In some ways electric vehicles are just like any other vehicle on the road. Wheels are powered to move passengers from one place to another along a roadway. It’s the same basic principle that carried us past the days of the horse and buggy. In fact many of the early horseless carriages were actually electric powered. But modern electric vehicles deal in much higher voltages and amperages than anything on the road in the past few decades. Anyone who already works on internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles probably has a decent set of tools, but when it comes to servicing hybrid and electric vehicles (EV) there are a few more things to consider. Let’s take a look at EV tools versus ICE tools and learn what you might need for your EV tool kit.
Starting with hand tools the functions are pretty much the same. An insulated screwdriver still has a handle and a tip, wrenches still have jaws, sockets still have six or twelve points. The big difference comes down to stopping the flow of electricity either through the tool or to the user. You’ve probably seen insulated tools before, likely a screwdriver in a set. These are pretty common for household electrical work. But did you know there are insulated tools and then there are non-conductive (composite) tools?
An insulated tool is typically made of metal (like a normal tool) which is then covered with a non-conductive substance like epoxy or rubber. This interrupts the flow of electricity from the tool to the user’s hand. But insulated tools need to be checked regularly to verify if the insulating coating is still intact. Some tools use different colored insulation layers to signal if a tool is ready for replacement. If the warning layer is visible, the tool is no longer safe to use. The last point is one that normally isn’t a part of hand tool ownership. Hand tools either work or they are broken. Insulated electric tools may still technically work as say a wrench, but they will not be safe to use around electrical components once the insulation has been compromised.
Composite tools are actually made differently than normal tools. For example a composite ratchet will have a handle made completely of a strong non-conductive material with no metal inside. This prevents electricity from traveling from the head of the ratchet to the user’s hand. Composite sockets will still have a metal hex insert, but that metal is attached to a strong non-conductive composite, and then to the square drive. The non-conductive material breaks the circuit and blocks the flow of electricity.
Working on any modern vehicle requires the right diagnostic equipment regardless of the power source. While a technician working on an electric vehicle won’t be diagnosing ignition or emissions problems, they will be chasing down other normal issues like bad sensors or damaged modules. But one difference in EV tools vs. ICE tools is the power handling capability of the electric vehicle diagnostic tool. For example any multimeter intended to be used on an electric vehicle must be rated CAT III to handle the high voltages often found inside these vehicles. Likewise the test leads need to be also rated for higher voltage use. While internal combustion engines are starting to use 48-volt systems in areas, some electric vehicles operate in the hundreds of volts so special EV diagnostic tools are a must.
Your shop may already be well equipped to work on common internal combustion vehicles, but there are some special electric vehicle repair tools you may need to consider. For example, your two-post lift likely needs different footpads to correctly lift electric vehicles. You also need to make sure your lift can be configured to handle different vehicle weight biases (front to rear) for balanced lifting. Speaking of lifting, many electric vehicle and hybrid batteries weigh a considerable amount and are mounted to the bottom of the vehicle. Safely removing one of these batteries should be left up to a specialized lifting table designed for the task.
Most people are not aware that air conditioning compressors used in hybrid and electric vehicles have a special type of oil that is designed to be non-conductive. That means you will need an air conditioning service machine that can prevent cross-contamination between systems. Considering that the air conditioning compressor on a hybrid or electric vehicle is powered by a high-power electric motor rather than an engine pulley, the different oil requirement makes sense.
It’s a good idea to wear gloves when working on any vehicle, but when working on an electric or hybrid vehicle it is mandatory. Specifically insulated safety gloves designed to handle high voltage. Gloves must also be tested before each use for any tears/cuts/leaks/wear that might allow a path for electricity to travel. A good pair of ASTM F 2413-11 safety boots with EH (electrical hazard) rating is also recommended.
It is also important to let others know when a technician is working on a hybrid or electric vehicle. Placing orange cones around the bay and a line of caution tape signals to others that the vehicle is not to be approached. The safety gear worn by the technician is only designed to protect one person, all others must keep their distance during servicing of electric vehicle components.
Any shop that is considering working on electric or hybrid vehicles needs an insulated rescue hook. In the unfortunate event of a technician suffering an accident while working on an electrical component the insulated rescue hook allows the victim to be pulled away from the electrical source without endangering the rescuer. This also means that a technician should never work on a hybrid or electric vehicle alone, there should always be another person present in the shop.
Lastly anyone attempting to service an electric or hybrid vehicle should be properly trained. Old fashioned “on the job” training may be fine for most maintenance procedures on a normal car, the same cannot be said for electric or hybrid vehicles. The potential power output of an EV battery is just too high to risk working on a vehicle without at least basic training. Luckily NAPA Autotech can help anyone acquire the right training they need to become a successful technician capable of handling electric and hybrid vehicles.
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With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible, BMW E46 sedan, and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.