Maybe you live in Los Angeles, and it’s normal to inhale air that’s about as dusty as the basement in Pharoah Khufu’s Pyramid. But even living in L.A. is no excuse for your techs to be inhaling more dusty air than they already do. Sure, we can’t get rid of all the dust in the world, but technology has given shop owners the option to create a cleaner working environment. One such tool contributes to this creation by letting a shop perform dustless sanding.
In the old days, using orbital sanders meant you created your own personal mini-sandstorm. The really tough guys used those sanders without any breathing masks or eye protection. Those brave guys now have iron lungs, a voice like Phyllis Diller and eyesight so lacking in depth perception that the Grand Canyon appears flat.
These days, however, sanders can work in conjunction with an included vacuum tube. When techs sand, any dust that would fly around and make your shop look like the Sahara in motion would instead be contained and sucked into the sander and through a connected tube. Then you can paraphrase Freddie Mercury and say, “The dust bites another one.”
It Sucks – and That’s Good
So what’s the deal with these central dust extraction systems (the term just rolls off the tongue), and what good are they?
Some shops are discovering that a clean working environment can enhance employee loyalty. For one thing, a tech who’s been working in a clean environment may not want to go (back) to a dusty shop. So you can feel secure knowing a tech won’t leave your place for one where he can become Lawrence of Arabia.
A clean shop may also help to entice potential new hires. The tech shortage dictates that one particular incentive or positive aspect — no matter how insignificant it seems to you — may be the item that makes or breaks a prospective tech’s decision to work at your shop.
Depending on how lawsuit-happy your region is – and if you live in America, you live in a lawsuit-happy region – a dustless sander also may prevent a civil action from being taken against you. Nothing kills a retirement savings faster than being sued by a former tech who developed a breathing ailment after years of working in your shop. Even if techs wear breathing masks while sanding the traditional way, the dust particles remain in the air after the job is done and the mask is off. A dustless sander means less need for a mask or one of those protective body suits from the movie “Outbreak.”
Dustless sanding may also keep your sandpaper lasting longer, since the sanding dust won’t build up on the discs. Since a lot of shops toss out sandpaper that’s been blocked — not worn — avoiding dust build-up in the paper means you’ll get more life out of it.
This magazine has published numerous articles on how dust can prevent a good paint job. The less dust left behind after a sanding job means fewer problems in the paint department. Like weeds getting into your garden, dust will find a way into your booth unless it’s stopped at its source – where the vehicle was sanded. And as the dust is vacuumed, it won’t build up on the sanding discs and leave you with spiral or swirl markings on the surface.
If the work area of your shop is visible to customers, dustless vacuum systems may prevent them from seeing a dirty shop. Sure, some customers may see a clean shop and think, “It’s so clean. Do they even work in this place?” However most people see a clean shop and prefer that to one that looks like the set from the last scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” Cleanliness can – and does – affect where vehicle owners decide to have their cars repaired.
How Does It Suck?
Most of these dustless sanding systems have a vacuum producer, a system for filtration, pipe and vacuum hoses, and tools. Each of these has its own role and variations, and the size and productivity of your shop is certainly a critical factor in determining the best combination of these components. Here’s a general breakdown of the components and what they do:
At one end of the system are the tools. These are the orbital or straight-line sander and the hose – the hands-on parts most accessible to the techs. Sanders are generally bought separate from any vacuum system and are available “vacuum ready.” Vacuum-ready means something slightly different than “vacuum assist,” and that difference has to do with suction power. Vacuum-ready tools are said to have a larger vacuum take-off than vacuum assist, which rely on a venturi effect from the compressed air. However, you’re the final judge on which is better for your shop.
If you follow the hose to its other end, you’ll see it’s connected to the pipe. This pipe generally hangs from above, and the tube hangs from it. Depending on whether you want a two-, four-, six- or 12-person system will determine to a certain extent the kind of pipe you want. The greater the number of people using the system at once, the thicker the diameter of the pipe should be. If three people are simultaneously engaged in dustless sanding, it’ll be easier for all that dust to fly through a pipe with a larger radius. Look at it this way. Is it easier to get six kids in a Mazda Miata or a Ford Excursion? Radius ranges go from 2 to 6 inches.
When it comes to pipes, you can choose PVC pipe or 12- to 14-gauge thin wall tubing. While the PVC is cheaper and easier to install, the metal variety has less loss of friction and static electricity build-up. What’s wrong with static electricity? Not only does it make your socks stick to your flannel shirts when you take them out of the dryer, but it also attracts dust to the outside of the pipe, which doesn’t look so good. Plus it may cause static shock, which doesn’t feel so good.
After the pipe you come to the filter. A good filtration system can prevent problems in the pump, since sanding dust may get clogged in the impellers. Some filtration systems include a pre-filter, which removes a good portion of dust before it reaches the last filter. When it comes to final filters, keep in mind the square footage you need and be aware of any difficulty in cleaning it. A filter can be shaken out manually or if you’re worried about human error, a mechanical device can shake it out.
The last thing to keep in mind is the vacuum producer. The determining factor here is the size of your shop. Three prominent choices are the brush motor blowers, regenerative blowers and centrifugal multi-stage pumps.
For a smaller shop, brush motors are a good fit. They have a shorter lifetime and aren’t designed to run continuously. Also, brushes should be replaced at least once during the brush motor’s 4,500-hour lifetime. Brush motors allow up to four people to work at once.
The regenerative blowers and centrifugal multi-stage pumps contain motors designed to run continuously and have lifetimes of 20,000 hours. Unlike brush motors, little maintenance is required. The regenerative blowers can allow up to six techs to sand at the same time, and the centrifugal pump – depending on the size – can allow eight to 12 techs to work at once. Some say a general guideline to follow in determining the size of the vacuum producer is to figure out how many techs in your shop will be sanding simultaneously.
Finding a Layout to Suck
Of course, the layout of the system must work in conjunction with the layout of your shop, but there are some considerations to keep in mind when setting up a dustless sanding system.
The vacuum-producing pump can be placed outside or inside, but the closer the pumps are to the center of the shop, the better. Why? Because the shorter the run of pipes, the less dust the vacuum will lose. However, if a larger pump is being used, the noise it creates may influence your decision to put the pump in a separate room, enabling you to hear yourself think. Experts recommend placing the larger pump in a compresser room or near the paint booth mechanicals. If the pump is going outside, keep it covered and protected from Mother Nature. Also ask for your techs’ input on these systems. Some may recommend that the drops be near the cars they work on, making it easier to plug and unplug the hose.
Suck It Up
A dustless sanding system may seem more like a luxury than a necessity, but keeping a clean shop really shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Sure, Pig Pen in the “Peanuts” comic strip may have appeared happy, but he was crying on the inside. And all the others were hesitant to stand so close to him. Likewise, prospective techs may be reluctant to work in a shop that’s so dusty they see mirages. Less dust also means healthier employees, which translates into fewer techs calling in sick – and more production coming out.
Writer Mike Lawrence is associate editor of BodyShop Business.