TECH FEATURE: The Case of the Murdered Paint Job - BodyShop Business
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TECH FEATURE: The Case of the Murdered Paint Job

A horrible paint job. A miffed vehicle owner. An upset insurance company. We were out to crack the case. And everyone and everything were suspects.


Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

The story you’re about to read is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The city was Los Angeles. It was Friday, and I was working the day watch out at the old auto body supplier on big Santa Monica. Was it fraud, grand larceny or vehicle homicide? You’re a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, Jack Justice. You’re the fuzz, the heat. You’re poison, you’re trouble, you’re bad news. They call you everything, but you’re really the problem solver.

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Thousands of cars are painted here every day, and most move back to their owners with high gloss, clean surfaces and great durability. Some cars, however, have their finishes murdered. My partner and I were going to follow up leads, question witnesses, telephone the not-so-innocent and find the miscreants responsible for these crimes – because crimes of poor paint jobs just don’t pay.

Consider that many experts think that the biggest drain on any body shop’s paint and material costs isn’t a thief or excess hazardous waste generation but the paint and material used in a re-do. The insurance company pays just once to have the paint shop refinish the car correctly. When poor results require a second run through the paint shop, a crime has been committed, and the victims are the shop owner and the vehicle owner. It was just such a crime we were investigating on this smoggy Friday morning.


9 a.m. – The Interview

We interviewed the registered owner of the car, one Mrs. Smith of Van Nuys. The facts were these: Smith had been promised her car back correctly repaired at 9 a.m. yesterday morning. It wasn’t to be. Through no fault of her own, her car had been delayed by several days because of dirty tactics at the suspect shop. My partner and I also spoke with Rex Cars, the owner of XYZ Collision Repair. He said he had been paid for 11 hours of refinish time and $264 for paint and material for performing the repair. Due to shady practices, he had to repaint the car a second time. Neither Smith nor the insurance company was on the hook to help with the additional costs. Both reported they were very unhappy that delivery of the car was delayed.


10:00 a.m. – The Inspection

We examined the subject auto and clearly saw the dirty deed. Four panels on Smith’s car were repainted, and all four were covered with dirt, fisheyes and moisture blisters. Plus, they exhibited unacceptably low gloss. It was a clear case of vehicular homicide. We set out to find the culprit.

10:04 a.m. – The Painter Talks

We interviewed the painter, one Skip Towne, a long-time employee of XYZ Collision. Towne reported that he had washed Smith’s car with soap and plenty of fresh water before he pulled it into the spraybooth. We knew from past auto refinish crimes that such treatment ensured that the drip rails, nooks and crannies on the car would be rinsed clean of any dirt and dust. Clearly, the ruined finish wasn’t caused by dirt riding in on the car. Towne also showed us the clean, disposable paint suit and head sock he wore when painting Smith’s vehicle. We concluded that we couldn’t pin the crime down on Towne and that the ruined finish wasn’t caused by dirt entering the booth on his back. That left only one suspect: the spraybooth.


10:45 a.m. – Full of Hot Air

We continued our investigation by checking XYZ Collision’s compressed air system. We found a poorly maintained piston-type air compressor stuffed into a hot, cramped room in the rear of the shop. It was clear that no one had touched the compressor in weeks, if not months. The room temperature was stifling hot, and the compressor pump and piping were covered with a thick layer of dust. These were clues that pointed clearly to a compressor that was running hot and pumping compressed air full of moisture and oil vapor, both of which could contribute to the crime done to Smith’s car.


My partner and I knew from past investigations that a compressor should be located in a well-ventilated room with plenty of cool air to circulate around the pump. The pump itself should be free of dust, as it restricts the heat from escaping and causes the pump to run extra hot. The discharge piping on this compressor had plenty of cooling fins to help draw off the heat in the compressed air, but they too were covered in dust and many were bent. Even worse, the ignorant thugs who installed the moisture trap had hung it directly on the 80-gallon air receiver tank.


We deduced that little of the moisture in the compressed air had cooled down enough to turn from vapor to liquid so soon after being compressed. That trap was simply taking up space. To be functional, it would have to be moved at least 25 feet away from the compressor tank so that the air could cool down, the moisture could condense to liquid water and the impact-type trap could hammer that moisture out of the
air stream.

To make a bad situation worse, the shop’s air lines were made from PVC plastic pipe. Although cheap to acquire, the problem is that the plastic is a great insulator. So not only was no heat lost from the air as it traveled through the piping, the plastic pipe got hot and sagged into low spots every 6 feet across the shop walls. These low areas in the delivery pipe gave water and crud a place to accumulate and later blow down the air line to ruin paintwork. A much better choice would have been high-pressure copper or aluminum pipe. We were getting somewhere on the question of what happened to Smith’s car.


Someone had the good sense to add a desiccant dryer at the point-of-use inside the paint booth – better work than we had seen so far at XYZ Collision. The bad news was that no one had changed or dried the desiccant beads for months. The moment those beads filled with water, they stopped being effective. Every drip of water, liquid or vapor pushed into the dryer pushed out another one on the discharge end – a clear case of more poor maintenance on the compressed air system. No wonder the car was full of moisture blisters and fisheyes as big as those on the real seafood down by the water in Long Beach.


There was so much oil blowing past the piston rings and so much crud from the airlines that neither Ahab nor Babe Winkelman could have painted a smooth finish. Oil vapor is really hard to trap out. This is a problem best addressed at the source rather than out in the shop after the fact.

The compressor at XYZ was older than my partner and needed a complete rebuild or, better yet, replacement with a new rotary screw pump. We had found the source of some of the wounds on Smith’s car, but there was still way too much dirt in the finish to have come through the air lines.


11:15 a.m. – Examining the Booth

We moved our investigation to the spraybooth itself. Both Rex Cars and Skip Towne stated that the booth had been constructed in 1989. Our questioning revealed that it had not been tightened up or re-caulked since. As we knew from previous investigations, the booth is nothing more than a big fire-proof, sheet metal box. Constant opening and closing of doors, vibration from the 34-inch exhaust fan and general hard use loosens up the nuts and bolts that hold it together.

Clean cars coming from other body shops were painted in a spraybooth that received regular service. Their booth was vacuumed off by the giant furnace-cleaning vacuum truck twice a year, and the seams were re-caulked and the panels pushed and screwed back to square on a regular basis.


Nice, clean spraybooths had a special coating on the walls that could be peeled off and reapplied when it got dirty. This was much easier than repainting the inside of the booth with white latex and a roller. Better booths had a special coating on the floor that could be removed with water and a scrub brush. This sealer coating helps keep the dust and static electricity down, making for fault-free paint work. The booth at XYZ had none of these features.

11:45 a.m. – Cheap Filters

We investigated the intake filter pads in the ceiling of the booth. It looked like we had found the main culprit in the crime on Smith’s car. Not only were the intake filters full of dirt and long past their useful life, they were also cheap imitations of the expensive air-balancing filters that came with the booth. Rex Cars reported that the cost of the correct down-draft, air-balancing filters was too high, so he had purchased a cheaper filter from an itinerant vendor in a rusty pickup.


Thinking he had saved hundreds of dollars, Cars was disappointed to hear that these cheap filters ruined his down-draft air flow. As my partner and I knew, it was the tricky weave of the correct filters that made uniform down-draft air flow possible. These filters are made so that no air can escape from the plenum (the box of air on top of the booth) until the air pressure across the entire face of the filter is uniform. Cheap filters from rusty pickups don’t do that.

As we were able to show Cars, the $900 cost of the correct filters could be recovered in scuff-and-buff time in a matter of days. If his cheaper, full-of-dirt filters caused the painter to have to sand and polish every car he painted for as little as a half hour at $40 per hour, the $20 labor he saved on each car with the correct and clean filters would be recovered quickly.


12:07 p.m. – On the Floor

Our sleuthing moved to the floor filters in the booth. Skip Towne wanted to know how the floor filters could cause dirt in the paint. We told him that when those outgoing filters (correctly called arrestors) loaded up, two problems occurred. First, they started to cough up and let loose of the dry overspray trapped inside them, and then incoming air kicked up the dirt particles from floor level and tossed them into the wet paint. In addition, the air flow leaving the booth was restricted by full arrestors, and smooth air flow from the ceiling, around the car and out the floor was interrupted.


Pure laziness was responsible, since the cost of the arrestors was quite cheap. The labor to pull up the iron floor grids, vacuum the pit and replace the outgoing filters was more work than Skip or Rex wanted to do. Instead, they had murdered Smith’s paint job.

1:00 p.m. – Case Closed

It was just as we suspected when we got the call: The employees at XYZ Collision Repair were too busy fixing cars to do any maintenance on their spraybooth or air compressor. And It had come back to haunt them big time. Not only had they made Smith’s insurance company mad by increasing the cycle time, but they had also aggravated Smith so much that she threatened to give her insurer a poor report on XYZ when polled about her experience at the shop. Rex Car’s pocketbook was then raided when he had to buy a second round of paint and material to do the job over – not to mention Skip Towne’s paycheck.  


In the financial court of the County of Los Angeles, XYZ Collision Repair, Rex Cars and Skip Towne were sentenced to repair Smith’s car on their own dime and their own time. Poor booth condition had cost them the goodwill of the customer and the insurer. Once again, the old adage proved true: Crime doesn’t pay. A

Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He is celebrating his 21st year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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