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Business Operations

Profile in Success: Buff's Car Wash

October 11, 2010
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Larry Schaffer was more than 1,000 miles away from his washes when he got the call. He had spent the day gathering ideas and walking the floor at Car Care World Expo 2009 in Las Vegas and was sound asleep when the telephone ring pierced the dawn at 4 a.m. He tiredly reached for the receiver, not expecting the devastating opportunity in front of him.

His stomach dropped as the voice on the other end of the line told him his wash had been destroyed in a late night fire. A transformer for a neon light had shorted and ignited the rafters, setting the roof ablaze. The wash had barely celebrated its sixth year in business, and now 90 percent of the roof had been wiped out. Not only that, but firefighters wanted to cave in the rest of the steel roof in order to avoid further danger from the strong Kansas winds. His building, his equipment, and his business were a total loss.

Starting over
For five grueling weeks Schaffer paced the floor, waiting for the insurance company to finish its investigation. He thought back to the flourishing business he had built, and also to the enhancements he wanted to make in this second chance at construction. With three other carwashes in operation, Schaffer had plenty of learning opportunities. He planned to incorporate all of those lessons in this second chance at construction.

“I knew where the site’s shortcomings were at, and I wanted to address those,” Schaffer explained. “So we repaired and fixed everything that had irritated me from before.”

First, Schaffer knew he wanted to better utilize the space available underneath the large roof. In the previous design the area was not usable, so Schaffer redesigned the roof’s construction to make it functional. He again included the vacuum stations and vending, which had been salvaged from the fire, in the roof’s shade. This area includes a refrigerated unit with 52 selections which does well throughout the year.

Next, he worked on fixing his plumbing problems and insulating his walls. After years of experimenting with different makes and models of in-bay automatics, he selected the new Quick Silvers from D&S Carwash Equipment Company, which have far outpaced his expectations.

“I own four washes and I’ve been in business 14 years,” Schaffer said, “and I’ve never had equipment like this in my life. I’ve got over 10,000 washes on these automatics and not one problem yet. They’re fast and boy, do they clean vehicles.”

Schaffer also decided to invest in upgrades to the self-serve equipment. He installed new coin boxes, as well as tire cleaner and hand-held dryers in the bay.

One area in which Schaffer was ready to retreat? He returned to the older style rotary dial. “I had touch-pad meter boxes, but people vandalized them. They wore out, they just didn’t have the longevity,” Schaffer explained. Instead, he uses a D&S coin box which features a rotary switch and utilizes a Mars validator and WashGear credit card and fleet processor. Schaffer said the speed of the processor has greatly increased his credit card volume.

What most impressed Schaffer is the Dixmor display, though, which he jokingly claimed even a blind man could see.

For his walls, Schaffer decided now was finally the time to try Extrutech panels, a material which had fascinated him over the years. Compared to his experiences with natural and painted brick, as well as FRP, this is the clear cut winner, he said.

“We used it everywhere,” Schaffer recalled. “It’s the ceiling, the walls, the office. Everywhere except the equipment room, where we decided to use FRP for added stability.”

A conservative at heart
Aside from all the updates to his equipment, Schaffer knew he also wanted to make this site more efficient and cost-effective. He installed equipment to capture and reuse the rejected reverse osmosis water, as well as energy-efficient lights, a Lochinvar Knight heating boiler, and a tankless water heater by Noritz.

“The boiler is amazing, it is 96 percent energy efficient, and you don’t even feel any heat radiating outside the unit,” Schaffer said. “The water heater is pretty amazing, too. You can install these crazy things on the wall and open up like 50 square feet in your equipment room.”

Schaffer said he intends to use the boiler and heater system in his other washes, no matter the cost. “I have my wash separated into zones,” he explained, “and I can shut down a few bays on a really cold day so I’m only paying to have the automatics and a single self-serve bay heated.”

At the time this interview was conducted, Schaffer’s self-serve bays were at a toasty 52 degrees despite the outside temperature – which hovered around 4 degrees with winds that reached 20 mph. With only floor heat and a dual-boiler operating at 73 percent, his customers were comfortably enclosed in Windstar vinyl doors.

Schaffer also invested in technology which allows him to put his lights on a timer and use staggering times to turn them on. “I’ve got so much light at this facility, you can see it on a satellite at night,” Schaffer joked. The dryers are also on a staggered start to save energy.

Remote controlled
Another feature Schaffer’s enjoys at the newly rebuilt wash is remote access. He can log into any computer throughout the world and monitor operations at the click of a button. The only problem is he hasn’t had a chance to use some of the “cooler” features, like remotely managing a glitch, because the D&S touchless machines have worked so well.

“If I had a problem, one of the D&S engineers could dial in and evaluate it,” Schaffer explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to use it!”He also has a sixteen camera security system to monitor and record operations when he is away and deter criminal activity.

Schaffer credited his distributors, Brian Merz and Larry Qualls, with helping him design the layout of the original location — which was used again in the rebuild — as well as moving construction along at a fast pace. He was able to be up and running in less than 170 days after the fire, and today reports his volumes are back to normal.

“We’ve had a difficult winter so far, but the numbers are coming back,” Schaffer said, adding that he’s caught a lot of breaks over the years, including the fact that as a former insurance agent, he was lucky enough to not be over- or under-insured.

“I did hit the policy limits on both property and building, but I wasn’t over the line,” Schaffer said. “In all honestly, people should really re-evaluate their insurance packages. You never know what might happen. I hadn’t included the values for the roof or the concrete in my policy, and as it turned out, they mostly survived the fire. Thanks goodness I was right about that.”

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