By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- April 17, 2018 -- The latest Guild 21 teleconference tackled a key question for collision repairers: When it comes to plastic damage, when do you repair the part and when do you replace it?
If a part costing thousands of dollars can be repaired rather than replaced, KPI scores come down, the insurance company is happy and insurance premiums can be contained. That is, there is a strong case to be made for repairing plastic parts with a nitrogen welder. While technique is considered controversial by some, it is also the case that it has been in use for decades and is very much the correct choice in some collision repair scenarios, according to the plastic welding experts on the Guild 21 call.
Diving into the subject of plastic repair were two of the pioneers of the technique in North America, Kurt Lammon, president, Polyvance, and Scott McKernan, president, #1 Vinyl & Leather Repair. Each examined the issues techs need to consider when they trying to answer the question, ‘repair or replace?’
First up on the call was Kurt Lammon, president of Polyvance. In 1995 he and his brother Keith took over a company, Urethane Supply Company. They developed a repair method for repairing polyurethane bumpers in the 1980s and now provide several popular products for plastic repair and refinishing.
Few are better qualified to talk about repairing plastic parts with a nitrogen welder than Lammon. He addressed some of the barriers to the adoption of the technique. “A lot of estimators don’t have the experience. Many of the new estimators may not be aware of the techniques. Some techs are compensated in a way that a repair is not as profitable,” says Lammon.
Going on to discuss the process Lammon notes that if an OEM repair procedure manual says that a certain part needs to be replaced rather than repaired, “then the idea that you can do a plastic weld to repair it is moot.” But there are many areas on a car where repairs can be made with a nitrogen plastic welder and Lammon thinks collision repair techs should be aware of these opportunities. “Critical thinking is important here. We sometimes jump immediately to ‘replace,’ whether or not it’s repairable,” he says. “Many likely assume plastic repair begins and ends with the bumper. But repairs can also be done on the interior of a vehicle, including dashes.”
When it comes to repairing a dash through plastic welding the procedure is a bit more complex than fixing a bumper. “Working on a dash can mean working around airbags. A basic guideline here is that you don’t want to repair anywhere near where an airbag may be deployed. Insurers typically say a repair can’t be within six inches of an airbag opening. We want to be careful around that area where it might deploy. If there’s any question, don’t do it. It’s not worth taking the chance if a repair can hamper the deployment of the airbag,” says Lammon.
That said, there are many areas where plastic welding techniques can be applied, including seats. Again, techs need to consider the material, airbag placement and any special breakaway threads that hold material over the airbag. “Again, if there is any question about an airbag, don’t repair,” says Lammon.
The other expert on the Guild 21 call was Scott McKernan, a 30-year veteran of the collision claims industry veteran. Interestingly, McKerman went to a high school that had a plastic shop as part of its trade curriculum. “I stared early,” he says on the call. “Two years out of high school I started my first business.”
Today McKernan’s company offers “TrimQuote,” a quick response system for shops that are making the repair versus replace decision. A tech in a shop can contact TrimQuote and the company’s consultants will assess a job as to the possibility of performing that repair.
In a bid to lower repair costs in some places in North America today a tech cannot replace a bumper without a reject slip on that job from the insurer. That is, the insurance company wants to know that tech considered repairing the bumper before going ahead with the more costly replacement. TrimQuote can provide proof the tech has weighed the ‘repair versus replace’ question. “An estimator can ask us to send a picture or email to attach to a file. You can attach that request to the claim file so the insurer sees that the tech at least tried a repair. Sometimes the picture is not enough – there are a million different scenarios – so sometimes we might go to the site to do the evaluation, but 90 percent of the time we can give an opinion about whether it’s repairable or not,” says McKernan.
Another situation where plastic repair makes a lot of sense is if a vehicle has been scratched or damaged during the repair process. “What if the vehicle gets scratched during the repair process? Everyone knows Thursday is the busiest day of the week – everyone always wants their car out by Friday. Repairing rather than replacing has to be the first option in that kind of situation. If it’s shop damage rather than collision damage, who wants to pay $1800 for a new door panel? If you fix it right, it’s what is right for the car,” says McKernan.
Another useful application of the technique is in cases where shattering glass has torn up the interior of a car. “In 90 percent of these cases minor glass damage is repairable,” says McKernan. Other parts of a vehicle that can be repaired with a nitrogen plastic welder include washer bottles, overflow bottle and fuse boxes. “If those were pierced in an accident, that can be repaired,” says McKernan. “There’s tons of plastic on cars. Plastic is not used in any of the structural parts of a vehicle, so you can repair these things without affecting that overall structural safety.”
For shop owners who might be wary of the procedure, McKernan suggests having a talk with the insurance company. “There can be problems if you do a repair and then something goes wrong. If the repair gets cold and brittle, and then cracks again, the client is going to be annoyed and then the insurance company is going to come back to you. There can be a value in asking the insurance company to back up a shop. The repairer might ask the insurer, ‘Will you buy the new bumper if the repair doesn’t work out? Can we partner together on this?’ That’s something to think about,” says McKernan.
Like Lammon, McKernan warns techs to always check the OEM procedures before going ahead with a plastic weld. “One lesson we want impart is that you have to look up the OEM procedures, especially on newer vehicles with sensors. But as long as the repair is within the guidelines and within regulations, if there is a certain area where it can be repaired, that has to be researched,” he says. Such are the realities of the modern industry. “Everyone wants a new part and a complete replacement. But everyone also wants their car back fast. The incidences of total loss is almost 19 percent now. But you’re not making money on total losses. If this can help keep the repair under that threshold, then you have to consider it.”
McKernan discusses a case involving a higher-end vehicle with lots of interior glass damage. “We had a BMW where the estimate was that there was $40,000 in trim to replace. We told them it was repairable. That turned out to be a 90 percent reduction in costs,” he says. That’s the kind of situation where plastic welding has to be considered.
With many drivers pressuring politicians to do something about insurance costs, repairing plastic is more important than ever. “At the end of the day if we repair rather than replace, premiums stay lower,” says McKernan.
Founded by the late National Auto Body Council chairman Dale Delmage in 2012, Guild 21 is dedicated to bringing collision repair industry leaders together in order to better serve the public.