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Introducing Sergeant Self-Serve

October 11, 2010
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When I bought my first carwash 18 years ago it was already seven-years-old. The carwash, built in 1980, had high pressure wash, rinse, and wax with a homemade foaming brush system.

The previous owner explained why it was homemade when I purchased the wash: he had a business partner who wasn’t particularly financially responsible.

Therefore, he literally started the wash on a shoestring budget; building what he could himself, buying only what he had to, and installing only the basic carwash in order to open and get the cash flowing in.

Over the next seven years he added, installed, hooked up, and wired himself a presoak, degreaser, low pressure wax, antifreeze system for the foam brush and spot free rinse — all a first in Casper, WY.

Technologically aware
The previous owner always stayed ahead of the curve with the latest technology, but unfortunately he was not an electrician.

Everything worked and worked well, but the wires were hung without much expertise on the wall, ceiling, equipment, hangers, light fixtures, pipes or hanging in empty space, always taking the shortest distance between two points even if it was neck high.

I encountered the same problem with the hoses, and the small equipment room didn’t help matters either.

It’s easy to imagine the maintenance nightmare I faced, and it was important for me to develop a strong managerial plan from the start.

Taking the reins
The first thing I did when I took over was hire three good employees. My manager was the first person hired and has been with me for 18 years.

The second thing I did was institute a preventative maintenance program. It is much more efficient in terms of cost, down-time, customer satisfaction, peace of mind, and your bottom line to prevent equipment from failing rather than to fix it after it shakes itself apart.

When we started we had six busy bays, so it was important to the bottom line to keep all of them running.

Now we have 12 bays, so if one is down it’s not quite as detrimental, but it doesn’t look good from a customer perspective. Remember, customers don’t want to see “out of order” signs.

The basics
The most important parts of a preventative maintenance program are:

  1. It has to be in writing — preferably in list form;
  2. It must be a complete listing of all systems;
  3. It must be filled out every day;
  4. Make it short — no longer than one page;
  5. Have a place to write down the value being checked and the “correct” value.
  6. Notes to the attendants are helpful for them to understand what should be happening.

Note: Not all systems are capable of being checked each day. High pressure pumps have to be running to check the pressure, and on rainy or snowy days employees may not get any checked.

A brief list
Here is a shortened example of a preventative maintenance checklist:

  • Check spot-free tank level ______ (full if not busy). If the level is down the membrane pump should be running.
  • Check Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) ________
  • Pre-filter: Pressure in ________ Pressure out ______.
  • Air pumps: #1 _____, #2_____, #3_____, #4 _____
  • Spot-free pump: (membrane pump) pressure? _____
  • Check levels in the low pressure tanks _____. If the liquid looks low pull straight down on the float, liquid should fill up and then shut off. Make sure that the hydro-minders are straight up, the float will not work properly if not.
  • Check the color of each liquid — Do they look strong enough? _____
  • Spot-free pump: (dispensing pump) Pressure? _____

Design your list
Start the list at the door and work back so the attendant can walk along and check one system after the other without jumping around or searching.

For example, my list, because of the way the equipment is laid out, starts with the spot-free tank, moves on to the air pumps, then the spot-free membrane pump, low pressure tanks, and finally the spot-free dispensing pump.

If the site has two rooms or an upstairs, check one area completely first and then the other.

If employees are checking a pressure gage or something that has a value or figure, put the “correct” value on the check list so the attendant knows what it should be and can compare values.

It doesn’t do any good for the attendant to just put a figure down if he doesn’t know what the value should be. If he knows the correct value he will be able to notice when something is wrong and can call it to the owner or manager’s attention.

Sometimes putting an acceptable range of values is helpful. For example, if the air compressor turns on at 80 and turns off at 120, put 80-120 on the list for the correct/acceptable value.

If checking oil, have the oil handy for them to install if necessary and mark it so they won’t put pump oil in the air compressor.

Listen and learn
Have the attendants listen to the equipment. I did not ask my employees to do this, however it seemed to come naturally to them. They constantly pay attention to the sound of the equipment.

I’ve heard countless times from my employees, “It just doesn’t sound right.”

Of course, when there is a loud shrill whistle coming from a bad bearing it’s obvious that something is wrong. However, if employees listened closer on a daily basis they could have caught that quiet whistle before it became a serious problem.

If you catch it soon enough you might be able to schedule maintenance or repair during a down time when it’s convenient, rather than facing a surprise shut down on a Saturday morning when the cars are lined up.

Two steps ahead
Think ahead and have some spare parts in stock, keeping in mind that some system components are more important than others. The air compressor and foaming brush air pump affect all bays where a high pressure pump affects one.

We have an extra air compressor, it’s an older model, but it can take over for a few days. We also have a completely new air pump in stock as well.

We’ve stocked all the parts needed for a minor pump overhaul so we don’t have to wait to get parts freighted in. For the major overhaul we have a spare pump.

We designed our 12 bays to be completely identical — two separate six bay sections side by side at a 90 degree angle. Short of a power or water failure by the servicing utility, the worst case scenario for us is six bays down.

By planning ahead, training employees to spot minor problems before they become major problems, and performing preventative maintenance procedures, a self-serve owner can head off any potential problems at their initial start.


Dennis Ryan has been in the carwash business since 1988 and the construction business for 40 years. At one time he owned and operated five self-service carwashes. Currently he owns and operates American Pride Carwash in Casper/Evansville, WY. He can be contacted at nayrsinned@vcn.com.

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