Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Running on solar power

March 8, 2011

First, a little about my business: Five Star Auto Center is a full service conveyor carwash with a full service auto repair and lube center located in Rocklin, CA. We offer hand wash and detail services, providing the cleanest vehicle possible. Our motto is “Quality at an affordable price.”

For the past six years, Five Star has been named “Best of the Best” in its local market. Our customers love the fact that we have one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry with some of our employees working here for over 10 years!

The decision to go solar
In 2007, I was invited to attend a conference on solar powering your business. It was a general program not specific to the carwash industry. I left the conference thinking we could be the first solar powered carwash in the United States.

This became my inspiration as I firmly believe to succeed you must differentiate yourself from the competition. I also felt strongly that our industry is not always shown in a favorable light and this would be a step towards improving the image of the industry.

I started to research the possibility of converting our facility into solar power. We solicited bids from eight different purveyors and finally after months of discussions, negotiations and number crunching we selected Solar Power, Inc. as our vendor.

The next phase was planning out install and obtaining financing to make the program work financially. My requirements were:
• Zero out-of-pocket expense;
• Payment equal or less than existing electric bill;
• Must provide 80-90 percent of power requirements; and
• Must be able to do installation without shutting down facility.

After much searching we were able to work out a deal with our bankers where we would provide them with the power company rebate and the federal tax credits in exchange for basically a zero interest rate on a 10- year lease of the system with a minimum buyout at the end.

The project
We ended up installing 612 solar panels erected on four custom built support structures that also included shade for our employees while working on customer vehicles. In order to continue doing business we had to rearrange our entry and vacuum area and were able to create three vacuum lanes and service writer area.

Business actually continued with minimal disruptions. I think we were down a total of a few hours over the three and a half months from start to finish.

The process worked with only minor setbacks including a bad power inverter — the unit that converts the solar and feeds it back directly to us and sending any excess production back to the power company.

As far as a learning curve, the process was relatively simple. I do regret not fully understanding how Pacific Gas & Electric would credit us for our production. Turns out that if we produce more than we use it goes back to the power company without any credit to us. I believe this is different depending upon your state laws.

With this in mind the vendor sized our system a little smaller to be sure we were not going to produce more than we used. As it turns out this, while frustrating, was not a meaningful issue as we only over produce during the peak times of the year and the credit program is on an annualized basis.

The other learning curve issue was not being involved with the invertor selection as we had two different failures one that took us offline during some of the best production days of the summer.

The benefits
The benefits of the system are incredible and include:
• Cost-savings
• The resulting production of almost 90 percent of our electric power requirements;
• The ability to be a green certified business (BERC certified); and
• An overwhelmingly positive response from our community. In fact, we were voted Green Business of the Year by our local Chamber of Commerce.

The end result (chart) is we have reduced our power costs by almost 90 percent from around $34,000 per year down to only a little over $4,000 for our second full year with the system.

Coupling the annual lease costs with the net electric costs make this literally a zero cost improvement with not one nickel out of pocket expense.

Not only did we succeed with most of our pre-system goals, we have been able to produce enough power to supply 28 average sized homes for a year and have saved the equivalent of over 283,000 pounds of C02 from being put into our atmosphere — which is like taking over 315 cars off the roadways for a year. How’s that for a carwash giving back to its community!


Jim Sperlazza is the owner/operator of Five Star Auto Center in Rocklin, CA. He can be reached by e-mail at jim@fivestarrocklin.com.