Today’s forecast is hot — damn hot with sprinkled patches of grease, burns, scrapes and fussy service managers. Does this sound like your shop in the summer? The alternative calls for waaaay cold with reports of numb fingers and aching feet and toes from standing on ice-cold concrete for eight hours at a time.
The good news for technicians is that business owners have started to realize it is important to provide a comfortable working environment for technicians. The reality is if the service techs are comfortable, their production is higher, they are happier and the quality of work is better. When all of the above things happen as they should, the end result is vehicles get fixed faster, the first time, with fewer comebacks. In this situation, happy techs make for good business. If the technicians aren’t happy, nobody is happy!
One important aspect to providing a comfortable environment is that there tends to be fewer injuries. If the techs are comfortable, they have greater concentration and patience when facing today’s incredibly complex vehicles.
The bad news for business owners is that creating a comfortable work climate for their shops takes some thought, planning and, yes, some money. The good news for owners is that there are some low-cost solutions to climate control. Another great piece of news here is that the cost of providing climate solutions is far less than even just one injury!
Shop climate equipment falls into two classifications — portable equipment and permanently installed or “plant” equipment. The distinction here is pretty obvious; portable equipment can be bought after the shop is built, is usually lower in cost and, most importantly, can be moved around from bay to bay or put in storage when the equipment is not needed. Plant equipment is the equipment that is usually installed during construction of a facility. These include HVAC systems, ventilation systems, heated floor systems, etc. This equipment is permanently installed and cannot be moved or modified to any great degree. Some permanent climate control can be installed after the facility is already built, generally known as a “retrofit.” This is probably the most expensive and disruptive way to go.
There are three main categories of climate control I will mention: The first is Cooling. If you are in the northern part of the country, this is probably a minimal problem for you. If you are in Florida, south Texas or many parts of the country, this is a year-round concern. The second issue is Heating, which is a problem for a large part of the country for more than half of the year. The last issue is one that is getting the most attention from our friends in the government sector — Ventilation and Exhaust Evacuation. Who knew that breathing carbon monoxide all day was bad for you? It only took our leaders 100 years or so to start mandating that technicians be provided with clean air in the shop.
The main methods to cool a shop are listed below from least expensive to UH-OH!
Fans are generally the least expensive and possibly the least effective method of cooling a shop. How many times have you had a fan blow on you and it was like a blast furnace? The problem is that while fans do provide a minimum amount of relief, they are just moving around hot air. Fans come in all shapes and sizes and costs for that matter. There are heavy-duty, wall-mounted permanent fans. There are small portable fans. There are pedestal fans that have wheels on them so they can be moved around. There are even industrial ceiling fans used in large warehouses and garages that have blade diameters ranging from 10 to 18 feet across! These huge fans are effective at moving air and also causing a few apprehensive gazes at the ceiling!
The trick to using fans effectively is to position them so that they actually enhance the natural air flow of the shop. Most buildings are designed for air to flow in a set direction. If you can determine what that pattern is and place the fans accordingly, they can be helpful. One problem with fans is when people constantly move them or place two or more fans in opposition to one another. The fans are effectively “fighting” each other.
Evaporative Coolers, also known as “swamp coolers,” this is an old technology that was originally only used and known in the southwest part of the United States. This is a solution that sounds like it was made by a mad genius, but the concept is amazingly simple. These coolers use water to cool air that is then blown into a work area or toward a technician.
The original concept came from a process that involved bales of hay that were placed on the roof of a home; the hay was saturated with water and air was passed over it. Voila! Instant air conditioning! The simplest explanation I have heard about evaporative cooling is the sensation you get when you get out of the swimming pool or ocean on a hot day and the air makes you chilled. These coolers operate on generally the same principle.
Water is used in the fan and is passed over a filter-type media, the water evaporates and as it does, it takes heat from the air creating cooler air. Science is our friend! These coolers, which are relatively inexpensive and very portable, have been growing in popularity in the last few years as a low-cost solution to technician comfort in the shop. There are models that will cool off hundreds of square feet all the way down to personal units designed to literally cool one person at a time.
These evaporative units are completely dependent on the atmospheric conditions of the area in which they are used for efficiency. The higher the relative humidity of the area, the lower the effectiveness will be. In the Southwest where the humidity might be 20% or less, these units have been able to lower air temperatures by 15-20° F. In the deep South, or parts of the northeast where humidity can range as high as 95%, the effectiveness will be less.
Evaporative coolers may well be the very best bang for the buck in terms of both initial cost and operational costs long term.
Traditional Freon-based HVAC Systems. These systems are by far the most effective for true cooling of a shop, but they are also the most expensive. In order to truly air condition a shop, it has to be part of the original design from the construction phase. Cooling a shop comes with some fairly complex requirements. If the A/C is to be effective, then you have to consider building pressures, return rates, flow requirements and, as I will discuss a little bit later, this becomes tied to the need to exhaust vehicle emissions from the work area.
For the reasons listed above, as well as several others, this is not normally a solution that can or will be tackled by a shop owner. This kind of system has to be designed and specified by engineers and HVAC contractors working together from the ground up.
The other side of shop comfort is heating systems. Heating, like cooling, has two costs to be considered: installation and operation.
Electric Space Heaters. The least expensive type of heaters are personal space heaters combined with blowers. These small electric fans are designed to heat a very small area of the shop for the comfort of one technician. The positive for these devices is they are affordable for the technician. One word of caution is that these heaters can be deceptive in their operating costs, and not the right solution for a shop with poor electric service or a large number of bays. They are highly portable, limited only by access to a good source of electricity.
Portable Propane Heaters. This type of heater is somewhat better than an electric space heater in its effectiveness and efficiency for spot heating a shop. These heaters generally run off of propane tanks much like the one on your barbeque grill in the backyard. They use radiant heat from the gas elements to heat the surrounding area. Available in several different BTU ratings, these units are very portable and not tied to an electric cord or outlet, so they can be used in “the field.”
Portable Fuel/Oil Heaters. These heaters are commonly known in the industry as “torpedo heaters” because of their distinctive shape. They are probably one of the best values in portable heating for efficiency. These units, which will run on various fuels including kerosene or certain oils, create an amazing amount of heat or BTUs. Portable fuel/oil heaters are similar to a jet engine in both their appearance and also the distinctive roar they make when running. There are other shapes of this type of heater, but the torpedo shape is the most recognized and used most often.
Waste Oil-Fired Heaters. This is the solution that makes the most sense for medium- to high-volume shops that are located in cold climates in the northern parts of the country. These systems, as the name suggests, run on used oil from the customers’ cars you service. How cool is that?
They are obviously less expensive to run from a fuel supply point of view. And, as fuel prices continue to rise, these systems begin to make more sense from an economics point of view. However, they are one of the most complex to specify and install. There are a number of variables that have to be addressed for the system to be successful. The building has to be evaluated for cubic volume, heat loss, number of bays and employees, average temperature and several other factors. There are usually some very stringent local regulations regarding the installation of these systems, as well.
These systems are normally permanently installed, however, there are some small waste oil heaters that can be moved around.
Traditional HVAC Heat Systems. While it is theoretically possible to heat a shop using heat strip or heat pump technology, it is usually deemed to be too expensive to operate these systems.
Ceiling-Mounted Radiant Heaters. Suspended from the ceiling, radiant heaters are designed to overcome the challenging conditions often present in automotive service facilities. Heating service bays can be difficult due to the bay doors being opened and closed throughout the day. Radiant heaters generate infrared energy that is absorbed by objects such as the floor, tools and equipment. This method of heating restores the service bay to an acceptable working level in a shortened period of time.
If you are wondering how these units operate, radiant heaters are fueled by either natural or propane gas and powered by a 120-volt outlet. When heat is required, a burner control box ignites a gas/air mixture and combustion gases are pushed through steel radiant tubing by an internal fan. The tubing is then warmed and it emits infrared energy, which is absorbed by objects in the room that then reradiate secondary heat to create a comfortable working area.
Another benefit of using infrared heat is that radiant heaters can be positioned over top the active work areas to keep the technicians warm. Highly polished reflectors on the heater can be rotated to direct heat to where it is most needed.
Radiant heaters can be controlled with thermostats to allow for reduced heat in the evening and then automatically turned back up prior to technicians arriving for work. This helps reduce fuel costs by not having the heaters run continuously throughout the night.
Further advantages can be realized by installing a two-stage radiant heater. Two-stage provides faster recoveries in high fire and the fuel-saving benefits of long periods in low fire operation.
Most auto service garages have vehicle lifts that must be taken into consideration, as vehicles raised on the lifts could be damaged by infra-red heaters placed in close proximity. It is very important to maintain minimum clearance to combustibles from any vehicle on the floor or on a lift. Also, care must be taken to maintain these clearances from hose reels, exhaust collection systems, etc.
Radiant Heat Floor Systems. These systems are relatively new in repair facilities and are normally only installed in new and relatively large facilities, such as new auto dealership shops. Radiant heat floor systems use a series of tubing in the floor slab that circulates fluid to conduct heat to the cement floor. They have to be engineered and installed as the floor is being poured. These systems provide an amazing improvement to the quality of life for a technician working in the cold areas of the country.
Emission Control Ventilation
As I mentioned earlier, while it was certainly late in coming, business owners are now starting to be concerned about providing clean shop air for technicians. In the past, the only places where this issue was taken seriously was in the cold areas of the country. Now, thanks to legislation in several parts of the county, this is mandatory for the construction of new facilities.
There are three main solutions for exhaust gas evacuation: forced ventilation using fans, forced exhaust collection using tubing either in the floor or mounted on the ceiling and passive exhaust venting using tubing.
Passive Exhaust Collection. This is the solution that is still used the most by smaller shops. The system depends on hooking up flexible tubing to the vehicle’s exhaust pipe and the other end to a port in the door of the bay. This solution is the least expensive and relatively effective.
The biggest problem with passive exhaust collection is human error. If the technician either fails to hook up the tubing or chooses not to, it will allow exhaust to fill the work area. The other complaint with these systems is that the tubing is constantly being damaged by being run over after use! Check into the crushproof tubing options that are available. These companies also should provide hose reel systems that will keep the hose tucked away while not in use.
Forced Ventilation Using Fans. This is the oldest and possibly the least effective solution to the problem. The idea here is to use large fans mounted in or near the ceiling. These systems tend to be minimally effective for several reasons. The first problem is that in order to work, these fans have to be turned on. Many times these fans are forgotten or ignored, especially in the winter. The second flaw with these is that, in most cases, the dense, contaminated gases are at or near floor level and the fans at ceiling height do little good to remove them.
Forced Exhaust Collection. This system is the most sophisticated and also the most expensive solution. It uses fairly complex blower systems joined with flexible tubing to collect the exhaust gases. In most new installations, these systems are ceiling-mounted ventilation ducts with multiple “drops” that come down between the service bays. These drops are movable from side to side, which allows the technician to adjust them for different vehicles. There is a continuous fan pressure on the system that draws the gases away from the vehicle and exhausts them outside the building.
An older and less expensive solution is similar. The ducting for the exhaust is in the floor of the garage and uses fans to draw the exhaust away from the car and vent to the outside of the building. This system still depends on the technician connecting a flexible section of tubing from the floor duct to the vehicle.
As mentioned above, the flexible tubing is subject to damage and can be difficult to manage when not being used. However, this is not a concern with the systems where the tubing comes down from a ceiling reel.
A final concern for forced exhaust systems is how they will co-exist with whatever heating and cooling systems are in place. There are pressure requirements for both the HVAC system as well as the exhaust systems. The trick is to get the two different systems to work with each other instead of against one another. This is a complex relationship that has to be considered prior to installation and in some cases before the building is even built.
The forecast for tomorrow calls for improving conditions in “your” garage.