviced using new OEM parts.
So if you plan to use a recycled part or component such as an air bag or other system parts, how do you know they’re correctly matched? Interchange information used by the salvage industry can be misleading at times. In a recent situation where someone I know looked into salvage bags for a particular vehicle, he was told that 1999-2001 were the same and would work. In the 2001 model they were repairing, however, the frontal bags were dual-stage bags. In 1999, this wasn’t the case. The bags might actually bolt into the same areas, but they certainly wouldn’t and couldn’t function in the same way.
Also, deployment rates of air bag modules have changed from one model year to the next over the history of their use. So if a bag with a different deployment rate was used, the timing of the event could be off and actually cause personal injury to the driver or front-seat occupant.
To try to prevent accidental installation of wrong parts, vehicle manufacturers have sometimes changed the electrical connector design. And even though wire pigtails on the modules shouldn’t be altered or repaired, air bags have been found in vehicles with the connectors changed or spliced on so they’d plug in.
This is not to say that if parts plug in, they’re the correct parts. If an air bag module bolts in and looks correct, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the correct module. There can be a difference in the size of the passenger-side bag when deployed, if it’s in a vehicle with a full bench or one that has bucket seats. They may look the same before deployment and may have the same mounting area in the dash, but when deployed, they don’t have the same coverage area.
Don’t Refinish Modules
Do air bag modules have to be purchased with a correct color cover? Can they be refinished using interior color refinishing materials? Air bag manufacturers and vehicle manufacturers say these modules should not be refinished (and this includes not using vinyl paint or dies).
Although reasons for these statements may vary when talking to industry experts, there’s concern over the solvents in the refinish materials affecting or altering the plastic covers or protective shell under some vinyl covers. And if the plastic became brittle, pieces of it could become projectiles during a deployment. Another concern is the refinish material itself delaminating and becoming particles that could get into someone’s eyes during a deployment.
Bottom line: These modules aren’t to be refinished.
Will a Salvage Air Bag Work?
Ever since recycled air bags were introduced to the market, I expected that some sort of testing might occur. But after about 14 years of use – increasing use – nothing seems to be happening. As of right now, I only know of one way to truly test any air bag module: Deploy it. And that pretty much makes it useless for installation in a vehicle.
Also how do you know the salvage bag will work? If the deployment canister and igniter charge on an air bag module gets wet internally, the air bag may not function. And if you use a multi-meter to check the deployment loop of the module, it could actually set the bag off.
So how do you know where the bag or module has been? Was it frozen in a Minnesota snow drift in the salvage yard? Was it under water when the salvage vehicle was in a flood and totaled? Was it defective and didn’t deploy during the collision? Maybe the salvage yard knows some of the history of the vehicle, but how do you document it?
With a new OEM part, you know its history, you know how the module should perform and there’s also a manufacturer tied to it. And, although some might argue that the manufacturer is tied to the same bag from a salvage vehicle, if you go back to the manufacturer position on replacement of air bag system parts, the manufacturer clearly states that only new OEM parts are to be used.
Let’s be honest here. What interest does any vehicle manufacturer have in validating recycled parts? This is particularly true with safety-related parts, brakes, suspension, restraints. They’ve been sued more than once over air bag systems they’ve been mandated to install, so why would they expose themselves to recycled issues and repair quality they have no control over? There’s nothing for the OEMs to gain – only risk to assume – if they move toward approval of recycled bags.
It Is Worth the Risk?
Recycled air bags are being shipped on a daily basis across this country -often incorrectly packaged and in unlabeled containers despite DOT laws that state how they must be marked and shipped. There’s also the black market angle: Many air bags are stolen, with dealer lots sometimes having 30 or more in one night.
So are the OEMs looking into adjusting pricing to help reduce this demand for recycled air bags? Probably not. The OEMs likely think air bags are already priced correctly, with many costing only $400 to $600 per bag. And some side bags aren’t much more than $100. The cost, however, adds up when you have to change the whole dash and use scan tolls to reset the systems.
There’s no question that many times the restraint system is what puts a vehicle over the top in the repair costs. But restraint systems save much more than that in medical expenses annually to the insurance companies. And I don’t hear any insurance companies screaming to be able to use recycled bags and saying they’ll assume the liability. More often, what I hear are those in the salvage industry wanting them green-lighted because the market isn’t as good as they’d like, considering the supply they have. (The current market seems to be thriving most with those doing non-insurance-related repairs.)
So what if a vehicle owner asks you to install a recycled air bag? I’m asked this regularly – likely more than most shops since we do a number of totals in school. I refuse to use them. If a customer won’t let us install new, we don’t do the repairs. Sometimes, the vehicle is hauled out of the school shop to go to a facility that will do the repairs. We then document that air bag repairs weren’t completed during our repairs and that the vehicle isn’t safe to be driven as is.
When looking at the use of recycled air bags verses new OEM replacement parts, your decision should be based on sound information and make good business sense. Although the information I’ve presented here may look as if I’m telling you what your decision should be, I believe every business owner should make his own decisions.
Once your decision is made, however, you need to know that you can defend it and be willing to accept responsibility for it. In this great country in which we live, litigation is one of our checks and balances. That’s why it’s important for you to understand that your shop is liable for the quality of replacement parts that it installs. The salvage industry doesn’t seem to have a position that puts them at risk for the quality of the part, so it’s the repairer who must assure quality.
So, if you install a new air bag that cost $600 and make 25 percent on it and minimize your liability exposure, is it a better deal than making 30 percent on a $400 recycled bag that leaves you with most of the liability? You tell me.
Writer Tom Brandt is an autobody collision technology instructor at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical Campus in Winona, Minn. The program is a post-secondary, two-year diploma program and is NATEF certified.- Brandt has 16 years of teaching experience, has been an I-CAR instructor for 15 years and, prior to that, was a combination technician.