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Release date: 7/2/2012

Wrapped: The Vehicle Wraps vs. Painting Debate (Originally published in NAFA FLEETSolutions July/August 2012)

Technology has changed not only what we drive, and how we drive, but even the very appearance of vehicles. Think about how difficult it is to avoid staring at a passenger bus that has been turned into a billboard on wheels. Thanks to vehicle wrapping, the sometimes painstaking effort of a customized paint job has been greatly simplified...and it isn’t just for advertising anymore. This article investigates vehicle wraps that are becoming quite popular on the public safety side of fleet. In a future issue we’ll take a look at how wraps can aid in branding a corporation that is undergoing rapid changes via mergers and acquisitions.

The next time you pass a police car (or watch as one hopefully passes you by), it may be different from the traditionally painted squad cars It may utilize a wrap. With advancements in vinyl products and leaps forward in the imaging developed for wraps, that multi-colored skin on the surface of the crosstown bus can now be black and white and in pursuit.

When NAFA Member John Croop, CAFM®, Mechanic/Assistant Fleet Manager/Deputy Sheriff for the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio had faced a problem with vehicle coloring, an idea was born. “In some states, I have been told there is a law that prohibits selling a two-tone vehicle that resembles a police vehicle,” Croop said, implying that in order to remarket, yet another paint job would be required,an extra cost necessary to bring those cars up to remarketing condition.

The solution could be vehicle wraps. “Depending on the specific agency, wrapping may be cheaper than painting. Once the vehicle is finished serving as a marked patrol car, the wrap is removed, and it is returned to one body color. This may be a benefit for resale, or for reutilization in other divisions of the police department or the city.” As far as the time required for wrapping, when done by a professional and competent contractor it should take less than a custom paint job.

Croop was so convinced that this was an idea whose time had come, he pursued it for the purposes of NAFA’s 2012 Institute & Expo in St. Louis, MO. “The idea for this presentation actually came from a meeting at last year’s I&E (in Charlotte, NC). I was speaking with a graphics company representative on the show floor. We had a conversation about the growing market for wrapping public safety vehicles. So we thought it would be good to pitch a presentation for this year’s I&E. As a member of the Public Safety Group I made that pitch and it was accepted.”

That session, Wrap vs. Paint: Identifying Your Public Safety Vehicles hosted representatives from various companies related to the topic. “I believe both Ford and Chrysler no longer offer the two-tone paint option. Both offer wraps as the alternative. GM still offers both paint and wrap options,” Croop said.

Joining Croop as the faculty for this session were Lee Calkins, OEM Specialty Vehicles with Leggett & Platt; Ken Kennedy, a Product Specialist with General Motors Corp.’s e.s.i. division; Matthew Sroka, Launch Leader for Police Programs through Ford Motor Company; and label/materials-provider Avery Dennison’s Dan Rozzo. The room was packed with members of the public safety fleet community and other attendees.

Among questions that were addressed during the session were issues regarding durability: how long will a wrap last on a vehicle that is subjected to the wear-and-tear a public safety model sometimes incurs? Is it a tough and resilient material that will last through time and various stages of weather? After all, a standard wrap often is removed once an ad campaign is changed, so the vehicles sporting those particular wraps won’t have them nearly as long as a police car might. Likewise, government agencies are required to be on the road in the worst of weather when their commercial equivalents may not. Finally, when the lifecycle has dictated resale, what will wraps do for or against the value of that car or truck?

Old Technology, New Application - “Body wraps are really just an extension of what we’ve been doing for years with decals,” said Calkins. “There isn’t a (public safety) department that doesn’t have some kind of decal going on their vehicle, whether it is just a simple badge and the word ‘police,’ ‘Dial 9-1-1,’ slogans, or whatever…we’re all doing this.” By Calkins’ estimation, switching to wraps is an evolution of pre-established regimen rather than the shock of something new.

“(Wraps aren’t) really anything new,” added Ken Kennedy, Product Specialist for General Motors Corp., “but the materials are a lot better, and the durability is obviously a lot better.”

One of the primary reasons for such an evolution is the extended lifecycle a public safety vehicle may experience. “According to recent research I did, the average police car is in service about six-and-a-half years in the United States. Your fleet lifecycle may be different, either longer or shorter, but all public vehicles are out on the road for quite awhile. It may be desirable, or even required, to change the message being put out there, which (customizable vehicle wraps) can do,” Calkins said.

Because wraps are removable, albeit through specific procedures, vehicle resaleability in the aftermarket becomes less complicated than the typical fate of two-tone painted police cars. The Ohio Highway Patrol has a strict policy banning privately owned vehicles displaying any of their insignia, old or new. The West Virginia State Police, while not having an explicit ban, highly discourages people from having insignias or styling on their vehicles that might lead others to believe they are official. The Florida Highway Patrol does have an explicit ban on anyone using their paint scheme within the State of Florida. Legalities or policies aside, the bottom-line answer to the question is that police cars are returned to original state for the same reason any upfit or altered vehicle is – the original state is simply more desirable. Repainting a car to enter the aftermarket is, however, a sometimes overlooked expense.

Wrapping Up Costs - There are many benefits to wrapping vehicles, but almost everyone involved with the I&E session felt that cost-savings wasn’t a predominant one. If quality and stability are important to the organization looking into the process, the ledger tends to show wraps as mostly a break-even alternative.

“The overall costs are somewhat lower, but to sit here and say that it is a bargain is probably a false statement,” Calkins said. “The lower cost is primarily because of the amount of time that’s necessary to do the job.”

Typically, wrapping a car is a single-day project, whereas a paint job often requires three days. Police cars are different than civilian vehicles, since the possibility of needing damage repair is much greater. “(The cost of repair of a damaged wrap) is probably a little bit higher in that you have to add another part (the reprinted wrap piece) to the repair of the car,” added Calkins.

Avery Dennison’s Dan Rozzo said that wrap suppliers can make individual panels for spot repairs available to departments, and with minimal training a body shop should be able to make a quick and seamless repair without problems. “You still need to use trained experts to make sure (the material) does go on and is a second-skin to that surface,” Rozzo explained.

According to Rozzo, while wraps can offer a stylish and very practical solution, they are not meant for every vehicle type. In specific, he showed a slide with a wrapped firetruck. While the work looked fantastic, he said that the asymmetrical, multi-paneled nature of the firetruck, and perhaps other utility vehicles, required more labor and resulted in a more expensive job. He stated that this would not be an issue with fleets that have a uniform vehicle type such as police cars.

Good Work Equals Good Results - Does a wrap last as long as paint? That depends on the wrap itself, who applies it, and how they complete the application. A cheaply-done wrap job will not outlast a quality paint job, but a well-done wrap will prove superior to a cheaply-done body shop spray job, the panel indicated.

“When you go out to a local supplier, and I’m not trying to be derogatory to those guys, but they’re in a bid situation. They’re going to go for the lowest-common-denominator,” Calkins said. “They will give you a product – unless your specifications are very detailed – that fits the bill of ‘lowest cost wins’.”

“We remove the trim wherever it is prudent to do so,” Calkins continued, explaining the procedure as he felt it should be done. “On a hood, for instance, there may be exterior washer nozzles. We remove them from the vehicle, lay down the vinyl, and replace the nozzles rather than cut around them. I’ve seen, out in the market sometimes, (they will) just lay down the vinyl, take a knife, and cut around those nozzles.

“Sometimes they do it pretty good, sometimes not,” Calkins admitted. “The chemical of the washer fluid collects in those areas which could cause (the vinyl to lift) in that area.” All edges and areas should be wrapped around, with a primer being applied to those areas; This ensures proper adhesion and conformity to areas without leaving a raw edge, which is the real culprit of most lifting rather than crashes or the elements. Common areas where wraps fail tend to be places where people most come in contact with the material. Clothing, hands, and the like might snag on unfinished contours, causing material to pull away. Complete adhesion on and around all surfaces is crucial to the durability of a quality vehicle wrap.

Second-layer overlaminate should be applied over the color coat much like a clear-coat is added over paint. “Any color underneath is protected by the overlaminate,” Kennedy said. “This helps to preserve shine and finish.”

The Wind Up and the Pitch - Townships with tight budgets might require a bit of a sales-pitch to convince them that wraps are the right choice. It requires the applier to be thorough with their work to get the best results, and cheap work could mean poor work; that is exactly the same issue that painting a vehicle might cause.

Overall cost is often the most important factor, but the key is to identify and put a value on all of the variables so one can make an intelligent decision.

The greatest benefits offered by wraps are the customizable aspects, the relatively quick speed of application, and the ability to reverse the work when it is time to resell vehicles. The session panel was in agreement that a vehicle sent out as standard black or white paint is always more preferable in the marketplace than one with specialized schemes. For states that prohibit the resale of two-tone police paint schemes, changing those colors is a legal rather than aesthetic matter; thus, it makes financial sense to go with wraps’ reversibility.

With remarketed vehicles performing so strongly throughout 2011 and into 2012, and the least-altered ones having the best sales prospects, it might make sense for more police departments and other organizations to take another look at vehicle wraps.