Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Is your carwash safe and secure?

From preventing break-ins, to making sure customers are safe, it’s best to make sure you’re taking every necessary precaution.

September 24, 2013

Each week, a news story is published on having to do with some sort of crime occurring at a carwash. It’s not positive news for the industry, but important news in that noteworthy information can be gleaned from each story. For instance, in many of the stories, when a criminal is caught, it’s because the carwash property was being monitored by surveillance equipment aimed at popular target areas for thieves. Carwashes are perhaps targeted because there is usually some form of cash on site, and cars can easily pull in and out of the site. Curtis L. Ray, vice president of Acquire Video Security Alarm systems, said the following are all good measures for increasing security at carwashes:

  • CCTV systems
  • Locks
  • Gates
  • Barrier systems
  • Proper lighting

“Alarms,” noted Ray, “are obviously pretty standard and can detect intrusion, glass break, unauthorized entry, etc. and can alert local law enforcement upon occurrence. Security cameras and CCTV are now standard fare at carwashes, and protect operators from both internal and external crime. While low tech in nature, locks are always needed at carwashes for vending machines, bill changers, vacuums, and other self-serve items on the premises.

Many washes that do not operate 24 hours are using gates at night to keep vehicles from entering the property and deterring entrance into the property in general, Ray added. “In some high-crime areas, carwash operators have had to resort to using barrier systems such as steel cages or concrete walls erected around vending or pay stations to prevent criminals from stealing them right off of their foundations.  Another commonly overlooked security component at carwashes is lighting systems. Carwashes that are well lit can help deter crime and make customers feel safe. These lighting systems are also a valuable tool in enhancing the quality of surveillance video as well.”

Crime prevention

Having security systems in place, such as intrusion alarms and video surveillance, can be an effective deterrent to crime at carwashes, said Ray. “Typically, criminals like to follow the path of least resistance and will tend to target homes or businesses where there is opportunity to commit their crimes quickly and with little to no chance of getting caught. A carwash that has a working alarm system and security cameras clearly visible will not be as attractive of a target as the business next door that does not have these measures in place.”

According to Allen Spears, who has been in the carwash business for more than 25 years and currently owns four carwashes in Texas and is the chief engineer at CarWashCameras., if a criminal is intent on robbing or stealing from you during business hours, then cameras at your cash points and valuable merchandise areas are probably your prime crime points. “If your problems are after hours,” he said, “then doors, large windows and where high value equipment is mounted is probably what needs to be monitored. Get the cameras to the places where cash and merchandise is stored, then to the areas that might be prone to vandalism.”

When employees are the criminals

 According to Ray, statistics show that employees are actually the primary source of most business thefts. “Others with inside access to the business, such as employees of a janitorial service or a vendor, are also additional sources of theft. Outside theft is still common, but not nearly as prevalent as inside theft.”

If security cameras are in place, an employee knows there is a higher risk of getting caught and may decide it’s not worth it, said, Ray. And if they do decide to commit a crime and are subsequently caught by the video system, that incident will reinforce the deterrence factor to the other employees.   

Video surveillance systems are the most obvious use of technology that is used to keep an eye on employees for obvious reasons, noted Ray. “The remote accessibility of these camera systems gives owners/operators the ability to literally ‘see’ what is going on at the carwash without having to physically be there. They can in turn use this technology to monitor the employees and their productivity at their discretion. They can also review video to see what has transpired during the day, how much work the employees were doing, which employees arrived and/or left on time, took a long lunch, were helpful to customers, etc.  

Audio recordings can also be another useful technological tool in the monitoring of employees, allowing business owners to gauge how effectively their employees interact with co-workers and customers, said Ray. Audio surveillance can also be used to ascertain overall workplace morale, or to resolve an employee-customer dispute.

“Finally, many carwashes have technological protections in place within their tunnel control system software to monitor whether employees are giving away free or discounted carwashes to friends and/or family, as well as making sure that cash from the pay stations is all accounted for based on the number of cars washed,” said Ray.

Equipment available

Over the last few years, there have been advancements in traditional security technology, said Ray. “With the onslaught of iPhones, iPads, and Android Smartphones and tablets, much of the new technology has been geared towards being able to use apps on these devices in conjunction with traditional security systems. For example, most CCTV systems now offer the ability to view live camera feeds, or even play back recorded video on these devices. Other apps allow operators to set, reset, or monitor their alarm and point of sale systems remotely.” 

CCTV technology itself has also evolved in recent years, noted Ray. “While traditional CCTV systems are still the prevalent technology purchased today by consumers due mainly to their price, there is a new class of CCTV on the rise that includes IP based network cameras, High-Definition cameras, Video Analytics, License Plate Recognition (LPR) systems, and Facial Recognition Technology.”

In particular, IP and true-network based High-Definition cameras and network recording devices are where the major players in the CCTV industry are focusing most of their current and future research and development dollars, said Ray. “The latest technology that is currently getting the most attention within the industry is Ultra HD, also known as 4K. Ultra HD (4K) is a super-high resolution that provides image clarity (8.3 Megapixels) never seen before in the world of video surveillance. Ultra HD (4K) technology records and plays back recorded images with 4 times more pixels than 1080P HD surveillance cameras.”  Another newer HD camera technology available from manufacturers is called HD-SDI, which uses specific High-Definition cameras that work only over coax. These types of systems are generally plug-and-play and do not require network knowledge to install, added Ray.

According to Spears, the "Super-Wide" analog is the first major improvement in Analog technology in decades. “These new Super-Wide systems do not cost any more than regular analog, but they give you a picture and recording that is a lot wider. How wide?  960 pixels wide (almost into Megapixel widths). This new wide format now works on your regular 16:9 format monitors and TVs. The old analog system was a square 4:3 format.  There is also more resolution — 33 percent more. This extra width works great on Vehicle Damage Inspection systems in tunnels, because that extra width is able to see so much more of the car now.  This is breathing new life into analog…” 

How to properly use your equipment

According to Spears, it all comes down to making sure you first have the proper equipment. “A regular off-the-shelf camera might be tough enough to survive in conditioned environments such as retail areas or offices, but in some outdoor areas, bays, tunnels and equipment rooms where the presence of moisture, chemicals, overspray and spewing leaks are present, a camera that has not been hardened, sealed and coated to withstand such a corrosive environment will not survive for long. Thus, maintenance becomes a time consuming problem very early in the life of a system, and only gets worse from there.”
Another problem Spears often sees is carwash owners are not using he right lenses. “Most cameras available on the Internet or from a warehouse club usually have a wide-angle, short distance fixed lens. “A wide-angle fixed lens is great for looking at something a short distance away, but a larger, adjustable lens is needed when you need to watch something beyond 15-20 feet out. Getting the right lens for the job, is usually the most important aspect of setting up an effective camera system.”

One of the major ways business operators do not use their security systems properly is by not having them routinely serviced, said Ray. “I have seen many business owners who have alarm systems with faulty contacts that simply ‘bypass’ those areas in order to set their alarms.  What good is setting the alarm if one or more areas of entry are not protected? I have also seen business owners who have a fully functional alarm system in place and simply choose not use it for a variety of reasons including avoiding the false alarm charges levied by local law enforcement, failing to pay their monthly bill, inadequately trained closing staff, or just pure laziness.” 

The same case can be made for neglected CCTV systems, said Ray. “A primary example in the carwash business is the glass covers on camera housings that are subject to carwash spray or other environmental elements that need to be routinely cleaned for maximum effectiveness. I have seen many carwash camera systems where the pictures looked terrible or hazy, but after spending 10 minutes or less cleaning off the lens covers, the images looked like a brand new camera system was just installed. The decrease in image quality happens slowly over time and many operators and managers simply become accustomed to the hazy images and do not realize how far the images have actually degraded.” 

Ray said he has also seen where operators have several pole lights on their property, or light packs on their building that are non-functional. “For various reasons, they have failed to have them repaired or replaced.  As I mentioned earlier, poorly lit car washes are an inviting target for would-be criminals looking for an easy score.”

Keeping security equipment safe

One simple rule can help keep your cameras safe, said Spears, no matter where or how you mount them. That rule is: If a camera is mounted low enough that a thief or vandal can reach it easily or hit with a stick to turn it to the side, then use a dome camera.
“A dome camera isn't mounted on an arm that can be turned away from what it's looking at or broken. You can't hang a cap on it to block the lens. And spray paint doesn't stick to the polycarbonate domes very well at all. Most other types of cameras have glass in the front, and paint sticks to glass a lot easier,” said Spears.
Keeping a DVR (Digital Video Recorder), safe requires some extra thought about where to put it, noted Spears. Consider using:

  • A closet that can be locked
  • A locking cabinet
  • A steel DVR cage

However, said Spears, if you don't have a safe place for the DVR, then find a brand of DVR that supports recording to hard drives that are placed elsewhere in your facility. This feature is called NAS, or Network Attached Storage. That way, if your DVR is stolen, your recordings and archives will still reside elsewhere on your network.
“We do not recommend storing recordings to the "cloud" (Internet) because the internet is too slow to transfer anything but a few pictures a minute, and then add in the fact that your Internet may slow down quite often, and in some cases, out of service altogether,” said Spears.

Protecting you from customer disputes

Video surveillance in particular, is an essential tool in helping carwash owners settle customer disputes, said Ray. “One of the most common problems is a customer claiming that the carwash caused damage to their vehicles. Video surveillance can help the carwash owner determine if the damage on the vehicle was already there prior to the vehicle entering the wash facility. The video system now becomes the judge and jury of a dispute instead of the carwash operator having to verbally convince customers that the damage was already there and that the wash did not cause it.  Obviously, the higher the quality of the video system and its installation, the more pre-existing damage the car wash owner may be able to document and show.” 

Another area where video surveillance can be a valuable tool for carwash owners is disputing or proving that a theft did or did not occur, especially at full-service washes where customers are waiting and away from their vehicles for an extending period of time, said Ray. “Video cameras placed at the vacuum station or detail area, where employees are working directly inside customer vehicles, can help deter potential theft or prove or disprove an incident. In the event a customer claims a personal

belonging was stolen from their vehicle, the video recording of the area’s cameras may be able to confirm or refute that an employee actually stole the item(s) in question from the customer’s automobile.”

Video surveillance, added Ray, depending on where cameras are placed and their quality, can also help with other disputes such as whether a particular service was performed, complaints about wait time, accusations of lazy or rude employees, altercations with other customers, malfunction of vending machines or wash equipment, etc.

How much camera footage can the typical DVR hold? 

According to Ray, video system archive times can vary tremendously from DVR to DVR. There are four factors to consider:

  1. You must take into consideration the size of the hard drive or drives in the DVR.  2.
  2. Then consider the total number of cameras on a system. The more cameras one has on a single DVR, the more hard drive space is needed. 
  3. Then note that frame rate and video recording quality has a major impact on eventual storage times.
  4. Another factor is whether a DVR is set up for continuous recording, or recording for motion only.
  5. Finally, the video file sizes can also vary between different DVRs depending on the type of compression they employ. 

“A typical DVR set to record 24/7 at the highest frame rate and highest recording quality isn’t going to afford very much archive time at all unless is it outfitted with several, large hard drives designed for this type of recording. Today’s newer high-end DVRs set to record only during motion at the highest or just under the highest quality setting at 7 to 15 frames per second (FPS) can generally offer end users anywhere from a 7-14 days” said Ray. “Higher end DVRs outfitted with large capacity hard drives can usually be programmed to give the operator 30 or more days of archive time with satisfactory quality and frame rate settings.  Cheaper or entry level DVRs are going to provide much less archive time.  Reducing frame rates and recording quality can achieve more archive time, but one must walk a fine line between forgoing video quality simply for the sake of archive time.”

How tech savvy does an owner have to be?

Security camera systems these days are able to operate mostly autonomously, said Spears. “Monitoring the cameras and accessing any functions that an owner will need after an event or crime, can be accomplished from your regular browser on your computer —wherever that computer is located.  If the company that you purchased the system from has a support line and/or a service contract, the amount of interaction with the system is minimal.”

Manufacturers, Spears noted, have tried very hard to create systems that can be accessed from your PC or even your smart phone and many operators can go years without ever actually seeing their DVR, because they have been communicating with it from the devices they use every day.