Here's What You Need to Know About Aluminum Auto Body Repairs

Posted on: 17 December 2015

A growing trend in auto body technology is manufacturing components out of aluminum rather than steel. As car makers try to build vehicles that are simultaneously lighter and safer, they are adding more aluminum or aluminum-coated exterior components such as hoods and doors. It's not a new concept, but using aluminum for these large parts has traditionally been too expensive for anything but luxury vehicles. However, with improvements in recycling technology it's become more feasible for cars and trucks on the mass market. With two major car manufacturers producing vehicles with aluminum skins and body panels, it's likely that one of your future vehicles will have aluminum body parts as well.

While this makes vehicles safer and provides better gas mileage, it presents more challenges for auto body repair. There are significant differences between aluminum and steel and therefore different repair techniques. If you are considering buying a vehicle with aluminum body panels, here is what you need to know about repairs.

Aluminum can still "rust".

While aluminum itself does not contain iron, it won't oxidize and rust. However, parts can still rust when they come into contact with steel dust. These dust particles adhere to the aluminum and oxidize, corroding the aluminum and making paint bubble and peel. Metal tools that have been used on steel will transfer dust to aluminum and damage it instantly. Unless you have two separate sets of tools, you'll need to take your vehicle to a body shop rather than attempt repairs yourself.

You'll need to find an aluminum-compliant body shop.

Body shops that are certified as aluminum-compliant have the equipment, rules and policies in place to do these repairs successfully. To prevent damage to vehicles, they have separate areas for working on aluminum and steel. One reason is to keep the steel dust from coming into contact with aluminum. The other reason is that aluminum dust is flammable and dangerous to breathe. Compliant shops have dust extraction systems to prevent explosions and dust fires. They also have welders that operate at lower temperatures than those for steel, which would melt or weaken aluminum.

Aluminum repairs cost more.

Repair shops have to invest in lots of new tools and equipment to work on aluminum cars. Technicians also have to be trained and certified in repair techniques, which raises labor costs. Since aluminum is not as malleable as steel, many parts have to be replaced rather than straightened. Corrosion often has to be sandblasted rather than ground off with a metal wheel, and repairing aluminum can simply take longer because of these additional steps.

But don't let these factors dissuade you from buying a vehicle with an aluminum body or skin. The cost savings from these lighter vehicles will probably outweigh the cost of body work over the life of the car. Even though steel is still the dominant auto body material, many auto body repair services are becoming aluminum-compliant so they can serve this growing market. As manufactures continue to improve and aluminum becomes more commonplace, repairing these auto bodies will become more mainstream and affordable. Ask your dealer for recommendations for shops that are qualified to do body work on their vehicles. Most dealers don't do body work and will be happy to refer you to a shop that will work on their vehicles to their specifications.