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6 steps to self-serve safeguarding

October 11, 2010
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Vandalism, illegal dumping, theft, and false damage and injury claims are just a few of the problems a self-serve owner may face at his or her site.

But with the continually evolving technology and information available today it is easier than ever for self-serve owners to prepare a proactive defense against security issues.

1. Tokens

"If you remove the (cash value) from the carwash, the crime goes away," is Grover Steele's, owner of Moonlite Car Wash, Inc. and former-president of the Western Carwash Association, philosophy.

Of the six self-serve sites he owns in Santa Clara Valley, CA, four of them have been converted to a token base, and Steele said eventually all his sites will be operating on tokens.

According to Steele, wash owners who have sites in lower socio-economic areas, in particular, should consider making the switch.

Steele's washes accept quarters, but only tokens are dispensed. This has cut back on the pilfering that was prevalent at some of his properties.

Once thieves realize that the money isn't there, they tend to move on to other targets.

2. Insurance

Choosing an insurance company and the amount of coverage is vital. Steele said it's very important to him that he has confidence in the company handling his insurance.

When people approach him with damage or injury claims he refers them to his insurance company.

He recommends having the claimant communicate with the insurance company directly because they have qualified investigators that can deal with individuals professionally and systematically.

On the other hand, Kevin Reilly, owner of Reilly's Buggy Bath, with eight locations in the Stockton and Lodi regions of California, says he prefers to deal with the individual making the claim prior to contacting his insurance company.

If the claim seems valid and the damage is minimal Reilly will negotiate the claim himself, rather than risk being dropped by his insurance company. Many companies will drop customers if too many claims are made within a certain period of time.

If, however, the claim seems suspicious or the amount of damage is sizable, Reilly passes the proceedings on to the insurer.

Your insurance company can also help you by recommending what deductible might be best for your wash and advise you on how to lower your premiums with:

  • Better lighting;
  • Proper signage: and
  • Security devices.

Each owner will have to personally evaluate the claims being made against his/her wash and use their own discretion when deciding whether or not to submit a claim.

3. Employees

For many owners, the advantage of owning a self-serve site is the cost-cutting benefit of not having many employees. However, the pitfall is that no one is onsite to monitor the security of your wash.

Reilly decided that not having any employees to supervise his carwashes could be detrimental to business. Therefore, he has 11 crew members who routinely check every wash throughout each day.

Reilly's employees are connected through portable radios and can be notified if any site requires more maintenance or cleaning. In the case of a recent act of vandalism, which left one wash very damaged, his crew had the site back up and running again in just three hours.

At a location that is known for having particularly high crime and vandalism rates Reilly stationed an employee there full-time for approximately eight hours a day. He said that having that individual there has helped lower the number of vandalism incidents.

4. Lighting

An important step to avoiding a damage claim or injury lawsuit is to shed adequate light on every inch of your site. Not only will bright lights discourage vandals and thieves, but also enable customers to clean their cars without slipping or falling.

Reilly spent close to $40,000 a few years ago on new lighting for one site and said that, although the upgrade was costly, it was well-worth the investment.

Proper lighting will help the customer to:

  • Read signs clearly
  • Avoid wet or greasy areas; and
  • Feel safer at an un-staffed establishment.

Allen Hansen, owner of two Spotfree Car Washes in Iowa, and owner of E-Visions Systems, a company specializing in video surveillance system sales and consulting said he will put as many lights at a site as he can economically afford.

At one wash site, Hansen spent about $5,000 - $6,000 in lighting, but was pleased to learn that his new system qualified his wash for a rebate of about $1,500 from the electric company.

Hansen said that wash owners should check with their utility company prior to purchasing a new lighting system to see if there is any kind of rebate or cash back for installing a certain model of lighting.

5. Surveillance equipment

One of the best ways to protect a wash from rampant vandalism, false claims and illegal dumping is to equip the site with surveillance equipment.

If the culprit notices a video camera pointed at him he might think twice about committing a crime. Signs that are visible to thieves and indicate that the wash uses surveillance devices to monitor the site are also a good deterrent.

If however, the offender either doesn't notice or doesn't seem to care that the self-serve site is monitored and commits the offense anyway, then the carwash owner has the ability to find and prosecute the individual. The surveillance footage could catch:

  1. The license plate of the vehicle belonging to the culprit, or of the vehicle that was damaged; and
  2. The face of the culprit.

Having this information will help make a case or prove that the damage to the vehicle could have been avoided.

Reilly has spent approximately $40,000 in the past two months updating his surveillance equipment at his eight locations. He invested in small cameras, about the size of a thumbnail, and installed them in his meters to catch a persistent thief.

Reilly's cameras produced a good picture of the burglar; he was detained and is currently being charged for his carwash crimes.

As the owner of a surveillance business, Hansen knows that the industry is changing and evolving rapidly. He said that he is seeing more demand for small cameras.

At his business they have cameras that can be hidden:

  • Inside of vacuum cleaners — in the dome;
  • In change machines — to get a clear face picture;
  • In money boxes; and
  • In automatic tellers.

According to Hansen, sometimes it's more beneficial to get a picture of the culprit's face rather than attempting to get the license plate. If the car is moving fast, and the area is not well-lit, there is only about a 50/50 chance that the license plate will be clearly visible, Hansen said.

6. Remote management

As more self-serve owners have begun to manage multiple sites, remote management has become an increasingly popular tool.

Remote management systems allow owners to not only monitor theft, vandalism and claims, but also check on employees, equipment and maintenance needs.

Some systems allow owners to change settings and control equipment from home, or while traveling.

This could provide a remedy for many potentially dangerous situations such as a customer getting trapped in a self-serve bay. With remote management, the owner has the ability to open the doors through a computer monitoring system.

Please look for more information on remote management systems for self-serve sites in upcoming issues of our magazine.

Safety means active awareness

Owning a self-serve carwash may seem like an easy business; owners need few employees, there's not as much maintenance as a full-service or exterior-only and a there's a potential high return. However, looks can be deceiving.

Serious self-serve owners know that managing a self-serve site means coping with a multitude of unforeseen problems. But, after recognizing what the major threats are, it's easy to modify a site and the management technique to effectively control the issues.

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