Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Properly equip your detail shop

December 1, 2010

What qualities make up a professional detail center? The obvious answer is professional equipment. Certainly, there is more to it than that, but equipment is a major factor.

Why? Because equipment makes a major contribution toward organization. Like automatic carwash equipment, professional detailing equipment reduces the management of “things” to a few minutes in the morning and in the evening. Also, it automates the detailing process.

Waste not, want not
If you look at a typical detail operation, you will discover a number of labor-wasting operational methods:

1. Squeeze and spray bottles: During the course of the workday, these 12 to 32 ounce bottles must be constantly filled and refilled, as well as replaced as sprayers break. This takes the detailer away from the work. On top of that, it is virtually impossible to keep the bottles organized.

2. Portable vacuums: Usually the typical detail shop may have only one or two portable vacuums that are not strong enough to suck up the dirt fast enough. And with only one or two available vacuums, workers will be waiting to use the unit(s), or they will have to leave the work area to find the vacuums.

3. Portable extractors: Many shops do not even have an extractor; a necessary tool to clean carpets and upholstery. If they have an extractor, they have only one, which means detailers are standing around and waiting if it is a two-bay or more, sized shop. Often, units are too small and have to be refilled several times during the day.

4. Electric buffers and orbitals: Most shops use heavy electric tools for buffing and waxing. This means time is spent locating extension cords, plugging them in, and tripping over the cords. Not to mention the fatigue from handling the heavy tools.

Shops that operate with this kind of low-level technology show a general disorganization that wastes valuable and expensive labor.

Modern detailing technology
When choosing the best equipment for your business, consider the following list which offers some of the best technology available today.

The wash bay · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
• Pressure washers: A shop cannot operate efficiently without one. You can choose either a portable unit or a remote-mounted unit (similar to the set-up in a self-service wash). The most efficient is a remote-mounted system that operates from the flip of a switch. Pulling a portable unit in and out each night is not efficient. It does not matter if it is hot or cold water. Certainly, hot water helps, but with today’s chemicals, you can use cold water. The unit should put out at least 3-4 gpm at 1,000 to 1,200 psi.

• Wash bay chemical dispensers: Nothing is more inefficient than applying chemicals to the engine and wheels with a spray bottle. A two or three-gallon garden sprayer is an improvement over a 32 oz. spray bottle, but a better choice is a remote-mounted pressure tank that is piped to an application hose and nozzle in the wash bay. The attendant simply grabs the gun and applies the chemical. Even better are wall-mounted dispensers with only chemical lines fed by tanks or pumps from the equipment room.

• Wash bay sinks or 30/55 gallon drums: The most inefficient thing in wash bays is a myriad of five-gallon buckets. A better, more efficient alternative is to mount sinks, on or against the walls that are equipped with a “hydro-minder” system, which automatically adds both water and shampoo when the water gets to a certain level. If this alternative is not feasible, you should at least have strategically located either 30 or 55-gallon-barrels filled with water. You should add a few ounces of shampoo each day and replace any lost water. During the night, the dirt settles to the bottom and from time to time, you can empty and clean the barrels. This simple approach saves a lot of time in the wash bay.

The detail workshop · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Before considering what equipment you need in a detail bay, consider what you really need to accomplish. Various jobs include vacuuming interiors, shampooing and cleaning interiors, polishing and waxing paint. For these tasks, you need a variety of equipment. Here are suggestions as to what you’ll need to stay competitive:

• Air compressor: This is an obvious piece of equipment for any shop, but it is not found in most. It is used for blowing water off a wet car, blowing out the interior of a vehicle, and to power more efficient air tools for buffing, waxing, and shampooing. Every other auto service business uses air-powered tools exclusively to perform their jobs. The detail business is the only auto service business that still uses electric buffers. Why? Simple, most detailers cannot afford an air compressor.

• Air tools: With air tools you have a choice of tools that can improve efficiency. Rotary buffers are lightweight and easier to handle. They have variable speeds and the on/off trigger can be “feathered” when buffing over cracks and ridges to avoid burning. The buffers also last longer and require less maintenance.

With air, you can use rotary shampooers, smaller vertical air tools equipped with a round, nylon shampoo brush. You can shampoo carpets, upholstery, vinyl, and convertible tops quickly, effortlessly, and with improved quality. They have variable speeds, and the trigger can be “feathered” to avoid damage. (You can use mini-orbital waxers to apply and remove waxes and sealants. They only weigh two pounds, allowing the detailer to wax an entire car in less than 10 minutes without fatigue. Even the large air orbitals are an improvement over the heavy and cumbersome electric orbitals on the market.

• Vacuums: An obvious piece of equipment for a shop, but most some still use the inefficient portable wet/dry shop vacuums that can be purchased cheap at discount stores. The most efficient vacuum for a detail shop would be a powerful central vacuum system that is mounted in an equipment room with a manifold of delivering vacuum hoses for each work bay. This puts vacuum capabilities at the fingertips of each detailer and reduces the noise level in the shop for both employees and customers. You can even use the central vacuum as an extractor too.

• Soil extractor system: No shop should be without a system. It is used for shampooing carpets, fabric upholstery, floor and trunk mats. There are a number of units on the market, so you have to do some research before making a purchase. The solution/recovery tanks should be at least five to 10 gallons; the vacuum lift should be over 100. It should be heated, and the price range should be between $1,000 and $2,000. There are smaller units (two to three gallons) that are effective and may be the answer for the detailer who just cannot afford an expensive unit. These are priced at $600 to $800 for a good unit.

• Chemical dilution stations: With the number of water-based chemicals that are used in a detail shop, it is absolutely critical to have an automatic chemical dilution station. There is no excuse for not having such an inexpensive system. They are easy to install by simply mounting them on a wall, and connecting them to a water supply or hose and then selecting the proper rations. Each station has a plastic fill hose and another hose that goes into the chemical container. The water pressure draws the chemicals out of the container and through the orifice, which determines the mixing ratio. The water and chemicals are then delivered into your container, bottle, or tank. They can be purchased for a few hundred dollars.

• Detail work carts/table: As obvious as this may seem, many shops do not have a place to put clean and dirty towels, buffing pads, tools, brushes, garbage, and miscellaneous items. As a result, detailers are constantly running around looking for their equipment and supplies. A moveable cart holds all these items and can be placed between each vehicle and moved to avoid hitting doors, etc. A simple item as pictured this can save you hours of time.

• Dispensing workstations: These stations are probably the most expensive, but most efficient items for the detail industry. They are the ultimate in efficiency, function, and professionalism. A shop equipped with these systems makes a statement to both the customer and employee that it truly is a professional business. Typically, a workstation will dispense up to 12 chemicals through application hoses and guns, and, air lines for tools. The station also includes a built-in vacuum and/or soil extractor with two vacuum/extractor hoses and nozzles. Chemicals are delivered from an automatic dilution and dispensing system in the equipment room. With these stations, you have the best in professionalism and management. The expense is justified by increased productivity (more cars per day) and more efficient use of labor (less labor to do the same or more work).

If you want to be in the detail business for the long haul, objectively consider the equipment recommendations. Do not jump to the conclusion that you cannot afford the equipment. Remember, you could already be paying for the equipment by not having it.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car care industry. He is also the executive director of the International Detailing Association and a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors. Abraham can be contacted at