With the growth in vehicle a/c continuing to spiral, there’s a question mark over the aftermarket’s ability to meet maintenance and repair needs. But, as one specialist supplier reports, a/c systems over three years old are prone to a variety of faults and breakdowns and with the right equipment and training, garages are virtually guaranteed ‘a fertile area of work’.

It doesn’t seem that long ago since air conditioning was considered a luxury feature, confined to the premium end of the market. Now it’s even to be found on the likes of the Ford Ka and Nissan Micra in what Alan Baird of a/c specialists ECT Diagnostics describes as “the most evident trend of any technological innovation there’s ever been”.

That evidence is backed up by some dizzying statistics. Eight years only ago 4 per cent of new cars had air-conditioning as original equipment compared with no less than 50 per cent today. Aftermarket supplier Partco forecasts that within three years this penetration will have reached nearly 70 per cent, either in manual form or the more sophisticated automatic climate control (ACC) which adds on-board diagnostics, multiplex wiring, and in-car temperature and humidity sensors to keep temperatures constantly within one degree of the limits set by the driver.

Projections from other sources show that the 5m or so vehicles in the UK parc fitted with a/c is likely to increase to 8m-plus in two years’ time to embrace 1 in 4 cars. “Vehicle air conditioning (VAC) is now a matter of customer expectation rather than desire,” said Alan Baird. “But with VAC already a common feature in the aftermarket, the situation is rapidly developing where there will be more motorists looking for repair and servicing than there are independent workshops capable of providing it.”

“Air conditioning machines
and diagnostics will be
regarded as standard
workshop equipment, just
like any other. It will
become much more the
tool of the average
technician rather than the
air conditioning guru”

Opportunities for independents to fulfil this customer need – and in so doing secure a source of new business – are underlined by James Onions, marketing manager for Autoclimate, who commented: “The market is showing astonishing growth. Last September saw around 1.75m vehicles with a/c over three years old. Next summer will see a million more. With the majority in the 3 to 6 year old group, they will still be worth enough to justify maintenance and repair.” Climate control aftermarket experts Hella predict that the current a/c aftermarket business, worth in excess of £12m a year now, will top £24m in 2002 and £31m by 2005.

At present, around 15 per cent of air conditioning repair and service work goes to independent workshops and 85 per cent to franchised dealers. That, according to Partco, will change by the end of 2002, with independents accounting for 30 per cent while the franchised share slips to 70 per cent.

Air conditioning units offer work potential because cabin filters must be replaced regularly as they get clogged with pollution and pollen. Gases leak out and must be replenished regularly. Condensors only have a five or six year life and can suffer from stone damage and salt corrosion. Because of their position at the front of the vehicle, it’s also a fair bet they will need to be replaced after a shunt. Driver ignorance also adds to the workload. Motorists who turn off their a/c during winter months risk problems with dried out seals, caused by lack of
lubrication, and a consequent leakage of gas. As Alan Baird of ECT Diagnostics put it: “Air conditioning is a wonderfully fertile area for things to go wrong!” He also pointed out that with a/c accounting for only a 4 per cent energy loss, motorists were mistaken in thinking that it made a sizeable dent in vehicle running costs.

Keeping up with what the manufacturers are offering in terms of design and system changes, as well as health and safety and environmental regulations, obviously calls for a comprehensive and structured approach to education and training.

Falling foul of the 1990 Environment Protection Act which governs the disposal of refrigerant gases, for example, could invite a fine of up to £20,000 and up to two years’ imprisonment. Up until now, there have been two approved gases for vehicle use, R12 and R134a. As from January 1 of this year, R12, along with mineral oil for system lubrication, has been banned because of its harmful effects on the ozone layer, leaving the more ozone friendly R134a, which uses synthetic oil. Though inherently safe, a/c gas does call for certain safety precautions to be observed, and suppliers like BOC provide a handling guide. Refrigerants are stored at very low temperature so heavy-duty gloves and goggles are required for handling. Because refrigerant is heavier than air, work should not be carried out over a pit due to the risk of suffocation. Though the gas is inert and not combustible, if exposed to heat, say from welding gear, it can generate noxious fumes.

For workshops looking to embark on a/c work, there’s certainly no shortage of training provision. One course put together by the Garage Equipment Association and the Independent Garage Association offers on-site tuition covering systems basics along with “health checks”, pressure gauge diagnostics, refrigerant recovery, evacuation and recharging. The training material, says the Gea‘s John Nelson, is written by “hands-on experts and presented in a way that is familiar to workshop technicians”.

There is also the IMI‘s own Vehicle Air Conditioning Technician (610) programme covering the technical skills required for the repair and servicing of a/c systems, including components operations, systems diagnostics, basic auto electrics, and the various health and safety issues and rules. ECT Diagnostics is an IMI approved centre offering a two-day course culminating in a written examination. Cost, including registration and accreditation, is £252.

Equipment manufacturers as well as aftermarket suppliers of consumables, such as refrigerants and oils, supply training as part of the package to garage customers.

Autoclimate’s investment in its Autoclimate Centre concept has resulted in 45 sites across the UK and the company is forecasting even faster growth over the coming year. “The concept is a very complete one,” said James Onions, “with membership featuring options on subsidised equipment rental packages. An additional monthly membership fee then funds the programme which includes a full modular training programme, parts discounting, technical support and business development through a variety of means (including Yellow Pages and the Internet). Much of the success of the programme hinges on Autoclimate’s ability to generate work for the network from fleet, warranty and other work provider companies.”

At Serck Intertruck, part of the Partco/Unipart empire, marketing general manager Neil Pulsford says: “The onus is on garages to get the right certification training for their staff, and we expect more and more companies to offer training. We provide two-day courses in three modules which cover fault diagnosis, refrigerant handling and a/c system basics, culminating in a CITB refrigerant handling certificate.”

Steve Davies, general manager of Javac, which makes a/c charging stations, says: “For mechanics used to stripping transmissions, it’s a whole new learning curve and they have to do the groundwork to understand the physics.”

Hella’s two-day courses embrace not only the basics but also feature a test rig on which faults can be programmed in for diagnosis. At Snap-on Sun Tech Systems, which claims to be the brand leader in recovery and re-cycling equipment, European director of product management Colin Nutt reports: “We include two days of free training for operators who purchase any of our machines, on top of the on-site commissioning and initial training from one of our technical reps. We also sell training in its own right not just to independent workshops but also to manufacturers.”

Nutt believes that many garages are still not “signing up to the true profit potential” offered by a/c, both in terms of “selling the service to the customer” and having the capability to undertake major work in-house. “Too often, it’s a case of calling in a sub-contractor or sending the vehicle out for the work to be done.”

He added: “Air-conditioning machines and diagnostics will be regarded as standard workshop equipment, just like any other. It will become much more the tool of the average technician rather than the air-conditioning guru.”

Hall Training, which has relocated from Dartford to the National Sea Training Centre at Gravesend, Kent, also provides two-day courses and on completion the candidates can be assessed under the IMI’s Certification in Automotive Air-Conditioning Service and Repair. Hall’s syllabus covers: Basic principles of heat transfer; health & safety; service equipment and procedures (identification, leak detection, system evacuation); refrigerant handling (written assessment); practical use of all service equipment; assessment (final practical and written assessment).

For companies such as Wynn Oil providing a/c consumables, ‘awareness’ education is not just about the benefits of VAC, but also covers less pleasant side-effects such as foul smells and hay fever-like symptoms caused by bacterial growth in evaporators.

As with all potential profit opportunities, workshops first have to ascertain whether there is sufficient demand for an a/c support service in their catchment area to justify the cost of equipment and training.

A good charging station can cost £2,000 or more and then there is refrigerant gas and oil to buy on a regular basis. Simon Longman, marketing manager with Four Seasons UK, warns: “Will private motorists pay big money to have their air-conditioning repaired? If they have paid £5,000 for a used Granada or Senator, are they prepared to spend a further £1,000 to have the a/c put right or replaced?”

Refrigerant circuit
1. Compressor 6.Fluid container with dehumidifier
2. Electrical connection for compressor 7. Low pressure switch/valve
3. Condensor 8. Heat exchanger
4. Fan 9. Heat exchanger fan
5. High pressure switch/valve 10.Pressure release valve

Alan Baird of ECT Diagnostics doesn’t see this as a deterrent, arguing: “The crunch comes when the car is being sold. If it’s a private buyer, he’s likely to get it fixed to obtain a more competitive price. If it’s a garage doing the selling and the buyer discovers the a/c doesn’t work – and this hasn’t been pointed out to him – he’s not going to be very pleased and will expect the garage to repair it at no extra cost to him.” Baird says that to set up in the a/c business, expect to pay from £2,000 to £3,000 for an automated workshop station (AWS), or £1,500 for a portable unit. Leak detection kit costs an extra £600 or so. As for investing in a refrigerant analyser, he said that was dependent on the age and history of vehicles being serviced. “If you’re dealing with vehicles eight years old or less with a well documented service history, then the chances are that you won’t encounter R12 refrigerant. But if it’s a mixed bag, then it’s probably best to have a portable unit for R12 and an AWS for R134a.”

In terms of investment pay-back, Baird quotes the following figures as being typical: Refrigerant evacuation and re-gassing, one hour labour, £15 materials, retail (i.e. cost to the customer) £100. Filter replacement 1.5 hours, £50, £150. Condenser replacement 3 hours, £165, £395. Pipes/seals 2 hours, £65, £180. Compressor 3 hours, £265, £495.

At Autoclimate, sales manager Brian Webster says of the company’s Robinair service equipment: “The top of the range 342001 management station is as advanced as anything in the market place with built-in flushing, refrigerant identifier and printer capabilities.” Webster stressed that refrigerant identification and effective system flushing were essential parts of effective a/c work “which many air conditioning companies simply do not seem to be interested in addressing”.

Not surprisingly, air conditioning is now a big enough feature in all sectors of industry and commerce to warrant its own show. The Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (RAC) Exhibition takes place from February 28 to March 1 at Birmingham’s NEC and includes such exhibitors as Daikin, Heronhill Air Conditioning, and Thermofrost Cryo.

Event director Chris Keller says: “In a single day at the show, with the entire industry under one roof, you can source new products and find the best solutions to your refrigeration and air conditioning requirements.”