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In-bay Automatic

Water, water everywhere

October 11, 2010
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We were asked to install a new N/S brush rollover for a car rental company last March. The only automatic in bay washes I had any experience with before was touchless so this installation had a learning curve included. I had absolutely no experience with washing rental cars, another learning curve.

N/S had sold the rental company the roll over but not any support equipment so I thought I had an “in” for the water softener and water boiler. Looking forward to a nice sell, I contacted the owner and proceeded with my sales pitch.

We were the ones installing the wash and we could sell him all the peripherals for a complete carwash. The first thing he asked was why he needed a water heater. He didn’t have one now and the new wash equipment was supposed to be better.

Come to find out that now they had no heater, no softener, no brushes, only a portable washer and lots of time. They would wash with cold water, high pressure with some soap injected in it and if the car didn’t look clean they would just do it over again. With the new automatic it would just take less man power. Man power is at a premium in Wyoming nowadays.

What it takes
I gave him my best sales pitch anyway: The basic needs for a good clean car I’d read too long ago to remember where. It takes four things to wash a car:

  • Water, preferably soft water (I have read about a waterless cleaner now);
  • Motion: Cloth, brush, whatever, and water pressure in the case of touchless;
  • Soap; and
  • Heat.

I explained that if you have less of one of those items then you have to have more of another in order to get a clean car.

Not a typical sale
I didn’t convince him on the water heater. He had always washed with cold water, now he’ll have brushes, rental cars don’t normally get too dirty, boilers are expensive, natural gas is even more expensive and if need be they can wash the car twice.

Heck, he convinced me. I should be in the car rental business.

I guess their philosophy will work when you’re washing all your own cars and they don’t have to be totally clean and the only person one has to please is yourself.

I did sell him on the use of a water softener though later he changed his mind because someone else had a lower price. Oh well, some days you suck up lemonade, some days you just suck.

So I jacked up the soap concentration and surprisingly the wash does a pretty good job even with cold water.

A whole new world
Now, about the learning curve. I learned that washing rental cars is different than washing other people’s cars for profit.. I learned you can get cars reasonably clean using cold water.

I always knew that soft water made a big difference in the quality of washing but I had no idea that it could make up for the lack of heated water. Of course this wash has brushes to help with the “motion” and the results would be entirely different with a touchless wash.

I am not an expert on how all this works but this is my understanding of the process.

Hard water
Most water is “hard”, that is it contains impurities like calcium and magnesium. These substances leave a hard scale on surfaces which come in contact with the water, like the inside of pipes, the nozzle of your kitchen faucet and the surface of cars.

There are different scales used to describe the level of hardness. The most common is grains per gallon, g/gal. In Casper, Wyoming the water hardness is measured at 15 g/gal. I think that’s pretty hard water but my experience is limited to this state. I know that the water up in Yellowstone Park must be worse.

I was born and grew up in Casper and they didn’t have water softeners back in those ancient times- so that’s the water I drank my whole life. I like all those impurities in the water.

To this day, if I drink softened water it just doesn’t taste right. And that’s the reason we don’t have a water softener in our house today. One of these days I’ll install a water softener for everything except the refrigerators. I would save a little on soap.

One grain of hardness is equal to 17.1 parts per million, ppm. If your water is ten grains hard that is equivalent to 171 parts per million. That’s 256 parts per million in Casper, Wyoming.

Soft Water
So what is soft water? Man-made soft water it is water that has the minerals like calcium and magnesium ions (and other impurities like iron and manganese) removed by ion exchange. As the water flows through the softener, the calcium and magnesium ions (hardness) are attracted to the resin beads and removed from the water.

The softener has to be properly charged. That is the purpose of the salt in the brine tank. The resin beads in the softener collect all the “hardness” on them and at some point cannot attract any more. The softener is recharged by pumping the salt water in the brine tank through the resin tank, washing all the minerals off the resin beads and down the drain.

Because of space limits, the softener for my bays one through six is a single tank softener timed to “recharge” at 3 a.m. when we don’t normally have any business. I say normally because a few years back when we only had the six bays, we went in at 3 a.m. to turn off the water for some reason and there was a customer washing.

The softener for bays seven through 11 is a two tank system so one tank is on stand by while the other tank is in use. This type system can recharge any time of day.

Detergent dilemmas
Both systems are set to recharge after a certain flow (gallons, set according to your particular hardness) but the timer in the single tank system makes it wait until 3 a.m. If you are washing with hard water it will take more detergent to overcome the effects of the minerals in the water. I read somewhere that it will take about 4 percent additional soap to compensate for each grain of hardness.

Just last week we had a customer complain that the soap seamed awful weak. The soap system was fine but the water softener had not recharged. After replacing the timer without fixing the problem, we discovered a little gear, that I don’t know the purpose for, was broken. The part is now on order and in the meantime we’re starting the recharge manually.

I’m not sure just how much hard water would affect the cleaning on a friction type wash. The cloth or brushes would compensate somewhat but it would be worth the cost of a softener for the better cleaning ability. The cost to operate a softener is not that much. We spend $175 for a pallet of 49-50 pound bags and use about a pallet a month.

In totally frictionless car washing, I don’t think any amount of detergent can compensate for the lack of soft water.

In self-serve washing (my 11 bays, no automatic) water softness not only affects the cleaning ability, but also the foaming (my customer noticed) and rinsing ability of the soap.

The soap in the water helps break down the surface tension of the water droplets thereby increasing the cleaning ability of the water. Soft water will help the soap do its job.

The importance of soft water in cleaning cars cannot be overstated. With hard water you will always have spotting, streaking, inefficient cleaning and excessive detergent expense.

That said, be sure to have a good spot free system to rinse off the rinse water, any mineral content above 40 parts per million will leave spots on the car. Spot-free will be the topic of another article.

Dennis Ryan has been in the carwash business since 1988 and the construction business for 40 years. At one time he owned and operated five self-service carwashes. Currently he owns and operates American Pride Carwash in Casper/Evansville, WY. He can be contacted at:

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