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The Dirt on Dustless Sanding

Will the benefits of purchasing a vacuum system justify the cost? It depends. Do you want cleaner paint work, happier employees and a better working environment?

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Writer Mike West, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, retired and closed his shop in Seattle, Wash., on July 1, 2011, after more than 40 years in collision repair. The mayor of Tukwila declared that day “Mike West Day” to honor West for his 39 years as a businessman in the city. He is keeping active by restoring a 1933 Rockne Sedan Delivery and a 1934 Pierce-Arrow Rumble Seat Coupe. He plans to continue administering the I-CAR in-shop welding series in the Western Washington area.

Dustless sanding – or vacuum systems – has
been a consideration and a topic of discussion for shop owners
for more than a dozen years. Personally, I’ve had a vacuum system
in my shop since 1987. (At that time, it was enough of an oddity
to be photographed and featured in some trade publications.) I’m
happy to report the system has operated excellently and without
mishap all this time.

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As you’re reading this article, keep in mind
that I’m writing it from the standpoint of a collision repairman
and a collision repair facility owner. I’m not an engineer, nor
am I a scientist. I’m using my practical experience to write this
article. I know what works for me. I’ve owned, maintained and
worked with a vacuum system for more than 10 years.

But, before going any further, let me say
that the term "dustless sanding" is a bit of a misnomer.
There’s no system that will capture 100 percent of the dust generated.
Some still escapes, but it’s minuscule in comparison to that which
is captured. If you install a system and use it properly, you’ll
notice a dramatic decline in the dust present in your shop. Visitors
familiar with the nature of our industry frequently comment on
the lack of dust in our shop.

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With that said, let’s start at the beginning.

What to Consider

Many factors should be taken into account
when thinking about investing in a vacuum system. Some of these
factors are cost, employee morale, dirt reduction in the paint
process, shop cleanliness and hygiene, marketing appeal, customer
satisfaction and shop layout. These were some of the things I
thought about before deciding to enter the world of reduced dust.

First, let’s discuss cost in more detail.
The price range for dustless sanding systems varies from inexpensive
to expensive. It really depends on what you need or want. If you’re
a one- or two-man shop in a rented facility, your needs will be
adequately filled by a portable system. An owner with a larger
shop, who owns the premises, would probably prefer a dedicated
location for the vacuum turbine and piping to specific locations
for use. The larger system is obviously more expensive, but probably
less obtrusive and more convenient to use.

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But, like anything else, there are trade-offs
for cost. We’re a facility with a total of seven employees and
own our building. We opted for the central system, with the vacuum
turbine outside under a cover. I originally considered the system
expensive but, on the other hand, I’ve done absolutely nothing
to it (expense-wise) for 11 years.

An expense that’s ultimately related to the
cost of owning a vacuum system will be electricity. Make sure
you think about this. Three-phase power will cost you more on
the front end (for the drive motor) but less in electricity bills
on the back end.

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Maintenance is also a cost factor. Make sure
you inquire about service frequency of the motors and turbines.
I was told I could expect around 20 years of service basically
free of problems from the unit I purchased, but I’ve seen some
of these systems with higher speed and smaller turbines go down
for service much more frequently (three years); then again, they
were less expensive. Before you purchase, get some references
and call them. It’ll be time well-spent. Before I bought my system,
I visited a shop that had a system similar to the one I was considering
purchasing.

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Besides cost, employee morale is also a factor
to consider. But because it’s basically a good-will factor, it’s
hard to assess a cost benefit to higher employee morale. Those
who’ve known nothing else don’t know the difference, but those
who’ve worked without a vacuum system really like the clean environment.
Who wouldn’t? I know I like it.

Dirt reduction in the paint is also a consideration.
I’ve always believed that 90 percent of the dirt comes from the
vehicle and the paint technician. So, if you can keep dust from
going on and into the vehicle, you’ve reduced the amount of dirt
that goes into the paint booth with the vehicle. Simple logic,
right? Less clean-up time is also needed at the end of the job
when the vehicle goes into the detail phase. Cleaner paint work,
less cleanup.

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Details, Details

Let’s talk about some of the details you should
think about. For example, if you’re going with a central vacuum
system, several things need to be considered, such as:

  • Placement of the turbine or turbines. I recommend outside
    placement for several reasons. Noise is one. While not loud, it’s
    one additional noise that you don’t need. And, generally speaking,
    the motors run cooler outside (depending on if you’re in Death
    Valley or Nome, Ala.). Turbines also need to be exhausted as does
    any vacuum. The question is, where would you prefer them to exhaust?

Our local vo-tech school placed a 20-hp unit inside and immediately
built a room around it, which later had to be ventilated. Expensive.
Meanwhile, there was plenty of room outside.

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  • The layout of your piping. This is crucial for convenience.
    Most systems run overhead and, if you’ve got the overhead height,
    a retractor that can pull up the hose when it’s not being used
    is a great benefit.

  • Size and type of piping. All my piping was sized for capacity
    by an engineer to determine capacity, flow and resistance. This
    is crucial. My system was developed by a tremendous craftsman,
    Kay Parks of Tacoma, Wash. Parks is retired now, but he was a
    lifetime collision repair shop guy and loved inventing. As you
    know, dust generates tremendous static electricity when it flows
    through a pipe. Kay found out through experience that round, thin-wall
    steel pipe (18 gauge) works much better for defeating static electricity
    than P.V.C. This can be very important. (P.V.C. also has a tendency
    to gather a lot of dust on the outside of the pipe, acting like
    a magnet for airborne dust particles.)

Steel also makes it easy to ground the hoses and the system. But
keep in mind your hoses need to have grounding wires in them.
(Most vacuum hoses do have a capability for grounding.) The steel
pipe holds its shape overhead and doesn’t sag or distort either.
On the downside, steel tubing and fittings will probably be more
expensive than PVC – and steel needs to be painted.

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  • Vacuum sanding tools. There are several manufacturers of vacuum
    sanding tools. The ones I’ve used have all been good. You can
    adapt regular non-vacuum tools to be used for vacuum by purchasing
    kits made for this. These generally consist of shrouds that are
    attached to the sander, through which the vacuum captures the
    dust. The vacuum sanders designed as vacuum tools pull the dust
    directly through perforated sandpaper, into the inside of the
    tool and out the exhaust. The vacuum actually assists the powering
    of some of these sanders.

Don’t Be Left in the Dust

Should you go dustless or not? It really depends on what you’re
looking to do, what your shop’s needs are and what your goals
for your shop are.

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One thing, however, is certain: Most of the dustless sanding systems
out there are far better than no system at all – and the benefits
of your investing in a dustless sanding system will be felt not
only in the long run, but the minute your system is up and running.

Writer Mike West is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.
He’s been a shop owner for the past 25 years and is also a technician
with 34 years experience. His shop in Seattle, Wash., has attained
the I-CAR Gold Class distinction and the ASE Blue Seal of Excellence.

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Let Customers Know

Customers like to know that you’re modern and current regarding
the outfitting and equipping of your facility. Customers also
like to know that you’re concerned about the welfare of your employees,
the cleanliness of your customers’ vehicles and the environment.
With your investment in vacuum technology, you can market yourself
this way. We do. We put information regarding our vacuum system
in our brochure and on our Web site.

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Call in the Vacuum Police

Something should be said here about enforcing the use of the vacuum
system. Vacuum systems use hoses connected to specially adapted
sanders. This is somewhat more cumbersome (not much) and requires
getting used to. The human animal, being what it is, will resist
change, even for its own good. So, some insistence and enforcement
will probably be necessary by management to ensure the system
is always used. Once the habit is formed, though, your employees
will love it.

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