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Manage your chemical costs

October 11, 2010
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Chemicals are the life’s blood of the detailing business; a very expensive life’s blood. Detail business owners are confronted with the costs which add up over a year’s time whenever they pay the chemical bills. In many cases the bill is higher than necessary, and that excess money could instead be going into their pocket, or for more equipment, advertising, or building improvements.

Watch for waste
The first step in managing your chemical bill is to realize that more is not always better. For example, using more carpet shampoo on an extremely dirty carpet is not necessarily the answer to cleaner carpets. Choosing the right product, the proper dilution, and following the proper procedure is a better and more economical process.

The second step is to evaluate your mixing methods. When detailers are in a hurry and need to fill spray bottles with glass cleaner or shampoo and it says to dilute 1-to-5 or 1-to-10 they usually use the "glug, glug" method of measuring the chemical concentrate. Or, they intentionally use more concentrate because they think more will do a better job. Or, being in a hurry, they spill the concentrate on the floor. All methods are a big waste.

Then there is shrinkage, a sophisticated word for stealing. Many a detail business owner has learned, too late, that they have been financing the employee's weekend detail business for several months, or even years.

Metering and dispensing
How many times have you or your detailers been in a situation where a measuring cup is not handy, or lost, or it is too much bother or too messy to use? What about your extractor? Is it an eight or 10-gallon tank? Is the shampoo 40-1 or 60-1? Have you paid attention to what happens in these situations? Do they exist in your shop? What are you doing to prevent them from happening? Yes, you can find the correct answers to these questions in the “book,” but where is the book? Without the book what happens? Of course, “glug, glug, glug.”

More and more detail business owners are finding that using water-based chemicals is a tricky business, especially with the number of them being used in the detail industry today. There are engine degreasers, all-purpose cleaners, wheel cleaners (acid and non-acid types), white-wall cleaners, shampoos, glass cleaners, vinyl and leather cleaners, etc. The potential for both over and under dilution increases and with it numerous issues come into play. For example, chemical costs and the quality of cleaning are two factors affected by improper dilutions.

Keep in mind that under-dilution (the solution is too strong) of chemicals is a problem. It can damage carpets, upholstery, wheels, etc. It costs more and can cause additional labor to correct any problems that occur due to improper dilution.

Over-dilution (too weak of a solution) can cause poor cleaning performance, which means you or your workers will have to re-clean the same areas several times. With carpet and fabric upholstery, this can lead to over-wetting, resulting in mold, mildew, shrinkage, etc.

Either way it leads to dissatisfied detailing customers who become lost customers, and worker compensation claims that result in money out of your pocket.

Product-related complaints are numerous, yet most complaints are due to misusing products. It is important to read the labels and to make sure you and your employees are diluting them correctly.

Plug the glug
While you cannot make your employees read labels, there are two things that can be done to "plug the glug" and ensure that chemicals are being used at the proper dilution:

1. Train properly. If your supplier will not provide the necessary training, find one who will.

2. Get a dilution system.

Dilution-control systems
There are a variety of methods and systems available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The following explanations may help you decide which are best and which would work for your detailing operation.

Measuring cups: This is, sorry to say, the most common system used by detailers. It is the cheapest and least specialized, and the most prone to misuse. Cups are lost or misplaced. They are not properly rinsed between chemicals, causing cross-contamination. Pouring chemicals into a cup can be messy and dangerous. In addition, if you use 5-gallon or 55-gallon containers what happens then? Direction labels are not always written in a concise and clear manner. The result is “glug, glug, glug.” In the end, a measuring cup is a dilution device that offers little or no control.

Pumps: An easy fix for the measuring cup problem is to attach a hand pump to the pail or drum. These are available in delivery volumes from 1-ounce on a gallon pump to 8-ounces or more for a drum pump. It offers a consistent measured dose. The disadvantage is they often lose their prime. For example, the first pump might be a portion of the dose, so you must use a second pump. There is little control over how many pumps are used. Again, be wary of the “if one works well, two will work better” theory.

Chambered bottles: Some manufacturers offer bottles with a small measuring chamber attached. Squeezing the bottle fills the chamber with concentrated chemical, or you can tip the bottle to fill a cup on the neck of the bottle. This is convenient, simple to use and generally more difficult to misuse. These bottles are relatively small (32 to 64-ounces) making employee theft quite easy. Nevertheless, the bottles do offer advantages over the measuring cup.

Unit dose packaging: This method uses a preset volume of chemical in a tear-open pouch, which is then added to a set amount of water. This method is used quite extensively in the janitorial business, but not so much in the detail industry. They are available in most of the water-based chemicals used today. They are convenient, but a more expensive approach to dilution control, and are subject to the same issues as measuring cups. While there is no simple way to make sure that workers use the correct amount of water, you can control theft by having supervisors mix the chemicals.

The venture system solution
Bearing recent OSHA cases in mind, and considering the concern over the long-term effects of chemical exposure, product liability lawsuits, and lost productivity, many detailers would prefer a chemical dilution system that minimizes employee contact with undiluted chemical products.

A venture proportionator is a foolproof dilution control system which automatically adds the correct amount of chemical to the water. With this system, water flows through a specially designed tube that creates a vacuum in a side port. One end of the chemical feed line is attached to this side port and the other is attached to the container of concentrated chemical. The vacuum draws the chemical out of the container at the push of a button. A preselected metering tip determines the dilution rate by restricting the chemical flow through the port. For example, the smaller the hole in the metering tip, the higher the dilution rate. The larger the hole, the lower the dilution rate.

There are two types of venturi systems. The first system consists of a simple proportionator that can be attached to a wall. The chemical concentrates are placed on the floor below the proportionator and feed lines are dropped into each chemical to be diluted. You can purchase a single proportionator or as many as you need for however many water-based chemicals you use in your detail shop.

This type of system will dramatically improve control over chemical usage, and to a degree, improve worker safety. However, chemical containers can spill and when the container is empty, the worker must handle the feed line that has been in the concentrate container. This can be a problem unless the worker wears gloves.

The other type of venturi system is called a sealed system or closed-loop system. It consists of a venturi proportionator and feed line that is attached to a special fitting that is attached to a special chemical container, cartridge, or bag-in-the-box. This type of system will minimize worker contact the best. While several designs are available, the best ones dispense the product only when the product container is properly attached to the dispenser. Few detail chemical companies package their chemicals in a plastic bag in a cardboard box.

Keep your eyes on the size
The dilution rates of these systems are dependent on the height of the container in relation to the dispenser. The greater the height, the higher the dilution rate (providing a weaker chemical). This is a problem with the simple proportionator system that is attached to the wall.

Another problem is that dilution rates can vary depending on water flow rates. Systems will operate correctly if the flow rates match the recommended manufacturer rates, but can lose some accuracy if the rates are different. What you want to select are dilution systems with a fixed draw height and those that work across the widest flow rates.

These systems can be wall-mounted, and water flow is provided by a simple hose connection. However, because they are attached to the water supply, plumbing codes will require proper backflow prevention. Most plumbing codes require a minimum of a 1-inch gap between the clean water side and the product injection point. This prevents the chemical from being drawn into the water supply due to any changes in water pressure.

Be sure to select only the dispensing systems that have a built-in, 1-inch air gap. If you presently have a dispensing system, ensure that it has this 1-inch air gap. If it does not have the gap, you could be in violation of local plumbing codes. Your chemical supplier or dispensing system supplier can tell you if your unit has this 1-inch air gap.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at