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Self-serve vacuum security

October 11, 2010
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As recent as 10 years ago, carwash owners didn’t have to worry about their vacuums as much as today. The vacs weren’t as expensive and they didn’t hold a lot of coins. The chief concerns were vandalism, cut or stolen hoses and the occasional vagrant that would pry open the clean-out doors looking for money and valuables.

As a result, manufacturers primarily focused on coin box security and owners would, at most, position a surveillance camera to oversee the vac islands from a distance.

Since then vacuums have grown much larger. Today’s vac islands have multiple profit centers containing sophisticated control systems with a variety of ways to collect and store funds.

Start-up prices have also escalated to match the increased power and features available to the customer. As a result, these machines can generate and hold many times the revenue they once did. Consequently, vacuum island security has become much more important.

Smile for the camera
Security cameras have always been a frontline defense and deterrent for every area of the carwash environment. But as vacuum islands become bigger revenue producers and equipment investments rise to a substantial part of the overall cost, camera placement needs change as well.

One wide-angle camera covering a whole row of vacuums isn’t adequate anymore. The investment sitting on the island and the large revenues held there demand better safeguards and closer scrutiny than was common in the past.

For existing facilities just now adding cameras, most manufacturers recommend long-range cameras and lenses hung from the main structure for ease of installation. A single camera should target no more than two, and preferably only one vac island at a time, depending on the layout.

This still works well, especially if the vehicle must back out toward the camera when they leave. However, when working with facilities in the planning stage, the recommendation is to install extra conduit to nearby light poles and canopy structures to accommodate additional cameras for even better coverage.

Adding an extra conduit to each vac island is also a good idea. While the additional conduit may or may not be used for cameras, as more and more services are added to vac islands, a separate low voltage conduit line will be needed in the future.

An extra conduit line may also be needed as a spare for the main line or for additional high voltage wires if more high amperage services are added in the future.

The latest technology
Vacuum manufacturers have steadily increased the security features on their equipment in the last few years as well.

Steve Osborn, vice president of marketing for Fragramatics, says that while some features such as hidden installation bolts and thicker steel have been around for some time, traditional combo vacuums used lower security locks on the main door since no money was kept in the main compartment. Those locks were designed to shear before major damage occurred to the door or cabinet.

But whenever new bill acceptors are added or cash is stored in the main compartment, a redesign of the security features should be done.

According to Osborn, new keyless door options available on newer vacuums can use a single Medeco plug lock which pulls out so the operator can insert a T-handle. The handle turns to release seven vault-style pins down the entire door length. This is backed up by a stronger double-hinge assembly.

Since the main door may need to be opened by maintenance personnel, many vacuums also have a lock on the bill validator so stored cash is only accessible to authorized personnel.

Alarming additions
Keyless alarms are also popular standard features on units with bill acceptors. The alarms are usually activated by a key fob set to one of one million codes. Most have a battery backup in case of lost or cut power and a piercing 118-decibel alarm if tampering or vandalism is detected.

The key fob has a short distance range of only a couple of feet, so you can arm or disarm one unit at a time.

A red LED light pulses when the alarm is activated to not only let the operator know he has activated the alarm successfully, but also to caution any would-be thieves that the unit is alarmed.

Ted Finch, sales & marketing manager for J.E. Adams Industries, advises wash owners to look for vacuums that feature an internal alarm system with sirens in the upper and lower cabinets. These alarm systems can be backed-up by batteries. They utilize wireless magnetic sensors for the control door, LED timer assembly and shock sensor that activates when the hitting, shaking or vibrating rises above a preset sensitivity threshold.

Cashless advantages
Taking cash out of the equation whenever possible can eliminate a lot of the problems encountered at vac islands and is becoming more widespread.

Many operators have switched to tokens to help cut down on theft attempts at the vacuums and at the changer and vending areas. Even express exterior facilities, many of which offer free vacuums, are now utilizing tokens vended at the pay stations for vacuum use, which also solves the problem of letting non-customers use their free services.

Another popular option is credit or debit card acceptance, not only at vac islands, but at every cash point at the facility.

“Card acceptance systems lower your exposure to the criminal element, reduce theft, vandalism and robbery attempts, but are also more readily accepted by carwash customers that don’t care for tokens,” says Dave Wilcox of WashGear, a manufacturer of card acceptance systems.

Taking cards instead of cash not only means there is less cash being stored on site to tempt criminals, but also increases spending by an average of 40 percent over coins.

Add in many other benefits, such as fewer trips to restock your changers and less labor spent counting coins, and it is easy to see why carwash owners are installing card acceptance systems. In fact, cashless transactions are becoming the norm at many carwashes across the country.

Be proactive
The key to protecting your investment and your cash at vac islands is by combining most or all of the features and safeguards mentioned here. You can’t be too careful when it comes to deterring theft and vandalism.

If you don’t have an adequate camera or alarm system you are leaving yourself wide open for an event guaranteed to be costly, not only in stolen funds and equipment damage, but also from lost revenue because of down time while replacing or repairing equipment.

Be proactive. Don’t rely solely on the safeguards built into the equipment. Doing nothing is simply waiting to be hit because, in this day and age, it is only a matter of time.

Allen Spears has been in the carwash business for more than 16 years and currently owns four carwashes in Texas. Allen is the chief engineer at (a division of Rugged CCTV), and has designed systems for over 1,800 carwashes during his career. For more information, e-mail Allen at

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