Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Vacuum placement: Pre- or post-wash?

October 11, 2010

Question: What are the advantages of vacuuming at the entrance or the exit of a full-service wash? Which way is more efficient as far as labor and speed?

Answer: Each carwash is unique when it comes to the property layout, customer base, peak hours, climate, etc. But most carwashes share the same goal of letting the tunnel dictate the speed of a wash.

Keeping a steady flow of cars pumping through the tunnel is what is going to help maximize profits.

Vacuums at the entrance

Traditionally, operators put vacuum stations at the entrance to the carwash, along with the greeter. If staffing levels are appropriate and the demand is steady, this arrangement is adequate.

However, most operators have peak periods — the lunch hour, weekends, evening drive time, etc. — and weather also plays a huge role, driving the demand up after a storm has cleared.

Challenges arise during these crunch times and a bottleneck at the vacuum lanes can slow down the tunnel and deter customers.

Layout and labor

This layout can cause inefficient use of labor under several conditions.

During peak hours, with cars backed up at the entrance to the wash, an employee may end up moving one car several times just to get it vacuumed and into the tunnel.

This layout can also be costly to operate at slower times because it requires a decentralization of labor.

Employees are required at the entrance for vacuuming and at the exit for drying regardless of volume.

Your full-service carwash tunnel may have the potential to wash 80 cars-per-hour. However, the problem is that right now you can only wash a maximum of 40 cars-per-hour because that's as fast as you can vacuum them.

Vacuum after the fact

Many carwash owners are avoiding a bottleneck at the entrance by moving the vacuum step to the exit-end of the tunnel, creating post-wash vacuum stations.

This means that the vacuuming shares the physical space and staff with the drying team. The results are usually shorter wait times at the entrance and increased volume.

Post-wash vacuums make it easier to manage labor costs during slow or moderate times, because the crew is in one location and can serve double duty.

In many cases, operators find their volume increases so much they can justify an increase in their labor and still increase profits dramatically.

By eliminating the hang-up at the vacuum station, you can reach your tunnel's potential of 80 cars-per-hour.

What it takes: Space and equipment

You'll need enough physical real estate at the end of your wash to handle the new layout or else you could be compounding the problem.

You don't want to trade one headache: a vacuum bottleneck at the entrance, for an even bigger one: gridlock at the exit.

Remember, a car that used to take three minutes at the exit for drying is now taking five minutes. And the cars will be coming through the tunnel faster since there is no hold-up at the entrance.

The other consideration is your actual vacuum equipment. If you are serious about increasing your volume, you need a vacuum system with enough horsepower to run more vacuum hoses.

The placement of those hoses is important. You'll want to create a grid-like layout of perhaps two cars deep and up to 10 lanes wide. This accommodates 20 cars, and each car would never be blocked by more than one car in front of it.

Employees can go right to work with no question of which vehicle is next, and then wave the customer over for an inspection. This is also a time saver if a customer is dissatisfied and requests a re-vacuuming.

The re-vac takes place on-the-spot without having to move the car and risk upsetting a customer with further delays.

An added bonus of the post-wash vacuum model comes to those with convenience stores.

Instead of sitting in their cars waiting for the vacuum stations to clear before the tunnel, customers can quickly hand over their cars and head inside.

They may end up waiting a little longer once inside, but they probably won't notice since they'll likely be shopping for impulse items.

Whether you relocate and add to your existing vacuums, or install new equipment, you should be able to recuperate your investment quickly.

Remember, you will have increased the volume dramatically — from 40 cars-per-hour to 80 (or whatever your actual tunnel speed is).

Taking it one step further

This question deals with a full-service carwash, but another opportunity to consider is flex-service.

Many operators have found tremendous success using a flex-serve model where customers choose between a traditional full-service wash (with vacuuming) and an exterior-only express wash.

By introducing an express lane for exterior-only washes, you have the potential to eliminate gaps in the line — feeding express cars in between full-service cars.

It's a bit of a balancing act because you certainly don't want to push customers away from buying a full-service wash during slow to moderate periods. The goal would be to accommodate more cars during peak times and increase your overall volume.

Michael Powers is chief executive officer of G2 Equipment LLC, home of the AutoVac Vacuum system, manufacturer of industrial vacuums, parts and accessories, headquartered in San Diego, CA. Michael can be reached at