Mechanics seek to close the gap in hybrid repair
Use Angie's List for tips on how to properly maintain your Hybrid. (Photo courtesy of Michael Grosser)
Call Sue Squiller a Hoosier automotive pioneer. She bought the first-generation Prius hybrid, and when Toyota released its second-generation Prius in late 2003, she was one of the first people in Indiana to own one. But as its odometer rolls closer to the end of Toyota's eight-year, 100,000-mile hybrid component warranty, she also may be one of the first Hoosiers seeking an independent mechanic trained in hybrid repair.
Currently, Squiller and other hybrid owners' repair options are mostly limited to dealership service departments. Manufacturers like GM, Toyota and Honda offer hybrid-specific training only to dealerships.
Independent garages are trying to close that training gap through classes offered by parts suppliers like NAPA and ACDelco and local schools such as Ivy Tech and Lincoln Tech.
Prius owner Jean Denton is open to taking her vehicle somewhere other than the dealer. "Once the warranty expires, I'd probably take it to an independent mechanic if I knew they were trained in hybrid repair," she says.
The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, the certification standard-bearer for independent and dealership mechanics, has yet to offer a hybrid repair certification. "Right now, there's no tremendous rush [to offer one] because most hybrid vehicles are still under warranty," says spokesman Tony Molla.
Sharing the information
Efforts are under way in several states and Congress to force automakers to share technical information with independent garages.
The move is supported by most of the large aftermarket parts suppliers and opposed by automakers and the Automotive Service Association.
Find a hybrid mechanic
Start by searching "auto service" on Angie's List. Then, ask them if they have experience with hybrid vehicles.
Even regular maintenance on a hybrid vehicle's traditional components poses a risk to a hybrid owner frequenting an untrained mechanic. "Because all the systems are related, even something as simple as an oil change requires some basic training," says Tony Tyler of highly rated Tyler Automotive in Indianapolis.
Tyler learned traditional maintenance services for hybrid vehicles through parts distributor ACDelco. "You have to understand how to tell if the car is actually turned off," he says. "With the electric motor, the system can be on with the internal combustion engine off. If the battery's voltage drops below a predetermined level, the system will tell the engine to start to get the voltage up. Now, if you have the oil drained out of the engine when it starts, that's going to cause some problems - it's an easy mistake to make."
Some mechanics say adapting to new technology is just a part of the business. "There's always something new to learn with late-model cars," says Adam Goldstein, owner of "A" rated Automotive Service Group in Indianapolis, an independent shop that's seen an increase in the number of hybrid vehicles it services. Goldstein says modern vehicles are much like networked computers, with each electrical component communicating with a central processor that can provide diagnostic error codes to any mechanic with the proper scanner and codes. "A hybrid system is no different - what a shop needs to have is the equipment for the specific make of car," he says.
The upside of hybrid repairs: they're likely to require less overall traditional maintenance compared with fully gasoline-powered vehicles. Less reliance on the internal combustion engine not only means improved fuel economy, but also reduced wear and tear on the gasoline motor, mufflers and brakes.
"The hybrid systems have been really reliable," Goldstein says. "But eventually everything wears out - in the next five years, we'll be replacing some hybrid components."
One of the most expensive components is the battery, costing as much as $2,000 for a new one, but those are lasting longer than people expected.
"We haven't replaced the batteries on one car that didn't have less than 100,000 miles," says Jim Jordan, service manager for Ed Martin Honda.
Dave Whitesel can back that claim. When the self-declared tinkerer recently bought a hybrid Honda Insight with 180,000 miles on the odometer, it soon became apparent its battery pack was at the end of its service life. Whitesel found a working battery from a salvaged Insight and installed the part himself. "I worked in a transmission shop for 16 years - I'm probably a little better mechanic than most people," Whitesel says. "But, I think any competent mechanic will have access to the proper manuals to service a hybrid car."
Despite the new technology, the key attributes of a good mechanic remain the same: honesty and up-to-date technical skills. "You need to ask: 'Are you familiar with hybrids? Do you have any hybrid training? Do you have anyone here that's familiar with these things?'" Tyler says. "A car owner needs someone they trust - it's about finding quality people."