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Vacuums: The death of free vacuums?

August 16, 2012
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Vacuuming a car is always an adventure, especially when there are children involved. Tiny shoes seem to forever pick up gravel, sticks and grass during playground visits. And food from on-the-go snacks and meals always ends up in the most interesting places. Reach between the cushions and find a gang of forgotten goldfish crackers. Inspect under the seats and find a handful of near-fossilized french fries.

Further, car floors commonly collect pen tops, coins, receipts, dirt and leaves. Is it really a surprise that vacuuming is the most popular additional carwash service? Today, it is a must for owners and operators to meet their customers' voracious demand for on-site vacuums.

And, as "free vacuum" offerings are going out of style, it is now more important than ever to maintain vacuums and keep them clean and inviting. A regular maintenance schedule and exterior upkeep steps will help a carwash attract new customers and ensure that regular customers will not balk at an added charge for vacuum services.

Make them shine

Doug Roush, product marketing manager for Ryko Solutions Inc., stated that it is imperative to make sure that vacuums are kept clean both inside and out. "A clean appearance is very important and [it's] inviting to customers," he said. "In addition to this, making sure that the hoses, attachments, etc., are in good working order is extremely important."

To keep vacuum exteriors clean and shiny, owners can clean stainless steel machines with specially formulated stainless steel cleaners, according to Tiffany Tipton, marketing and sales director for American Products. The parts of a vacuum that are not stainless steel, such as colorful powder-coated domes, may be waxed to maintain a fresh shine. Finally, another important step is making sure all decals look fresh and legible.

Two ways to make vacuums even more attractive is through customized colors and graphics. Roush noted that different color canopies are available for modern vacuum islands. Also, logos can be placed on vacuums so that carwash branding is included on all machines.

Recommended maintenance

Emptying the vacuums on a regular basis is the most important upkeep step inside the units, Roush explained. Frequently emptying the vacuums will allow the machines to work efficiently, and it will also provide a better and easier cleaning experience for customers.

Tipton's tips for general maintenance on vacuums included emptying dirt and debris from the unit and making sure the vacuum door gaskets have a tight seal. Next, it is important to shake dirt out of the filter bags and check all bags for holes regularly. Finally, owners should check and make sure vacuum motors are free of dirt and debris.

Efficiency and durability

Inside, two motors rated at 1.7 horsepower most commonly drive carwash vacuums. Tipton said some vacuums today even come equipped with three motors. "Multiple motors are needed for the overall suction power of the vacuum," she said.

Roush said the newer styles of vacuum motors have become more energy efficient over time. Thus, installing new vacuums will definitely reduce the amount of energy used during a typical day, especially when compared to older vacuums.

Improving technology has also increased the durability of carwash vacuums, Tipton stated. Various parts that make up the vacuums, such as timers, coin acceptors and motors, have improved and all have helped lengthen the longevity of today's machines.

Vacuum combos

Having a combination of services available with a vacuum, or on an island, is important today because it will provide for a number of customer needs in a single location. A diverse selection of offerings with a vacuum helps carwashes drive revenues. The company Roush works for offers multiple combinations, including:

  • Vacuum only;
  • Vacuum with shampoo; and
  • Vacuum with air freshener.

Tipton agreed that one of the biggest trends in the market is a selection of combination machines that offer more services than just the standard vacuum. There are many different vacuum combinations available, and Tipton said the most requested machine is one that includes both air and vacuum services.

"This machine offers air to fill up the customers' tires and offers a vacuum, all in one machine," Tipton explained. "The air and vacuum each has their own coin acceptor and timers, so customers may use them at the same time, and they may charge a different amount for each service. Many customers prefer this unit if they want both services rather than purchasing two separate machines."

Linda Workman with Coin Acceptors Inc. said some owners and operators are now bundling these additional services and selling them for a special, higher price. A typical service combination would be a carwash, vacuum and fragrance all for a set, discounted price point. The ability to offer these bundles has been accelerated as credit and debit card payment options have become more accessible. Still, the additional services are not tied only to a bundle. Virtually any type of equipment can be updated to accept payment for a product, whether it's fragrance, air, detailing products, accessories, beverages, snacks, etc.

Free no more

Another trend in the vacuum market that Tipton noted is carwash owners steering away from offering free vacuum services. Businesses that have been hurt by the current economy are now charging their customers to use vacuums rather than offering them as a free service. In fact, many carwashes now use "free vacuums" as an additional marketing tool to get more customers to their location. For instance, a business may offer a free vacuum token with the purchase of a carwash.

Also, carwashes that make customers pay to use their vacuums are now charging more than ever for the service. Today, the average cost of a vacuum cycle has risen from 50 cents to at least $1, according to Tipton.

Roush said the cost of usage ultimately depends on the type of carwash where the vacuums are located. "We see some free vacuum options, but this is done mostly at conveyor sites, while other vacuums that charge are used at conveyor as well as automatic and self-serve locations."

Payment options

While vacuums have traditionally accepted only coins, the number of payment options has increased dramatically over the past few years. "The most common vacuum machines still accept coins and tokens, but many companies offer vacuums that accept bills or even credit cards," Tipton said.

Roush said code, credit card and cash acceptance are all available on vacuums today. New payment systems will allow customers to pre-pay for both the carwash and the vacuum in one location as well. Here, the system will tie in the code that a customer used at the carwash for input into the vacuum. This method means there is only one point of purchase, and many customers like this option.

There has definitely been a movement away from coins and currency toward credit and debit cards in some areas, according to Workman. Even so, the trend has not spread across all regions or all urban and suburban situations. Existing vacuums can be retrofit with a payment acceptor, and there are a number of after-market suppliers that offer add-on payment devices.

Workman said coupons also can used in conjunction with many modern bill validators. Different validator manufacturers will offer different coupon types and options for promoting the carwash experience.

Modern payment systems on vacuums offer the advantage of being highly-resistant to counterfeit currency and fake coins, or "slugs." Workman noted that typically the higher-end, fully-featured payment units will be much more resistant. "The technology is more discriminating, allowing for excellent acceptance rates for genuine coins," she said.

When it comes to carwash equipment that accepts bills and coins, vandalism has always been, and will likely always be, a problem to some degree. "Vandals often attack the enclosure holding the payment devices and, in the process, damage not only the enclosure but also the devices," Workman stated. This often means damage is done to the coin changer, bill validator and credit card swiping mechanism.

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