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Sticker shock absorbers

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Sticker shock absorbers

It’s been several months, but Barry Steinberg still can’t quite believe it. Out of the 96 cars that passed through his Watertown, Mass., Direct Tire & Auto Service location on Nov. 30, more than half of them -- 52 to be exact -- were equipped with some kind of factory tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). That’s a large number, says Steinberg, even for a shop in a major metropolitan area like Boston. (Direct Tire’s four stores are located around “Bean Town.”)

However, if 10% of those customers knew their vehicles had tire pressure monitoring systems, “it would be a lot,” he says.

Fortunately, Steinberg wasn’t caught off guard. He has a system in place that takes each vehicle -- and customer -- through the TPMS service process.

It’s designed to educate customers about tire pressure monitoring systems and reduce the instances of sticker shock that are sometimes part and parcel of TPMS work.

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Steps to success

Most consumers don’t know their vehicles have tire pressure monitoring systems, says Steinberg. “I think it starts with new car dealers. Somebody goes in and buys a new car and the salesman is just happy to make the sale. We ask our clients, ‘When you bought the car, were you given instructions about TPMS?’ They say, ‘Well, they gave me the keys and told me where the car was, but they didn’t go over it.’”

Here’s the protocol that Direct Tire employees follow when a car rolls into a Direct Tire parking lot with an illuminated TPMS warning light:

1. Greet the customer in the lot. “We go out to the car with a checklist and the first thing the salesman does is ask for the keys. He then gets in the car and starts the engine. He wants to hear if there’s loud exhaust, if there are any starting problems... then he records the car’s mileage and looks to see if any dashboard lights are on.”

2. Tell the customer. “We ask the customer, ‘Are you aware of this light? We have to make sure you don’t have any sensor damage.’” Steinberg notes this is a good place to discuss the make-up and function of tire pressure monitoring systems. His staff also designates whether a vehicle has a TPMS or not by checking the work order with a red magic marker.

3. Check sensors. At this point, the salesman or tech grabs a scan tool and walks around the vehicle to check for failed or broken sensors and/or drained sensor batteries. It takes five to eight minutes to scan all four tires on a typical vehicle, says Steinberg.

“The biggest thing the consumer doesn’t realize is that this technology has caused us to need more time to work on each vehicle. Procedures are different depending on the vehicle. If the customer has a flat tire in the trunk we will scan that tire’s sensor to make sure it wasn’t damaged when he drove 10 miles with a flat.”

4. Formulate an action plan. “Sometimes we’re not able to determine if we have to replace the sensors, but we can determine if we need to look at the system more closely” to come up with a definitive diagnosis.

“If the light is on, we try to determine which tire it might be by checking tire pressure. My guys are all certified to do TPMS work so they know how to break down the tires and service the valves, and they know the torquing process.”

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Steinberg isn’t a believer in putting TPMS work in writing like some shops do with repair estimates. “In a court of law, the judge is going to say we’re the experts.”

But his staff does itemize the cost of different TPMS services. “If we have to take the sensor out, that’s $7.98. It’s $36 for re-calibration.” They also provide the total cost. “Typically we don’t have to do everything.” Services and prices are posted on the shops’ walls.

Higher education

Steinberg’s TPMS fees vary based on a variety of factors — “if the car has run-flat tires, if it has a direct system or an indirect system, if it has a band system, which is a real nightmare.”

Some systems can be re-set in 60 seconds, “and we won’t charge for that. But some cars take two men anywhere from five to 15 minutes to re-set these systems. Then some vehicle manufacturers require you to drive the car at 18 miles per hour for 20 minutes to re-set.”

In those cases, Direct Tire charges according to its hourly labor rate. “If people say, ‘I’m not going to pay for that,’ I say, ‘You drive the car at 18 miles an hour. Don’t shoot the messenger!’”

Direct Tire is taking a proactive approach to educating its customers about tire pressure monitoring systems.

The dealership makes literature from the Tire Industry Association and various sensor manufacturers available for its customers to study.

“We’ve printed some signs for the showroom stating, ‘Ask us about TPMS.’ We also have a broken valve and a new valve on each of our front counters so people can see what’s involved. One’s dead and one’s live so we can actually take (the scan tool) and show people the signal we’re looking for.”

Steinberg would like to see more standardization among TPMS sensors.

“It’s almost beyond the pale how many different sensors per manufacturer there are. There’s no reason for (OEMs) to have different sensors.”

Ultimately, though, you have to be ready, he says. More and more TPMS-equipped vehicles will be on the road.

“This is a technology that nobody wants. But you have to participate because it’s here forever. The key is to be educated and for your people to be trained.

“TPMS will be a profit center for you if you handle it right. If you don’t, it will be an aggravation.”

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Can temperature fluctuations affect a TPMS? -- Yes, and often, says Steinberg

Wildly fluctuating temperatures can send tire pressure monitoring systems into a tail spin, says Barry Steinberg, president of Direct Tire & Auto Service, a four-store chain based in Watertown, Mass., and a past Modern Tire Dealer Tire Dealer of the Year.

“Being in New England, last week we were down to 10 degrees one morning and up to 50 degrees that afternoon. Tire pressure monitoring systems are being driven crazy by variations of anywhere from eight to 10 pounds.

“Last week we had a couple of people come in on the same day, a really cold morning, with brand new vehicles. Their sensors had gone off.” Both cars had been parked outside overnight.

Direct Tire checked their tires’ pressure levels and discovered that while they were still above the 25% threshold, “the sensors were still sending false positives. We sent them back to the car dealer because I felt the cars’ computers needed to be re-calibrated.”

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