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October 11, 2010
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You’ve heard it said that your biggest competition is not the carwash down the street, but the guy in the driveway, right? Then why are carwash owner/operators so slow to educate consumers and make them customers?

True, some operators and professional carwash associations have gone above and beyond to educate the consumer, but for the most part, important opportunities like drought and today’s emphasis on environmental protection are slipping by the industry without so much as a poster campaign.

This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing shares with you a few stories about carwash owners and operators who have worked hard to educate consumers in their area and turn them into carwash customers. Their actions should give you some ideas to use in your market area, and perhaps even motivate the industry into a united educational effort.

The problem:
Residential and charity carwashing

Who is taking action:
Vic Odermat and King County

As Bob Minnott will tell you, residential carwashing is like “motherhood and apple pie and the American flag.” Which is why expecting any politician to outlaw the activity is absolutely absurd.

But Minnott, a government affairs liason hired by Vic Odermat, founder and president of Brown Bear Car Wash, doesn’t end the conversation there. Instead, he presses carwash owners to use peer pressure and public education to turn these driveway washers into carwash customers.

“We’re at a ripe moment here. The emphasis on global warming, overpopulation, sustainability and climate change has pushed the idea of pollution into the forefront. We’re definitely capitalizing on that,” Minnott explained.

The research
The first step in the fight against residential carwashing was to get some solid, scientific research to prove the point. So Odermat commissioned a study by independent researchers Environmental Partners, Inc. of Washington, in order to prove residential and charity carwashing was hurting the environment, specifically the Puget Sound area, where his chain of 39 carwash locations is located.

“There was no scientific study [to prove residential and charity carwashing was bad for the environment],” Odermat explained. “It was like a bunch of people ‘crying wolf.’ So I figured, I would start this study, and then maybe there would be other people to pick it up and carry the ball, so to speak.”

The study used samples of water collected from an actual charity carwash and simulated samples of what could be expected of a residential carwash solution. The test samples were then added to tanks holding junior rainbow trout. According to principal scientist Dr. John Brasino, the results were surprising.

“We did a standard EPA test for trout toxicity using this charity carwash sample,” Brasino explained. “But our first experimental design didn’t take into account that we might kill everything with that dilution. It was very surprising to us. If we had expected it to be that toxic, we would have made higher dilutions so that something would have survived. At that point, we wanted to get an upper range and a lower range so that we could see where we were.”

So Brasino and his staff of researchers went back to the drawing board. “We thought there might be a large statistical variation between events of two charity carwashes, so instead we went back and used the soap itself, diluted out with an appropriate amount of rinse water. And we were probably conservative, in that we added 15 minutes of rinse water — you know, as if the hose was running for 15 minutes to the standard dilution that’s recommended for the soap. And then made some very light dilutions of that,” Brasino said.

With this very diluted sample, Brasino tried the test again. The results were nearly identical – all of the rainbow trout died, but under different dilutions. In Brasino’s final analysis, he concluded residential carwashing is a real detriment to salmon survival during the salmon spawning season in the Puget Sound area.
(A full report is available to carwash owner/operators on PC&D’s website, www.carwash.com.)

Using the research
Conducting the research was one hurdle, but the bigger challenge was to come. Taking the research and having legislators act upon it required a liason to the government. Enter: Bob Minnott.

“Rather than asking politicians to outlaw residential carwashing, our focus has been on education and getting them to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t do this’, Minnott said.”

The “peer pressure” campaign began with Larry Phillips, King County council member and chair of the King County Regional Water Quality Committee. King County is one of the country’s largest counties, and also home to Seattle, WA, a city known for its green policy and social awareness of the environment.

With Phillips’ leadership and Minnott’s help, the committee passed a resolution that asked County Executive Ron Sims to create and define ways to use public education to improve the water quality in King County. A primary focus of the educational campaign was, of course, residential carwashing.

Together, Minnott, Brown Bear and several city officials have already produced a video with a local celebrity to educate the public about the ills of residential carwashing. The video currently plays on the county’s website and on its public address TV station. Minnott hopes the video will reach city, county and state viewers within the next few months.

“When we’re done, we hope we will have tied all three knots: the state, the city and the county,” Minnott explained. “And all three will be saying residential carwashing is not the right thing to do. And they’ll all have full-blown public education programs.”

Phillips further explained: “We want to make sure water quality stays at the forefront of the public’s mind. And we want to make sure they understand that the way that they deal with wastewater at their homes affects the quality of our environment.”

Continuing education
Odermat’s hope is for carwash owner/operators to take the study he commissioned and use it in their own communities.

“I don’t want to parrot it around myself,” he explained. “That’s a bit too much like Paul Revere riding down the streets. And when you have a country as wide and diverse as America, well, you see how big a project it would be.”

Instead, Odermat encourages his peers to use his study and the footwork Minnott has made and offer it as evidence and motivation to their own legislators.

“This is the genesis. It is the first step. It is the beginning,” Odermat explained.

Odermat said it has already helped his operations on a local level, and suggested other operators in other states would have the same success by following the steps he has taken in Washington.

Focus on charity carwashing
If residential carwashing is apple pie and motherhood, then charity carwashing must be the equivalent of sainthood and the Pope. And, as such, should be handled more delicately.

While many carwashes have long opened their conveyors and bays to charity-use, many charities remain oblivious. If your carwash offers a charity carwash program, work hard to educate the public on its process and availability.

Many cities and counties are now offering charity carwash “kits” to student and church groups. The kits include various methods to collect and contain wastewater so that it is properly treated.

Contact legislators and city/county associations responsible for dispensing these kits and let them know that your services are available. The more avenues a charity has to get to you, the more likely the cheerleaders will be helping you build a customer base.

The problem:
Drought restrictions

Who is taking action:
Doug Christ and the Rocky Mountain Carwash Association

You would think drought conditions would place an emphasis on the importance of professional carwashes. After all, a professional carwash is said to use less than one percent of a municipality’s water supply, and most professional carwashes today recycle or reclaim their water to some degree.

But in many counties across the United States, this is not the case. Carwashes are some of the first businesses labeled as “water wasters.” Not only that, but because many drought contingency plans call for a ban on residential carwashing from the get go, many citizens expect professional carwashes to follow suit. After all, if washing your car is not an absolutely necessary chore that can be done at home, then why should professional carwashes remain open?

Drought plans
Luckily, most legislators do consider the economics of the situation. Closing carwashes also means sending employees home for days, weeks or even months. Employees who don’t work represent struggling families which can lead to a struggling economy — numbers politicians pay attention to.

For that reason, many professional carwash operators have been able to stay open during the first stages of many drought plans. The trouble, however, starts later in the game. When legislators consider the final stages of drought contingency plans, the interests of carwash owners and their employees fall by the wayside.

This is where lobbyists enter the picture, according to Doug Christ, past president of the Rocky Mountain Car Wash Association (RMCWA).

Lobbying & legislation
A lobbyist will know who to contact and will have connections to various politicians, Christ explained. The association will want to supply the lobbyist with all of the information and data that can help support your case.

You will also want to consider the politics of the situation. Choosing a member of the majority party to sponsor your bill greatly improves your chances of success, Christ said. “We originally tried getting this bill passed three years ago, but it failed because of party politics,” he explained.

The bill initiated by the RMCWA seeks to ban residential carwashing during the early stages of a drought, but it wasn’t what the bill was enforcing so much as it was suggesting.

“Really, this was a chance to educate politicans on how professional carwashes operate,” Christ said.

“We were proactive,” Christ explained. “We went to the state’s water board and we let them know we wanted to help because we knew we were so visible. We explained to them how we could reduce our water usage by 30 percent, and we gave them ammunition to give to the general public.”

Christ also worked with the state’s water board to educate charity groups. Charities who might otherwise host a carwash at a store parking lot are now given the opportunity to contact a carwash member of the association to host the same type of fundraiser without hurting the environment.

The problem:
Misinformation about car care maintenance

Who is taking action:
Individual operators, like Bill Consolo and Earl Weiss

Of all the different consumer education efforts, proper car care is the most confused. And it is perhaps the most important to the consumer. This represents real, economic sense for them. If their car is properly preserved, it is worth more money. (See Kelley Blue Book values for more obvious proof.)

Many car manufacturers offer conflicting information on the proper care and maintenance of a vehicle. And many car enthusiasts plaster the Internet with advice on home-based detailing and washing.

Add to the mix a bevy of newspaper articles that tell consumers carwashes are a “waste” of money (MSN Money Central article – Feb. 2007), or give them step-by-step guidance on washing at home, and you have a pretty confused customer.

Fighting this sort of misinformation primarily relies on grass roots efforts and the persistence of a few.

Correcting misinformation
In early 2007, Earl Weiss, owner of four conveyor carwashes in the Chicago market, was one of about 10,000 professional carwash operators to receive a poster from Toyota, the car manufacturer and parent company to Lexus and Scion. The mailing identified steps to proper washing and detailing of a Toyota, Lexus or Scion. It suggested hand washing as its method of choice.

Weiss was confused. Why was Toyota sending him, a conveyor carwash owner, a fax about proper hand washing of a vehicle? Weiss also wondered how Toyota was washing its vehicles at dealership, since many dealerships use automatic carwashes on site to wash stock vehicles.

A Toyota spokesperson acknowledged many Toyota dealerships use an automatic or conveyor carwash, typically friction, to clean their vehicles. The spokesperson could not tell Professional Carwashing & Detailing why carwashes were the targeted recipients of the poster, but said it was not intended to discourage the use of professional carwashes.

“Nowhere in that fax did we ask people to not go to carwashes, nor did we suggest they only hand wash them at home,” the spokesperson said via e-mail. “We know that many of our customers do go to carwashes, and as a result, the vehicle care card was developed.”

Weiss took action. He wrote to Toyota, to the ICA, and to the carwash trade magazines. While his letter solicited no response from Toyota, and only a mild response from the other recipients, it still served as a stepping stone towards consumer education.

Acid rain and the weatherman
Bill Consolo, owner of Chief’s Auto Wash and Chief’s Manufacturing & Equipment Co. in Cleveland, OH, found himself in a similar situation after watching a weatherman on The Weather Channel tell viewers that "Mother Nature" would be washing their cars the next day. This wasn’t the first time, and Consolo decided he had enough.

Consolo knew acid rain would not actually “wash” anyone’s vehicle. Instead, it was likely to damage vehicles by leaving a film of acid where it fell. In fact, if anything, consumers should prepare to go to a carwash after a rainy day in order to reduce the threat of damage to their vehicle.

His next steps were to first alert other carwash professionals to the incident and the ongoing situation via the Internet, and then to write a letter to The Weather Channel and the ICA.

Letter campaigns & grass roots
While some argued Consolo's efforts were futile, others chimed in with success they had on a local level or with encouragement for a wider, united response.

"One operator posted a really good idea [on an Internet bulletin board]. He called the local TV station and asked them not to use a rain cloud icon when it was a ten percent chance of rain. They actually listened to him,” Consolo said. “That makes a huge difference.”

Aside from letter campaigns, Consolo also writes and distributes a newsletter to his customers twice a year. The newsletter tells the customer about the importance of carwashing, and also educates them about the conditions their vehicles face. This summer, he is handing out a newsletter that explains the damaging effects of acid rain.

Certainly, on a local level, letter campaigns and personal telephone calls to the media responsible for the misinformation is your most effective reaction.

First, decide who the letter will be sent to. Aside from choosing the person responsible for the misinformation (i.e. the reporter or the weatherman,) make sure to also choose some local legislators and the parent company of the person (the radio station or the newspaper). Many operators choose to send their letters also to the ICA and to the carwash trade journals. This ensures that others can benefit from your movement.

It is extremely important that you use the letter as an opportunity to educate and inform. Do not lecture or threaten. Invite opportunities for further communication and education.

Lastly, keep copies of the letter and dates of its departure. If there is no response from the intended recipients, you might consider sending it to other local media.

What the ICA is doing about public education
The ICA is currently in its fourth year of its “Car Love” campaign, a national public relations campaign. Mark Thorsby, executive director of the ICA, said the association budgets about $150,000 each year for Car Love and other consumer educational efforts.

Its main effort, Car Love, uses a website as its primary platform. Thorsby also conducts one or two radio tours every year, visiting 25 radio stations across the country via telephone for short, ten-minute conversations during “drive time” hours.

Thorsby said the Car Love conversations on the radio focus on goofier facts from consumer surveys the ICA has conducted. Its most recent radio stint used statistics the ICA learned about carpooling habits (such as what sort of music drivers listen to, and how often a carpooling mother might clean the inside of her car).

Each conversation is designed to lead back to the Car Love campaign’s three core values:
  1. Feel good (washing your car makes you feel better about the vehicle and yourself);
  2. Environmental (a professional carwash is better for the environment than washing your car at home); and
  3. Economic (a clean, maintained car is worth more than a dirty car).
All of the materials that are part of the Car Love campaign are available to carwash owner/operators via the campaign’s website: www.carlove.org.

The ICA is also planning to use Odermat’s study to pitch to environmental reporters/columnists. It has developed a Fish Toxicity Report fact sheet, as well as a 2-page executive summary of the study. These materials will be used during the ICA’s next public relations campaign and will be available to carwash owner/operators via the association’s website: www.carcarecentral.org.

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