Automotive Electrician

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Automotive electricians install, test, and maintain the electrical and electronic systems in vehicles.

They mainly work with low-voltage systems, which require a high level of reliability due to the work’s degree of high risk.

In terms of employment, vehicle manufacturers usually employ them.

But they can also be maintenance technicians for dealerships and fleet operators for other businesses.

Below, you’ll find out more about what it entails to become an automotive electrician.

What Automotive Electricians Deal with in Modern Vehicles

Most vehicles people use have simple electrical systems, and a regular mechanic can maintain and troubleshoot them easily.

In addition, manufacturers install advanced electronic systems, even standard ones, in trucks and cars.

Such systems include Bluetooth phone connections, GPS systems, and communication systems, such as GM’s OnStar.

Commonly, automotive electricians handle such systems as:

  • Supplemental restraint systems (airbags)
  • Electronic fuel injection and transmissions
  • Electronic ignition
  • Anti-theft systems
  • Anti-lock braking
  • Heating and air conditioning
  • Lighting and vehicle instrumentation

Usually, automotive electricians deal with a maximum of two types of voltages, 12 and 24 volts.

Vehicles that go beyond 12 volts are larger ones like buses or trucks.

The Unique Challenges of Vehicle Wiring

Mitigating the Impact of Heat and Abrasion

The two major problems arising in vehicle wiring systems are (1) heat and (2) vibration.

It can be challenging to install a reliable electrical system in a vehicle that will be bouncing over potholes, driving in extreme weather, and through dust.

To cope with this issue, automotive electricians use heavily insulated wire.

They also work with stranded instead of solid-core wiring because it’s less brittle.

Electricians learn how to route wire harnesses in spaces where they would be exposed to extreme temperatures or chafes.

They also use cable holders to create slack in wires so there is some give when the vehicle bounces on the road.

Standard and Specialized Tools

Automotive electricians often spend time making holes in metal panels to route wire bundles, so they frequently use grinders and drills.

To access electrical systems, they also need to disassemble vehicle parts, so they frequently use wrenches, drivers, and other tools.

Also, they use extremely advanced and specialized test equipment for particular makes of vehicles.

Electric Cars

With electric-drive cars gaining popularity, automotive electricians turned back to mechanical systems as well.

In these vehicles, the electric motors are connected directly to the braking systems and drive trains.

This brings up considerable complexity and more than 250 volts of electricity.

Such vehicles require working with major structural members and heavy-duty wiring.

Electrical Schematics

The tasks of automotive electricians are not all hands-on though.

Since vehicle wiring is both hidden and intricate, they should read and understand wiring schematics.

This will show them where to look in the vehicle for specific systems and wires.

Electric Transit Systems

Electrified streetcars and trolleys use a specialized version of transportation wiring.

Some vehicle systems operate at high voltage, around 600 volts in a direct current system.

The electricity comes either from the overhead wire grid stretching through the service area or via rails in the street.

Because of this, they often need additional education and certification to be allowed to service such systems

Federal Regulations

Some aspects of vehicle operation, such as lighting, are regulated by state and federal laws.

They have to ensure that vehicles comply with all the necessary laws regarding:

  • Emissions systems probe and sensor wiring
  • Internal and external lighting and visibility
  • Braking system testing and function

Becoming an Automotive Electrician

Aspiring automotive electricians can start learning by working first as mechanics to develop the required expertise in electrical systems.

Later, once they’re apt in electrical wiring, they can move toward this area of specialization—automotive electrician.

A career as an automotive electrician has better job security and a higher pay rate than a general mechanic.

Standard Apprenticeship and Licensing

Auto dealers, manufacturers, and large transit systems employers hire candidates who work through an electrician apprenticeship.

You can find them through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC).

During the apprenticeship, you’ll work under the direct supervision of licensed electricians, receiving extensive on-the-job training.

Upon completion, you will need state- or local-level licensing to move up from apprentice to journeyman and, later on, master.

Trade Schools and Community Colleges

Aside from apprenticeship, you can enter the trade through approved post-secondary programs from trade schools and community colleges.

These schools hold a variety of automotive technician programs that teach you the needed fundamental skills and knowledge.

Some even offer specialized certifications, particularly for automotive electrical systems.

OSHA Certification

Working with electrical transit systems, you often have to work overhead like an electrical lineman.

And so, personal and work safety becomes a major concern.

To ensure you’re working safely, you need to earn the 10-hour Transmission and Distribution Certification from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Commercial Driver’s License

Working with vehicles, you’ll most likely have to drive these for work purposes.

So employers especially require those working with buses or big rigs to obtain a Class B or better commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Potential Salary of Automotive Electricians

Automotive electricians’ salaries can range widely depending on the employer and the systems they work on.

The following listings show the pay rates from the job ads of August 2016:

  • Emergency Medical System electrical installer in Houston with Frazer EMS – $12/hour
  • New Jersey Transit Electrician – $20.98 – $26.23/hour
  • Bay Area Rapid Transit electrician in San Francisco – $30.76/hour
  • Electrician with Emergency Vehicle Outfitters in California – $18/hour

With the high degree of reliance of modern vehicles on electrical systems, this career will remain a significant part of the transportation sector.

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