Servicing an electric, hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicle
So, you have bought your EV or hybrid, but does that mean you are restricted to expensive main dealer servicing only? Not necessarily, argues Rob Marshall.
Time flies. While the first production hybrids arrived on these shores 21 years ago, many independent garages ran scared of the 'overcomplicated' pioneers, with their high voltage systems causing technicians , in particular, the most anguish, simply because they did not understand how the cars worked. The result was that most garages invested in diagnostic equipment to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated combustion engine, leaving hybrid maintenance and repairs to specialist, or manufacturer workshops.
Fast forward to 2019, and many independent workshops have fallen even further behind the times. The CEO of the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI), the professional association for individuals working in said trade, states that, approximately, eight out of ten independent garages struggle to recruit technicians that are qualified to work on electric cars (EV) and hybrids. Therefore, one might imagine that your options for repair and servicing work are even more limited. Luckily, this is not the case, thanks to a number of outfits that have chosen to embrace and specialise in the electric revolution.
With 40 to 60 volts and 0.08 amps being sufficient to cause cardiac arrest, it is little wonder that technicians are especially cautious of hybrid and EVs, with between 100-600 volts and up to 150 amps being typical within their high voltage systems.
Therefore, even if you do not own a hybrid/EV but you come across them in the course of your employment, it is worth gaining awareness of the potential hazards that the high voltages can present. Fortunately, training courses have been developed that you may wish to consider, should you encounter (or drive) hybrid/EVs, especially as many examples are sold to the fleet sector, due to their preferential tax treatment.
The IMI Advanced Level 1 Award in Electric/Hybrid Vehicle Awareness is worth considering for a driver that uses such a vehicle as part of his/her employment and wishes to know about minimising the impact on others, should the vehicle be involved in a crash, or if it malfunctions. The Level 2 Award is designed more for road recovery and emergency services personnel, who may be faced with recovering a broken down vehicle, or dealing with the aftermath of a road traffic accident. Levels 3 and 4 are geared more towards the health and safety considerations for technicians, with Level 5 covering advanced diagnostics and repair techniques for professionals.
The main dealer option
Should you be responsible for the servicing and repair bills, you might be led to think that your choices are limited to main dealers only. While car manufacturers/importers should provide all the suitable equipment and training for their franchised workshop network, we have heard of some main dealers sub-contracting work to independent hybrid/EV experts. This indicates that, perhaps, manufacturer representatives may not be the know-all experts that you may think, despite their relatively high hourly labour rates. In any case, do not dismiss asking a main dealer about maintenance costs, presuming them to be astronomical. Also be mindful that should you be the car's owner, Block Exemption legislation permits you to entrust the work to a valued independent workshop without fear of voiding any warranty (especially considering that guarantees on the battery can be particularly lengthy). Be wary, however, of the exceptions to this, as mentioned later (see Warranty Worries).
For safety reasons, your local garage might prefer not to maintain your hybrid/EV, due to well-founded caution for the high voltage system. Therefore, find an outfit that is friendly to electric cars; our recommendation is to seek-out a Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Repair Alliance (HEVRA) garage that has been checked independently for not only the appropriate tools and equipment but also for possessing suitable knowledge and qualifications. It also supplies the garage with unlimited technical support and ongoing training, which is important, considering the rapid rate of technological change.
Should your car be aged under three years, or is a particularly new model, enquire if the independent garage has the ability to upload any new software to the vehicle. In a main dealership scenario, updates are applied automatically, most often, without the owner being aware but independent garages are not instructed to do this by the manufacturer. Therefore, it is worth asking if this work can be carried out.
How does hybrid/EV servicing differ to 'conventional' cars?
In theory, all electric cars require very little maintenance. Lacking a combustion engine, there is no need to pay for expensive consumables that require routine renewal, such as engine oil, air/fuel filters, spark plugs and timing belts. Aside from the usual checks of lights, wheel bearings, tyres, chassis, suspension and brake components, the extra work that an EV requires is a check of the charging port's integrity and checking/topping-up the reduction gearbox's oil level (as pictured).
Unfortunately, on many EVs, degradation of the high voltage battery is part of the ownership experience and is a topic that we plan to investigate in the future and advise accordingly. Even so, checking the high voltage battery condition is part of a typical service schedule but, on some EVs (such as the Nissan LEAF and its e-NV200 van alternative) this can be performed very easily without leaving the driver's seat, by checking the battery capacity read-out on the dashboard. Therefore, the high voltage system may not even need to be interrogated to conduct a normal service on a pure EV.
Consider also that certain parts of the high voltage circuit generate plenty of heat and may be fitted with a dedicated cooling system that will require checks and, possibly, be drained, as the system ages, to maintain the liquid coolant's anti-corrosion and anti-freezing properties, just like the radiator on a conventional engine. However, much depends on specific manufacturer's recommendations and this must take precedence over the general advice in this article.
Hybrids are more complicated. As they are fitted with combustion engines, the necessary filters, lubricants and ancillary parts are needed, bumping-up the service costs. A further issue is that the garage must ensure that the high voltage system is discharged, not only for the technician's safety but also to ensure that the engine does not start itself, while an oil change is being conducted, for example, which would cause serious mechanical harm. In general, therefore, expect the maintenance invoice to be higher for a hybrid than for a pure EV.
Block Exemption Legislation gives you the right to choose where to get your car serviced, without voiding the manufacturer's warranty. However, should you need to make a claim and you have not used main dealer servicing, you will need to prove that the car was serviced on time, at the correct mileage, and all the required work was carried out plus the parts used were of equivalent quality to the original equipment parts (the term OE quality is used here). You must ask the dealer to record these details on the invoice, including replacement components’ part numbers, so you can provide this as evidence, should a warranty claim be refuted.
Yet, as many hybrid and EVs are leased, it is possible that you do not have the right to choose where the car is serviced after all, because you do not own it. Check the small print on your finance, or contract package. Should the agreement insist on main dealer maintenance and repairs only, you could be in breach of the terms and conditions, were you to use an independent garage, leaving you liable potentially for extra costs. The same demands may be made by extended warranty agreements. In these cases, Block Exemption does not give you the freedom of choice. Read the small print carefully, especially before agreeing to lease the car, if you are worried about being locked into main dealer servicing that might, potentially, increase your running costs.
When commissioning accessories to be hard-wired into your car, ensure that the installer has experience with EV/hybrids, so they tap into the low voltage system without causing damage, or risking their safety
While running either a hybrid, or EV, presents a real potential to slash your running costs, not making an informed decision about where you get the car serviced can erode that saving very quickly. Even worse, entrusting your car with an ill-equipped garage can not only prejudice safety but could also damage your car. The answer lies in choosing an independent specialist that has invested in the necessary tools and training, which will have your best interests at heart.