A decade after the TREAD Act and almost four years into mandatory TPMS on all passenger vehicles in the U.S., one can fairly ask: Is TPMS still a headache for the industry, or has it become a profit opportunity for shops?
There are varying opinions, and ultimately the reader will have to decide.
After a few years of ramping up, since September 2007 every new passenger vehicle and light truck manufactured for sale in the U.S. must be equipped with TPMS, which leads to the underlying reason for this article: Where are we today?
On one hand, there is a wealth of information available, quality products from numerous sources, training from a host of experts and suppliers, the tools needed to work on the systems have been refined, and there seems to be continuous discussion amongst dealers.
But what I found in researching this article was that there is still a lot of confusion, an overall lack of knowledge and shops who resist accepting TPMS.
Information for this article was compiled from interviews with Wayne Drumheller of Duncan Brothers in Winchester, VA; Bobby Cutchins of Bobby’s Tire Pros in Franklin, VA; Neil Schlossberg of American Tire Distributors; Jay and Todd Huff, Matt Sheeler and Doug Meekins of Brooks-Huff in Baltimore, MD; Dan Zielinski of the Rubber Manufacturers Association; Kevin Rohlwing of the Tire Industry Association; Matt McCoy of M&M Tire in Blacksburg, VA; Howard Laster, Steve Landis and AnnaMaria Blose of Continental Commercial Vehicles & Aftermarket; as well as some off-the-cuff discussions with a range of tire consumers.
Does the TPMS mandate require a rethink in terms of the inflation threshold?
Zielinski: The main issue where I think RMA has some views is the TPMS threshold, which is currently set at 25% below the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure. RMA strongly advocated for a lower threshold when this regulation was being crafted by NHTSA several years ago. We argued that the threshold should be set at the point where the inflation pressure was insufficient to carry a vehicle at maximum load. This would differ from vehicle to vehicle. At the point where inflation pressure is insufficient to carry a vehicle’s maximum load, tire damage could occur that may lead to failure over time.
As technology has continued to improve and attention to vehicle fuel economy has increased, it may be worthwhile to discuss the TPMS threshold issue again.
Sheeler: Consumers for the most part are very confused by TPMS. There is no consistency between car manufacturers and no one has really taken the time to educate drivers on the benefits of the system.
How have tire dealers adjusted and how have their businesses changed?
Cutchins: It has been a huge change to make sure all of the employees are up to date on everything and trying to educate the consumer on what he or she needs to know about TPMS. The biggest impact is on our people at the sales counter and dealing with the consumers … they don’t understand and often come in thinking they have an emergency when the light is on.
Drumheller: I feel like most tire dealers have stuck their head in the sand, hoping TPMS will go away. We’ve embraced TPMS at Duncan Brothers and took this seriously from the beginning. It’s no different than fixing a flat. We’re the professionals and the more we work on this, the easier it gets.
McCoy: I’m surprised how many dealers are not working on TPMS. We look at this as an opportunity with our two stores to improve profitability. It’s not going away and we’ve positioned ourselves as the experts in the market, which will pay off down the road.
Schlossberg: Some shops have been slower to embrace the TPMS rebuild kits and charge the customer as opposed to the big-box retailers. They seem to be more sensitive to the economy and somewhat reluctant to add another charge to the invoice. The average shop sees this as just another government mandate, and, until recently, they have not seen a steady stream of vehicles with TPMS.
How have the sensors and technology changed?
Laster: Originally, there were eight primary manufacturers of OE sensors; today there are five. We engineer the entire system for OE, which includes the sensors and the receiver, giving Continental a higher level of knowledge for developing aftermarket replacement sensors. Aftermarket TPMS competitors only supply sensors or do not supply OE at all. There is still a lot of specialization at the OE level and it will probably continue. On the replacement side, we and other companies have developed universal/multi-application-type sensors that have significantly reduced the number of SKUs necessary for a dealer to carry. For example, our VDO Redi-Sensor offers more than 90% coverage of GM, Ford and Chrysler vehicles with only two SKUs. The sensors are pre-programmed and ready to install right out of the box, allowing the technicians to seamlessly transition from OE sensors. There is still a wide variety on the OE side and more than 100 models, which translates into a lot of SKUs in the aftermarket. But, the aftermarket focus is on more standardization going forward.
Rohlwing: The SKUs are narrowing somewhat, but there will always be a variety because of different vehicle manufacturers and OEM specifications. The universal sensors will certainly make it easier in the aftermarket as they gain in popularity and become easier to program. OE is working to establish global mandates and every vehicle manufactured worldwide will soon have some type of TPMS system. It’s here to stay and hopefully will work toward one standard over time.
Drumheller: There are problems with some of the sensor assemblies, especially in the Pennsylvania markets. The aluminum in the body is wearing out from salt and the core freezes inside in some cases. We find this happens mostly when the valve caps are left off. We can sometimes free this with a lubricant spray; if not, the customer has to replace the sensor.
What have the associations done in helping the industry and tire dealers deal with TPMS?
Rohlwing: We’ve been on the cutting edge with training. Our original ATS Certification Program has been updated to include TPMS. The workshop picks up where the old program left off. It’s hands-on training that allows the dealer to take the extra step to get certified by an independent association. Additionally, TIA has produced a laminated TPMS Relearn Chart, which gives technicians everything they need to know about working on TPMS. By make and model, it provides relearn steps, sensor part numbers, rebuild kit part numbers and torque specs. It’s laminated and faster than printing out the data from a computer.
Huff: They have done a fairly good job on the dealer side, but there needs to be much more consumer awareness. We’ve sent a person from each of our six stores to TIA’s ATS/TPMS-certified trainer program; that person, in turn, works with the employees at the individual stores. It’s a costly investment and one that we need to stay abreast of industry changes. We love the new TIA Relearn Chart; it’s worth its weight in gold. It saves us time and makes it easier. It’s to the point and works on all vehicles.
What are you doing at your individual dealerships with TPMS?
Drumheller: We have developed a standard procedure for our six stores. We tell the customers up front when they have TPMS on their vehicle, and when selling tires we add an extra charge for rebuild kits. They appreciate the education and the “why” they need to have the service done. We have a wall chart to refer to that helps with the explanation, and have a mindset with our people to sell TPMS.
You must believe that rebuilding the sensors is as important as replacing rubber valve stems. You’ll encounter problems, but it’s important to stay committed because there is a learning curve. You must stock the TPMS kits and have a local source for sensors and additional kits. Make sure you have all the tools to do the job right, including the “inch-pound” torque wrench. And if you haven’t gotten a reset tool, do so.
Cutchins: We offer a full service for TPMS but unfortunately, we are not being compensated for it. We have not been charging for the relearn and may be missing the boat. We offer and stock the rebuild kits, but it’s not something that we push on a consistent basis. The issue is going to uneducated TPMS consumers and explaining an up-charge of $6 to $8 per tire.
McCoy: It all starts at the front counter. We’ve educated our salespeople and work to educate our customers. We charge for the rebuild kits and the system relearn. When compared to what the car dealerships charge, we can do it for a lot less. We stock the rebuild kits and have a procedure in place to check the vehicle up-front for TPMS to help avoid problems.
Huff: We take the time up-front to try and educate the consumer at the counter. We have a Schrader display on the counter to help, and most people don’t have a problem. All vehicles are checked prior to driving into the shop to see if the TPMS light is on, and we don’t let it leave if the light is still on. We are not charging for rebuild kits yet. We’re working on evaluating the inventory needs, which can be substantial when stocking six stores.
Schlossberg: I feel dealers need to embrace this sooner than later. TPMS is here to stay and I think there is a revenue opportunity. Here are our three steps: Believe that TPMS is here to stay and you’re providing the customer with a valuable service; get training – both the technicians and salespeople; and get the right tools. It’s an investment, but one that we have to make if we’re going to be in the tire and service business.
Is TPMS a headache or a profit opportunity?
Drumheller: Headache, but the more you do it, the easier it gets and the problems become fewer and farther between. As you learn, it gets better and moves to the profit side of the scale.
Huff: Headache, but we have to make it a profit opportunity. It’s not going away.
McCoy: No headache, just a solid profit opportunity.
Ten years after the Ford/Firestone fiasco, there continues to be confusion. The overriding issue is still low air pressure. We would like to think that consumers learned something after the recall and all the press associated with it, but the reality is that nothing has really changed: most drivers don’t check the air pressure in their tires. This was confirmed when RMA conducted a survey of more than 6,300 vehicles in conjunction with National Tire Safety Week in 2010, and found that only 17% of vehicles had four properly inflated tires.
From my perspective, I think the answer can be found in education. We need to make sure that our staffs have all been through one of the numerous training courses available – and that when new information is made available, they remain current.
The industry has changed. As Jay Huff said after the interview, “The general service tech is usually the lowest paid in the shop; with each car that comes in, that person is responsible for $1,500-plus in tires and wheels and another $400 worth of sensors. The caliber of the person needs to be better than what it used to be. They have to be better trained.”
We can’t afford to send a problem to the car dealers. “What does that tell the customer if the tire experts can’t solve a problem with a TPMS light and we have to refer it to a car dealer? It says that we’re not professional and it will be tough to keep them as customers in the future,” said Drumheller.