A Guide to: Body Protection
BODY PROTECTION BUYER’S GUIDE
When push comes to shove on the jobsite, it pays to only settle for the best guards & bumpers
Bruce W. Smith & Larry D. Walton
When our pickups and SUVs are used day in and day out for work and weekend recreation, dents and dings are bound to happen. All accidental encounters with some object moving slower than our vehicle, of course, but they’re still going to happen.
But there’s a way to limit or even eliminate body damage: body protection.
We’re not talking about body armor of the Kevlar-stop-the-bullets-type protection for the driver. We’re talking about protecting your vehicle’s body. The automotive aftermarket is filled with vehicle body “armor” of one type or another. It ranges from heavy duty bumpers and under-belly skid plates to side nerf bars to diamond-plate body panels.
All of these products are designed for one thing: to keep our SUVs, pickups and off-road vehicles from looking so trashed.
The key is getting the best value for your dollar – and knowing which protective parts are needed most.
QUALITY OF MATERIAL
When you begin shopping for vehicle body protection, skip right past the Wal-Marts, Sears, and other general vehicle purpose parts outlets because they tend to carry products designed more for shine than function.
It’s better to turn you search immediately toward the off-road shops and specialty manufactures who concentrate on fabricating tough, no-nonsense products just for such purposes.
Also shy away from so-called “universal-fit” items; generic fit-all products may get the basic job done, but a top-of-the-line application-specific product will excel at all levels from installation to the hard knocks in the woods.
And don’t be afraid to come right out and ask their sales people if the accessory you are lookng at will hold up to sliding over rocks and banging into trees, or being utilized as a vehicle jacking point.
Strength in the field comes from solid design and engineering as well as the type of material used to make such items. For example, bumpers and “nerf” bars/side steps made with stut material is important; 1/8-inch tubing is better than 1/16-inch, ¼-inch steel plate stronger than 3/16-inch.
So read the product description closely before buying to learn what material and what thickness is used for a particular accessory.
“A good manufacturer will use a combination of materials to provide strength where it’s needed and to keep its products affordable,” says Adam Wiegmann, the owner of 4X Innovations (http://4xinnovations.com/pages/custom.htm) in Platteville, Wisconsin..
“We use 1/8-inch-thick DOM (drawn over mandrel) tubing in places that need strength, because it’s manufactured from stronger steel. Hot-rolled electric weld (HREW) tubing is about half the price, but it’s not as strong. We use the HREW in areas where we only need support for the DOM. This way, we can provide a strong and affordable product.
BUMPER BUYING TIPS
Vehicle body protection experts advise pickup and SUV owners to replace OEM (original equipment manufacturer) bumpers, which are made from light-gauge steel, with a true “off-road” bumper that’s designed to take a hard lick without damage.
“A heavy-duty bumper on both the back and the front of your vehicle won’t become damaged like a standard bumper will,” explains Paul Brown of Alabama off-road retailer Southern Offroad (www.southernoffroad.com).
“For instance, if the approach or the departure angle to a bank is very steep, a heavy-duty front bumper will protect the underside of your vehicle, and a quality rear bumper will protect the tailgate and the corners. A factory bumper doesn’t offer that kind of protection.”
Brown also advises choosing a front or a rear bumper that will accommodate a winch, such as those offered by Road Armor.
However, when you install a heavy-duty winch and bumper, Brown recommends putting a leveling kit on your truck to compensate for that extra weight on the front of your vehicle.
“When you’re buying an after-market bumper, make sure it has all the tabs and brackets you’ll need for turn signals, lights, and off-road accessories,” says Wiegmann. “Check to make sure the new bumper will reuse the stock mounting locations, which makes mounting the bumper much easier than drilling new holes.”
When choosing an after-market bumper, look for one that is designed to work with the factory occupant protection (crash) systems. A prime example of such engineering is the winch-ready ARB USA (www.arbusa.com) full-size “bull bar” for man later-model full-size pickups, and all Toyota SUVs and pickups.
ARB Bull Bars not only have provisions for a winch, factory fog lights, turn signals, CB antennas, and auxiliary driving lights, they also incorporate a special crumple zone in the event of a major front-end collision.
The special ARB bumper mounting brackets are designed with a wave pattern so in a head-on collision they crumple at a rate consistent with what the factory bumper would absorb. These bumpers, which are available for Ford, Dodge, GM and Nissan, also work seamlessly with the Toyota air bag system
A good heavy-duty bumper also should provide sufficient airflow to aid the engine’s cooling system. If the vehicle comes equipped with an air bag, check to learn the bumper’s design compatibility with the vehicle’s air-bag system.
If you plan to add a winch, the bumper’s engineering must accommodate the extra strain created when winching and have the proper mounting configuration to handle your winch.
STEP-UP TO NERFS
Protecting the lower rocker panels (and door bottoms on the newer vehicles) is a big concern for pickup and SUV owners because that’s one of the easiest areas to damage—and the most expensive to repair.
Running boards, tubular steps, nerf bars and “rock sliders” offer different levels of protection – bt onl f they are desined corctly. Most vehicle manufacturer’s factory supplied add-ons are light-duty and offer little in the way of real off-pavement body protection and they are not worth the investment.
One-piece, wheel-to-wheel “rock sliders” are your best buy because they support the entirety of the rocker panel to prevent damage and the vehicle can take an obstacle amidships without damage. Good rocker protectors are made from heavy-duty steel, typically snug-up tightly to the rocker panel where they take the hit instead of the body.
Nerf bars, which sit up to an inch or more away from the vehicle’s lower bodywork provide slightly less body protection, but they have the added benefit of being a step if needed. Look for those made from heavy tube and with welded on steps instead of tubes that have been flattened and made into a step.
One company that does a very good job integrating off-road strength in step/nerf bars with convenience of use and installation is Houston, Texas-based N-Fab (www.n-fab.com). Their Nerf-Steps have a 445-pound weight rating—the highest in the industry.
Bumpers and side protection are the most critical for the average sportsman’s vehicle. But those who plan to go off-pavement a lot might consider additional guards to protect the tailgate, corners, taillights, grille, and even the differentials, transmission, engine oil pan and transfer case.
When choosing a grille guard, make sure it allows the use of factory tow hooks or comes with built-in tow hooks.
If your vehicle is going to encounter the occasional big rock, a differential guard (a plate- or a cage-type device over the differential cover) is highly recommended. The cost if usually costs $45-$150. (To view a video of an off-road trip from the differential’s point-of-view, visit www.arbusa.com and click “Differential Cover.”)
“The differential is the lowest point-of-contact on your vehicle and a hard hit on a rock can dent or puncture the differential cover, causing lubricant inside the differential to leak out.
With no oil, the gears will burn out, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to repair,” says ARB’s Jim Jackson.
Also consider adding fender flares to protect the vehicle’s body from sand, rocks, small limbs and other debris flung up by the tires.
Aftermarket flares are easy to install and attach directly to the edge of the fender well and body. It’s far better to let a plastic flare take the abuse than the bodywork.
Regardless of the type of body protection you choose, the parts need have a durable finish. Some manufacturers offer powder-coated and chrome-plating that is coated with several layers of clear coat for UV protection.
Warn Industry’s (www.Warn.com) Andy Lilienthal says, “Powder coating is common in the off-road industry because it’s one of the most-durable finishes available. Powder-coat is baked-on, providing a harder finish than a wet-painted surface. All our bumpers are powder-coated from the factory.”
Wiegmann has a different take saying, “I don’t recommend powder coating nerf bars and rock sliders because you can’t just touch-up a scratch if the part is powder-coated. You have to recoat the entire part.
“My favorite coating is called POR-15 (www.por15.com), a special rust-preventative coating. It has the durability of a powder coat, but it’s a roll-on paint that you can touch-up. Most off-road shops can order it in for you, or you can order it directly from the company’s website.
Greg Grote, engineering manager at Luverne Truck Equipment (www.luvernetruck.com) in Brandon, South Dakota, says for greatest rust-resistance to look for a product that’s either stainless steel or has an e-coating, a rust inhibitor, that’s then powder-coated for UV protection.
“We use a polyethylene copolymer-based thermoplastic coating in our XX product line. We spray thermoplastic powder over heated steel where the powder melts into a thick protective coating and gets into some places where a liquid paint or powder coat can’t.”
Whether the parts is stainless steel, powder-coated, plastic-coated, or painted, the key factor to vehicle body protection should always be function over looks. That’s because when push comes to shove you want the bumper, bars, and plates to take the hit—not your vehicle.
Most people never give the underside of their pickup or SUV a second thought until they hear something on the road or trail whack it. But there’s a lot of items underneath or vehicle that need protection, especially when you drive off-pavement.
That’s where skid plates offer protection to your vehicle’s relatively-vulnerable underbelly. Skid plates protect the oil pan, the transmission and the transfer-case.
Factory-supplied skid plates provide a decent level of protection—but they are not as good as the better-quality after-market products, which are generally thicker, heavier and often made of 1/4-inch-thick steel.
A skid plate also keeps or vehicle protected from another bad element: thieves.
Stealing catalytic converters as become a bi problem as the exhaust canisters contains, which small amounts of precious metals, sell for as much as $200 each. Having skid plates in place makes such thefts a little more difficult. – BWS
In many areas of the country the availability of brick-and-mortar stores that specialize in aftermarket parts and accessories for 4×4 pickups and SUVs are in short supply—at least those carrying the type of products pickup and SUV owners require.
If that’s the case where you live, let your fingers do the shopping; there are dozens of well-stocked specialty E-tailers out there who carry a wide variety of trail-rated products. Price shop between them, read their warranty, return, privacy and shipping policies—and make sure they have an legit physical address and a secure web site. (Avoid e-tailers that only have P.O. boxes!)
Once you’re satisfied all is well, purchase your items only from e-tailers who offer secured payment systems through companies such as PayPal or VeriSign. We’ve listed 10 great one-stop shops to get you started in the right direction. — LW