Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The how to and why to of centralized vacuum maintenance

February 25, 2014

In today’s fast-paced world, everyone wants to be in and out of the carwash as fast as possible. And, along with the washing of the car, they also want to quickly vacuum up the interiors using the best equipment possible. In order to offer the best in equipment, it has to be properly maintained. A broken down vacuum or one which doesn't work well will cause customers to go elsewhere.

Today's modern machines are more computerized, with more technical components. With these advancements, comes an increased need for knowledge about the machines, and added emphasis from you and your employees on maintaining them.

Vacutech President Tom Tucker has been in the centralized vacuum business since birth, and full time since 1968. The technology in the industry has changed a lot in that time, and centralized vacuum systems have grown greatly in market share in the carwashing and detailing industry. What hasn’t changed is that customers are still relying on the carwash for the best automotive vacuum experience.

Advantages and disadvantages of express vacuums

According to Tucker, 90 percent of the machines that he now builds are for the express market. There are advantages to the express machines, like customer convenience, and the ability of employees to focus their time on other aspects of the carwash.

However, there are disadvantages about them as well. “Customers are the ones using the system now, not a paid, trained employee,” said Tucker. This can lead to a lack of discretion from some customers, who will attempt to or succeed at vacuuming things up, that an employee would not. Tucker described water as one of the biggest enemies of the carwash vacuum, and something that causes major damage when it is vacuumed into the bags.

Jeff LaBarre, Innovative Control Systems' (ICS) communications manager, believes that your employees play a major role in the maintaining and preservation of your vacuums. Many of the problems that the vacuums have can come from a lack of understanding and proper maintenance methods.

Trained employees

In Tucker’s opinion, the biggest problem is the lack of properly trained people assisting with the vacuum system at a carwash. “There needs to be one person, maybe two, trained on how to train and maintain the system. They need to know when to remove the bags from the separator, clean and replace them, and how to properly assess and determine the quality of the vacuum, vacuum nozzle and hose.” When employees are trained properly, LaBarre says the actual cost of operating a carwash vacuum will be decreased. So you should have plenty of motivation for taking care of these machines.

When a few employees are in charge of maintaining your vacuums, it is helpful for many reasons. For starters, the more someone works with something, the better adept they will become at it. It is also effective in creating a culture of responsibility. If only a few people are in charge of the machines, then these employees know they will be held responsible when the vacuum is not working properly. This is also a chance to give a quality employee a promotion, or a chance to prove his or her worth.

The vacuums are one of the most important aspects of a carwash, and assigning your best employees to take care of this asset is a great way to ensure better maintenance. LaBarre said they are “typically the second most expensive wash component, next to blowers,” so they’re not something you want to be giving anything but the best maintenance.

Maintenance tips

Jim Yablonski, Business Manager Industrial Sales at the Spencer Turbine Company, offered maintenance tips for carwash owners. Some daily maintenance tips are to shut down the unit, shake the filter bags and empty the contents of what has been collected for the day. Also, at the end of the day, unplug the last hose on the system and hold the inlet port open for a few seconds to allow a high volume of air to flow through the tubing to aid cleaning of the tubing system. Yablonski says that shaking the filters is one of the things that employees tend to skip over, and it only takes a few minutes, but is important to proper maintenance.

Once a week or more, the hoses should be checked for cracks, and the tubing should be checked for air leaks, according to Yablonski.

Something that should be done at least once a month, and when it’s quiet, is an inspection of the unit. You can listen to and check for a sound that would indicate that there is a leak coming from somewhere. The filters should also be checked around this time, to see if there is a buildup of dust and dirt, which may indicate a rip in the seperator filter bag; this should be done when the machine is turned off.

A yearly check of the motor manufactures instructions for lubricating the motor is another of Yablonski’s tips. There are other problems that come up from time to time, that you will have to look out for, and be ready to fix before they become a bigger problem. For example, “If the finish on the machine gets nicked or scratched, take care of it,” said Yablonski.

One old trick in the business that Yablonski and Tucker offered is to vacuum cat litter or oil sweeps through the vacuum hose. The cat litter will clean debris off of the walls of the hose, and the oil sweeps add a moisture absorbent. Properly maintaining the vacuum hose is of the upmost importance. Tucker explained, “If they become oval, flattened, or have holes in them, they need to be replaced.”

Understand your instruction manual

Another point of emphasis from the experts is to properly understand the maintenance and instruction manual that comes with your machine. Make sure that you and your employees who are in charge of the vacuums read the entire maintenance manual. The manual and knowledge about the equipment will go a long way in knowing when it is time to replace components of the vacuum, which is something that can save you a lot of money in the long run. This is another example of where assigning specific employees to the vacuum machine can have a positive result.

Much of this may seem complicated, but Yablonski said that most of the problems that you will encounter are things that you can fix yourself. The ability to fix these problems will come from the knowledge you and your employees gain from working with the machines, reading the manual and learning all you can when the machine is dropped off.

Know your system

You also need to know what type of vacuum system works best for you. Major things that must be taken into consideration are the size of the vacuum system and the number of customers who can use the system at one time. “If that vacuum system was not designed, engineered, and pipe sized properly  ...  you’re going to have a problem,” said Tucker. 

One of the biggest misconceptions amongst customers and carwash employees is that the vacuums “don’t have enough suction,” according to the experts. “It isn’t that they don’t have enough suction, it’s that they don’t have enough airflow,” said Tucker.  A central vacuum cleaning system needs a separator between the vacuum hose and the piping system. There are all sorts of things that get stuck in these systems, including pens, socks and other large debris, which can cause blockage and negatively impact the airflow. 

A turbine rarely loses its airflow and pressure (suction) performance. Where the problem of poor airflow and pressure (suction) usually starts is in the filter separator, or piping system vacuum hoses and their connection point. “If they don’t have a separator, dust begins to build up, and it is like an artery in your body, it gets clogged,” said Tucker. “It diminishes the volume of air that can go through [the machine] smoothly, and it gets clogged.”

If there is no debris separator between the vacuum hose and vacuum piping system, Tucker said you can count on clogging. Moisture will cause the separator filter bags, vacuum hoses and piping systems to attract dust, dirt and hair.

Customer service and your vacuum

Make sure to work with your customers as well. If a customer appears to be having difficulty using the vacuum, go over and help them. Ask them what you can do to improve their experience with your vacuum, and listen to what they tell you.

Maintaining quality vacuums isn’t just about providing a quality service to your customers; it is a matter of reputation building, and something that creates loyalty. Customers have come to expect a great vacuuming experience at the carwash, and may not look to return to your establishment, even if you give the best wash around, if you can’t provide it.

At the end of the day, the vacuum may not be the thing that makes customers start going to your carwash, but it is one of the most important experiences in maintaining your customer base. “You can have the greatest tunnel in the world ... but if your vacuum will not allow them a good experience, they’re not coming back,” said Tucker.