Should You Repair Air Bags? - BodyShop Business
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Should You Repair Air Bags?

With the right training and tools, air-bag replacement can be done at your shop — bringing you more profits and more control over uncontrollable circumstances.

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A collision repair shop in Los Angeles was transporting a damaged vehicle to a dealer to install both air bags when the vehicle was involved in a serious accident. Luckily, there were no serious injuries, but the damage sustained to the vehicle was substantial. Why is this story important? The repair facility didn’t have sufficient knowledge about the replacement and repair of the air-bag system so it had to sublet the work to a dealer. And, while it was smart of the technicians not to attempt to do work they weren’t qualified to do, transporting a vehicle to another location for sublet work can often create uncontrollable hazards.

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My point here is that with the right training and tools, air-bag replacement can be done at your shop by your shop technicians or by outside vendors who have the skill, equipment and expertise to do on-site repairs.

A Simple Test
I want you to take a short test. Ready? Blink your eyes. That process took about 0.3 seconds. By comparison, an air bag inflates in about 1/20 of a second — faster than the blink of an eye. To operate that quickly, you’d think such a system is extremely complicated. On the contrary, it’s quite simple. The system is comprised of an air-bag sensor, an air bag, an SRS diagnostic unit, a clockspring and wires. The system is activated by a rapid deceleration of the vehicle. The safing device then closes the air-bag circuit and sends voltage to the impact sensors. If a frontal collision occurs, the frontal sensors and the electrical circuit close, sending a signal to the controller to deploy the air bags. All in the blink of an eye.

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The Business of Air Bags
Air-bag systems have been around long enough for most of us to have some experience repairing them, but just when some of us thought these systems were getting easier to work on, the technology advanced again. A Toyota Corolla can have dual front air bags, dual side air bags, dual exploding seat-belt pre-tensioners and single-point sensing. A few years ago, an air-bag system with that level of sophistication was only available on very expensive, foreign luxury cars. Likewise, exploding pre-tensioner seat belts were only available on European luxury and sports cars and high-end Asian cars. Now, these seat belts can be found on vehicles such as the Ford cargo van, and many manufacturers have added additional air-bag systems, such as the BMW head-restraint system and the Kia Sportage knee air bag.

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Many air-bag systems already use two control modules: one for the front air bags and one for the side air bags. And early next year, passenger-sensitive systems will be introduced on many domestic cars. The General Motors system will use a special material similar to that used in gloves worn to control virtual reality devices. This material will be put into a car’s seats so the air-bag system will be able to tell if the occupant is leaning too far forward or is out of the proper seating position. It will also allow the passenger air bag to turn off if the system senses the passenger’s safety could be compromised by a deploying air bag.

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But installing air-bag components isn’t the difficult part about working on such systems and neither is replacing instrument panels. The most difficult part of repairing air-bag systems is accurately diagnosing what’s wrong with the system after an accident. In most cases, this requires expensive diagnostic equipment that can be hard to obtain and requires training to use properly. And be warned: Working on air-bag systems without training and the proper diagnostic equipment is like sky diving without the proper training and equipment.

Repair Guidelines
How can you be certain you and your techs can handle repairing today’s air-bag systems? By using the following guidelines, you can avoid many of the most common problems.

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1. Get training. It’s available through vehicle manufacturers and I-CAR’s Advanced Vehicle Systems course, and some vocational schools offer air-bag training as part of their automotive associate’s degree programs.

2. Find out if a diagnostic tool is needed to diagnose the system after a deployment or to clear the codes after a repair. If a tool is necessary, make sure you find someone who has one and get the vehicle checked.

3. Check and record the condition of the air-bag system by cycling the ignition and observing the air-bag warning lamp on the dashboard. This should be done on every air-bag-equipped vehicle that enters your shop and once again for safe measure before the vehicle is delivered to the customer. This additional step will allow you to recognize air-bag system problems the minute the vehicle enters your shop, giving you the time needed to diagnose and repair the problem. Checking when the vehicle comes in and again before it leaves your shop can also tell you whether the car came in with an air-bag problem or if a problem was a result of the repairs.

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4. Disable the air-bag system any time you weld on the car or move, disconnect or replace an air-bag system.

5. Always include the manufacturer’s required replacement parts (MRRPs) on your air-bag system estimate. (Many estimating databases include this information.) Simply replacing all the MRRPs doesn’t mean the air-bag system is repaired. If you fail to follow other manufacturer warnings, the air-bag system won’t be restored to pre-accident condition. In fact, the California Code of Regulations, Title 16, Chapter 33, Subsection 3365 states that "repairs shall be performed in accordance with OEM service specifications or nationally distributed and periodically updated service specifications that are generally accepted by the autobody repair industry." Basically, it means not adhering to MRRPs is against the law.

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6. Write a complete air-bag system estimate that includes:

• MRRPs as found in your database;

• Diagnostic codes found in the air-bag control module; and

• Physical damage, including that on the dashboard and steering column.

If all of these areas are covered, your estimate will be complete.

7. Check all seat belts. A seat belt may have automatic locking retractors, emergency locking retractors, switchable retractors or emergency tensioning retractors — all of which act differently in a collision. Many seat belts have indicators that show you if they need to be replaced. It’s very important that anyone repairing collision-damaged vehicles knows how to identify and check all types of seat belts.

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Keeping Up with Change
If you decide to repair air bags in your shop, first, be sure you follow all safety procedures when handling deployed and undeployed air bags. Second, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for what parts need to be replaced if air bags are deployed. (This information can be found in the manufacturer’s repair manuals, in I-CAR’s Advantage newsletter and from the information providers.) Third, remember you’re responsible for due care when repairing a customer’s vehicle.

In response to our society’s need for additional safety in our cars, air-bag systems will continue to change in the future. But this won’t stop you from offering in-house air-bag repairs, as long as you follow the guidelines listed. If you do, repairing air bags at your shop will not only save you time and money, but provide your customers with the high level of service they deserve. And providing them with a high level of service, rest assured, is something that will never change.

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Writer Toby Chess is the Los Angeles I-CAR chairman, as well as an I-CAR instructor. He’s also a certified ASE Master Technician.

Special thanks to Sam Massey for his input for this article. Massey works with SRS Systems and is an I-CAR instructor for advanced vehicle systems.

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