Denver recycler focuses on hybrid drivetrain parts, rebuilding batteries

Denver—A technician clamps a multimeter to a gray 7.2-volt module in a hybrid battery pack, one of 38 in a long row.  The battery pack is more akin to a futuristic keyboard than a vehicle’s propulsion source.  The technician, Bryon Schelk, works at Adopt A Part, an import auto dismantler specializing in selling used hybrid drivetrain components, rebuilt battery packs, and service.


“The Denver-Boulder area, on a per-capita basis, has the highest concentration of hybrids in the country,” said Owner Eric Sumpter, who also operates an on-site service and repair division, MileHybrid Automotive, with his wife, Kathy Sumpter.


As the more than two million second-generation Toyota Prius hybrids that were built from 2004 to 2009 begin to come out of warranty, Sumpter is banking that many will seek service from independent repair shops, who are more apt to install used and rebuilt parts.  Batteries and used parts are also sold for the Honda Insight and Civic hybrid, he added, as well as the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrids. 


When compared to new OEM battery packs, rebuilt ones can save a customer anywhere from 50 to 75 percent, he said.  


Armed with a degree in industrial engineering and work experience in electronic manufacturing, Sumpter said he purchased the yard in 2008, with the intention of refocusing the business on hybrid dismantling.  He received his formal hybrid vehicle training through Arapahoe Community College’s (ACC) Hybrid Vehicle Training program.


“What we set out to do was be the recycled parts source of choice for drivetrain parts,” Sumpter said, which naturally led him to add a service arm to the business because of the diagnostic expertise needed to properly work on hybrids.


With hybrids, a technician can’t try to throw parts at a problem in hopes that it will fix it, he said.  If a collision repair customer calls in saying their customer needs a new hybrid transaxle, he said his countermen will ask how they came to that conclusion, even if it results in a lost sale, he said.  The problem can be something as simple as a broken connector, he said, but because of unfamiliarity, an estimator may assume it needs to be replaced.


“A transaxle job takes 12 hours of labor on a Toyota Prius, so you better make sure you need it,” Sumpter said.


“We provide installation training for independent shops, backed by our diagnostic expertise,” he said, adding that with their Toyota Techstream diagnostic software and AutoEnginuity software, they’re able to take care of their own retail service customers, and serve as a go-to diagnostics source for other mechanical and collision shops.


Diagnostic tools are needed to confirm that a used transaxle is suitable for sale, Sumpter said.  “With the tools and training, we can sell them with confidence.”


Through access to technical resources from his previous work life, Sumpter said he has acquired non-automotive equipment necessary to recondition battery modules and rebuild the packs. 


Battery packs often fail when a 7.2-volt module or battery cell leaks or becomes weak, he said.  Once a module is repaired or replaced, he said, the biggest part of the rebuild involves balancing the modules, adding that once rebuilt, the packs carry a one-year warranty. 


Getting the word out mainly through his website, which is SEO-optimized, Sumpter said he now sells rebuilt battery packs all over the U.S. and Canada.


To be a successful hybrid vehicle recycler, the proper training and equipment is necessary, Sumpter said, adding that the investment is substantial.  Along with hybrids, he said, he also dismantles and sells parts for Subaru, Land Rover, Volkswagen, Audi, Toyota, and BMW.


To subsidize this expense, Sumpter said that in January he launched MileHybrid Automotive, his repair shop division, which attracts motorists from as far as the Western Slope. Often, he said, hybrids that are misdiagnosed end up in his shop.


“If you have a shop with a steady flow of conventional vehicles, it’s easy to view hybrid vehicles as a distraction,” he said, citing safety hazards, unfamiliarity, lack of training, and proper tools as problems for the average shop.  “Diagnosis is similar to that of an industrial control system.”


When a hybrid driveline component fails, automakers have typically not endorsed repair at a component level, he said, defaulting to a remove and replace (R&R) procedure. For example, inverters have two sections, he said, and two good sections can be mated for a functional used unit.


Since the gas engines found in hybrid vehicles do not experience the wear associated with a gas-powered car, they’re not big sellers, Sumpter said.


As many technicians seek diagnostic and installation advice for out-of-warranty hybrids, Sumpter said he and his five-man crew offer phone consultation, answer questions in several online forums, and even train emergency-response personnel in the metro Denver area, who may be hesitant to cut into a vehicle with a 300-volt system.  A formal hybrid Certified Installer program aimed at the independent repair technician is in the works, he added.


Adopt A Part owner takes helm of Colorado Auto Recyclers


Denver—Eric Sumpter, owner of Adopt A Part, was elected in February to serve as president of the Colorado Auto Recyclers (CAR) for 2012. Sumpter replaces Roger “Mitch” Mitchell of Fair Auto & Truck Parts in Englewood, who served the previous 12-month term. 


“My main responsibility is to facilitate the board of directors and prioritize the issues we need to work on,” Sumpter said, adding that membership development is a key area of focus.


Sumpter said he began his involvement with CAR only a few months after purchasing his recycling business in 2008, in an effort to connect with his colleagues in the industry.


In a rapidly changing industry, it’s important that recyclers hold their standards high, he said, and adhere to the new standards placed on them. 


A key issue will be helping CAR members understand the new state storm-water standard, which involves sampling and new inspection requirements, he said.


CAR helped negotiate the contents of this storm-water permit on behalf of its members, making sure implementation was feasible, he said.

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.

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