While working in some of the best-equipped shops and leaning on I-CAR standards, even the most skilled shop technicians sometimes run up against jobs that, by their sheer complexity, inspire grimacing faces and a little awe. When to repair or replace panels, structural cut-outs, or other components or sub-assemblies is one such complicated issue.
How do you better your odds for determining the right solution for a given repair? You could look up some of the information in a handy reference manual, but your best bet is to talk with techs who’ve been there, done that. With a little experience under your own belt, the decision to repair or replace won’t be quite as perplexing.
To simplify some of the complexity, a flow chart does exist. I found it in a not-so-old repair manual developed to guide collision techs toward successful repairs on cars with a lot of high-strength steel. The chart (below) is included in this article for your reference and may be useful as is or with a little updating of your own.
But even the latest and greatest shop manuals, charts and other reference materials can’t be a guide-dog through every repair scenario. The closest thing the industry has is the Uniform Procedures for Collision Repair (UPCR), produced and certified by I-CAR. Available in print or on CD-ROM, UPCR contains industry-agreed-upon repair procedures related to repair, restoration, equipment, hazardous materials, salvage-part usage and most other areas connected to collision repair. The sectioning requirements and uniform repair procedures suggested are taken from experts in the trade and are certified to be "the right way" to do things. Among other things, this set of procedures can provide answers to the question, "Should I repair or replace?"
The Buddy System
Books and resource materials aside, your best bet on an expert opinion often comes from fellow technicians and other industry specialists. Kerry Wrinkle, head body shop instructor at Ozark Technical College in Springfield, Mo., offers his advice for evaluating a collision-damaged vehicle and determining whether to repair or replace. Wrinkle says many industry educators and professionals would say, "Do what’s required to restore the vehicle to pre-accident condition." He agrees with their perspective to a point, but adds that it’s possible to find vehicles just off the delivery truck and in dealer showrooms that aren’t exactly to spec. A better way to look at the repair or replace procedure, says Wrinkle, is to bring the vehicle back to published OE specifications and ensure all safety systems are in perfect working condition.
And never, says Wrinkle, let insurance-company directives become the driving force controlling the repair. Manipulating the procedures required to complete a quality repair is a good way to lose customer confidence and botch the repair because a part was re-worked to in-exact standards instead of being replaced.
Jim Burns, owner of Jim’s Auto Body in Forsyth, Mo., also offers some advice based on his experiences: "Since the average cost for a quarter panel on a late-model car is upward of $1,000, we take a good look at the particular job before we decide to replace," he says. A small dent on a car with less than 100 miles is a lot different than two or three pretty good dents in a car that’s several years old and has 50,000 miles on the odometer. The late-model car with low mileage is probably going to get a new panel. The other car would be repaired as long as it’s safe and profitable to do so. Several other factors, such as welding vs. adhesive section repairing, can also sway the repair one direction or another, says Burns.
When it comes to actual repair techniques, Wrinkle says MIG welding is still the best way to pull together a good looking and safe job. Resistance spot welding is good, and plug welding, when done right, is also very effective. Whatever method you choose, integrity and strength must be your guidelines.
According to Wrinkle, cost-effective damage repair — which is always an issue — must take into consideration every part of the repair performed by technicians. It must also include the cost of VOC regulations and special tools and techniques that must be used on a given vehicle.
But be warned: No matter how well you’re prepared, the few and far between jobs — like upper hinge replacement on a Dodge Dakota pickup — will hit you like a ton of bricks. Repairing the component can save a lot of time, but if you’re not planning to have your best techs spend two days on such an endeavor, you need to look at alternatives. Things like welded door hinges call for a lot of repair time to get the job right — and that’s after the enclosure is perfect. New strikers and door holders can make your life a lot easier if you quote them for the insurance company right from the start.
A Hot Issue
Years ago, a damaged quarter panel could be fixed with a lot of dolly work, some lead or minor plastic work and the occasional application of heat, says Wrinkle. When deciding to repair a similar panel today, you must consider whether the panel will compromise the structure of a collapsible safety zone, which is designed to route the energy from a collision around the driver and occupant compartments. Depending on where that panel is located, you may be dealing with high-strength metallurgy, in which case replacing such components may be the best solution.
Because of such complex issues, techs aren’t using a lot of concentrated heat anymore. "Torches are bad news around today’s complex body exteriors," says Randy Hartman of Quick Way Auto Body & Paint in Houston, Texas. "If you’re going to blindly put the torch to a panel or any part of the structure, you’re doing [the repair] all wrong." (In other words, don’t repair the panel, replace it.)
Understanding the effects of heat and the complex structure of metal will help in your repair technique. Cold-rolled sheet metal is hot-rolled sheet metal that’s been subjected to an acid rinse, roller-mill extrusion and then annealment. To retain its workability and surface finish, you have to be able to read the signs of overheating. Using a crayon indicator is one way to tell; looking for subtle changes in elasticity and the color of the metal as you work the panel is another. If you overheat the panel, you’re looking at time-consuming patching or panel replacement, so pay attention to what you’re doing.
While we’re on the subject of heat, don’t depend on plug or MIG welding all enclosure areas. Plug welding certain restrictive enclosure areas, such as a floor pan, can produce intense heat that may cause distortion and other difficulties. Squeeze-type resistance spot welding (S-TRSW) will, in most cases, do a better job and save areas that would otherwise have to be cut out and replaced or re-skinned. A form of pressure welding, S-TRSW uses special equipment to focus the heat in a very small area and can contain distortion problems that plague shops using other methods.
A Sticky Situation
The ability to repair with adhesive bonding agents is becoming more a matter of choice than necessity. And some suppliers of these chemical adhesives that repair and bond plastic or metal have seen a sudden rise in interest by many aftermarket shops.
Quarter panels, box sides, tailgates and many other flat panel sections are fair game with the new adhesives. The ability to use an adhesive to attach a new panel can save several hours on a job and, in most cases, offset the cost of the material. According to a few shop estimators, this flat-rate savings can be the difference in getting the bid or not. "When using adhesives, you don’t have any splatter from welding to clean up," says Hartman. "You also don’t have to worry about weld burn-through or interior, glass and upholstery damage. This makes panel replacement a whole lot more desirable."
According to the adhesive experts, preparation for use in non-structural areas is exactly the same for all parts. First, the vehicle must be square, providing a good platform for the panel, and the sheet metal or panel must be a good fit. Another thing to consider is dry, clean, bare metal exposure.
Quality In, Quality Out
What you put into a job — quality replacement parts, technical skill and know-how — all count toward a good finished product. When it comes to repairing or replacing a panel, the same holds true. And since a step-by-step guide has yet to be published, your skill and know-how will have to be gained through hard work, common sense and input from fellow techs.
Determining when to repair or replace is a tough, but critical, decision. Follow your instincts, be confident in your ability as a technician and don’t be swayed by outside influences. The quality of your repairs — as well as the safety of your customers — are riding on it.
Contributing editor Bob Leone, a retired shop owner, is ASE Three-Way Master Certified and is completing qualifications as a post-secondary automotive instructor in the vocational school system in Missouri.