As a young man learning the auto repair trade, I had the unique privilege of working elbow-to-elbow with men who had survived an era when new automotive replacement parts were simply too expensive for many people to buy or were generally unavailable. So I came to understand that this generation of mechanics made it a practice to never scrap a salvageable part.
Instead of replacing a part, these men replaced the part’s wearing components. Generators and starters were salvaged by replacing their expendable bronze bushings and carbon brushes. Water pumps and fuel pumps were repaired by installing rebuild kits. As humble and as quaint as they might have been, these were the men who kept the wheels of America turning throughout the dark days of the Great Depression and the perilous times of World War II.
THE MODERN MARKET
Looking at the modern era, remanufactured auto parts have become a major portion of today’s multi-billion dollar automotive replacement parts industry. Today, just about every type of rebuildable component from windshield wiper motors to computers to complete engines and transmissions are offered through a local warehouse, jobber, or retail parts outlet.
But questions about the reliability and longevity of remanufactured parts have long been a concern of an independent repair industry that is becoming increasingly concerned with the risk and liability associated with repairing today’s complex motor vehicles. As it has been since I started out during the 1950s, a shop’s choice of remanufactured part depends largely on a company’s reputation for reliability, performance and warranty.
Much of a shop’s choice also depends upon the type of part being manufactured. While water pumps and rotating electrical are commonly accepted as reliable replacements, parts like carburetors are often more suspect because of poor core availability and questionable quality control. In other instances, the cost to remanufacture some components is too high to offer a significant price advantage over new. In any case, a shop operator must weigh all of these factors when choosing a remanufactured part.
Before we get too far into this discussion, let me define the differences between the words “rebuilt” and “remanufactured.” In my experience, a “rebuilt” component is one in which only the worn or defective parts are replaced. A remanufactured component, on the other hand, is one in which all of the wearing or expendable parts are replaced. Aside from small specialty rebuilders who rebuild a component on-demand, most remanufacturing is usually done on an assembly line basis by wholesale suppliers.
Automatic transmissions provide an apt illustration of the difference between rebuilt and remanufactured. Many automatic transmissions can be “rebuilt” by simply replacing a few worn bands and clutch packs. In most cases, these transmissions work well, but have a correspondingly lower service life than a remanufactured transmission that had all of the bushings, thrust washers, clutch seals and roller clutches replaced. In addition, the remanufactured automatic transmission should have all of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) component updates installed to prevent a repeat failure of the unit.
In any case, the remanufactured market continues to change in response to new technology and to new market forces. In light of the inherent risk and liability of any auto repair, the following examples might well illustrate how modern shops choose and utilize remanufactured auto parts.
Because modern starters use permanent magnets and reduction gear cranking mechanisms, their overall reliability has been greatly improved. Whereas the starter designs of the 1960s through the 1980s generally began to fail at 40,000 miles, modern starters easily last 100,000 or more miles. Consequently, the reliability of the original design has increased the reliability of the remanufactured component.
In addition, modern starters live in a friendlier operating environment, free of oil being slung from a leaking rear main bearing oil seal that, in years past, would rapidly saturate the roller clutch assembly with oil, causing it to slip. Similarly, electronic fuel injected engines generally start after the first few revolutions of the crankshaft, which greatly eases the load on the starter motor and drive assembly. Because their overall quality has increased, I’ve experienced few failures in remanufactured starters during the past five years.
I’ve had similar experiences with remanufactured alternators, with only one out-of-the box failure in the past several years. Here again, modern alternators capable of providing more than 100 amperes of output simply last longer than the old 30-60 ampere alternators of old. When most original equipment alternators fail, it’s usually due to worn brushes or noisy bearings.
REMANUFACTURED WATER PUMPS
Remanufactured water pumps are a staple of the remanufacturing industry because the casting itself is a major part that’s easily salvaged. Most water pump assemblies can be easily repaired by replacing the impeller and the bearing and seal assembly. One minor difficulty is that some remanufacturers don’t get the pulley flange pressed to the correct height, which creates problems with the alignment of the serpentine belt. Another difficulty is that the bearing and seal might be of questionable quality. But that’s an issue that might vary considerably among remanufacturers.
Nevertheless, I always compare the flange height of the reman pump with that of the old. In addition, I always mount the replacement pump to the engine block and spin the impeller by hand to check for correct impeller clearance. Although I seldom experience a problem, it’s a precaution I take with new and remanufactured water pumps.
REMANUFACTURED BRAKE PARTS
Master cylinders usually fail because the cylinder bore becomes corroded, allowing fluid to leak past the master cylinder piston seal. An intermittently sinking brake pedal is the symptom usually associated with corroded cylinder bores. Here again, if the cylinder is sleeved it becomes as good as new. If the cylinder is simply re-honed with new seals installed, it becomes a potential liability because of imperfections in the cylinder bore surface.
Because there is only one moving part to wear out, remanufactured disc brake calipers are extremely reliable. Most can be reconditioned with a new piston and seals. Without the specialized tooling to install the new seal, few mechanics are willing to waste time trying to rebuild brake calipers.
RISK AND LIABILITY
The above examples of how independent shops might view remanufactured parts vividly illustrate that each job brings with it the concept of risk and liability. Risk is the probability of failure. Installing a remanufactured disc brake caliper is generally considered a low-risk operation because remanufactured brake calipers are generally very reliable. Installing a remanufactured automatic transmission, on the other hand, incurs considerably more risk because the failure of a remanufactured transmission to perform correctly is generally higher than that of the remanufactured brake caliper.
Liability, on the other hand, is the consequential damages resulting from a part failure.
Because the reman caliper is easy and quick to replace and is generally available, it’s a low liability repair. If, on the other hand, an automatic transmission fails, the customer’s vehicle can be tied up for several days while the transmission is being repaired or replaced.
In a worst-case scenario of the transmission failing on a vacation trip, the customer could spend his
entire vacation waiting for his transmission to be replaced. While consequential damages might be excluded in a product warranty, such damages usually become a public relations issue for the technician. Clearly, the concept of risk and liability is one that drives a shop’s choice of remanufactured parts.
Automotive parts remanufacturers estimate that, on the average, remanufacturing a part creates only 10 percent of the emissions and greenhouse gases created by manufacturing from raw materials. That’s a big number and it’s still another reason why remanufacturing auto parts might well represent the future of auto repair. We often forget that it didn’t take long for the auto repair industry to understand the value of remanufacturing when World War II created a severe shortage of strategic materials like copper, chromium, aluminum and steel. The war we’re fighting now is one of reducing or eliminating environmental pollution and green house gases. So, the next time your technician is weighing the differences between buying a new or remanufactured part, take the time to talk “green.” Remind him or her that the real-world dividends might extend well beyond the traditional bottom line.
Gary Goms is a former educator and shop owner who remains active in the aftermarket service industry. Gary is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician (CMAT) and has earned the L1 advanced engine performance certification. He is also a graduate of Colorado State University and belongs to the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).