Auto repair can be a dirty business. Between large quantities of waste oils, grease, used chemicals, and just plain dirt, today’s shops must be careful not to create serious contamination problems or hazardous waste issues in their local environments.
Tim and Kathy Tapper, owners of Detroit Transmission Specialists in Arvada, Colorado, know just how important that can be. They’re making every effort to take a responsible approach to their shop’s impact on the surrounding environment, and they’d like everyone to know about it.
“We don’t put any solvents in the ground; we don’t put any oils in the Earth,” says Tim. “We burn all of our transmission fluids in Clean- Burn furnaces.” Those furnaces have eliminated their need to buy any other heating oils or natural gas all year long.
“My natural gas bill was so low that the gas company actually sent someone out to check our meter; they thought it was broken.”
And, at the end of the season, all they need to do is sweep out a little ash and throw it away. There’s almost no waste; all the oils and contaminants are burned away. “I let the company come out and service them once a year because they perform a complete maintenance procedure, which keeps the heaters working efficiently.”
Then there’s the cleaning machines: “Two of our automated cleaning machines use an aqueous-based solution,” says Tim. “And the soap in them is all biodegradable. It does a great job on aluminum, cast iron, and even plastics; it doesn’t hurt a thing.
“At the end of a week of cleaning, we remove the old solution because it begins to break down. We empty that solution into a tank made by EMC Water Eater. It’s a great device; I recommend it for any transmission shop using these types of cleaners, because it’s a viable way of getting rid of the solution safely, it doesn’t hurt the environment, and it’s very simple to use.
“We have our Jet Clean cabinets plumbed right into the Water Eater, so we just do a bit of valving and we have the solution ready to burn off. The Water Eater evaporates the solution that’s in the machine.”
The shop is left with some dirt particles that we sweep out and can throw away safely. “I’ve had the residue tested by Evergreen Environmental. They said it’s kind of high in metals — no surprise there — but that’s not toxic waste. It’s common waste and easily removed. We just dump it right in the trashcan.”
When it comes to their solvent tanks, they have a filtration system that keeps their solvents clean and effective. “After the solvent has been in use for a while, we simply hit a switch,” explains Tim. “The solvent tank automatically pulls the old solvent into a processor and refills the tank with clean solvent, all on its own.
“The dirty solvent that went into the processor boils for about four or five hours. It removes all the sludge and grime from the solvent. Then it stores the cleaned solvent in a separate tank to be reused later. The waste that’s left gets burned with the waste oil to heat the shop.”
Of course, we’re still talking about an auto repair shop… shops get dirty and need to be cleaned. Detroit Transmissions has no drains in the floor, so no hazardous waste goes down the drain. “We have two walk-behind floor scrubbers to keep the floors clean,” says Tim.
Technician and Owner
In addition to being the owner — along with his wife, Kathy — and founder of Detroit Transmissions Specialists, Tim is also a technician. He has a long history of experience in the automatic transmission repair business.
“My father was very mechanical, and my brothers are all mechanics; in fact, my oldest brother is a jet aircraft mechanic for the government. He’s worked on fighter planes and was a crew chief in the Air Force. I’ve always enjoyed working on cars, bicycles… anything mechanical.
“I worked at a familiar transmission chain while I was still in high school. After graduating, I moved to Denver and attended Denver Automotive and Diesel College in Denver. I was only planning to stay until I completed school, but once I was here, I couldn’t bring myself to leave this part of the country.”
So, what got him into the transmission business? “I always thought transmissions were very challenging. When I started tech school, the first phase of my technical training was transmissions. That really interested me. Of course, transmissions were much simpler back then! I trained on a two-speed Powerglide.
“One of my first jobs was at a shop that did nothing but older transmissions. I learned Dynaflows, Jetaways, Powerglides, and Cruisomatics — I still do a lot of Cruiso work.
“With the older Cruisos, like in an older T-bird or Lincoln, you couldn’t get them out of the car without disassembling them in place or removing the engine and transmission as an assembly. A skilled guy can do all that work without pulling the motor. I still do that.”
Anything with Gears
Detroit Transmissions is exclusively a powertrain repair business: They handle transmissions, differentials, transfer cases… anything with gears. They stay away from the rest of the car, unless it directly affects the operation of the transmission or other drive components.
A Huge Market
Detroit Transmissions is in Arvada, which is a suburb of Denver. In fact, Denver’s city limits are right across the street from their shop, so they’re positioned in what has become a huge market by any standards. “We handle nearly all the municipalities in the surrounding area, including a lot of state work,” says Tim. “We do CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) plow trucks, pickup trucks… everything from the Nebraska border to the Vail pass.
“The fleets we handle include many municipalities and counties, and they like using us because we’re competent in everything from small cars all they way up to 18-wheelers. We handle the spectrum of foreign and domestic, so there’s literally almost nothing we can’t handle… even off-highway.”
The Secret Sauce
It seems that Tim and Kathy have found the secret sauce for combining environmental responsibility with good business practices. They’ve proven that you can add to your bottom line while protecting the environment by leveraging the cost savings associated with repurposing and reusing the many automotive byproducts that would otherwise become hazardous waste.
Come to think about it, because we’re repairing and rebuilding automotive components like transmissions and engines, our industry, itself is inherently ecofriendly… recycling rather than adding to the landfill.