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Detailing technology

November 25, 2009
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Many owners of detail companies did not spend their childhood dreaming about detailing — automobiles maybe, but not detailing. Many detailers’ interests were varied, from a general love of cars to the corporate world to real estate and the stock business.

Then came the day they got fed up with working for someone else or, because of the high pressure of the corporate world, many individuals begin searching for something else to do. Many people spend months looking for a career pursuit and, in doing so, became familiar with the detail industry. That’s when the adrenalin began to flow and many were hit by a lightening bolt over the business and its potential.

Look before you leap

Those who really analyze the business before jumping into it find the following:

· The detail industry is fragmented, with many small operators and few, if any, large ones.

· The Sunbelt states are the most lucrative markets for detailing because of the year-round detailing opportunities.

· The industry trails in the technology curve and is faced with monumental challenges with regard to new technology.

Successful operators will pursue a focused strategy on building the company with a commitment to operational efficiency. This requires the right systems, accompanied by recruiting and training the right personnel.

What is needed is pragmatic business knowledge, the ability to assess consumer behavior accurately, and, of course, customers.

Integrating new technology

Rather than using the primitive “squeeze-and-spray-bottle” technology found in most shops, a successful businessperson seeks to integrate the latest and most efficient technology into their new detail business.

By eliminating manual handling of chemicals and use of plastic bottles they eliminate the largest problem in detail operations today. And by eliminating portable shop vacuums and portable extractors, a detail business can be on the road to efficiency and profit.

Employees are taught what to do, what to use and are given time standards to meet. No more moving around the shop looking for this and that. They stay at their workstation until the work/job is completed. Without new technology, this can never happen in a typical detail operation.

Instead of doing one or two cars per man each day, the technologically advanced shop can achieve three and four cars per day per man, and working in two-person teams the turnover is even faster with more cars per man-hour paid. This is only possible in a business based on modern 21st century technology.

The cost of technology

Some say they can’t afford the technology or they don’t need it. This “head-in-the-sand” attitude is already paying for the new technology, but not owning it.

How? Lower production (fewer vehicles detailed per day) and higher labor costs.

Most detail businesses did not grow up using high tech equipment, so it is hard to train these experienced detailers to use any technology that requires they change their way of doing things. They are not “tech-savvy.”

Often detail business owners find it better and easier to train novices in the new ways of detailing, rather than trying to teach new tricks to old hands.

Without question well-trained, competent detailers are needed to facilitate the growth of a business. For a high tech business “recruiting” will not be difficult. Potential employees can see the business is in a growth mode and want to work there, rather than working in a dead-end business, making dead-end money with nowhere to go.

If a potential employee rebels against learning something new and challenging, advise them politely to seek employment elsewhere, in a less technologically advanced detail business.

Please note, the emphasis should not be on technology itself, but, rather, on what technology helps you accomplish — far greater efficiency and more economical use of your resources.

It will always be about providing superior service. The technology helps you provide it.

The detail industry is an exciting industry, full of potential. If you are willing to learn you can benefit. You need to continue to expand your business with fellow professionals and be sure to read all industry magazines and attend industry trade show and seminars to learn and grow.


Before considering what equipment you need in a detail workshop, consider what you really need to accomplish, based on what jobs you will perform. The various jobs range from vacuuming, shampooing and cleaning interiors to polishing and waxing paint. For these tasks, there is a variety of equipment.

What is suggested here is not the traditional equipment used in a detail shop, but what a professional detail shop needs to compete in today's auto service industry.

Air Compressor — While an obvious piece of equipment for any detail shop, most shops don’t have one. A compressor can be used for removing water from a wet car, drying a distributor or, especially, blowing out the interior of a vehicle, just to name a few jobs. Most important, however, compressed air is the power source for versatile pneumatic tools.

Do you realize every other auto service business exclusively uses air-powered tools? The detail business is the only auto service business still using electric tools.

Why? Simple. Most detailers say they cannot afford an air compressor.

Air Tools — With air power you have a choice of tools to increase efficiency.

With air, there are rotary buffers, lightweight and easy to handle with variable speeds and an on/off trigger which can be "feathered" when buffing over cracks and ridges to avoid burning. The buffers also last longer and require less maintenance.

With air, you can use rotary shampooers, smaller vertical air tools equipped with a round nylon shampoo brush. These units shampoo carpets, upholstery, vinyl and convertible tops quickly, effortlessly and with improved quality. They also are variable speed and can be feathered to avoid damage.

There are also air-powered mini-orbital waxers. Weighing about two pounds, they allow the detailer to wax an entire car in less than 10 minutes without fatigue. Even the larger air orbitals are an improvement over heavier, cumbersome electric orbitals.

Vacuums — Another obvious piece of equipment for a detail shop, most shops still use the inefficient portable wet/dry shop vacuums sold at department stores. The most efficient detail shop vacuum system is a central vacuum, installed in an equipment room with a pipe manifold leading to vacuum drops (hoses) at each work station.

This puts vacuum capabilities at the fingertips of each detailer and lowers the noise level in the shop for both employees and customers.

Soil Extractors — No detail shop, professional or not, should be without a soil extraction system. Used for shampooing carpets, fabric upholstery and floor and trunk mats, there are a number of units on the market, so you must do a little research before making a purchase.

Let me make a few suggestions. Solution/recovery tanks should be at least 10 gallons with a vacuum “lift” at least 130 inches and the unit should be heated. The general price range will be $1,100 to $1,600, although there are lower and higher priced units.

You will have to decide which direction you want to take. There are smaller units (two to three gallon) which are quite effective and may be the answer for the detailer who just can't afford an expensive unit. These are priced less than $600.

Chemical Dilution Stations — Because of the number of water-based chemicals used in a detail shop, it is absolutely critical to have a chemical dilution station.

They are inexpensive and "idiot-proof" to install, just mount it on a wall, connect a water supply or hose and select the dilution ratio you want.

Each station has a plastic fill hose and a second hose for the chemical container. Water pressure draws chemicals out of the container and through the orifice which determines the mixing ratio. The mixture is delivered into the container, bottle or tank. Cost for a single station should be less than $100.

Detail Work Carts/Table — As obvious as it may seem, many shops do not have a place for clean and dirty towels, buffing pads, tools, brushes, garbage and miscellaneous items. Employees are left to constantly run around looking for their equipment and supplies.

Shops should have a cart for these items. The cart can be wheeled up to each vehicle and easily moved to avoid hitting doors, etc. A simple item like this can save hours of time.

Dispensing Work Stations — These stations are probably the most expensive, but most efficient items introduced to the detail industry. The systems are the ultimate in efficiency, function and professionalism and a shop equipped with them makes a statement to both customer and employee that this truly is a professional business.

The work station literally holds everything the detailer needs when working on a vehicle. Typically, a work station will dispense from eight to 12 chemicals through application hoses and guns and offers air outlets to power tools. Stations also include built-in vacuum and/or soil extractor with hoses and nozzles and provide electric outlets.

Chemicals are dispensed from a chemical dilution and dispensing system which is located in a secure equipment room and piped to the work stations. The water-based chemicals are automatically diluted and held in tanks while ready-to-use chemicals are dispensed right from the original container.

Don't jump to the conclusion you can't afford this equipment. You need to objectively consider these recommendations and how they can help your business. Consider what you are already paying in higher labor and chemical costs and lower productivity.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a 37-year member of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the International Carwash Association Board of Directors and can be contacted at