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A remote management system is an option that can be beneficial for either hands-on or less involved in-bay operators.Identify the needs
The diversity of needs identifies the core problem in most current remote management systems: they do not work well together.
A security system from vendor A, a payment entry unit from vendor B and the wash machine from vendor C will each use different technologies, will need special interface software and almost always require installation of separate communications for each vendor’s system.
The owner needs to identify what it is that he/she is looking for in a system. One simple way to do this is to generate a three category list of items including:
1. Must have items — the items that are most important and that will add the most benefit to the operation;
2. Want to have items — features that simplify or streamline the operation to make it more efficient; and
3. Nice to have items — frill features that will not seriously impact operations (see sidebar).
A remote management system should be thought out in advance as part of a business strategy. Often, pieces are installed to meet a specific need after a crisis and the site evolves into a combination of pieces that are unable to effectively work together or meet the needs of the business.
Build the infrastructure
By definition, remote management means that a person away from a site wants to monitor the wash operations. Therefore, a communication system is vital to remote management.
The first carwash monitoring systems used plain old telephone services (POTS) to allow wash equipment to automatically page an owner if a problem arose. Some vendors expanded the POTS system to allow special computer programs to dial-in to systems and gather information or perform simple diagnostics.
When the first credit card processing systems were added to entry stations, critical mass was reached on phone lines. A four bay self-serve with two automatics could easily need seven phone lines.
This type of monitoring could be extremely expensive. The core issues causing problems were phone systems that could be used by a single device exclusively and wash equipment that could not share properly.
Some clever phone line sharing systems were developed but, at best, these could only reduce some of the congestion.The Internet to the rescue
Thankfully, the Internet came along to help solve this communication bottleneck. Today, the Internet should be the only communication infrastructure that a wash operator considers when developing an efficient remote management system for a wash operation.
High speed broadband Internet connections come in a variety of types, but the field can be narrowed to Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) or cable for most owners.
After deciding on the type of Internet access to bring to the site, the owner must next install a gateway device that will allow equipment on the site to communicate to the Internet for email, paging, text messaging and remote report printing.
The key features that should be present in the Internet Gateway device are:
- Basic firewall ability;
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) termination ability;
- Multiple ports for site equipment to connect to;
- User level or advanced authoriza-tion security for remote users; and
- Web browser interface for setup.
The last key item in the infrastructure building step is to have a knowledgeable source of technical support in case there are problems. Make sure that the company is able to make maintenance calls to the site if needed.
Things to remember about a communication system for an efficient and reliable remote monitoring infrastructure are:
- Install “always-on” high speed Internet access to the site;
- Make sure that there is a secure VPN capable gateway device for remote connection to the site equipment; and
- Standardize web browser interfaces for all of the site equipment.
Remote management is simply a matter of getting information to someone that is absent from the site. This can happen in two different ways:
- The information can be pushed to the remote person; or
- The user can pull the information from the system.
An example of pushed information is a carwash machine that is able to push a text message to a mobile phone when an equipment problem arises.
An entry station that allows an owner to use a web browser to check the current wash sales numbers would be a pull service.
A good management system allows information to flow both by pushing and pulling.
It is best for an owner to select a limited set of communication devices and make sure that equipment or software that is installed uses these. A common set of devices would be:
- Mobile phone with text messaging for short emergency messages;
- Email account for reports and logs; and
- Web browser interface from any computer or PDA for pulling informa-tion when needed.
The basic challenge of completing a remote management system is identifying and obtaining systems that will meet an owner’s needs.
Many equipment vendors offer remote management capabilities built into the equipment. There are also suppliers that have focused their businesses on offering monitoring and communication systems that can be wrapped into a single package.
Carefully considering the many options will allow an in-bay automatic carwash owner to start the process, ask the questions and make the decisions to meet any and all needs.
Ken Dollhopf manages the engineering and research and development activities at PDQ Manufacturing, Green Bay, WI, and has worked in the carwash industry for over 12 years. For more information on this topic please contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org.