Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Touchdown for touchless

October 11, 2010
Back in the early 90s, when the in-bay market was still taking shape, the majority of units were being sold to oil companies who were looking for an opportunity to get away from their brush rollovers. These brush rollovers not only didn’t clean very well, but there were also cases of vehicle damage. Bristle on the brushes would grab loose chrome and rip it off. They would tear up license plates and outside mirrors. This was not good for an oil company’s image.

At this time the oil companies were giving their washes away for free with the purchase of gasoline, making it hard for traditional carwashes to compete. Some operators were so upset that a group was formed to try and sue the oil companies. This was an effort in futility if there ever was one.

Then things started to change
As oil companies replaced brush units with touch-free IBAs, they also figured out they could charge for these washes and make some money as well. What a concept: why give something away for free when people will pay for it? And the motorist did. Now they not only got a clean car, but it was also being done without damage. Another novel concept. Increase revenue and eliminate vehicle damage to help increase corporate profits.

It wasn’t long before self-serve operators began converting their bays to accommodate an IBA. Soon industry entrepreneurs began putting up standalone carwashes, placing two or three IBA units on a single piece of property. The investment was minimal, the labor equaled none and profit margins were off the chart.

In-bays became real competition for the conveyor market because they offered an alternative way to wash the vehicle. A clean car, no damage to worry about and the cost was less than a typical conveyor wash. Soon IBAs had lines of customers just like the conveyors did. Each IBA unit was capable of washing between 25,000 and 50,000 cars a year.

Introducing the hybrid IBA
IBAs flourished throughout the 90s and into the 21st century, slowing down in recent years. This is not to say that the IBA market isn’t strong. It certainly is, but cracks are beginning to show. Everyone knows that the cost for carwash equipment and cleaning solutions have gone up.

It was never cheap to wash a vehicle in a frictionless format. It required a greater amount of costly pre-soak products and a lot of it to clean the vehicle, as opposed to standard cleaning detergents, plus water usage was high.

Some IBA equipment manufacturers got the message and began developing hybrid IBAs using a combination of cloth or foam cleaning material and pressure rinsing. The hybrid unit allows the oil companies to go back to the friction unit, thereby reducing costs. Slowly we have begun to see the traditional touchless IBA washes being replaced with new hybrid systems. Even multi-unit IBA sites began replacing one of their IBA units with a hybrid unit and experimenting with one of each type to determine if one unit over the other did more business than the other.

IBAs vs. conveyor washes
In the meantime the conveyor carwashes were getting tired of seeing a percentage of their business go to the nearby IBA. In the early 21st century the express exterior boom began. The conveyor market was fighting back. It was quickly proven that you could now build an exterior conveyor carwash for about the same cost as took to put in two IBA units. Not only that, but the conveyor wash would clean many more cars in an hour than the IBA and generate much more revenue per car.

Throughput was always a problem for the IBAs. Soon it became apparent that cleaning one car every three to five minutes or approximately twelve to twenty cars per hour was no longer going to generate enough revenue to offset some of the rising costs. Word of how many cars per hour the express exterior washes were doing and stories of significant increases in income per car rapidly spread throughout the industry.

Operators had found a way to stay open later, utilize the new auto cashiers and gated entry systems that the computer companies were introducing and at the same time significantly reduce labor. In many cases only one employee was needed to run the operation. By making these cost reductions the express exterior model could now be priced below that of the standard IBA.

The consumer who was not necessarily a touchless aficionado began to realize they could get a very good quality touch carwash, in less time and for less money than it was costing them at the IBA. In the mind of the consumer speed was of the essence; they didn’t have time to wait in line; the express exterior provided them with answers to a problem.

That’s a lot of IBAs
It is estimated that there are 67,000 IBA units in the United States which is a significant number. Many of these units are operated by self service carwash operators or they are standalones.

The manufacturers of conveyor carwash equipment saw the limited number of cars the IBA was capable of putting through as an opportunity for them to solve a problem. Equipment companies began offering short tunnel conveyor formats that could replace an IBA and help to significantly increase put through in either the existing IBA space or with some modification to the property, still put in a short tunnel format.

So, here we are again. It would appear that the industry is about to go through another major washing model change. IBA operators are now committing to take out their touchless units and finding ways to replace them with the short tunnel model.

Other IBA operators are waiting to see what the advances in equipment are going to be and how they too could implement a change to their sites if they wanted to. We are still in the infancy stage of this development, but I am willing to bet that over the next decade or so this industry is going to experience many changes in terms of the way we wash cars.

The most interesting part of these changes is that it allows anyone involved in carwashing to take part. We will see changes in the types of cleaning products offered by the chemical houses. Computer entry systems will be adapted. Cleaning material may change. On and on we go.


Stuart Levy is National Sales Manager/Car Wash Division for Trans-Mate Products. He is a past International Carwash Association board member and has been involved in the carwash industry for more than 40 years.