One of the ways to make a sound equipment-buying
decision is to review the impact a piece of equipment will have
on each facet of your business. A 3-D measuring system usually
doesn’t get painters too excited, while body technicians typically
don’t get psyched about a new, automated downdraft booth. While
both types of equipment are key purchases for a professional operation
today, their impact is typically localized in one department.
On the other hand, an investment in a dust
extraction system can have an impact on your entire business.
- Dust control during sanding operations in both the body and
- Fume extraction during welding operations;
- Easier clean up in the detailing department;
- A cleaner office area;
- Extended sandpaper life (30 percent is a number the industry
seems to agree on);
- Extended technician life. Well … maybe not. But it will
improve the health of those hard-to-replace technicians.
- A measurable improvement in overall shop cleanliness and worker
- The purchase of a dust extraction system also makes a statement
to your employees that you care enough about them to install a
piece of equipment that has real benefits for them.
What Dust Extraction Systems Do
Dust extraction systems capture contamination at the source. Quite
simply, a large central power source is connected with galvanized
or PVC tubing throughout the shop with outlets or "drops"
located in areas where technicians can easily hook up tools or
The unit is triggered when a hose is inserted into the drop, with
the hose attached to a tool. A powerful vacuum then draws dust
and dirt through the pipes into a canister where they’re contained.
In sanding, the rate of containment is near 90 percent plus. When
attached to a fume extraction MIG-welding gun (a spark arrestor
should be utilized), gas consumption is increased slightly, but
time containment is significant, and general office cleaning and
vehicle cleanup are a breeze with the attachments normally available
with a system purchase.
Choosing a System
The single most important piece of information that will dictate
system choice is the number of technicians who are hooked on to
the system simultaneously. A shop with 12 body techs and six paint
techs will have different needs than a shop with two body techs
and one painter.
The next item of importance is the floor plan of your facility,
which will dictate where you place the main mechanical unit(s)
and how you run the piping. The drop farthest from the installation
won’t always share the same efficiency as a unit closer to the
main vacuum supply.
Two types of main power units are prevalent in the marketplace:
turbine units and brush motor units.
- Turbine units – These units have a direct motor-to-turbine-fan
connection. Typically, these utilize a cyclonic separator that
deposits large particles into a disposal basket. For very large
installations, a bag house filter system is also used to catch
the finer particles. In some cases, variable pitch blades on the
turbine respond to the draw placed on the system at any given
- Brush motor units – Regular brush-type electric motors
are used individually or in unison to create the main vacuum.
The latter systems are easily adaptable for use in a zone-type
installation – perhaps one unit for body techs, one for painters
and one for the detailers and office maintenance needs.
Both systems have proven themselves in the field, so your decision
should be based on your faith in the distributor you use and the
factory salesman’s knowledge as it pertains to your needs. The
PVC versus galvanized argument does not hold up to my experience
because we have shops in my market with both types of piping installations
that are functional after 10 years. For a very large, complex
shop installation that doesn’t utilize zone architecture but does
utilize a high-horsepower turbine, evidence supports that galvanized
Where should you place the main power unit and where should you
place the drops?
If we adapt European philosophy, we’d place the main power unit
where it would generate the least noise in the work area. Power
units easily can be located outside the building (with adequate
protection) or in a compressor room or storage room in the shop.
Ideally, the main unit should be placed in a location that’s central
to the drops and not at one end of a long, narrow building.
There are several configurations of drops. Single, wall-mounted
drops can be used at each technician location, and double drops
allow two techs to hook up to the same location. Also, drops can
be suspended from the ceiling and located in the center of the
A few manufacturers offer wall-mounted swing arms that provide
vacuum, compressed air and welding on a boom that swings over
the entire work area, which minimizes the length of hoses required
to hook up tools and keeps the floor area free of obstructions.
It’s relatively easy to include a number of outlets in the office
and waiting areas. In new construction, the piping and outlets
can be installed after framing studs are put up and before drywall
is hung. The typical hose is 25 feet long, so do some quick measurements
and place outlets so all office areas can be reached. Just like
in a home system, there are power heads with beater brushes to
handle carpet cleaning efficiently.
Dedicated dust-free tools are available for the body and paint
departments. These were engineered to perform effectively when
attached to a system, and the hookups to air and vacuum are placed
so they don’t interfere with the technician.
Conversion kits also are available for most popular brand-name
tools, and, for the most part, perform very well. Random-orbit
sanders, air files and the larger 8-inch body sanders can all
be effectively adapted. The most difficult tool to fit is a grinder.
Shrouds that surround the grinding disc can be attached, but the
collection efficiency that I’ve observed leaves something to be
desired. If, however, there’s real commitment to a dust-free environment,
technicians who like to start with a grinder might consider modifying
their techniques when finishing body filler.
As with any expenditure, serious thought needs to be given to
the cost of purchasing new tools or adapting current ones to interface
with the system. Despite the immediate health benefits of a dust
extraction system, a technician with a huge investment in his
own tools might not relish reinvesting in dust-free tools to satisfy
your desire for a clean facility.
You should start with an inventory of tools that each technician
uses. Which tools can be converted? Which tools need to be replaced?
Quality, serial-numbered tools can often be included in the original
lease or purchase of the main system.
To make the change easier, you may want to allow your technicians
to make payments or establish a payroll-deduction plan to spread
out the cost of updating. The distributor and factory rep from
your chosen system’s vendor should be able to offer you advice
from their previous experiences.
If converting tools is the path you choose to take, start the
process of ordering conversion kits and/or sending tools back
to manufacturers to be adapted at about the same time you order
your system. It can take several weeks to get all the tools ready.
You also need to look at your sandpaper inventory, determine which
products will be switched to dust free and plan with your supplier
a timely changeover. All of the major abrasive manufacturers offer
their products in prepunched versions for dust extraction use.
Also, because the vacuum system removes sanding dust and residue
so effectively, sandpaper life is increased greatly. Most users
report a 30 to 35 percent increase in paper longevity.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
published a bulletin in January 1996 titled, "Control of
Dusts from Sanding in Autobody Repair Shops." In this bulletin,
NIOSH cited the hazard and the controls.
"During autobody repair, sanding removes paint from surfaces
and smoothes body panels repaired with body-filling compounds.
Airborne dusts produced during these operations may contain hazardous
substances, such as lead and chromium from surface coatings and
abrasive from sanding discs, that are harmful to the lungs and
nervous systems of workers. Dust concentrations may also exceed
The controls cited: "Effective control of worker exposure
to dusts from sanding operations on autobody surfaces has been
achieved by the use of ventilated mechanical sanders."
NIOSH goes on to say that "rotary/orbital and straight-line/reciprocating
sanders, equipped with local exhaust ventilation as part of the
tool’s design, are recommended because they have been shown to
be effective in reducing total dust concentrations during the
sanding of body-filling compounds. These sanders have cut total
dust concentrations to one-tenth the levels produced using unventilated
sanders. Use of ventilated sanders can be enhanced by making them
convenient to use – for example, by installing retractable, flexible
hosing attached to a central vacuum system … The system will
help eliminate expensive repaints, shorten cleanup time and extend
Deciding to Be Dust Free
If you’re committed to having a cleaner shop, a dust extraction
system can definitely play a major role. To start, check out the
floor plan of your facility, including production and office space.
Talk to your distributor and manufacturers to get their recommendations,
and inventory and evaluate tool buying or conversion costs. It’s
also a good idea to spend some time visiting with other shop owners
who’ve installed similar systems.
If you’re serious about implementing such a system and ready to
make the investment, you can look forward to reduced health risks,
along with improved quality and production – all of which contribute
to, and will help increase, your shop’s profitability.
Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in
Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.