With the dizzying variety of TPMS sensors used by vehicle manufacturers, it has become very difficult for tire dealers and installers to keep up, and nearly impossible for many shops to stock the incredible number of OEM sensors that would be required to cover the market. Barry Steinberg, CEO of Direct Tire and Auto Service told me, “It's painful, it's just painful. Every car has different sensors. BMW just changed to another sensor, so they've got like four different sensors now.” This can create an enormous problem for installers, due to NHTSA regulations that in some cases can require an installer to hold a customer's car until they can acquire the proper replacement sensor, a problem that will generally be painful for both the installer and the customer alike.
In addition, TPMS sensors have a sealed battery that generally lasts for 6-8 years. With sensors now in large-scale use for six years, the first wave of battery failures is already starting to appear and an enormous number of sensors will have to be replaced in the next few years. Mr. Steinberg notes, “What we are seeing now is a lot of battery life issues. We're seeing a lot of people coming in with one or two sensors that are not broken, it's just that the batteries are gone, and the public does not like to hear that.”
This would explain why the makers of aftermarket TPMS sensors have stepped in to quite literally save the day. Aftermarket sensors are generally cheaper, easier to install and much better designed than the first generation of OEM sensors. Just that much can make the shock of having to replace sensors much easier on customers. The latest sensors to become available on the aftermarket can cover up to 90% of all vehicles using only two or three different sensors, a capability I might well have killed for when I was in the business.
There are 3 main types of replacement TPMS sensors – direct fit, programmable and pre-programmed.
Direct fit sensors are the OEM sensors that were originally installed by the manufacturer. These sensors will generally only work on cars of the same make. Sometimes, as with BMW, the sensor will not even cover all cars of the same make, but only a few models within the make. This has led to literally hundreds of different direct fit sensors out there, all of which must be either stocked directly or easily available to cover the number of different cars an installer sees every week.
Pre-programmed sensors are aftermarket sensor platforms that have multiple make and model types already preloaded onto the sensor. Because sensors communicate using radio frequencies at either 315mhz or 433mhz, at least two different sensors are generally needed to cover the vast majority of vehicles. Because of programming differences, it's more likely that a pre-programmed solution would require 3 or 4 different sensors to cover everything, which is still better than hundreds.
Programmable sensors are essentially blank sensors which can have the proper information for the year make and model of the car simply programmed in by means of a special tool. This generally requires the shop to carry no more than two sensors, one for each radio frequency, and as new vehicles and sensors come onto the market, the new programming information can simply be downloaded to the tool.
So, for my friends and readers who are still in the business, as well as consumers who want to stay up to date on what to expect from a good installer, here is a rundown of three of the best aftermarket TPMS sensor systems from Schrader, Oro-Tek and Dill Air Systems.
The best of the bunch seems to be Schrader's EZ-sensor. One of the only fully programmable sensor options on the market, Schrader's solution involves only two sensors that can cover over 85% of the vehicles now on the market, with coverage expected to soon reach 90%. The EZ-sensor also features a two-part design with a rubber snap-in valve stem that can be easily removed from the sensor and replaced, eliminating many of the design flaws that have bedeviled one-piece OEM sensors with metal valve stems.
From Dill Air Systems comes the Redi-Sensor. Redi-Sensor is a pre-programmed solution currently consisting of 2 sensors that cover 90% of Ford, GM and Chrysler vehicles. When the solution comes to full maturity, it will include a second sensor that covers European and Asian vehicles as well, but that hasn't quite happened yet. Dill's Redi-Sensor is also a one-piece design with a metal valve stem, so I'm not really a fan all around.
Oro-Tek's solution is called the IORO Multi-Vehicle Protocol, which consists of three pre-programmed sensors:
OTI-001, which covers 70% of the total vehicle market. (Application guide)
OTI-002, which covers 433mhz applications including '06-'12 BMW vehicles. (Application guide)
OTI-003, which covers most Asian imports. (Application guide)
Oro-Tek's sensors do have a metal valve stem, but in a two-piece design so that the valve stem may be removed and replaced without destroying the more expensive sensor. Oro-Tek is also kind enough to provide this handy printable TPMS checklist, which any installer should find highly useful.
For tire dealers and installers, these solutions are truly the wave of the future, and the best way to get out in front of the need to replace large numbers of aging first-generation sensors. Mr. Steinberg agrees, “That's going to be the future of sensors... The TPMS fitment chart is like an inch thick, so these will hopefully make life a bit easier for us.”
For customers, knowing that your installer is using one of these solutions means knowing that they are on top of the issue and that replacement is going to be cheaper and easier for you when it comes time.