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Chain gangs to moving floors

October 11, 2010
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Ever since Henry Ford used a chain to pull cars through his innovative assembly line manufacturing concept, mass production methodology has in some way harnessed a steel chain into a conveyor system. Accordingly, when a similar logging chain was later used to pull cars through a carwash, conveyorized carwashing was born.

Carwashing B.C. (Before Chain)
As the story goes, the initial assembly-line carwash started in Detroit, relying on people-power to push vehicles from one wash station to the next.

By the early 1920’s, a pull-through type tunnel with a manually-powered chain brought the automobiles through the wash — a mechanical advantage gained with less people-power.

The carwash chain gang
Shortly after WWII, a somewhat automated process using an electric-powered logging chain hooked to the bumper was introduced.

A decade later, a flat chain, channeled into a steel track, used bumper hooks to pull vehicles through the wash. The hooks were removable and anchored onto the car at the bumper or the chassis.

Soon afterward, a quicker, easier-to-use, removable pusher bar that fit nicely into the same flat-chain track was introduced. Although this improvement did help, both pusher-bars and pull hooks had serious drawbacks — vehicle damage at the contact point and worker injury from hooking or unhooking mishaps.

Responding to the need, the chain conveyor evolved into a fixed roller system that pushed the car’s tire instead of relying on hooks and pusher-bars for bumper contact.

Guide rails and roller mechanism improvements were added to provide greater safety and tracking control. These initial conveyor systems functioned in a constant-roller mode with all of the conveyors’ roller assemblies exposed and requiring synchronized loading by a trained attendant.

It was eventually available in two designs; a surface-mounted unit that required less installation cost, and a trench-mounted unit that was more user-friendly due to its space requirement.

A costly rub
Guide rails are an absolute necessity with the chain and roller conveyor because they act as a corral to keep wheels from running astray and causing damage.

However, if the rail is too low, the wheel may wander outside the proper tracking area and cause damage or create needless delays.

If, on the other hand, the guiderails are too high, there is a risk of damaging costly wheels and getting hung up on undercarriages with lower clearances.

And, as wheels and tires are built with a wider profile, rail clearance must adjust to those individual needs. Some vehicles won’t fit into some guiderail conveyors, resulting in a loss of business. With custom wheels reaching an amazing level of customer popularity, accidental rubs, scratches and scuffs create a risk of losing customers or a costly claim for repair or replacement.

An alternative is sought
If damages and restrictive exclusions begin to keep away some vehicles with expensive wheels or low profile tires and undercarriages, a sensible option is needed.

The challenge was addressed by a research “think tank” comprised of industry experts and industrial engineers who decided a logical conclusion was to move the floor, not the vehicle.

While not moving the entire floor, the new innovation uses a flat plastic conveyor belt to replace the traditional guiderailed roller-and-chain conveyor system, thus eliminating a number of risks and costly exposures. No more guiderail damages or limited access to low-profile vehicles.

Touch-free distinction
The detailing side of the business has seen the benefits of moving-floor conveyor belts for quite some time, with high-volume detail facilities noting the ability to increase production significantly while reducing time and labor demands.

Some high-volume automatic carwashes have begun using flat-belt conveyors and find customer acceptance to be outstanding. It distinguishes their facility from others competing for an upscale clientele which perceives the enhanced conveyor belt to be safer.

Operators feel damages and the potential risk of injury have been greatly reduced with the flat-belt system. They like that the vehicle’s transmission is in “park” and the car is not rolling through the wash, which requires more stringent oversight.

The only thing constant is change
From the beginning of manual processing over a century ago to the latest applied technology, automatic carwashing continues to change, evolve and improve. No doubt this improvement will endure.

On its face, the flat belt conveyor seems a better system — one that offers value as well as the powerful perception of greater safety and finer, more risk-free care. And while traditional conveyors are far from obsolete, this seems to be a clearly sensible alternative to consider.

Steve Okun, developer of the Flex-Serve operating platform, is a 40-year veteran of the carwash and detailing business. His company, FL-based SMOKUN & Associates, provides carwash and detail consulting, training and marketing services. Contact Steve via e-mail at

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