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Turning tunnels "green"

Earth-friendly technologies provide fertile ground for growing greater margins.

May 08, 2012
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Predicting the future of the carwash industry can be a tricky affair. While some subjects require a powerful psychic or a crystal ball, others need no talismans or tea leaves. One area where ESP is not needed is energy usage. There is little doubt that decreased utility usage and increased tunnel efficiencies will drive carwash profitability in the future.

Also, the future is disturbingly clear when it comes to government interference. Already, local governments have closed washes due droughts and discharge concerns. And, with infrastructure limits and ever-increasing demand, energy caused closedowns cannot be that far away. Soon, "going green" may no longer be an owner's decision — it may be a legal requirement.

Due to these concerns, now may be the ideal time for forward-thinking operators to put themselves in a favorable position. Instead of being bullied by looming legislation and prying politicians, carwash owners can stand up and proudly be a part of the first wave of businesses to "go green."

Today, energy-saving technologies have improved in both performance and affordability, and two areas that promise to save operators money for years to come are LED lighting and solar panels. LED lighting uses only a fraction of the energy needed for traditional light sources, and the systems have the added benefit of less upkeep. Solar panels offer owners the opportunity to cut electricity usage drastically, and, in some cases, the ability to earn money by feeding excess energy back into a power grid.

LED lighting

Uses: All areas of a carwash can benefit from LED lighting, including tunnels, entrances, exits and storage, according to Andy Strickland, vice president of Petroleum Lighting Sales. Basically any light fixture needed in a carwash application can be replaced with an LED product. Wall or ceiling mounted fixtures are the most common in carwashes, and the efficiency of the lighting, whether ceiling or wall, depends upon the obstacles presented by the wash equipment.

Advantages: The most important advantage that LED offers owners is a significant reduction in energy consumption, Strickland said. Consumption can be reduced, in many cases, 60 to 70 percent. In addition, Strickland said LED technology provides much higher-quality lighting than traditional lighting sources.

When LED fixtures are installed, end users also will see a significant reduction in common maintenance. This is due to the longer life of LED products compared to current technology.

Finally, one disadvantage with previous HID (high-intensity discharge) technology was the amount of heat that reached the lenses. This heat buildup would eventually "bake" residue from the carwash environment onto the lens, leading to a significant amount of light depreciation and an increase in needed upkeep. Strickland stated that this problem will not happen with an LED product.

Installation: Strickland said LED installation into an existing carwash would be very simple — most of the recommended LED luminaires are wall packs where mounting is completed at the wall junction box. The retrofit here would be a matter of taking down an existing fixture and mounting the new LED luminaires in its place. With ceiling mounts, installation would involve mounting onto the junction box or retrofitting into the existing surface mount product.

"It's about the same as installing a traditional lighting source; technicians still need to handle the wiring to the junction box and installing the fixture itself," Strickland said. "With a lot of the wall packs used in carwashes, it's literally mounting to the wall and wiring to the junction — no real difference from other incumbent lighting technologies."

Lifespan and upkeep: Operators can expect a minimum of 50,000 hours out of a quality LED product, Strickland revealed. LEDs do not "burn out" like traditional lighting. Instead, they fade over time. Thus, the lifetime of an LED product is projected based on the "LM70" point, a measurement of light reduction to 70 percent of the original output.

"LED luminaire life depends on the type of application and the part of the country where the product is located," Strickland said. "Products with integral heat sinks will have a longer life than those without a well designed heat sink."

While traditional products have always required replacing lamps, ballasts and lenses, LED lighting requires very little upkeep. Here, the need for only occasional cleaning is definitely an added benefit. In fact, certain types of luminaires use different technologies instead of glass to surround the LED lights. This is because the use of glass lenses over the LEDs can lead to the need for more cleaning.

Cost and savings: Strickland said the initial cost of purchasing LED lighting will be higher for a carwash. But, based on the installation process described above, installation costs should be exactly the same as those of other traditional lighting sources.

Due to the 60 to 70 percent reduction in energy usage, LED obviously will reduce a business's energy costs. This high rate of savings means the payback on investment with LED lighting is approximately three years, Strickland noted.

"One thing that many people don't factor when calculating savings is the maintenance cost," Strickland said. "For example, in a 10-year lifespan, HID lamps would minimally need to be replaced three or four times, and the ballasts would need replacement at least one or two times. With LEDs, no replacements would be needed leading to significant maintenance savings."

"For buyers who understand their total cost of ownership of these products, they understand the cost benefits of LED lighting, and the savings and quality of light make the sale," Strickland stated.

Solar panels

Uses: Solar panel systems that use sunlight to generate electricity can be found in quite a few carwashes today. These systems can reduce or eliminate the need to pull electricity from a municipality's power grid. Yet, even if a carwash can generate 100 percent of the energy it needs using solar panels, most are still connected to the electrical grid. Depending on the municipality or county where a business is located, the connection can allow solar panels to feed excess energy back into the power grid for profit.

Chris Hovinga, building sales manager for Tommy Car Wash Systems, said his company's solar panel carwash design is able to feed energy back into the power grid. "It just depends on how large that carwash is," Hovinga explained. "You know, the bigger the wash, obviously the more power it's going to take. But we estimate that we should be able to feed back into the grid whatever is not being used."

Advantages: Hovinga's company includes solar panels as part of an open-air, new-construction carwash design. In this design, there is little to no power drawn from the grid. The panels offer an owner the opportunity to reduce energy costs "to near nothing," Hovinga said.

Another advantage this system creates is the ability to operate using fewer of the resources that all energy customers depend on. Hovinga noted that, by generating its own electricity, a carwash business can become more independent.

Installation: Hovinga said his company's solar-powered, open-air tunnel design is primarily intended for a new-site location in warmer climates. The amount of solar panels that need to be installed depends on the carwash's size. Tunnel sizes can range from 60 feet to 200 feet, and the length of the canopy that covers the tunnel, and holds the solar panels, will determine the amount of panels installed.

Lifespan and upkeep: When it comes to an expected lifespan, solar panels are still a developing technology. While there were no official specifications available on the life expectancy of a solar panel, Hovinga stated that he has seen systems in operation go as long as 10 to 15 years before part replacement was needed. "I've seen quite a long lifespan on some of the solar projects being done in the past," he said.

As far as needed upkeep, Hovinga noted that an owner with solar panels can "set it and forget it." "They are very … low maintenance, set them up there and let them go," he said.

Today, carwash owners can choose from a few different solar panel manufacturers on the market, Hovinga said. Depending on the type of panel that an operator selects, there are support and upkeep systems provided by the suppliers.

Cost and savings: For a carwash, building a structure to support the solar panels is a low-cost proposition. Hovinga said a very, very low-cost 'T' column covering can be constructed using a conventional truss system. The higher costs come when an owner gets into purchasing the solar panels and the electronics needed to run and monitor the system.

Also, after solar panels are installed, a wash will need to choose an electrician that is familiar with solar panels, batteries and energy feedback systems. Hovinga stated that, from the standpoint of cost, calling an electrician to work on a solar-powered carwash will not be a more expensive cost. Instead, it will just be the same cost going to a different individual.

Still, the savings created by reducing a carwash's energy usage to almost nothing should allow an owner recoup the cost of the solar panels and associated equipment.

In some instances, solar panels have even generated profits for carwashes. The feedback electricity that the panels generate means that the carwashes are actually getting money back from a city or utility, according to Hovinga.

But when it comes to government credits, Hovinga stated that everything is dependent upon location. "The credit systems range differently from New Jersey to Florida, and even within certain counties the credit systems are different," Hovinga said. "The government incentives have to be checked locally before proceeding … with any sort of plan."

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