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Time to tune up your tunnel

March 08, 2011
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When it comes to carwash maintenance, there’s no time like the present to tune up your tunnel. The conveyor carwash needs to be constantly evaluated and adjusted, re-evaluated and re-adjusted, and also updated.

According to Marcus McLaughlin of Belanger, Inc., tuning up the tunnel allows the operator to stay on top of washing trends and improve wash quality.

“Whether operators are doing a full-out tunnel reload or simply giving their washes a refresh with an operational and/or image facelift,” he said, “they’ve got an emerging opportunity to recharge their businesses this year – growing stronger throughout 2011 and beyond. It’s going to be a welcome change from the last few years.”

Do this first
With a conveyorized carwash, the operator should concentrate his evaluation on the actual conveyor first, McLaughlin said. “A smooth-running tunnel starts with a smooth-running conveyor,” he explained.

“Although it’s tempting to overlook the conveyor ‘as long as it’s working,’ operators should be diligent about inspecting and maintaining the backbone of the wash. If the conveyor requires greasing, they should follow a regular schedule of lubricating every grease point.”

Next, McLaughlin suggested checking the chain. “Every operator knows that chains stretch over time, but it’s easy to wait until extra slack in the chain becomes an issue before addressing it,” he explained. “This slack not only accelerates chain wear and increases the noise of operation, it can potentially cause the chain to skip sprocket teeth, wearing the sprocket and creating a ‘herky jerky’ uneven conveyance of vehicles.”

The take-up and roller-up cartridges should use a quick-pin release design, McLaughlin said, allowing easy removal so maintenance can be done at a workbench, instead of in the pit.

“Dollies should feature a fully re-buildable roller design, allowing easy and cost effective maintenance as an alternative to dolly replacement,” McLaughlin said. “And the chain sprockets should use matched geometry, precisely engaging chain links for positive action and minimum wear on the chain and sprocket teeth.”

Of course, McLaughlin added, if a conveyor is hydraulic, the operator should check the hydraulic lines for leaks, and monitor the level and quality of the hydraulic fluid in the system. “Associated pieces should also be inspected for proper operation,” he continued. “Does the correlator work as it should? Do the rollers move freely to guide the vehicle smoothly onto the conveyor, the first time, every time?”

What’s next to check
Everything, and we mean everything, in the tunnel should be inspected regularly. Steve Gaudreau, author of “Creating Exceptional Managers in the Car Wash Industry,” advised operators to continuously check chemicals and nozzles. For better control of the chemistry in your wash, he suggested using a hydro-flex system.

“In simple terms,” Gaudreau said, “a hydro-flex mixes the chemicals (soap, foam, color, and even scent) in the back room before it is applied. Although there can be some savings in chemical costs (five to 10 percent), the big value is that the chain speed can be run more quickly, which can increase the car count in busy hours without adversely affecting the quality.”

Dan Beaupied of PECO Carwash Systems said some easy air adjustments can give a better show on the vehicle while using less chemicals. “I have also installed triple foam tubes overhead like a rain bar with the product coming down from above,” Beaupied said. “Using three tubes instead of six, we get 100 percent of the show with 50 percent of the product used; plus it costs less to plumb and is easier to rinse.”

McLaughlin suggested checking the cloth for dirt or worn/frayed areas, as these conditions can affect the cleaning performance and make the equipment work harder than it needs to. And, he said to check the lights and signs to make sure they’re in working order, “both to confirm applications for the operator, and to effectively market extra services to the customers.”

Save energy, time, money
Fortunately, tunnels are modular in design — so operators can cost-effectively replace equipment one piece at a time, McLaughlin said. “For example, a tired, underperforming set of wraps can be replaced with a modern design that follows the car, allowing the operator to run higher line speeds without sacrificing wash quality. The best designs quickly ‘fire’ across the back of the car, overlapping to eliminate the dirty ‘skunk stripe’ other wraps can miss.”

Gaudreau said capacitators can reduce demand charges and kilowatt usage, and thus reduce energy costs. “Here, the savings can be substantial, depending upon the utility costs,” he said.

There’s also no debate that electric drive is more energy efficient, since it puts electricity straight to use, said McLaughlin who added that there’s no energy “lost in translation” by converting electrical current into hydraulic power.

“What’s more, with an all-electric tunnel, the operator can stock one electrical motor and gearbox in inventory as a spare for any side wheel in the tunnel,” McLaughlin explained. “Electric-drive equipment can also improve business efficiencies, because it allows much greater and more granular control over the operation of the tunnel.”

With electric drive and the right controller, you can also “integrate” control of the entire tunnel and every component in unison, McLaughlin said. “This gives the operator ‘one button’ control over the entire wash line, making it easy to quickly respond to changing business or weather conditions.”

Another way to save energy is by using close-cell foam wash media like Neo-Tex™.

“The foam provides the soft touch necessary for friction washing, but does not retain water,” McLaughlin said. “This means rotating foam brushes stay lightweight and free-moving, and can be powered by smaller, more efficient motors while providing consistent performance and predictable cleaning action, cycle after cycle.”

What does the future hold?
As for the future, Gaudreau believes there will be gradual and incremental growth of new conveyors because some markets have been over-built and financing is still difficult to obtain. “Although there was a short term loosening on communities restricting the building of carwashes, that scenario has already started to change,” he stated.

Beaupied predicts various belt configurations and plastic chain and roller components will be seen more in the coming year.

As for McLaughlin, he said that 2011 is poised to be the best year in recent memory for many businesses and said operators will remain focused on adding revenue-producing equipment which offers a rapid return on investment. He said to look for more items like automatic tire shiners, wheel cleaners, arches and other chemical application equipment, automated vehicle prep systems (which can also reduce labor expenses), improved drying systems that allow for tiered “menu” drying options, and much more.

Operators, he added, “will also have an opportunity to move toward lower maintenance designs, and/or make the transition to electric drive if it supports their business model and management style.”

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