Automotive Electrician

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Automotive electricians handle installation, testing, and maintenance of the electrical and electronic systems in vehicles.

They can be employed in the manufacturing of cars, buses, trucks, trolleys, and trains, or as maintenance technicians at dealerships.

They can also work as fleet operators of these kinds of vehicles.

They typically handle low-voltage systems, but those often require a high level of reliability and should operate in hostile conditions.

Automotive electricians are usually hired by vehicle manufacturers or large-scale vehicle fleet operators, such as transit systems or truck companies.

They can also work in car dealerships as specialists who know the electrical systems from A to Z in specific car makes that they maintain and sell.

Wiring Goes Everywhere In Modern Vehicles

Most vehicles that everybody drives have simple enough electrical systems and a regular mechanic can maintain and troubleshoot them.

Now, there are also advanced electronic systems, even standard ones, in trucks and cars from many makers.

Such systems include Bluetooth phone connections, GPS systems, 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

The two major problems arising in vehicle wiring systems are usually heat and vibration.

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

Mitigating the Impact of Heat and Abrasion

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 chafe.

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

Standard and Not-So-Standard 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.

The test equipment they use is typically extremely advanced and specialized for particular makes of vehicles.

Electric Cars

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

In those types of vehicles, the electric motors are connected directly to the braking systems and drive train.

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 electricians are not all hands-on though.

Since vehicle wiring is both hidden and intricate, auto electricians should read and understand wiring schematics, which 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.

Electricians servicing these systems need additional education and certification because they often have to work overhead like an electrical lineman.

Federal Regulations

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

Auto electricians 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 or Transportation Electrician

Automotive electricians can learn their skills working individually, working as mechanics and eventually developing the required expertise in electrical systems.

Later, mechanics who are apt in electrical wiring can move to the electrician specialty.

These jobs are higher-paying and have better job security than general mechanics.

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.

For such positions, you will need a state licensing when you move up from the apprentice to journeyman and master status over a few years.

During this time, you will work under supervision and receive extensive on-the-job training.

Trade Schools and Community Colleges

Another way to enter the transportation electrical field is through trade schools.

Community colleges hold a variety of automotive technician programs.

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

OSHA Certification (as needed)

Those who are looking into positions with transit systems with overhead distribution to streetcars and trolley-buses need to obtain the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) 10-hour Transmission and Distribution certification.

This certification is usually required over electrical linemen.

However, the same qualifications apply to it since the maintenance of trolley grids involves overhead wires.

These positions may also require additional local or state certifications.

Commercial Driver’s License

Employers hiring electricians to work on buses or big rigs usually prefer candidates with a Class B or better CDL (Commercial Driver’s License).

Automotive and Transportation Electrician Salaries

The salary of automotive technicians can range widely depending on the employer as well as the systems they work on.

Electricians employed by transit maintenance companies or high-end manufacturers can make a decent living.

The following listings show the pay rates from the job ads of August 2016, which are listed only as an example:

  • 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.

The automotive electrical field is expected to remain a significant part of the transportation sector.

The reason for that is that the degree to which modern vehicles rely on electrical systems will continue to increase.

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