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Detailers, go for the gold

December 31, 2008
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Most business owners would like to have the opportunity to increase their net profits by offering more services for their customers. The challenge is finding a way to increase revenues that doesn’t involve risky capital expenditures or increasing overall costs beyond the added revenue.

Many automotive service businesses have found that although it’s not an effortless problem-free panacea, gold plating can be a valuable addition to their business.
A dealer’s market
Because of its unique nature, the business of providing automotive gold plating has been marketed primarily as a dealership aftermarket product.
Gold plating is usually performed by independent businesses or automotive aftermarket specialty shops. Dealerships routinely charge $500 or more for an optional five emblem gold package that works for the customer, since the price was built into the monthly payment.
A dealership normally uses an independent contractor or detail shop and pays a wholesale price in the range of $150.

About half the time the gold package isn’t put on the car until after the deal is struck with the customer. This flexibility along with the high margin on the gold package gives the sales personnel a fairly low cost, high value, buy-now closer.

Golden opportunity

With the equipment, training and technical support available from current vendors, the plating process is simple to master. This simplicity has allowed automotive service businesses such as quick lube, tire stores and full-service carwashes to offer automotive gold plating as a side profit center.

Some of these businesses have their own plating system and use their employees to perform the plating. Others choose to enter into agreements with plating specialists that come on the premises and provide the service and share the revenue with the business owner.
While there are a couple of versions of automotive gold plating, the most widely accepted process of gold plating chrome emblems without removing them from the vehicle involves three general steps.
  1. Remove the existing chrome from the surface to be gold plated.
  2. Activate the underlying nickel surface.
  3. Plate with 24K gold.

While there may be different approaches to performing the three basic steps, there are several functions that should be considered when providing any onsite gold plating.

Rinse water collection and disposal

After each step of the preparation and gold plating process, the emblem being plated and the common clip should be rinsed with a spray rinse bottle filled with tap water.

It is important to have an efficient method of setting up rinse water collection. The first line of contact is generally a high-quality vinyl tape that can be reused and will not leave residual adhesive on the paint.
The drain apron deposits the rinse water into a drain pan — a holding reservoir for the rinse water. An apron bar, or stainless steel grounding tray holds the apron tight.
Keeping the apron tight and flat prevents the rinse solution from dripping off the drain apron before it gets to the drain pan. The drain pan has two re-sealable plugs in the top to allow the liquid to drain inside and a spout on the end so the solution can be poured into a suitable storage container.
The rinse water contains substances that are considered hazardous and should not be discharged into the sanitary sewer.

When properly performed, the brush plating process produces a minimal amount of wastewater that can easily be disposed of utilizing the services of a hazardous waste disposal company.

Simple setup and mobility

Having the ability to quickly set up for each emblem is a key part of reducing the labor cost of onsite automotive gold plating.

Today’s systems utilize a wheeled cart configured to hold the electronics, plating handles and solutions exactly where they are required. The solution beaker tray fits snugly up against the waste drain pan to minimize solutions dripping on the ground.
The voltage, polarity, current cutoff and everything else on modern gold plating systems is automatic. When plating is complete, the anodes holding the solution soaked sleeves are dropped into the working beakers. The lids seal the beakers for storage or transport to keep the solution from drying out or spilling.
Chrome stripping

About 80 percent of automotive emblems are made of plastic. These emblems are manufactured using plastic with metal applied to the surface — copper, then nickel and finally with chrome.

The chrome removal process only affects the conductive surface of the emblem and will not harm most paint or factory surfaces.
Virtually any item that has been chrome plated will have a bright nickel finish that readily receives the 24K gold plate.
After the chrome has been completely removed, the emblem and common lead is rinsed with tap water sprayed from a pistol grip sprayer, the chrome from the solution and is rinsed down the drain apron into the wastewater drain pan.
Nickel activation

In this step, the exposed nickel surface is electrochemically activated. The emblem is given a negative charge relative to the activator solution that makes the nickel surface highly active and removes any oxides that could affect adhesion of the gold plating.

This is a quick step that only requires the technician to cover the entire surface at least once. Again, the factory paint is not affected by this step.
Rinsing after activation is the same as rinsing after the chrome stripping step.
Now is a good time to inspect the nickel surface — any remaining chrome or other defect in the nickel surface could show up in the gold plate.
Applying the 24K gold

The gold plating tool is connected to a special post-regulated power supply that delivers the precise amount of voltage required to electro-deposit the gold plating.

The emblem is charged relative to the solution using the common lead, and the output voltage of the gold handle is normally user controllable but is rarely adjusted.
For most applications, the voltage is set to five volts. The gold should be applied using a power source that provides a very pure direct current with less than 5 mv of ripple.
The actual gold is contained in the gold solution (purple liquid or gel). Brush plating gold solutions are usually proprietary formulas that are made with a complex gold salt (potassium aurocyanide), hardeners, brighteners and conductive salts that include a tiny amount of nickel and cobalt.
The resulting solution will apply seven to 10 micro-inches-per-square-inch, per minute of plating time. The gold is applied as a series of overlapping, concentric circles.
Automotive plating systems using this type of gold solution will apply two to three micro inches per pass; an emblem is typically plated with 10-15 micro inches.
The finished emblem is then rinsed-off and inspected by the technician. Although 24K gold is soft, today’s brush plating solutions produce a gold plate that is almost three times as hard as a non-hardened gold plate.