You get what you pay for

Fleets aren't willing to pay for high-quality steel wheel refinishing

With all of the increased attention that CSA has placed on the condition of truck tires and wheels, the physical appearance of the assemblies is more important than ever. While most tires appear to be round and black to the average law enforcement official, the wheels are a completely different story. After all, from a distance all tires basically look the same, but rusty wheels are noticeable across four lanes of traffic.

That is one of the reasons why aluminum wheels have grown in popularity over the years, but even they are subject to the effects of age and ice-melting chemicals. The wheel companies have made tremendous progress in developing new finishes that can withstand the constant abuse of our nation's highways, but they come at a higher cost when compared to standard aluminum wheels (which are already expensive).

But the real issue is steel wheel refinishing. Fleets are predominantly unhappy with the performance of reconditioned steel wheels because the appearance does not last as long as the original finish. One of the reasons is that the wheel manufacturer has the advantage of starting with perfectly bare steel. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of steel wheel reconditioning is the removal of the existing finish. If the shot blast material is too large, it can create severe pitting on the surface; if it's too fine, it can have the same effect as sandblasting and actually reduce the thickness of the metal.

Of course, the challenges do not stop with the removal of the old finish. Bare metal can develop flash rusting in a matter of minutes. Modern wheel manufacturing plants utilize various stations throughout the process so there isn't a lot of time for unprotected steel to develop any rust. Most of the tire dealers and retreaders that refinish wheels have a limited amount of space and employees dedicated to the process. In a perfect world, the wheel would be cleaned and coated shortly after the old finish was removed, but the world is far from perfect.

Another reason why refinishing a wheel is much more difficult than applying the original finish is that the application of a primer is critical for long-term performance. While it can be accomplished in the aftermarket, it requires more precision on the part of the operator because the total “paint” thickness cannot exceed 3.5 mils, especially around the bolt circle. In many cases, the operator who removes the old finish is also responsible for applying the primer and final coat, so it takes a special skill set to achieve consistency.

Even with all of these obstacles, I think the current wheel refinishing industry does a remarkable job given the economic restraints placed on them by the market. Fleets constantly pressure suppliers for better prices and performance, but the margins are so small that most companies look at it as providing a service rather than it being a profit center. Wheel refinishing will never be their core business, so the amount of resources dedicated to that department will continue to be limited until something changes.

The basic technology for high-quality aftermarket wheel finishes is already in place. But the price would have to approach the cost of a new wheel in order for it to perform at the level that fleets want. If the market is willing to pay a premium price for a premium product, then I'm positive that there are companies out there that will make the investment. Until then, fleets will continue to get what they pay for.

Kevin Rohlwing can be reached at [email protected]

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