What will the world look like when we finally reemerge from our quarantine hibernation? Your car and automotive situation may not come to mind as the most pressing issue in a post-COVID-19 world. Yet with U.S. motorists driving more miles than ever before, our main source of daily transportation is something that deserves consideration.
Although auto shops have been deemed an essential business, like nearly every other business, they have taken a major hit over the past several months. “Once this started, we lost 75% of [our business],” says John Tirpan, co-owner of TNT Automotive in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “The roads are quiet and that’s what drives our business.”
We spoke to several owners of AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities across the Northeast to see how they have handled business through the COVID-19 pandemic and what customers can expect the next time they bring their car in.
The New Normal
If you’ve left your home any time over the past few months, you’ve experienced firsthand how businesses have altered their operations in the name of customer and employee safety. Auto repair shops are no different.
The next time you take your car in, you can expect some new processes. Janis Wentzell, owner of Auto Craft, Inc. in Randolph, Mass., walked us through how her shop is handling things.
“We’re doing many things different. We start out initially by trying to do all communication either by phone, text or email,” she said. “We encourage people to drop their cars off and have a mail slot that they’re able to leave their keys. Once we get the keys, we sanitize the keys, we sanitize all the touch points in the vehicle with wipes.
“Once we’ve serviced the vehicle or have it diagnosed, then we call the customer with an estimate. At that point, when the work is complete, we take all credit card information over the phone. If they want to pay by check, they can drop it off through the mail slot. Once the vehicle is ready to be returned to the client, it’s sanitized again and locked up outside.”
Shops are also employing many of the safety features of other in-person commerce operations. These include requiring the use of face masks, installing plexiglass separators, limiting the number of customers in the building at one time, and maintaining a 6-foot distance.
Most drivers have likely never gone such a prolonged period of time without getting behind the wheel. As excited as you may be to cruise the open road again, know that your driving hiatus could have caused mechanical problems to your vehicle.
“It’s important to keep your car exercised. That way when you need it, it won’t let you down,” said Rich DeSano, co-owner of TNT Automotive. The number one car issue DeSano has seen during this time is battery failure. “We’ve gone through a lot of batteries, both here and on the road. A shocking amount to tell you the truth. I’m thinking that’s because people have been letting their cars sit.”
If you haven’t been driving your car regularly, the battery has not been getting a proper charge. “When the car has sat around dormant for six weeks, a lot of people think they can go out and start the car and let it run for five minutes and it’s going to charge the battery up,” said Mike McAlister, owner of North Smithfield Automotive Center in North Smithfield, R.I.
If your battery has failed, bring it to an AAR facility or call AAA Roadside Assistance. A battery technician will test your car’s battery. You may not need a replacement. “A lot of people just assume they need a new battery and often that’s not the case. It just has to be brought back to the measurable state of charge. You’ve got to put it on a battery charge to bring it up to where it’s supposed to be. And then a lot of times that battery is fine.”
McAlister also recommended getting your brakes and tires checked before returning to your normal driving routine. “We have a lot of people coming in now because their rotors are starting the rest up from the car been sitting in the driveway for weeks in the springtime. So a lot of people are coming in with squeaky brakes.”
Several owners also mentioned car tires as an area of potential concern. Your tires may have lost some air pressure over the months. “Before you hop into the car, walk around and make sure that the tires aren’t slack to the point where they are going flat. In fact, if that’s the case, certainly call AAA and get somebody out there that can pump up the tires.
And don’t forget about the spare. If you don’t have one, consider purchasing. If you do, make sure it is properly inflated. “A lot of vehicles now are coming in with no spares. That’s something that people don’t realize until they get a flat,” says Sam Ellahi, owner of Tire Tech & Auto Repair Centers in Oakland, N.J. “It’s very important to check the spare. These are things we can check for you for no charge. Most AAA shops will check them for no charge.”
Auto repair facilities have seen business begin to return – a welcome sight for all. “Recently, I am seeing a tremendous increase in people wanting to make appointments and so I’m encouraged by that,” Wentzel said.
As far as the operational changes, expect those to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Just like AAA, the top priority of AAR facilities is the well-being of their customers. “Our customers, for the most part, are long-term and I consider them to be friends.” Wentzel says. “I would do everything within my power, as well as everyone in our facility, to make certain that they’re comfortable bringing their car in and that we’re doing everything as safely as possible. I find that most customers appreciate that.”