Warm up your bottom (line)

Nov 8, 2010

Ask most drivers in cold-weather states from the Pacific Northwest through the Rockies and across to the Eastern Seaboard about the importance of a reliable seat-heating system in their vehicle and you’d likely get a similar response: If they don’t have one, they’d prefer to.

Thankfully, today’s seat heaters are increasing in quality year after year, even as prices fall, creating a great opportunity for restylers to warm not only their customers’ spirits but also their own bottom lines.

While the technology has changed some in recent years, one element has remained the same: For aftermarket restylers – especially those already working on upholstery or interior upgrades-installing a seat-heating system can be a quick and profitable process.

According to Steven Koyama of Pacific Restyling Products, Vancouver, B.C., falling aftermarket prices have made aftermarket heaters even more attractive than factory systems, either in vehicles that don’t already have the systems or as upgrades to the current heaters in a vehicle from the factory.

“The quality of aftermarket seat heaters has been on the rise while heater prices have been dropping,” Koyama says. “All the while, the dealer-installed prices have held fairly steady. With minimal guidance any upholstery shop, 12V accessory center or full-service restyler can install a pair of heaters in two-and-a-half hours. That translates into about $250 for that job.

If you’re installing a leather interior at the same time as heaters, then shave about 45-60 minutes – or $60- off the labor component and put that savings into your pocket as more profit.”

Koyama adds that “the restyler’s best friend, today and tomorrow, will be factory upgrade packages,” noting that such packages are designed to move customers up to a higher price point, which is a benefit to both the dealer and vehicle manufacture.

Additionally, aftermarket installers can often offer packages that perfectly suit the customer’s needs, adding additional value to the end user.

“Over the years restylers have learned to navigate this jungle of information and have become expert guerrilla marketers,” Koyama adds. “This allows them to quickly analyze factory package components and pricing, and offer a top-quality aftermarket version at a competitive or better price.”

Package potential

Pavel Zaichenko of Soft N’ Cushy (SNC) Auto Upholstery & Accessories in Schenectady, N.Y., a restyler and accessory supplier, can attest to the desirability of seat heaters both as individual installations as well as part of an accessory package with other interior products like leather seats.

“Seat heaters are very popular in the Northeast: For 98% of leather interiors that we install, people [also] choose seat heaters as a package deal,” he says. “We never fail to ask customers who are looking for leather installation if they want to install seat heaters with it, and usually customers agree to have that installed, as well.”

Zaichenko notes that most seat heaters installed as a factory options come only on the higher-end models as a package, and that cost, most of the time, is significant. He also notes that many vehicle models do not have a seat heater option from the factory, leaving an aftermarket installer as the only realistic option.

Ron Leslie, national sales manager for Montebello, Calif.-based Katzkin Leather Inc., similarly noted the value to customers in purchasing an aftermarket seat-heating system. He says that vehicle manufacturers today have inadvertently driven many customers to aftermarket installers by only offering items like seat heaters or leather interiors in heavily marked-up luxury packages. Consumers, he says, might only want a few of the elements of that package, creating an opportunity for more nimble restylers.

Seat heaters, says Leslie, “can be made available as a standalone option or as an option packaged with a new leather interior, as opposed to the factory that often makes the consumer buy an expensive option group to obtain seat heaters or leather seats. Consumers may not be willing to pay for a trim-line upgrade, usually totaling several thousand dollars.”

Moreover, one of the greatest potential scenarios in which a restyler could see an opportunity to sell a seat heater to a new car buyer originates from the “impulse buy” nature of many new car sales. According to Brian Champa, sales manager of seating products for Troy, Mich.-based Check Corp., many new car buyers purchase a vehicle on an emotional attachment to a certain vehicle, regardless of what options are available. If that specific vehicle isn’t available with a seat heater, many dealers will refer the buyer to a local aftermarket installer for the purchase.

“About 35% of new vehicles sold today have seat heaters from the factory, so what we find is that when people go to a dealership they already have decided they’re buying a car. It’s often an impulse which car they choose, however, and that vehicle won’t always have [a seat heater]. That creates a great opportunity for a restyler.

“That is why a vast majority of seat heater sales are still though dealerships.”

New tech, new applications

As with most aftermarket accessories, each new year brings technological developments in the market for seat-heating systems. As Michael Kettle of W.E.T. Automotive Systems, a Windsor, Ont.-based Katzkin supplier, brings up Georg Ohm, a German physicist credited with describing the electrical relationship of current, voltage and resistance known as Ohm’s Law. Seat heating systems today – most often manufactured using resistance wire, carbon fiber or resistive ink-use the same principle: Generate heat by providing a small resistance to an electrical current.

Says Kettle, “The first seat heaters developed over 40 years ago used resistance wire, while carbon fiber has been used in the seat heating designs over the past 20 years. The latest seat heater technology uses resistive ink: Tiny carbon particles are suspended in an ink material and the thin substance is printed on a surface to allow for current flow.”

Check Corp.’s Champa affirms that resistive wire is the technology that has been around the longest, followed by carbon fiber, which is very popular due to a positive temperature coefficient. His company, however, now offers products utilizing a carbon-polymer-blended substrate, or CPB. CPB seat heaters have the benefit that when they fail, they fail cold, which has considerable safety benefits.

“With much of the older technology, you always have the risk of the wires folding over onto themselves and overheating,” Champa says. “With CPB, when the carbon polymer material is formulated, it’s done so for a given power supply, like 12V. It’s regulated to provide only a certain amount of power and how the molecules expand while heating. The entire element is essentially a thermometer. OEMs are moving that way. They’ve looked for this fail safe, and that removes a huge liability.”

Pacific Restyling Products offers three types of heaters based on two engineering concepts: “The first is a look at the past. It’s a basic ‘series’-style heater that does not allow the installer to cut the material which carries the electrical current. If the ‘series’ is cut or broken in any way then the heater will cease to function,” says Koyama. The company’s version does, however, allows installers to trim within the heating pad and comes in multiple sizes to suit each application.

The second type of heater offered by the company is a “parallel”-style unit that has become the company’s most popular model; it incorporates carbon fiber yarn and a power lead made of silver that runs along the left and right sides of a heating pad to supply a grid made of the carbon fiber yearn. This system, says Koyama, “allows the installer to cut sections from within the heating pad area in order to allow for the reattachment of the seat cover to the foam core.”

“These cuts,” he adds, “only affect the direct area which is cut. Otherwise, the non-cut area of the heater pads operates as normal. Generally, the thicker the carbon fiber yarn the more current it can handle, which translates to more heat at safer levels.”

Overall, Koyama notes that the future of seat heaters will rely heavily on cutting-edge science and will be the “safest, most responsive and most intelligently designed heaters. Infiniti and BMW have been experimenting with some of these new materials and some are already being used in the aerospace industry,” he says.

SNC’s Zaichenko notes that the seat heaters his company supplies, produced in partnership with a seat heater manufacturer, rely on carbon fiber technology and come equipped with temperature control units and are prewired with a relay that allows installers to tap into low-voltage accessory circuits for a power source. And because SNC heaters can be applied in both vertical and horizontal layouts, they can be trimmed and cut to fit practically any vehicle, and can be manipulated to conform to the occupant sensors that are mandated by law to be included in new vehicles.

With these new technologies, according to our sources, come many additional opportunities for applications beyond merely cars, trucks and SUVs. Seat-heating systems now can be installed in RVs, in marine applications and in motorcycle seats, as well as in fleet vehicles.

Check Corp., for instance, supplies OEM seat heaters for Harley Davidson motorcycles and also offers aftermarket kits for older bikes or new ones without the factory seat heater option.

“The No. 1 opportunity outside of cars, trucks and SUVs would be motorcycles,” he says. “That is a very fast-growing segment of our business. From an installation standpoint, it’s very similar. In regards to the marketing, a restyler should definitely hit up their local motorcycle dealers. They’ve been untouched by restylers so it’s a new avenue and new opportunity to diversify, which really helps in these tough times.”

Pacific Restyling Products’ Koyama also notes that seat heaters can be applied in ATVs, snowmobiles, golf carts and even farming vehicles: “Seat heaters aren’t just for transportation vehicles, so use your imagination,” he says.

Installation, training and tools

While any accessory that requires a power source can be challenging, our sources all suggested that any trim or accessory shop can very quickly learn the finer points of seat heater installation. In fact, most shops already do similar work, whether that is interior work, or mobile audio or video installation.

Says Koyama, “Most would-be installers are already half qualified to install seat heaters; they just don’t realize it yet. In most cases a prospective installer either already possesses some sort of electrical experience or some form of upholstery experience. I believe it’s simply a matter of introducing them to the unknown in the equation. Once you guide them through the upholstery or electrical component to reveal the unknown they are ready to try their first job.”

Katzkin’s Leslie agrees, noting that with a reasonable dedication to performing the installation correctly, most shops are well qualified to add this lucrative profit center to their list of services.

“While installing seat heaters is one of the easiest things for a restyler to wire, it does require knowledge to be done correctly,” he says. “For instance, most seat heaters need to be installed flat and cannot be folded. If the heater is folded, a hot spot can occur, causing damage. Additionally, seat heater wiring needs to be done in a way that will not compromise the vehicle’s delicate electrical system.”

Essentially, says SNC’s Zaichenko, the process involves disconnecting the battery, unbolting the seats and disconnecting any attached wires (like the seat belt connector, power seat connections and airbag connections), removing the upholstery and installing the seat heaters. Then the heaters themselves are connected to an appropriate power source. For the inherent unforeseen challenges, SNC and the other sources in this article all provide some form of technical support, which ranges from instructional DVDs to live phone-based tech support and even onsite training in some cases.

Check Corp.’s Champa, notes that such installations have become a bit more complex since the 2007 passing of a law that requires vehicle occupant sensors, but that seat heaters still represent a great opportunity for restylers. He adds that organizations like SEMA also offer a range of training opportunities.

Think locally

Beyond formal training, restylers often have a wealth of training resources in their local area in the form of upholstery or 12V specialists in their area who have specific knowledge that they are willing to share.

“The resources are all around you. All you have to do is pick up the phone or walk over to the local shop, introduce yourself and explain what you’d like to do. In most cases people will be obliging,” says Koyama.

Zaichenko, notes that once restylers have the required knowledge, they often realize they already own the necessary tools in their shop. He suggests a restyler should have access to a wrench set for disconnecting the battery, a socket set to unbolt the seats, a hook or picks for disconnecting wire connectors under the seats and cutters to remove hog rings. Beyond that, other necessary tools include screwdrivers with bits to remove trim panels, crimping pliers, wire strippers, a volt meter, wire connectors, installation tape and a wire puller to pass wires under the vehicle carpet and through the dash.

All things considered, seat heaters represent a great opportunity for restylers: a market with room to grow, product pricing that allows great margins, and installations that are easy to learn. Factor in that most restylers already have much of the basic knowledge and tools needed for the job, and a great opportunity to add a little heat to a shop’s bottom line is apparent.

No crossed wires!

While seat heater installation is generally regarded to be a straightforward process, there are always hitches to any installation.

We asked our sources about the most common mistakes installers make, and here’s what they had to say:

“The No. 1 mistake people make when installing their first set of heaters is not reading the instructions or trying to figure it out by looking at all of the components and guessing. To avoid this problem, simply pick up the phone and call in for a bit of guidance. Most suppliers of seat heaters will be glad to spend time to help you make the correct decisions for a successful install.”

– Steven Koyama, -Pacific Restyling Products

“The most common mistakes are removing the seats without disconnecting the battery and inserting ignition keys when the seats are out. Either of those could trigger the airbag light. Additionally, people often install the heating element on top of the OPDS (Occupant Position Detection System) sensors located on top of the foam cushion. There are no unimportant steps on installation of any accessories; you have to do the job right 100% of the time.”

– Pavel Zaichenko, -Soft N’ Cushy Auto Upholstery & Accessories