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Self-serve

Fixing chemistry mistakes

October 11, 2010
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Veterans of self-serve carwashing know the signs that a self-serve bay might have a problem — the hose in the bay has been cut, the brush handle has been run over or the foam brush has been used to beat the coin box silly.

These “signs” are the aftermath from the reactions some customers have when a self-serve bay is not working how they expected. Of course, this points out the problem when it is too late. More civilized customers will express their anger in an even more painful way — they simply won’t come back.

How do we as operators keep customers happy with a consistent, high-quality wash?

Well, at first this seems simple — keep an eye on things and make sure that the product consistency is good.

But what is the product? Is the product just the detergent coming out, or water jetting out? Or is the product how well our change machines work? How well the vacuums work? Clean bays? A working foam brush? Functioning chemicals?

Clearly the self-serve wash product is all of these together. Operators need to make sure that the whole product offering is quality beyond just the basics of chemicals and water. While this is true, no one can dispute that customers come to a self-serve wash to wash their car, so for the purposes of this article let’s focus on the quality and consistency of the wash process.

If it can go wrong…
Keeping a self-serve wash running takes organization and commitment. There are so many things that can go wrong:
  • Foam: In terms of foam, ask if there is too little or too much. Too much foam can be difficult to rinse and too little can make the product appear “weak” regardless of the actual chemical strength.

  • Color: Is it rich enough to emulate quality? Customers relate high dye color to high strength. While operators may differ on the effectiveness of this strength, most agree that a high-colored detergent looks high strength.

  • Fragrance: Most customers prefer a good fragrance level. Satisfy your customer’s olfactory senses with strong, pleasing fragrances.

  • Cleaning: Is the product strong enough to do its job? Make sure that you test your chemical strengths twice monthly with a chemical titration kit (a way to measure the strength of the detergent). Obviously, if presoaks, tire cleaners and high pressure detergents are not up to strength they will not perform well. If you have a good servicing distributor, ask him or her to leave regular reports to verify strengths. If you suspect one of your products is not cleaning as it should despite being the right strength, consider visiting competitor’s sites and seeing if theirs is any better. If it is, find out what they are using. Remember, detergent pails get thrown in the trash and used as trashcans.

  • Changeover: Does the product change over quickly? If it takes a long time for presoak to begin spraying when they switch from wash soap you may lose customers. Customers don’t want to wait 20 seconds for presoak to begin spraying. Reduce changeover by making sure that manifolds are above the bay — not in the equipment room, and consider raising pump pressures to shorten changeover.

  • Application/coverage: Does the product flow at a rate that is usable? Is the foam brush too wet or dry? Low pressure products especially suffer from poor application — products like foam brush, tire cleaner and presoak. Make sure these products are flowing otherwise they will be too dry and customers will feel a low value in purchasing these products.
Now, consider the list above and then consider that every product below is affected:
  • Presoak;

  • Tire cleaner;

  • Foam brush;

  • High pressure soap;

  • Clearcoat protectant;

  • Rinse; and

  • Spot free.
Checking your list
If you do the math, you have roughly six categories to check on and at least five or more products in each category. If you have four self-serve bays, you have to do this in each bay. Never mind if you have more than four bays or multiple locations!

Given this, it is no wonder that operators often don’t catch problems at their wash.

In order to troubleshoot problems effectively before they start to affect the quality of your carwash, I recommend the following:
  1. Checklist: If you have an attendant don’t just tell him to check each bay each day. Make sure that he has a checklist and make sure he completes one each day for each bay. Restaurants use these checklists to ensure that the employee remembers to clean restrooms. If you don’t have an attendant, discipline yourself by forcing yourself to check all bays at least before the weekend and after the weekend. Force yourself to this schedule because two days will turn into one month before you know it and problems will be missed and customers will be lost.
  2. Use your own washes: And don’t use the same bay! Most of us who operate carwashes own multiple sites and/or have automatics and self-serve bays at a wash. I would guess most operators like me wash in the automatic because it is easy and fast. Take the time to use your own self-serve bays occasionally and make sure that the items in the checklist are being done. Encourage friends and family to call with even the slightest complaints.
Happy washing and remember — customers expect high quality and consistency with every visit!


Brent McCurdy is co-owner of Blendco Systems, LLC. Blendco Systems provides carwash detergents, protectants and other related chemicals to all segments of the carwash market. Blendco is headquarted in Bristol, PA and sells throughout North America and internationally.

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