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He said/she said: Vacuum profits

October 11, 2010
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This month, Professional Carwashing & Detailing rounded up two industry experts to discuss the particulars of profitable vacuum and combo units in a battle of the sexes. In the first corner, representing Mars, we have Trent W. Walter, weighing in at 20+ years of industry experience (he started working at his father’s wash when he was eight). In our second corner, the lovely Jamie Ware presents Venus’s case, topping the scales with 4.5 years in the carwash business.

What are some recommendations for improving the performance of the vacuum area at the carwash?

She said: Featuring several types of vacuums at your locations will allow your customers options and cover the bases of their needs. Vacuums that have a shampooer or a fragrance machine can increase income by 50 percent or more. This also adds convenience for the customer.

You should also check out competition near your site to make sure you have at least, if not more, than what they are offering.

He said: It is very important to inspect and test your equipment on a regular basis. As a consumer, there is nothing worse than putting money into a machine and not getting the item or service you expect.

If you don’t regularly use your coin acceptor or bill acceptor, you will never know if they are malfunctioning or not operating at top performance. The same goes for your vacuums and combo units. You should regularly check these machines to make sure there is ample suction. If you have a combo vacuum, test all of the functions:
  • Air machine;

  • Spot remover;

  • Fragrance;

  • Turbo vac.
Remember, people are creatures of habit; if they don’t get what they want the first time, they are not going to try again later. On the other hand, if they get excellent performance and are satisfied with their expenditure, they will be back.

Do you recommend any additional features?

She said: Combination vacuum vending islands have become very popular because of the options they offer the customer. The combo vac and vending islands are great not only for interior car cleaning, but also for promoting vending products such as interior fragrance, cloth towels and window wipes. They offer great curb appeal and are a one-stop shopping kiosk before or after carwashing.

A recent innovation is the countdown timer. The timer displays time, price, coins deposited, remaining time, and last coin alert. With an optional remote controller, you can change price and time as well as access coin count and cycle counts at the touch of a button.

He said: Knowing you want to get ahead of the competition down the street, you have to ask yourself one simple question, “What differentiates my wash from theirs?” The following are a list of options that can help drive revenue towards your wash and away from the competition.
  • Three motor vacuum;

  • Dollar bill acceptor;

  • Credit card acceptor; and

  • Combo vacuum.
You could also install a vacuum that has an additional charge for the use of three motors instead of the standard two motor service.

Carwash owners should also prepare for the future of currency, one in which quarters are not used! At a minimum, bill acceptors should be a standard feature on any new equipment you purchase. Industry price points for start-up on new vacuums range from $1 to $2.

If you are installing a combo vacuum, a credit card acceptor should be in the picture. Customers will spend more time and money using these machines.

Are there ways to make the vacuum area more convenient for customers so that they are more likely to spend money and take their time?

She said: To make more money, you need to accept more money. The latest technology on vacuum and vending islands is push button service and bill acceptors. With these advancements, the customer can use a code from a prepaid account or by using a credit card from an on-site card acceptor. Credit card users typically spend 10-15 percent more when cleaning their car than a cash customer. Plastic is also becoming the more preferred method of payment.

Adding a bill acceptor to each vacuum can also increase the vacuum income potential by simplifying the payment process. Customers love the convenience of not having to hunt down the bill changers and can use $1 or $5 bills to pay for the services. Vacuum and vending equipment that are equipped with bill acceptors can see a 20-25 percent increase in revenue.

He said: It all comes down to location. As an owner/operator, you must keep traffic flow in mind when building a new carwash or installing new vacuum islands. I would not recommend putting vacuum islands in front of self-service bays. This blocks the flow of traffic and can cause loss of revenue in your bays. On busy days you need to maximize profit. If a bay is being held up by a customer vacuuming out their car, you are losing dollars every minute. Additionally, customers will spend more time if they don’t feel a pressure to move forward into the bay. Space permitting, vacuum islands should be located out of the flow of traffic. If you don’t have the room, locate your combo vacuums in front of low volume bays.

What do you recommend for improving the appearance of the area? How can this help appeal to customers?

She said: Having the latest and greatest in your equipment is essential, but keeping it clean and attractive is just as important. Increased competition means curb appeal is vital to your business. Keep hoses, nozzles, domes and decals clean and maintained.

One of the most successful approaches to marketing vacuums is to mount them on an attractive stainless steel island base that includes a built-in trash can cover. Some covers even have mat clamps on them so that customers can easily shampoo their car mats. Vending islands are also available with stainless steel bases. The stainless steel look is attractive plus it is easier to clean and maintain than brick or stone surrounds.

In addition to the base, a brightly colored backlit awning also appeals to customers — especially at night. The awning can serve as a billboard for your carwash. You can promote your vacuums by having outdoor vinyl graphics on your awnings that read “vacuum,” “shampooer,” “interior fragrance,” “credit cards accepted,” or even promote your website. With this in mind, you can also place awnings above your vending area and promote your line of products on the awning.

Lastly, using colored graphic decals on the vacuums make a more eye-appealing part of your carwash.

He said: What customer wants to use equipment that looks worn out? Regardless of the functionality of your equipment, if it appears in bad shape, customers are going to be less likely to spend the money to use your equipment. Remember to:
  • Properly maintain vacuums and regularly replace hoses, claws, and couplers;

  • Keep an extra hose on the shelf and rotate them out as necessary;

  • Cleaning the old hoses is easy: power wash them and hang to dry;

  • Vacuum claws can be bought for under $2, so there is no excuse for not replacing them when they are damaged;

  • Typical lifespan of vacuum decals is three to five years, based on weather climate and exposure to sun. Remember to replace sun-faded or otherwise old and peeling decals;

  • Keeping the area around your vacuum clean is just as important. Over-filled trash cans and pop bottles laying around are a deterrent; and

  • Don’t underestimate the eye appeal of sweeping or blowing off your lot on a regular basis.

What are some routine maintenance tips that would help operators save money or lengthen the equipment's lifespan?

She said: Having state-of-the-art equipment with a long life and dependability can guarantee a higher return on your investment.

He said: Some of the external items have been mentioned in previous sections, such as hoses and decals, but other internal items should be checked on a routine schedule, too. These include vacuum bags, door gaskets and scent/shampoo hoses.

It is a good practice to keep an extra set of vacuum bags on site. Based on usage, vacuum bags should be taken out, washed and dried on a regular frequency. Cleaning your vacuum bags is beneficiary in two ways. One, the customer gets more suction when the bags are clean. Two, your vacuum motors will last longer since less debris is being pulled through the cloth bags into the motors.

Door gaskets can be visually inspected while you are dumping the collected debris. If you suspect the gasket has been compromised cycle the vacuum and check the suction. You will know right away if there is a problem. Door gaskets are less than $6, while motor gaskets are less than $2. Make sure you have a back-up on the shelf.

Replacing gaskets in cold weather can be difficult. If you have one that is suspect, change it before the snow flies. Some adhesive will not set in cold climates.

If you have a combo vacuum, it is a good habit to do visual inspection of the suction hose. Overtime they become brittle and loose their flexibility. Operators can fracture the lines when changing out solutions. Make sure to take time to look them over every couple months.

How can operators reduce vandalism of the vacuum area?

She said: Having your vacuum islands near the front of your site adds curb appeal and adds safety for nighttime users.

He said: This one is easy – get a 24-hour surveillance system. Any carwash operating in the 21st century should have a security system. There are very simple packages for 8, 16 and 24 camera systems available for around $5,000-$10,000. Some insurance companies offer financial breaks for washes with active systems.

If you don’t have the capital to purchase a surveillance system, the best step is to insure your lighting is in good condition. It is a well known fact that criminals will stray away from well-lit areas. I have visited countless washes that have proper light placement; yet half of the bulbs are burnt out and/or the lenses are so dirty the light is not as effective.

Another overlooked step is to empty your vaults on a daily basis. If a thief breaks into one coin vault and hits pay dirt, rest assured he will continue on or come back later for more. If he gets into the first vault and there is a minimal amount of money, he will move on.

In conclusion:

She said: Vacuums and vending islands can be great profit centers if you know the tricks of the trade.

He said: Differentiating your wash from the competition will drive business directly to you. Don’t look at vacuum islands as a headache, but as a solid source for revenue and good investment for the future.


Trent W. Walter is the general manager of National Pride Equipment, Inc. of Ashland, OH, a manufacturer and distributor of self-serve carwash equipment and supplies. He can be reached at (800) 537-6788.

Jamie Ware is the marketing coordinator of the Jim Coleman Company of Houston, TX, a self-serve carwash equipment manufacturer. She can be reached at (713) 683-9878.

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