hen it comes to cars, you can count on one thing: It sure can get confusing. And nowhere is that more true than in replacement parts, where you have remanufactured, rebuilt, reconditioned, and recycled.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has tried to make some sense out of the similar terms in common use. Title 16 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 20 (16/CFR/20), includes the Guide for the Rebuilt, Reconditioned, and Other Used Automobile Parts Industry. Here the FTC defines what's necessary for an auto part to be called rebuilt, remanufactured, or reconditioned, and says the terms generally mean the same thing. Still, "remanufactured" is the preferred term today.

is the
politically correct
name for
used parts.

"Get rid of the
Las Vegas [gambling]
approach to
car maintenance."

Life cycle
Since its last use, a remanufactured part has been "dismantled and reconstructed as necessary, all of its internal and external parts cleaned and made free from rust and corrosion, all impaired, defective or substantially worn parts restored to a sound condition or replaced with new, rebuilt, or unimpaired used parts, all missing parts replaced with new, rebuilt, or unimpaired used parts, and such rewinding or machining and other operations performed as are necessary to put the industry product in sound working condition."

A properly rebuilt part can be indistinguishable from a new part, and the FTC requires rebuilt or remanufactured parts to be labeled so they're not mistaken for new.

Performing like a new part is a key attribute of a remanufactured part, says Scott Parker, of the Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association (APRA), Fairfax, Va. And that's just a minimum. Many remanufactured parts are better than new, according to Parker.

Consider that rebuilders see many failed examples of the same part and know where the weaknesses are. When remanufacturing them, they often install upgrades to overcome those original weaknesses.

Even the term "new" may not mean what a consumer thinks it means. A replacement part may be "new," yet be a low-priced import copy built in a developing, third-world country. "New" doesn't always mean it's a vehicle manufacturer's replacement part.

If you want a Toyota part for your Toyota, you have to specify an "OEM" part, for original equipment manufacturer. Much controversy exists in the collision repair industry right now over the use of non-manufacturer body repair parts—so-called crash parts—that do not match the original parts in fit, finish, corrosion resistance, or function. The same problems occur with mechanical and electrical parts used for conventional repairs.

Franchised auto dealers don't have to use a manufacturer's parts when making repairs, except under warranty. For example, General Motors Corps.' engines come from the factory with AC spark plugs. A dealer can install Champion, Bosch, or Denso plugs if it can get a better deal on them. While this shouldn't be new information for savvy consumers, it bears repeating in any discussion of auto parts.

Under your new car warranty, you can be getting remanufactured parts from the auto maker, Parker points out. When you read the fine print in your car's warranty statement, notice that the entity paying the bill controls the transaction.

What goes around
Recycled parts? That's the politically correct name for used parts—what used to be called "junkyard" parts. Remanufacturers, though, are recyclers too. In the view of the industry, they are the original recyclers, having been at it before recycling became fashionable. It just makes good business sense when done right.

Remanufacturing as an environment-friendly concept isn't equally important to everyone, but it can't be ignored. The auto parts industry has been an unheralded leader in remanufacturing for many years.

More and more remanufacturers offer nationwide warranties on their parts, says APRA's Parker. If your employment subjects you to frequent relocation, that can be important reassurance.

Some auto parts have been remanufactured for a long time: alternators, starter motors, wiper motors, engines, transmissions, carburetors. Relined brake shoes, a specialized form of remanufacturing for many years, reuse the complex metal fabrication that holds the brake lining.

As cars have changed, additional parts have entered the remanufacturing process: electronic control modules, airflow meters, emission air pumps, power-steering assemblies, suspension struts. As parts have become more complex, the economics of rebuilding over replacing with new parts has changed.

It's not just independent repair shops that offer customers the option of remanufactured parts. Most car manufacturers offer their dealers remanufactured parts, by approving specific remanufacturers and allowing them to use the car maker's logo on some parts.

Selecting a remanufactured part by name brand isn't easy for a consumer. A good guide, according to Parker of APRA, is trade association membership. That's not as self-serving as it might appear. With about 20,000 auto parts rebuilders in the United States, only about 2,000 belong to APRA.

"Those companies that belong to an association are the ones who have been in business the longest, are more long-term oriented, and receive the best training available in the industry. The best ones belong to the trade association, in any business line," says Parker. Information on members is available on the APRA Web site.

Charlie Schwartz, retired chief executive of Champion Parts, a major national remanufacturer, says consumers can improve their parts choices by adopting a better auto repair philosophy. "People need to get rid of the Las Vegas [gambling] approach to car maintenance. When you have repairs far from home after a breakdown, you don't have many choices to get you back on the road."

Schwartz raises another remanufactured parts advantage—simple availability. With fewer standardized parts fitting different models, dealers are stretched to stock what's needed for every repair. Parts for new cars, still under warranty, become a priority when shelf space is tight. So, Schwartz says, besides being a better value, a remanufactured part may be available while a new part may have to be ordered.

     Replacement parts
     can be
     and recycled.

A new part
is not always
a vehicle
replacement part.
Price advantage
How much can you save? A rebuilt part normally costs 50% to 75% of the cost of a comparable new one, and often carries the same warranty, according to APRA.

It's a giant industry, keeping America's vehicles rolling. The average age of cars now is about 10 years, Parker says. Without rebuilders turning old parts back into usable ones, many cars would be off the road.

Make your decision about what kind of parts to specify for car repairs based on value. Says Parker, "You don't want to save money, without getting value."

Columnist John Fobian is an automotive engineer and writer.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.