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The Human Side: Stories from the Trenches

November 25, 2013
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Sam Hanna and his brother Jim, older by two years, have been in the carwash industry since 1989. They sold carwash equipment for Hanna (no relation) in Arizona and New Mexico and developed turnkey projects for owners. Sam Hanna's formal background is in engineering which proved to be a skillset that very few in the industry possessed when he got involved. Jim was a high school teacher.

Sam explains that the “system was stacked against” the brothers from the get go. He said most contractors don't take the time to go through the research and development phase, therefore you might get the best price but it’s often for a cookie-cutter-type building. Also many contractors don't have a background in using green building materials.

“We’ve always tried to encourage our clients to be environmentally friendly,” Jim said. “Even doing their own construction or the way that they incorporated their wash process … We knew the carwash industry needed to move in that direction.”

Green from the get go

Sam explains the he and his brother having total control, from the planning to the day-to-day operations, made their process easier and Wash Wizard Auto Spa unique. The wash itself is a hand wash run through a conveyor. Jim says the decision to open the carwash was based on his and his brother’s past experience selling equipment and providing the turnkey services.

Wash Wizard is unique in that the carwash is employs green technology throughout. The building itself is made from recycled Styrofoam blocks and — get this — they do not use soap during their basic wash process nor chemicals for water treatment. For the first year they had a company develop a green chemical to treat the wastewater. About a year later they met representatives from Gaia Water Company at a trade show. Gaia introduced them to their water purification system which uses a high concentration of oxygen to refresh and clean the water, in lieu of chemicals. After a short trial period the brothers decided that the system was a perfect fit for the Wash Wizard model. Jim and Sam pair the system with live bacteria that, essentially, eats grease.

Jim says the bacteria is not new to the carwash industry, but has been around for nearly 15 years.

“The green technology, [we] have been interested in for a long, long time,” Sam said. “This was an opportunity for us.”

The process was sometimes discouraging for the brothers, but they were determined to see their plan come to fruition.           

They use recycled denim jeans as insulation, catch rainwater for use in the carwashing process and the property itself sits on a former gas station site which was polluted by years of gasoline runoff penetrating the ground. The brothers even designed the roof to fit solar panels but they have yet to install them due to the prohibitive cost. Unlike some states, Arizona does not offer tax breaks for purchasing solar panels.

“Even from the very beginning I think we tried to utilize as many of the green technologies as possible,” Sam said.  

The process

Sam describes Wash Wizard as an express exterior. They offer two services, both of which the customer stays in the car. Their basic hand wash and hand dry on the conveyor takes about five minutes. Their Magic Plus wash costs $2 extra and the customer receives a double foam polish and a sealer wax — these are the only chemicals used at the carwash and they are only used on the Plus service. They will use some of their leftover detergent at the exit, from the early days of Wash Wizard, to touch problem spots on vehicles, mainly bug splatter and grease spots. 

They also offer an interior cleaning service.

The building and the way the business operates has drawn interest from various groups. Arizona State University's sustainability program has toured the facility on several occasions to see the unique green construction and learn about the green practices employed by the carwash. Most of their employees come from the nearby university.

“We can be an example of what can be done without any mandates and without any credits,” Sam explained.

Giving the customer what they want

“What the consumer wants is more consistency, better quality and having a good experience,” Jim said while explaining what he sees Wash Wizard providing.

He says the market is very competitive and many around him offer carwashes for as little as $3. Jim says that while it’s virtually impossible to compete with that price, their service is superior not only for the customer, but also the environment.

After they opened they had to print flyers to give to customers explaining their wash process and why it works.

“We didn't want people to feel shortchanged because they didn't have suds on their car,” Sam said. “We have the cashier explaining to them the process … It was an educational process.”

Aside from the environmental benefits Sam says that the equipment seems to stay cleaner and the employees don't feel the need to wear gloves. They've also reduced their cost by 40 percent compared to the days where they used chemicals for the wash and treatment.

“We’re trying to set a standard for operators,” Jim said.

Additional profits and helping others

Wizard also features a cafe, Barista's, which is not run by the brothers. They lease the property to the franchise, which is based in Seattle, and ask the owners of the shop to recycle as much of their waste as possible. The cafe can also double as a waiting room for those who wish to utilize the interior cleaning service of the carwash.

For now there are no plans to open another Wizard. The brothers are content at building their customer base and providing that consistent, green, wash for the people of Tempe. They are however open to the idea of helping other owners follow their green lead, by either converting their current sites or with investors following their green model.

“I think it would be good for the industry,” Jim said. “I think it would be good for the image of carwashing.”

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