Professional Carwashing & Detailing

The self-serve vacuum evolution

October 11, 2010

We bought our first carwash in 1988 from the previous owner who had built the wash in 1980 and had installed four vacuums just in front of the bays, which was the normal and recommended layout at that time.

The wash has three bays on each side of the equipment room, so the vacuum stands were installed between bays one and two and between bays four and five without any by three or six (truck bay).

Vacuums then
According to the recommendations, a carwash should have one and a half vacuums per bay with as many as possible in front of the bays.

The thinking is that having the vacuums in front of the wash bay will remind the customer about vacuuming and they may just use the vacuum while waiting for the bay even if they don't really need it.

Using the recommended number, in 1988 we were short by five vacuums.

Maybe the recommended number in 1980 was different or just maybe that one and a half number was as hard to believe then as it is now. I didn't believe it then.

Vacuums later
We got along fine for years (at least we thought we did) until the car volume increased to the point that we had customers waiting in line when a bay was open, but were blocked by another customer vacuuming their car.

We only had six bays at the time (12 now) and with five or six cars in line it's difficult to see an empty bay not being used. That's 17 percent of the income being lost.

Therefore, we moved our vacuums from in front of the bays to the exit area but did not increase the number of vacuums.

I'm sure I had read the one and a half recommended number by then, but still was not convinced it was accurate and was not aware of the income potential.

The decision to move the vacuums was also driven by the wind. In Casper, WY, we have a wind blowing enough of the time that we close and lock the bay exit doors to eliminate the wind tunnel effect.

The customer would pull in and then back out when finished, with the first car in line getting the next open bay.

The customers love it and we were fortunate enough to have the room for a wait line.

Vacuums still later
In 1997 I read that convenience stores could increase their gas sales 15 percent by installing a canopy over the pumps. I thought — if it worked for them why wouldn't it work for a carwash?

The customer can get out of the sun in the summer and rain and snow in the winter. Yes, customers do vacuum in the rain and snow if it's not too cold.

So, in January of 1998 we opened our new covered drying area. It has a 30-foot by 60-foot canopy with a 10-foot clearance. We added four new vacuums to the existing four with two of those being shampoo and fragrance combos.

The increase in sales was amazing. Not only in the vacuum and the vending sales, but the carwash sales also jumped 19 percent.

Carwash sales had previously been increasing 10 percent a year, so assuming that was still the case the net increase because of the new drying area was nine percent, still worth it. The increases and percent of increase are listed below.

Sales 1997
% of wash sales
increase
Wash sales
$177,013
$33,573
Vacuums
$7,419
4.2%
$10,667
Vending
$2,127
1.2%
$2,759
Sales 1998
% of wash sales
% year to year increase
Wash sales
$210,586
19%
Vacuums
$18,086
8.6%
144%
Vending $4,886 2.3% 130%

We have no way of knowing how much of the increase was due to the number of vacuums and how much was due to the addition of the canopy.

With the remodel we added an electronic stand-alone vending machine in place of four drop venders, so that explains some of the increase in vending sales.

Vacuums today
In 2003 we added six more carwash bays (to total 12) and another shampoo combo, but we were again short of the recommended vacuums.

We do not have room for any more so we'll have to live with the nine we have now.

Of those nine vacuums that we have now there are two shampoo/vac combos and one fragrance/vac combo. These machines cost a lot of money, but are well-worth the investment and might be the reason for some of the increase. We also added a rug beater.

Vacuum recommendations
Assume that the one and a half vacuums per bay is correct, if you have room and can afford it.

Have at least one shampoo/vac combo and fragrance/vac combo. Buy three motor vacuums because the customer will be more satisfied with the suction.

Purchase vacuums with large filter bag areas; the larger the better because you'll save on vacuum motors and maintenance.

Also, don't forget to leave room between the vacuums for the car doors to be wide open.

Build a canopy over them if you can get it in the budget, it's a nice addition for customer comfort. And as with every area in a carwash, the drying area should be well-lit.

Rolling in
Once the machine is paid for, vacuum sales are like free money. Our site offers four minutes of vacuuming for $.75 and I've figured that the electricity for that time costs us 1.1 cents.

Of course the shampoo and fragrance vacuums require you to purchase and stock some product, but the machines are worth the money.

The maintenance costs are low and you'll install a new motor once every three years. Also, give them a good cleaning two or three times a week and they will last for years.


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 nayrsinned@msn.com.