The writing was on the wall this January, when, for the first time in five years, America’s service sector shrank. This is the sector that includes restaurants, banks, travel companies, and — you guessed it — carwashes. Economists who were cautiously fearful of a recession were outright panicked.
Although a recession won’t officially be recognized for at least a few more months, carwashes will feel its probable effects now. To help operators face the challenges ahead, Professional Carwashing & Detailing went straight to the source: our readers. Through a series of e-mails, phone calls and posts on Internet forums like Auto Care Forum and Talk Car Wash, we solicited the most creative and effective ideas to reduce expenses. These tips, below, should help you improve operations to weather out the storm.
Editor’s note:Some responses have been edited for size and grammar.
From Earl Weiss, Uptown Carwashes, Chicago:
One simple solution is to get catalogs from all the suppliers you can; Sonny’s, Kleen Rite, Wind Trax, Car Wash Superstore, Kim Supply, etc. Compare prices on parts and particularly on cleaning solutions.
Be prepared to test some solutions by buying five gallons at a time. Check dilution ratios and effectiveness, as well as compatibility with other solutions. I now use some solutions that cost about one-third of what I was paying and in other cases, I was not able to find a less expensive alternative.
From Scott Gray, Soapy’s Car Washes, Idaho Falls, ID:
One of the biggest expenses in a carwash is the electrical service. The bill is usually based on two factors: the total amount of electricity used and the peak demand at any given time.
The higher the peak demand determines the rate at which the amount used is billed. If you can keep the peak demand down at any given time you can lower your electrical bill. One way of doing this is by adding VFD drives to gradually start large motors so they don’t have such a huge demand at start-ups. Another way is to stagger motors so they don’t start at the same time. I have seen dryers that are not staggered that try to start three motors at one time. If they are staggered to start at different times the peak demand is reduced, resulting in lower electrical bills.
If you have a reverse osmosis (RO) unit you should be reclaiming the water that is bypassed. Usually for every one gallon of RO water, you send three to four gallons down the drain. You do not need a fancy reclaim system to do this. Just a large holding tank so you can feed the water back into your carwash system. It works great for most high-pressure functions. This will save you on both water and sewer bills. It worked out to around a $500 savings per location for me per month.
From an anonymous reader:
In the case of self-serve and in-bay automatic carwashes with no employees, it is difficult to cut expenses. Some suggestions are:
- Keep a good eye on the chemicals, make sure you are not overusing and paying too much;
- Keep the weep as low as possible;
- Shut boilers down in slow times such as a lot of rain/snow;
- Use electric tank heaters on days they will keep up;
- Install timers instead of photo cells and keep close watch on the settings;
- If you are paying an electric company for their lights see if you can do without some of them; and
- Have some lights go out early where security is not an issue (such as a street sign, some vacuum islands).
From Matthew Kendrick, MoJo Car Wash, Adrian, MO:
With water and gas prices rising in my area, I made a couple of changes. For the water, I deducted five seconds per 25 cents. This covered my rising water price and gave me some wiggle room for future price increases. Only a few customers will notice a five-second change. When they ask about it, I am honest with them and tell them I had to make a change to cover the increase in water. Usually they fully understand and appreciate the honesty.
As for the gas, I went to a budget bill pay. In the winter our gas bill would triple as soon as we turned on the boiler for floor heat. With the budget bill pay, we pay more in the summer than normal, but we pay a lot less in the winter. It definitely worked for us.
From Mike Berger, Pastime Auto Wash, Oroville, CA:
First off, you need to monitor your chemical vendor. I’ve known of vendors that change the tips in the equipment room so you go through your chemicals faster. You should also monitor your employees who are setting up in the morning. I once caught an employee pumping out 2-3 gallons of my low-pH soap just for one bucket. That can get expensive.
You also need to closely monitor your labor, especially overtime. If weather looks cloudy or like it might be a slow day, make phone calls. Have employees call in to see if they work, rather then giving them a set, expected schedule.
Remember to maintain your wash; there are so many preventative maintenance practices that can save you money, as well as labor and down time. Grease bearings, chain maintenance, clean your foamers out, check nozzles, service air compressor, etc. When we are busy a lot of these tasks slip by, but can be a costly mistake.
And don’t forget free washes! Make sure your employees aren’t stealing from you. There are so many ways to be ripped off, never let your guard down. Balance out your register as close to the penny as possible, and compare washes paid for to washes that went through the tunnel or bay.
Lastly, don’t undervalue the importance of satisfied customers. An unsatisfied customer can be a huge expense. In a time when money is tight for everyone, an unhappy customer will think twice about returning to your location if the service is poor or the quality is off.
From Joe DeNardis, Crown Car Wash, Inc., Baden, PA:
Use PVDF (polyvinylidene difluoride) tips. Stainless steel tips wear more aggressively than PVDF. PVDF tips are also less expensive (but only good to 600 PSI).
Self serve operators should change their spray gun tips annually — you will notice how the pressure goes up in the bay after you’ve done this. Not changing spray gun tips will cost more money in water usage, chemicals and natural gas.
We wash towels for our full serve on the premises with self-serve bay soap — right from the tank in the self serve room (mixed at 70 to 1). Works great and saves money, too. We also use cold water.
Employee theft is another [expense], but a more important one is customers not coming back because they had a poor greeting, poor service or a not-so-clean car. You can have the greatest wash with the best equipment and soap, but if your help is chasing away customers because of a poor attitude or sloppy appearance, then to me this is a form of theft. Employees don’t have to steal. They can chase the customers away. Customers will frequent a wash with great service and not-so-great quality more than they will frequent a wash with great quality and poor service.
Finally, not enough can be said for preventative maintenance. I personally go through my washes twice each week in the evenings with a list of what needs to be done. I also post a list of preventative items for the employees to do each week. The employees sign this sheet to indicate it was done.
From an anonymous reader:
One thing that is not directly mentioned is the “do-it-yourself” stuff. I try to do everything; mowing the lawn, snow plowing, repairs and upkeep. I do all my own signage and promotion paraphernalia. I am always monitoring [online] forums for ideas on how to increase sales or decrease costs.
I also micro manage utilities and other consumables. I will adjust floor heat based on forecast, lights based on time of year, etc.
I have a somewhat recent site and made it the most energy efficient I could. I have staged lighting and tankless water heaters, timers, 600V 3-phase service, etc.
On rainy summer days, I smile when I think that my site sits there and draws almost nothing! But most importantly, my tweaking is always invisible to the customer.
From Doug Clemson, Ben’s Car Wash, Zephyrhills, FL:
Automation is key to reducing labor while cash flow is good. Labor in a traditional full service carwash accounts for up to 40-50 percent of expenses. It is the largest “budgeted item,” so it only makes sense to start there.
The next largest budgeted “non-fixed” item is utilities. Ideas for reducing costs:
- Reclaim your water;
- Turn off blowers motor on lower selected washes;
- Changing metal halide lights to fluorescent; and
- Decrease timers on signs at night.
Continuing down the line, consider alternatives to uniforms or ways that you can reduce that expense, examine your advertising budget closely, and shop around for insurance on your business and any company cars.
We also negotiate contracts with suppliers. You can negotiate for lower prices, for consigned stock, for terms of payment, etc. I have one supplier who will give me a 10 percent discount if I pay my bill in under 15 days. Check with your suppliers to see if they offer the same service.
Another great idea is to see if your utility will return, reduce or credit your deposit because you recycle water. Becoming “green certified” can have other benefits, such as rebates from your state or municipality.
Next month, my city is scheduled to run a water reclaim line about 1,500 feet from my washes. I plan to hook the washes up and save nearly $7,000 a year in water alone. This will also effectively make my wash drought proof and allow me to market it as a “green” carwash in an environmentally-conscience city.
Lastly, don’t forget about loyalty to your suppliers. This can go a long way. Just as you hope to build loyalty in your customers, suppliers will reward loyalty in theirs.
From Bill Consolo, Chief’s Auto Wash, Cleveland:
We turned off our 1.5 mbtu heater on our roof and instead rely on our 1.5 mbtu boiler and use warm water to the pre-soak, foamer and all rinse arches in the winter. By doing so we were still able to wash cars at -3 degrees with a wind chill of -17. We did, however, have to close that day, when the wind chill hit -37.
Even with that we have gas bills of $4,000-5,000 each month in the winter. I don’t want to even think what it would be with the roof heater. Oh, and putting warm water to the rinses achieves a better break on vehicles and allows us to use less drying agent in addition to keeping the tunnel warm. a win-win to be sure. The cost of the arms water represents not so much a savings as it does the ability to stay open on extremely cold days — better than the alternative.
From an anonymous reader:
Run your lighting on two circuits. Have one circuit with the majority of lights on a timer that shuts off during the overnight hours when there are no customers. This saved me about $70/month at my four-bay self-serve.
Turn off water heaters during the summer months. Most of the summer is in the upper 90s where I live and people are generally trying to stay cool, so I don’t think the hot water is missed. This saves me about $180/month.
From Jimmy Branch, Speedy’s Auto Wash, Panama, FL:
These ideas apply to tunnels for the most part.
- Buy the most concentrated chemicals you can — don’t worry about cost per gallon. Concentrated chemicals mean less water, less time spent changing drums and less shipping. Also, buy chemicals in the largest interest-free amount you are able to store;
- Use 100-130 gallon supply tanks in your equipment room for high usage products: high-pH, low-pH, and foamers;
- Use nozzles that are 3 - 4 gallons per minute (gpm) on side chemical applicators and 5, 6 or 8 gpm nozzles on top chemical applicators. Be careful that you don’t reduce coverage or cause flash drying on a hot car. The less water you use, the less chemical it takes to have effect;
- A tip for hydrominder mixing tanks: drill a hole in the drop tube (under the hydrominder) above the mix level and below the top of the tank, put an inline check valve and foot valve on suction tube. Even with a backflow preventer, water can return to your bulk tank and ruin product;
- We are now receiving products in 330-gallon totes (forklift required). When your order fills a truck, up to 26,000 lbs, you can get very inexpensive rates for shipping (26 cents per gallon for 300 miles). If you have multiple locations, you will save by distributing from a tote (on a trailer or in a pick-up) to 100-gallon tanks at each site. Last spring, we ran almost 42,000 cars (three stores combined) before we ran low at any one store. That saved me a lot of maintenance labor. If your maintenance staff is changing, hauling and storing drums all the time, they don’t have time to fix the equipment they should.
- Use reject water from your reverse osmosis to mix with chemicals. Adding reject to reclaim is a waste of some very good water;
- Use 4, 5 and 6 gpm nozzles for rinsing instead of the 10 gpm nozzle that comes with the equipment; and
- If you are able, use a well for irrigation. I have one store at an unbelievable eight gallons of fresh/wash. The other two are at 15 gallons/wash.
- When using VFDs, remember that adjustments have to be made to hydraulic and high pressure bypasses to maximize savings;
- Set look backs on controller to keep equipment “on” if there is another vehicle on conveyor. That lowers your peak on demand charge, which lowers your entire monthly rate. I set everything to look back to the eye, except for high pressure water (those look back only one car length). For example, if the item is set to come on pulse 200, the look back would be set to 199, to look back to the entry eye. This is for individual hydraulic units or individual electric drive motors. If your system has a large central hydraulic power pak with a proportionator, you can bypass them off with each vehicle;
- After certain hours (late) cut back to only a few security lights. Lighting is usually 25 percent of every store’s power bill, especially self serve carwashes. Spend the extra money for energy saving units;
- Sonic sensors for interior lights help, as do programmable thermostats for hvac; and
- Use a rotary air compressor, instead of piston. You can regulate (VFD) the voltage with rotaries.
From an anonymous reader:
I try to do as much as I can myself. It seems like there is always an air leak, water leak, or some broken piece of machinery to deal with. Hiring someone else to repair things really cuts into the bottom line.
I run as lean as I can by adjusting floor heat settings, keeping the weep costs down and adjusting the light timers monthly. All of these are loads on your business that don’t increase sales.
The other thing I did was pay my debt down as fast as I could.
From Dave Meauky, House of Wax, Orange, MA:
I began buying my chemicals for detailing in bulk containers and saved a lot over purchasing five gallons at a time.
Another tip; stay organized or get organized. You can save money by having things neat, orderly and systematic. For example, if all of your spare parts for self-serve bays are in one place, on a nice, clean, organized shelf, you can easily locate what you need when you need it, instead of rifling through boxes and piles of stuff.
I try and do cleaning and organizing as much as possible. Yesterday was slow at the detail shop because we had a full recon no-show. So I moved our clean window towels from an open shelf to an enclosed cabinet where they’ll stay cleaner and less dusty before they get used. I threw out some junk, saved some old wash mitts for the town guys who wash their trucks and need them, and improved my operation. Becoming organized, neat, and clean creates operational efficiency at many levels and that saves money!