Aluminum is not like steel and not every body shop in the country is interested in working with it because it’s highly heat-sensitive and requires special equipment, tools, training, and certifications. But, if you want to fix cars made by Mercedes Benz, Audi, Jaguar, etc., you will have to step up and invest in the equipment that they demand. Aluminum repairs aren’t just something you can get into tomorrow by listing them under the services section of your website. It takes planning and a substantial investment in both time and equipment. Most notably, it will require the installation of a clean room.
An aluminum clean room is a quarantined cubicle dedicated strictly to aluminum work. It’s carefully sectioned off from the rest of the shop via curtains, so that steel and aluminum will never meet. Steel and other types of metal contain elements that contaminate aluminum. Iron oxide flies into the air when technicians grind and sand steel components, which causes corrosion. That leads to adhesion and paint failures. Shops end up replacing those ruined components and eating that part of the repair and damaging the bottom line, especially if it becomes commonplace.
Reliable Automotive Equipment, Inc. in Belford, NJ, is one of the leading providers of clean rooms in the country for the collision industry. General manager, Mike Kirchoff, has seen the evolution of aluminum in cars because his company has been on the cutting-edge of this movement since 2003. “We’ve been providing clean rooms and the associated tools and equipment since before most body shops were even thinking about aluminum,” Kirchoff said. “At first, we were working with a lot of collision centers associated with dealerships selling mostly Mercedes Benz, Audi, Tesla, and Jaguar, but now we’re getting calls from independent shops and small multiple shop organizations (MSOs) that want to fix these higher-end vehicles.”
Setting up a clean room with the right equipment and tools is not something you can learn on Wikipedia, according to Kirchoff. “Part of what we offer is our knowledge and experience,” Kirchoff said. “Anyone can construct a room, but do you know how to equip it with the best tools available? We know what each manufacturer requires, and that’s why body shops gravitate toward working with us. Using the right welders, riveters, and hand tools and having proper lighting —these are crucial decisions. So, we sit down with every customer and discuss their specific needs. What cars do you want to pursue certifications for? What happens if you want to add manufacturers at a later date? What is the size and layout of your shop floor? By getting answers to these questions, we can identify the best package for each shop.”
What are the essential components needed in every clean room environment? Kirchoff briefly described each category to give us a general idea of what’s involved:
- Tool set: Shops need an entirely separate set of tools to be used only for aluminum. You’ll need to buy a second set of all the tools you currently use on steel because contaminants can adhere to your tools and lead to major problems down the road.
- Bonding agents and guns: Very specific based on each manufacturer and their use. Different adhesives require specialized equipment.
- Safety equipment: Technicians need a separate set of safety equipment for the clean room, including eye goggles and gloves.
- MIG/pulse arc welder: The characteristics of aluminum require the use of MIG/pulse arc welders.
- Riveting tools: Aluminum requires the use of high-tech riveting tools, many of which are also used on airplanes.
- Explosion-proof vacuum: An explosion-proof vacuum is necessary to clean excess dust from the room. It draws all hazardous particles into a water bath to prevent thermite reactions and explosions. In addition, you’ll require a gas evacuation system to suck out all the contaminants
- Parts cart: Absolutely anything that aluminum components will touch needs to be 100 percent dedicated for permanent aluminum use. That includes parts carts, stands, workbenches, and jacks. Cross-using those items between different materials causes a risk of contamination.
- 30-pound, class D fire extinguisher: A special fire extinguisher is required in the event of a thermite reaction because typical extinguishers can actually spread these types of fires.
- Frame bench: Specialized frame equipment is required for measuring and jigging structural aluminum components.
Paul Sgro is the owner of Lee’s Garage in West Long Branch, NJ. Well before aluminum was prevalent in many vehicles, Sgro contracted RAE to install a clean room in his shop. And it’s been a win-win ever since, he explained.
“Eight years ago, we saw more aluminum in these cars and to get certified with Audi and Mercedes, we knew we had to step up,” Sgro said. “We contacted RAE and they helped us in every aspect of the design and construction of our clean room. We decided to build it in a room completely separate from the rest of our shop, so that contamination would be a non-issue. The steel never even gets close to any aluminum, so it’s ideal.”
Lee’s Garage employs 21 people and fixes 200-275 cars monthly in a modest, 12,000 square-foot facility. But, by utilizing every inch wisely, his move to a clean room has been a productive one, he said. “It’s not cheap working on the cars we have certifications for (Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, Audi, and Volkswagen), especially when you include the proper tools and training. We had to ask ourselves—what do we want to be? And the answer was, yes—we want to work on these types of cars. So we invested roughly US$100,000 to get there. Has it been a successful venture? Yes, because we work with local dealerships and we have no DRPs. We get enough of these cars here in the shop to justify the costs and I know we’ll see a lot more of them in here because we’re known for being skilled and have the equipment necessary to do these repairs. We have a good track record, which differentiates us from our competition.”
Sgro said that working with RAE was also a smart move. “Their knowledge was so important and they gave us the best solutions possible. They pushed us into the right direction and then everyone here bought into it. If you’re a shop considering a clean room, I would say—don’t hesitate. This is the beginning of the aluminum age and if you’re not on the cutting edge, you might just get cut.”
Amber Alley is the manager at Barsotti’s Body and Fender in San Rafael, CA, a shop that has been repairing high-end luxury vehicles well before the massive migration to aluminum. Alley has three clean rooms going all the time, installed with the assistance of RAE, she explained.
“Shops call us all the time to ask us about clean rooms—what they cost, how to install them, etc. I tell them to first look carefully at your part of the country and make sure people have enough of these cars to justify the investment. Here in Marin County, we get a lot of these cars and they make up about 70 percent of our total car count. We fix 100-200 cars every month without any DRPs, but that’s not going to work in other regions. You can’t get into this just part-time or half-time, because these car manufacturers want you to prove that you’re 100 percent committed to fixing them.”