Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Build a barrier at your self-serve

October 11, 2010

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that there are people out there that want to steal what is yours. You work hard all your life to get where you’re at and someone else thinks that they deserve what you have.

Sometimes these individuals will even work harder trying to steal what is yours than they do at trying to attain a real job.

My theory about thieves is that they are basically lazy. They don’t want to get caught and they realize that the longer they take (risk time) to finish a job increases the chance of getting caught.

Therefore, al-though they will not expend much energy, they won’t take any more risk time than absolutely necessary.

Slowing them down
A self-serve owner should always try to make it harder work for thieves by making them take longer, thereby increasing the risk time.

There are many ways that an owner can make it difficult for a thief. At the very least we don’t want to make it easier.

None of these suggestions for security measures are new or unique to the carwashing industry. Many can be adapted to an existing building, while others can only be incorporated into a new facility.

Adequate lighting is a must at all self-serve carwash sites. In addition to the building, dryer and covered drying area light fixtures, our facilities have six 1,000-watt flood lights to cover the parking/drive area.

In my opinion, the two most important security measures an owner can invest in are the closed-circuit TV system and a security alarm system.

The optimal situation is for an owner to install both and not have to choose between them. The two complement each other and both have a high degree of deterrent factor.

The worst fear a thief has is getting caught and both of these systems increase that possibility.

Security systems
A self-serve owner can purchase a very sophisticated security system with all kinds of bells and whistles if they so choose. However, here are just a few of the basics.

  • An outside bell or horn that can be heard all over the neighborhood. This will scare the thief and he’ll stop whatever he is doing and leave. If a neighbor wakes up and calls the police it’s a nice gesture to give them a few carwashes to thank them.
  • Some people recommend silent alarms. However, my first goal is to get the perpetrator to leave. Of course, I would like to catch the thief; however, it seems more important to limit the damage to my facility.

A thief can do a lot of damage to a vender or changer in the four to eight minutes that it takes for a response team to reach the scene after a silent alarm is triggered.

Dick Hall, a wash operator in Sheridan, WY, had a thief peal the stainless steel hinges off of a front load changer in three minutes.

Hall knew it was three minutes because the thief turned off the main power while working and then turned it back on when he left. Tip: put locks on outside disconnects.

  • A combination of door and window contacts and motion detectors — and possibly a vibration detector for the changer and vender — is a worthwhile investment. Closed circuit TV systems can also be set up with motion detector alarms.
  • Security firewalls should be set up to ensure that unauthorized personnel cannot access the program.
  • Also, if available, purchase a coded system for arming and de-arming the system that will archive the codes so you can check back to see whose code armed and de-armed the system and at what time they did so. Each employee should have his/her own code without knowing the others.

Make sure your doors swing out of the building. It is difficult to open a door pulling on the door knob, and it is much more difficult to ram the door in against the door jambs.

The downside is that the hinges are on the outside. The hinge pins have a set screw that can be accessed only with the door open but the hinges are a weak spot.

I suppose it could be possible for the thief to use a cutting torch or saws-all but that increases the risk time.

However, if he’s that determined the door swing will not deter him. For a less determined, lazier thief, the door swing might actually stop him.

Install dead bolts on the doors and install some protection around the dead bolt (see photo). I’ve never tried it but people say that a good whack with a 10-pound sledge hammer will knock off a dead bolt. With the welded ring around it they would have to use a chisel.

Install bollards in front of the equipment room (changers) that are sturdy enough to stop a stolen car and spaced close enough so a small car cannot get between them. (See photo above)

Reinforcing your fortress
Reinforced walls for the equipment room are a must. Our building is strengthened by brick, but we had the voids filled with rebar and concrete.

A brick or cinder block wall without any backing on the other side is easy to batter down with a 10-pound sledge hammer, but nearly impossible to destroy if they are filled with concrete.

Reinforce your roof to stop quick entries. Most roofs now-a-days are metal, which are easily penetrated with a cutting edge and hammer.

About 10 years ago at one of our carwashes a thief came through that way and the police figured it took him about three minutes to cut an L-shaped hole large enough to drop through.

He walked out the door because our dead bolts were not keyed on the inside. Our carwash now has a metal roof but we poured 4” of concrete over it. We have a roof top swamp cooler with rebar crossing over the opening and of course our cameras cover the roof also.

If you have to have windows, try to make them small enough that even a small boy can not slip through. Position the window so anyone looking in can not see anything of value. Cover them at night or don’t have a night light on.

Bar the way
Multi-barrier protection is a good way to increase a thief’s risk time. Changers and venders must be accessible to the public, and they only have their own walls and locks to keep out the thieves.

But all other cash, tokens, checks and other valuables should have as many barriers in front of the thief as possible.

The more barriers you put between the thief and your valuables the more risk time there will be.

In our equipment room we have six safes all with combination locks. A thief will not know which safe has the cash in it.

The equipment room door has a commercial door knob lock plus a dead bolt and the office door has the same.

A thief has to get through two doors with four locks, six choices of safes, past the office door alarm, office motion detector and the equipment room motion detector.

And if all that doesn’t stop him, hopefully the rattlesnake I keep in the equipment room at night will. Just kidding.

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