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Turn on the lights

Learn how proper lighting can attract attention and create an inviting environment.

October 22, 2012
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Early morning has arrived, and it is time to make the soap suds. As an owner or manager arrives at a carwash to unlock the doors and set up for business, he or she is likely to reach for the light switch before anything else. Almost all should agree, this simple switch flip is always a smart first step.

Illuminating the positives of proper lighting at a carwash can be a lengthy assignment, but simply put, bright and secure locations tend to land the biggest share of business while dark and shadowy washes are often avoided. This is especially true now that November has arrived. The days are short and the nights are long and shopping and holiday preparations will often take precedence during the day.

Drawing customers after dark can end up being the difference between big winter profits or another disappointing quarter. Proper lighting provides carwashes the ability to operate safely and effectively no matter the hour. And, honestly, being open when a customer needs car care service is one of a location’s most important duties — especially if that means washing a car at 8:39 p.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Lighting as marketing

As more and more carwashes have popped up over the past few years, owners have searched for ways to draw customers to their wash over the competition. While many have turned to advertising and discount offers, others have chosen to use wash clubs and charity programs. Though it is often thought of as more utility than advertisement, lighting can boost a carwash’s market share as well.

“Lighting is still an inexpensive form of advertising,” according to Sean Ellis with Xpert Solutions. “Good lighting as contrasted with poor lighting will attract attention, project a more professional image and provide a safer and more inviting environment for customers.”

When utilized correctly, lighting can accent and create interest in additional service offerings. Vacuum stations, vending areas and customer prep areas should all be well lit. This is important not only for safety, but it also catches the attention of passing drivers. Here, the lighting can be used to promote services a wash has that the competition does not. Also, spotlights placed on signage and wash entrances can help publicize special offers and assure customers that a carwash is open.

Lit LED signs have also proven popular for carwashes looking to draw night-time business. From simple time and date displays to complicated scrolling messages, these colorful signs help draw potential customers and differentiate a carwash from its competitors. These signs can also ease security concerns as their brightness and motion help increase the activity and frequency of onlookers.

Inside tunnels and bays

While lighting outside the carwash generates interest and increases business, lighting inside the tunnel guarantees that the promised quality wash can actually be delivered. Ellis explained that modern manufacturing techniques now allow lighting companies to produce carwash-friendly light fixtures inexpensively.

Today, the fluorescent fixtures frequently used in carwash tunnels and bays are rated IP67. “This rating means that the fixtures are totally enclosed and dust proof, plus they can withstand submersion in a meter of water for 30 minutes,” Ellis said. Other important features are clear lenses that allow as much light as possible to pass through. Also, most ballasts today are “smart.” This means they are two-wire and will work on any incoming voltage between 110 and 277 without any rewiring.

“These cost-effective fixtures allow a carwash operator to light the facility up really well, which makes the carwash experience safer and more inviting for the customer,” Ellis said.

Fluorescent and LED

Fluorescent and LED light fixtures today are far more energy efficient than older styles. Ellis stated that fluorescent lights have become very efficient over the past few years, and now LED lights are becoming more affordable. Both lighting formats can provide excellent light at a low cost per lumen. In fact, many electric utilities now have ongoing programs that can assist a carwash with the cost of upgrading. These plans make sense as the amount of energy waste associated with older light fixtures has become clear to these companies.

Today, fluorescent lights will be T8 or T5 lamps; the old standard T12 is no longer available. The enclosed fixtures that Ellis recommended are good choices for carwashes because of the technology they utilize. “We like the T8 lamps as they provide the right amount of light based on the ceiling heights in most carwashes,” he said.

Newer fluorescent lamps are rated to last for approximately 35,000 hours. This means that, even if the lights are used 24 hours a day, they will still last four to five years, Ellis noted. With fluorescent fixtures properly sized and planned for a carwash, the only maintenance that is recommended is keeping the lenses clean and replacing any failed lamps.

Compared to metal halide

For many years, metal halide (MH) was the standard type of lighting installed, and it was the preferred choice for all sorts of indoor and outdoor applications. Yet, MH fixtures were known to operate inefficiently. Ellis revealed that even the newer pulse start MH fixtures lose quite a bit of light output in a fairly short period of time.

Ellis provided the example of a 250-watt MH lamp. Initially, it will produce around 23,000 lumens, but its sustained output is only rated at 14,333 lumens. This loss of light output will happen over a period of several months to a year. What this means to an end user is that the provided light output is only around 62 percent of the electrical energy that is being purchased. The amount of energy that must be paid for to drive that 250 watt fixture is the same at 23,000 lumens as it is at 14,333 lumens. “Not a very efficient use of electric power,” Ellis said.

The T8 fluorescent lamps Ellis prefers are rated to lose less than 5 percent of their initial light output over the 35,000-hour life of the fixture. This loss is so minute that it is impossible to detect without measuring equipment. Also, LED lights use even less power than fluorescents ­­— sometimes 70 percent or less ­­— and they will last many years without dimming.

Cost of ownership

Currently, with normal use, fluorescent fixtures will last approximately 20 years. Ellis said the lamps and ballasts will last 10 years with no service. In the event that a ballast goes out, the part needed for repair costs around $25. The replacement lamps cost approximately $4 each.  

For the older MH fixtures that used to be the lighting standard, an owner could expect a typical life of 10 years. Over that decade, the fixtures would generally require at least one $100-plus ballast replacement and five or more $35 lamp replacements.

Overall, the ownership cost of T8 fixtures comes to less than 20 percent of the cost for MH fixtures. This price difference is realized when an owner compares original purchase costs, maintenance, lamp replacement and energy used, Ellis said.

Yet, the value of durable and dependable lighting can come down to much more than just dollars and cents. The simple morning flip of a light switch sets a carwash up for success in many ways. From attracting more business to increasing site security and ensuring safe operation, proper lighting is a basic that no carwash owner or operator can afford to ignore.

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