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Mystery damage no more

High-quality camera systems document every vehicle to help prevent mistaken damage claims.

August 22, 2012
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What really scares a carwash owner or operator? Many will tell you, when it comes to scary, you can keep the creepy soundtrack and forget lumbering, radioactive lizards. Instead, industry regulations, expenses and issues can be counted on to cause any number of sleepless nights. One particular carwash problem that has long proven scarier than any fright-film fiend would be the monstrous damage claim.

Over the years, customer damage claims have proven more persistent than the guy with the hockey mask, and they have haunted more dreams than the ghoul on Elm Street. Thankfully, damage claim prevention camera systems have emerged, and they are ready to chase the nightmares away. After all, operating costs today are scary enough without the added fears of repainting car panels or replacing damaged rims.

Carwash culprits

How common are damage claims today? "Most carwash operators that call us about damage claim protection systems say that they are seeing anywhere from one to three claims per week," according to Allen Spears, chief engineer of CarWashCameras.com and a carwash owner.

The number of claims a business receives can depend on the type of equipment the carwash is using. One example is friction washing equipment. While the brushes and mitters clean cars well, damage claims seem to be higher in tunnels that use them, Spears stated.

Justin Alford, owner of the Benny's Car Wash, c-store and quick lube chain in Louisiana, utilizes damage claim prevention cameras in his carwashes. He said damage claims at his locations are now a rare occurrence. "But, when we do have them, it's great to have the cameras, I can tell you that much."

Common carwash damage culprits at Benny's include back windshield wipers and, specifically, Toyota Sienna bumpers. Alford explained that these particular bumpers are manufactured using plastic and are "cheaply made."

Spears cited damage problems with newer cars, older cars with new paint jobs and pickup trucks with aftermarket accessories. Over the years, other common repeat damage offenders included high-value sports cars and highly-customized vehicles.

Claims on camera

Most damage claims made by customers are not necessarily true, Alford stated. Often carwashes are blamed for scratches and damage only after a person notices something wrong with his or her car. Most will think back, and the first place that pops into many minds is the carwash.

Damage claim prevention camera systems are essential because they allow an operator to go back and see clearly what went into the tunnel and what came out.

In the typical setup, there will be vehicle inspection cameras in camera stanchions placed at the tunnel entrance before any wash process occurs. Another set will be installed at the exit of the tunnel. Spears said there are also overview cameras inside tunnels to monitor the process and equipment as a vehicle moves through wash.

Spears added that, in addition to damage, overview cameras in tunnels can reveal other dangerous situations. Examples include processes or machinery that are not working, broken equipment, dropped parts in the path of cars and even employees getting too close to equipment or crossing in front of cars.

For recording and viewing the footage, a digital video recorder (DVR) and a claims review station are also included. The DVR provides live views while recording and archiving every camera channel, Spears noted. The DVR is usually installed in a closet, office or even an equipment room. The claims review station usually consists of a large screen monitor and a mouse, and it is set up in an office to provide real time monitoring as well as a place to review recorded footage.

Benny's uses IP cameras and megapixel cameras to provide high-quality footage. The cameras record vehicles as they enter and exit the wash, and the cameras inside the tunnel monitor customer activities. "We can see if somebody stepped on their brake or turned their wheel or didn't follow instructions," Alford said.

In certain instances, these cameras can oversee employee activity as well. When a car is entering the carwash, the cameras can show that an employee instructed a customer the correct way, according to Alford. Also, Benny's has camera systems hooked to all registers so management can track and record what sales employees are ringing up.

Combined systems

Some damage claim systems available now come combined with traditional surveillance systems. Alford stated that Benny's utilizes this type of all-in-one system. The chain's older security systems were removed before the combined systems were installed.

With the IP cameras that are part of the combined surveillance and damage claim system, a carwash will need several terabytes of video storage space. To save hard drive space, the cameras do not constantly record. Instead, they are set to record only when motion occurs. Thus, the amount of Benny's stored video footage can depend on how busy the wash is. Alford estimated most of the washes can currently store 30 days of footage.

On the other hand, Spears recommended that a damage claim defense system have its own dedicated recorder and not share hard drive space with security camera footage. The extra DVR guarantees that an owner can save from one to four weeks of archived vehicle footage, depending on the busyness of the facility.

Perfecting placement

Up-close vehicle inspection stanchions are pre-set to contain the number of cameras needed for proper views and damage documentation, but the overview cameras often must be specially placed at optimum viewing locations.

Spears said some tunnels are short and have relatively open views, while others are extremely long and have view-blocking equipment. In cluttered tunnels, cameras are placed according to the final layout to provide views around equipment and other obstructions.

With combined systems, Alford suggested that owners walk their site and see what areas need to be monitored and where cameras should be placed. One thing that should be remembered is that a wire has to be run to every camera. "If you're using IP cameras, regular [wiring] is only rated for 100 meters," Alford said. "So we had one camera that was further; we had to run fiberoptic cable to it."

Recording results

The cameras are set and the system is recording. Now what? Spears said, at his own washes, he immediately saw a reduction in frivolous damage claims. The visible cameras let customers plainly see that every part of their vehicle was being documented and recorded.

At Spear's carwashes, the largest majority of claims were made by customers that discovered damage to their vehicle at the carwash and assumed that the carwash was responsible.  "When I showed them the footage that proved that the damage was pre-existing, they [were] always surprised," he recalled. "They truly had no idea that the damage was already there." One explanation is that, many times, a scratch will look fresh after it has been washed and dried. This makes it very important to document the condition of a vehicle before it enters the first wash process.

Another common type of damage claim is a customer returning to the wash later in the day or the next day claiming that the carwash damaged a vehicle. Here, Spears would go back and look at the footage of the car leaving the tunnel, and more often than not, the damage was not there after the wash. Thus, the damage must have occurred after the customer left the property.

"Upon seeing the footage, the customer immediately begins retracing their movements after they left the carwash, and the carwash operator has successfully dodged a claim that [he or she] most certainly would have been blamed for otherwise," Spears stated.

Benny's damage claim system can create still pictures from the high-quality video footage as well. Alford described a situation where a customer would say "I had this when I went in, and I didn't have it when I came out." In this instance, a picture can be emailed or printed out and given to the customer to prove otherwise.

By preventing mistaken claims, these camera systems will eventually pay for themselves. Spears noted that the return on investment depends on a business's number of claims, types of claims and deductible or claims threshold. "Since an inspection system is relatively inexpensive, it may be as little as one or two higher-value claims," he said.

Damage response

When a customer makes a damage claim at a carwash, Spears said an owner or manager must go to the customer and communicate that the matter will be investigated immediately. Even so, the related footage should be reviewed in private to ascertain the circumstances, and then, if warranted, the customer can be brought in to see the footage or begin to process the claim.

Spears said the most important thing here is letting the customer know, up front, that his or her damage claim is taken seriously. This helps set the tone for any admission or denial that may follow.

Benny's has a unique damage claim procedure common to all their carwash locations, Alford said. First, a manager will inspect the damage and give the customer a tour of the tunnel. Next, the manager will ask if the customer saw any process in the tunnel that could have caused the damage in question.

At that point, customers are required to fill out and submit a form. The form is sent to a centralized damage office, and customers are called back to view the video. After seeing the video, if a customer is still not happy, the problem is referred to Benny's damage review board. This board is made up of three managers and an employee who acts as damage claims manager. The group gives an objective review of the case, and then the group votes and sides with either the wash or the customer.

"Our policy has always been the same, and it's still the same today. If it's something we think we did, we take care of it. It's no questions asked," Alford said. "We don't want to put a customer through anything."

Final word

Even with the cameras rolling and the claim process in place, Alford noted that his goal is still to do what's right for his customers. "We've been in the community since 1951, and I want to see somebody on the street and know that we made the right decision," he said. "And if we find out information later on … our goal is to do the right thing."

To this end, Alford said, on some occasions, he has contacted customers after denying a claim. In this instance, Alford will call a customer back and explain that a mistake was made. "You know, carwashing's difficult, and like I said, video is one more tool that we can use to try to make the right decision," Alford stated.

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