The Mistakes You Can Make In Choosing New In-Bay Automatic Car Wash Equipment

Photo of Jim Coleman Water Wizard 1.0

Photo of Jim Coleman Water Wizard 1.0

Yesterday I talked to a car wash owner in Arkansas. His name was John and he was referred to me by a car wash equipment distributor rep for equipment I am entertaining as my possible new vendor to upgrade my equipment to. I will only be upgrading the automatic in-bay equipment at my wash which is now over 8 years old. I requested that he find someone in the United States who was in the same situation that I am in. A car wash owner who previously had my equipment and bought from his company, (the equipment I am interested in upgrading to). It was an interesting phone call right from the start. We both started in the business around the same time. John in late 2003, myself in August 2004. We both bought two in-bay automatics from a company out of Texas. One thing he told me that was somewhat amazing was that his previous distributor recommended that he did not need dryers. He realized this was a big mistake. I knew it was a big mistake. I never asked him why he did not add stand-alone dryers later (maybe he did and didn’t tell me). I felt  his pain and how adversely this effected his business over the years. One bad recommendation from an equipment distributor that you have to live with for years. While most equipment distributors have your best interests in mind, you still need to do your homework. We also talked about our experiences with the manufacturer I am still living with and he departed from. My main concerns in upgrading are as follows:

1. Cleaning Ability
2. Reliability
3. Drying capability /wax application
4. Speed
5. Water usage/chemical usage

Cleaning ability is the #1 factor I will be considering when I make my final decision in upgrading. In touchless car washing this becomes a major issue because cleaning becomes much more difficult, especially for customers who might only wash their cars a few times a year. This is also the reason that I am considering moving my business model from touchless car washing to soft touch friction washing. For touchless car washing to be effective it requires, correct chemistry and chemical coverage, programmable recipes that include both high and low PH presoak applications, and proper water pressure and impingement.  Even with all these features, non-friction car washes will have trouble removing some road films and other dirt from paint surfaces. We both made the mistake of buying machines that offered only a single selection( either high or  low) pass of presoak. high PH presoaks are more effective on some types of road film and low PH is more effective on others. That is why having both gives you a better result. Neither John nor I knew this back when we got started.

We aslo talked about the reliability of our equipment. I often think that this business would be perfect if the equipment was more reliable and I could control the weather. The reality is that the equipment John and I originally bought was great in many areas but reliability was not one of them and the weather was out of our control. After years of repairs, you get to know your equipment… intimately! You know the design flaws and the engineering gaffs. You bitch and moan about where they put things and how hard they are to work on. You realize that many of these car wash manufacturers evolved over the years from mom and pop shops who owned self serve car washes back in the 60’s and 70’s and who started building machines on their own with little to no engineering help. When it is time to upgrade, you start looking at the engineering closer and see how much effort will go into changing hoses or blower motors or drive motors. You will look at the PLC’s, electronic controllers, and all the automation technology. You will call many, many  references who bought the equipment you are considering and ask them about reliability just like I called John. In my opinion, the reality is that only a few of the manufacturer’s in this space have truly engineered this equipment in a real professional way.

You can see that drying capability is third on my list and John’s distributor said he didn’t need to have drying. I have it third on my list because one of the biggest complaints I get at my car wash is related to drying problems. My current equipment has three 10 HP motors and a middle oscillating nozzle and still only dries about 90% of the car. While mmost will agree that 100% drying is unattainable, there are systems for both on-board and stand-alone drying that will do better than others. Also, the drying agent or wax you use will be a huge factor in your ability to effectively dry a vehicle. This brings up another mistake I made when choosing equipment. Low pressure application of Rain X or Rain X type products give you the ability to upsell customer to these add value menu items. I learned very quickly when I was approached by a chemical rep and tried to create a car wash recipe that would allow me to apply one of these products in a low pressure setting. No good, my equipment could only apply waxes or drying agents through a high pressure process ruling many of these chemicals out. Now, because of equipment limitations, no upsell opportunities and no special low pressure applications to improve drying.

I argue with a local car wash distributor slaes rep often about the perceived value of a longer wash with my customers. My top wash takes over 9 minutes to complete. He can program his wash to complete all the same passes on the equipment he is proposing to around 5 minutes. He says customers want to get in and get out, while I argue that they think they are getting more by the longer wash cycle. He argues that I could program his wash to take longer if I wanted. This is a good argument. The reality is that if I were to effectively clean a car in 5 minutes with all the bells and whistles it would have a huge positive effect on my bottom line. The real advantage to this would be on those 20 days a year after a warm-up and a previous snow fall when I wash as many cars in a day as the equipment can handle. In effect, I could almost double my through put on these days and possibly improve my revenue for the year by as much as $25k. This is hard to ignore when you are making car wash equipment decisions.

When I called John, originally my main focus was on seeing if I could justify the purchase of new equipment based on water savings and chemical usage alone. It wasn’t until about three years in that I realized what a water hog and chemical hog my current equipment was. I started doing water usage research and realized that I my one location was using around 2 million gallons of water each year (including self serve bays). I learned that on my top wash package my equipment used roughly 125 gallons of water. This was killing my bottom line especially after I learned that I had water and sewer rates that were among the highest in the country. I eventually had to install a $55k water reclaim system and with the fresh water that is still required to put out a good product, I still experience $2k plus water/sewage bills each month. The equipment that John upgraded to and that I am looking at publishes proof sources that their equipment consumes just over 5o gallons of water on their top wash package in effect lowering my water and sewer consumption by more than 50%. This and the ability to apply chemicals much quicker make savings in these two areas a more attractive option when choosing in-bay car wash equipment. John, could not justify much in water or chemical savings so I need to do more research in this area. It could be that he is doing much more in his self-serve bays but even then you would think that he would see some savings if their proof sources were accurate.

Now, with all this said , it might seem as though I made one terrible mistake when I bought my first equipment package. The reality is that many of the features and benefits of the equipment I bought far exceeded attributes offered by less formidable competitors. When I reflect back to why I chose this equipment over many of the other offerings out there it was based more on my distributors experience in building and running successful car washes. Even with some of the limitations and excesses of the equipment he sold me, the reality is that I have a successful car wash with a loyal customer base. Just saying!


Main add value’s from this blog:

Some of the features and benefits you should look for when purchasing or ordering new car wash equipment.

Scott Glover is the author of Car Wash Business 101, a book written for people who are interested in getting into the car wash business. He has also built two self serve car washes with in-bay automatics, and bought a third wash.

Photo of PDQ Laserwash 360

Photo of PDQ Laserwash 360


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