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TPMS Tools: Turn a Dash Light Into a Profit Center

While the replacement of service kits is undeniably a small-ticket item, it is also a remarkably consistent necessity, bringing in a constant flow of profit and helping build stronger, loyal relationships with customers.

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With profit margins on retail tires continuing to fall, many dealers have been casting about for ways to make up that loss. Last month, I began to discuss the idea of leveraging the sales and service of TPMS sensors and components as a legitimate profit center. While the replacement of service kits is undeniably a small-ticket item, it is also a remarkably consistent necessity, bringing in a constant flow of profit and helping build stronger, loyal relationships with customers.

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As well, sales of replacement sensors are poised to increase by orders of magnitude as the batteries in first-generation OE sensors reach the end of their lifetimes. You need to be poised to take advantage of these two trends.

To do that requires some basic salesmanship, some training and some decent tools. This month, we’ll discuss the tools, as well as the need for having replacement sensors on hand and immediately available for your customers.

As Scot Holloway, CEO and general manager at Bartec points out, “Tire shops are somewhat new to the notion of having a range of replacement parts available, and the need for having advanced diagnostic tools, as well. The trend of course is now that we have TPMS and ESC and electronic brake systems, tire dealers must have the latest in parts, tools and training.”

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Replacement Sensors

For several years after TPMS sensors first became mandatory on passenger vehicles, the only choice for replacement sensors was the same OE-type that was installed on the vehicle. The dizzying variety of OE sensors out there, with every maker using a different type of sensor, meant that few shops could afford to keep an inventory of replacement sensors. Most dealers would have to find a car dealer or other supplier where sensors could be ordered as needed.

This situation was marginally acceptable back when sensor failure rates were a mere trickle, but with first-generation sensor batteries rapidly reaching the end of their useful lifetimes, replacement rates are trending up very quickly. Fortunately, a large number of aftermarket sensor producers have stepped in to provide solutions that enable shops to cover 90% or more of the vehicle market with only three to four SKUs, making it reasonably possible for shops to keep an inventory.

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This is important for two major reasons. First, no customer wants to wait while you find and order a replacement sensor, especially if you are following NHTSA regulations requiring broken or failed sensors to be replaced before you can release the vehicle. Having replacement sensors immediately at hand may not be noticed by a customer for whom everything goes smoothly, but it certainly prevents having angry customers choose another shop next time.

Second, while replacing service kits on a regular basis represents a meager consistent profit, replacing sensors is also a high-potential profit center that must be exploited. With replacement rates certain to rise steeply over the foreseeable future, it would be the height of folly to pass that profit over to car dealers. When you stock replacement sensors, you can sell replacement sensors and drop those dollars to your bottom line.

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John Stratton, aftermarket sales manager at Huf North America, producers of IntelliSens TPMS sensors, agrees, “Every tire dealer that sells and services tires should stock either direct fit OEM, pre-programmed or programmable TPMS sensors to be able to properly service their customers. Gone are the days of just sending this profitable service to the car dealer for repairs.”

The first major choice in stocking and selling replacement sensors is what type of solution you want to go with – straight OE, pre-programmed or programmable. If you intend to make a profit, my advice would be to discard the idea of OE sensors immediately, as the sheer number of sensors you would need to stock is unsupportable for all but the largest chains, and probably counterproductive even for them. Both programmed and programmable replacement solutions are designed to keep inventory manageable, efficient and profitable.

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Pre-programmed sensors, as the name suggests, are already programmed to work with multiple vehicle types. All you have to do is choose the proper SKU for the vehicle and perform the relearn procedure just as if the OE sensor was present.

Programmed solutions include Dill Air Controls’ Redi-Sensor, Huf’s IntelliSens and Oro-Tek’s new Max Sensor.

Dill Redi-Sensor: Brian Rigney, general manager at Dill Air Controls, says, “While the technology on the OE sensors gets more and more complex, we continue to work to simplify the inventory for a tire shop. If you stock four SKUs from Dill (including the new 7003 Redi-Sensor launched in March), you have over 90% vehicle coverage. Our sensors work with all the major scan tools, and no extra steps are required. The technology is on the chip.”

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Oro-Tek Max Sensor: Oro-Tek’s Max Sensor solution is similar, requiring only two SKUs to cover 90%-95% of vehicles. Both sensors come as a two-piece design, allowing damaged valve stems to be removed without destroying the actual sensor.

Huf IntelliSens: Winner of the 2014 Red Dot Design Award, Huf’s IntelliSens currently uses up to nine SKUs to provide 95% vehicle coverage, although plans are in place to reduce this number. According to Huf’s online FAQ, the company plans to gradually reduce SKUs, starting later this year. “The aim is to achieve the largest model coverage possible using only one version of the Huf IntelliSens by the end of 2014,” Huf says.

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John Stratton notes that, “While Direct Fit sensors are the easiest to replace, our new IntelliSens universal sensors cut down on inventories and only take three seconds to program instead of the 30+ seconds it takes for the normal programmable sensor.”

On the other hand, programmable solutions provide “blank” sensors, which can be programmed with the vehicle information, including sensor IDs. The primary advantage of programmable solutions is flexibility, for example, the ability to program a full extra set of sensors for snow tires with the same sensor IDs as the summer set, reducing the need for relearn procedures at changeover time.

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Myers/Alligator Sens.it: Built by Alligator and distributed by Myers Tire Supply, the Sens.it solution covers 95% of vehicles with three SKUs. One of the major differences between Sens.it and many other solutions is the ability to choose between metal and rubber snap-in valve stems.

Stuart Ferguson, president of Alligator North America, has this to say about Sens.it: “We believe that our solution makes the most sense because it provides the best coverage with the lowest logical inventory. Most claims from our competitors regarding vehicle coverage relate only to the software availability, but do not include the mechanical fit to the vehicle. Our records show 40% of TPMS services are carried out using a snap-in and 60% using a metal stem part. If a supplier states that they have 90% coverage but only offer a metal stem part, then the actual coverage is really closer to 50%. Also, to fit all wheel rim profiles (OE and replacement), the metal valve has to have an adjustable angle.”

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Schrader EZ-Sensor: Schrader’s Ez-Sensor solution claims 90% vehicle coverage with only two SKUs, which are available with either metal or rubber valves. Paul Wise, director of corporate communications and business development at Schrader notes, “Technicians can quickly and easily – in less than 30 seconds – program an EZ-Sensor to whatever vehicle comes into the bay with just two SKUs – a very fast, efficient and effective solution. EZ-Sensor has the same exact Schrader TPMS technology as the OE sensor, and that there is no degradation in quality, technology, reliability or performance in Schrader aftermarket sensors as compared to our OE sensors.”

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TPMS Scan Tools

Matt Winslow, director of speakers and content at Automotive Training Institute, puts it this way; “If you’re in the tire business, you need to get yourself a TPMS tool and you need to get yourself a good one.”

With an ever-increasing majority of the vehicles you service equipped with TPMS sensors, a scan tool is just as necessary for day-to-day operations as an air pressure gauge or a torque wrench.

What I’m going to try and convince you of is the second part of Winslow’s statement – that beyond just needing a scan tool, you really need a good scan tool. If you bought your tools years ago, even if you only really use them to tell when a sensor is dead or to activate them for relearn procedures, I would strongly suggest that you think about upgrading to one of the newest generation of tools. While the newest tools can be expensive in the short term, their range of functions can rather easily pay for themselves in the long term.

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The functions that a good TPMS scan tool can provide also go far beyond just auditing sensor status for NHTSA regulations. Printing out detailed reports on sensor status lets you go to the customer and discuss possible issues before touching anything. Providing clear, useful information is a great way to keep your customers coming back to you.

The information and services that the latest tools can provide can be a valuable customer service perk and teaching tool. That’s one reason why I’m fascinated by a feature provided by many of the latest TPMS scan tools – a readout of sensor battery status. That’s great information for your customers, and if you can provide it when others can’t, that’s a powerful advantage. As Winslow notes, “We’re starting to see these batteries drop like flies and the last thing you want to do is rotate someone’s tires and have him or her come right back and say my light is on.”

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Advanced scan tools will also hold a database of relearn procedures and can walk the technician through them without having to constantly reference the printed TPMS Guide, or what I used to call “The Big Black Book O’ TPMS.” The amount of time saved by having relearn procedures immediately at hand is a major boost in shop efficiency. Getting cars off the lift that much faster means more money and happier customers.

Bartec WRT500: Bartec’s WRT500 is the latest in a long line of TPMS scan and programming tools. The 500 includes a full database of TPMS relearn procedures covering 97% of the auto market and is capable of programming the vast majority of aftermarket sensors. It also has wireless and Bluetooth connectivity so that the comprehensive audit reports can be downloaded to a printer or database updates can be uploaded to the tool without needing to connect a USB cable every time. The WRT500 can also report sensor battery status and test intelligent key fobs.

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Bartec’s Holloway says, “The Bartec Audit Report is a comprehensive ‘TPMS Health Check,’ as we call it, a critical step in educating the customer to how the systems work and how we as technicians can fix them. Our strategy is to build in flexibility and ease of use in every one of our tools.”

Snap-On TPMS3: Snap-On’s TPMS3 tool is a full-featured scan and relearn tool, providing printable audit reports that feature sensor IDs, pressure, temperature and battery status information.

“Every auto repair shop, tire store, body shop, quick lube and rental-car fleet repair shops should be using the Snap-on TPMS3,” says Mike DeKeuster, product manager for Snap-on. “Not only does the TPMS3 give you sensor diagnosis and the ability to relearn tire pressure monitoring systems, it also offers a database of information right at your fingertips.”

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In addition, the TPMS3 tool can be upgraded to perform sensor programming. The TPMS3PRG upgrade package allows the tool to program nearly all major aftermarket sensors. “The Snap-on TPMS3PRG activation enhances the capabilities of our TPMS3 tool, allowing technicians the opportunity to replace a broken or nonfunctioning sensor by programming a duplicate sensor with an identical ID,” said DeKeuster.

Autel MaxiTPMS TS601: Autel’s MaxiTPMS TS601 heads up a line of tools that work for shops that don’t use programmable sensors, since it does not reprogram sensors at all. It is, however, in nearly every other sense a highly capable scan and relearn tool, with full ODB-II capacity and audit reports that include basic battery, pressure and temperature information. If you don’t need to reprogram sensors, this is a substantially less expensive option that will still do what you need it to do. Autel’s tools include one free year of database updates via USB.

TPMS_Sensor_TorqueMiscellaneous Tools

A few tools don’t quite fit into any particular category, but can be quite useful to shops dealing with the enormous complexity that is TPMS.

Ken-Tool ReCore TPMS Sensor Saver System: Ken-Tool has come out with a solution for corroded or broken TPMS valve stems on one-piece sensors. According to the company, most TPMS sensor failures are caused by galvanic corrosion of the valve core and stem.

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The ReCore system allows a technician to drill out a damaged stem, tap in new threads and screw in a replacement stem quickly, easily and without removing the tire or sensor.

Tiremetrix TPMS Manager Software: TPMS Manager software provides a number of useful features to a busy shop dealing with multiple TPMS issues. TPMS Manager provides a huge database of information on OE sensors, sensor compatibility and service kits, as well as scan tool compatibility and relearn procedures.

But just as important to many shops is the software’s ability to track the parts your store is replacing and selling, enabling you to understand what your particular trends are so you can target and streamline your inventory.

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TPMS is now projected to become a $3 billion per year global industry by 2017, with 50 million TPMS-equipped cars now on the road in North America alone. Adding sensor sales to your suite of services can create a powerful profit center that is guaranteed to grow in demand for at least the next decade, and using the proper tools to keep your customers happy, informed and coming back to you can mean the difference between profiting and breaking even for many years to come.

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