Professional Carwashing & Detailing

VFDs and all-electric tunnels

October 11, 2010
In today’s world, everything is getting faster and carwashes are no exception. By using variable frequency drives (VFDs), operators can run and control the electricity of an entire carwash tunnel with a push of a button. However, understanding how they work and how they can benefit a carwash can be a bit confusing. But Marcus McLaughlin of Belanger Inc. is here to help. He recently spoke to Professional Carwashing & Detailing and gave us the scoop on VFDs.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing: How does a tunnel line entirely run by VFDs work exactly?

Marcus McLaughlin: VFDs are electronic devices that allow operators to precisely manage the speed of electric motors, by varying the electricity flowing to them. In an all–electric tunnel, VFDs provide the foundation for unprecedented control over the wash process.

With the right control system, the operator can manage the entire tunnel, including conveyor and equipment, with one touch. This means the operator can respond in real time to changing business and weather conditions. Higher throughput, better wash quality and energy savings are now only a keystroke away.

PC&D: What’s the difference between electric and hydraulic power sources?

MM: An all–electric tunnel uses less total energy because it is more energy efficient than one run with hydraulic power.

That’s because in a hydraulic tunnel, electricity must be used to run the hydraulic pump. Since no energy conversion process is 100 percent efficient, some energy is always “lost in translation” converting electricity into hydraulic power. With an all–electric tunnel, electricity is put straight to work running the conveyor and equipment, maximizing energy efficiency.

An electric tunnel controlled via VFDs can be even more efficient. With the right control system, VFDs can allow the operator to slow down the entire tunnel, including conveyor and equipment, when wash volumes are lighter. This aligns energy use with demand, saving energy while preserving throughput and quality.

In addition, VFDs can “soft start” equipment that has stopped, ramping up gradually to operating speed. This greatly reduces the initial surge of electricity needed to start equipment moving, dramatically lowering the “peak energy use” measurement many power companies use to calculate carwash electric bills.

PC&D: In today’s environmentally conscious marketplace, saving energy is probably an attractive thing to owners and operators, right?

MM: Running an all–electric tunnel with VFD control is one area where the carwash operator can do good by doing well. The operator can enjoy the cost savings of running an energy–efficient carwash, while also benefitting the environment.

There is another environmental and business benefit to running an all–electric tunnel as well: No worries about hydraulic leaks. Especially in a tunnel running any kind of reclaim, where a hydraulic leak can require a complete shut down to clean up.

PC&D: Is there a difference in speed?

MM: Running at full speed, an all–electric carwash is equally fast as its hydraulic counterpart.

Running at varying speeds over a day or a week, the all–electric wash may provide greater total throughput and cleaning ability. That’s because the all–electric wash is quicker to react to varying wash demands, and with a less maintenance–intensive design, may deliver more uptime over a given time period.

Using VFDs and the right control system, the operator can easily slow down and speed up the all&dnash;electric wash in real time, responding to changing business and weather conditions.

When running at a lower line speed on the all–electric wash, the VFD–driven components can slow down as well. This provides the throughput needed for lower wash volumes, preserves wash quality, and maximizes the total energy savings, by conserving power used by both the conveyor and equipment.

When speeding up an all–electric wash system, the VFD–driven components can speed up in unison with the conveyor, maximizing throughput without sacrificing quality. Also, the additional power is used only when needed to meet the demand associated with higher wash volumes.

PC&D: How about wear and tear?

MM: VFDs allow for the ‘soft start’ of electric carwash equipment, which prevents the initial jolt that occurs if the equipment is suddenly switched on at full power.

This soft–start ability prolongs the life of the motors and the equipment itself. It’s easier on gearboxes, joints, couplings, and all other moving parts driven directly or indirectly by the motors.

It also makes sense that equipment running slower will last longer. Since VFDs allow the operator to slow the equipment down during off–peak demand, the equipment life is prolonged. This doesn’t just save on energy costs; it maximizes the return on the operator’s carwash equipment investment.

PC&D: Are there any other advantages?

MM: In an all–electric VFD–driven carwash, an individual piece of malfunctioning equipment can be isolated, while the rest of the carwash continues to run. This can maximize uptime by enabling the operator to troubleshoot the equipment while still washing cars, albeit with additional manual work to compensate for the down equipment. It can also allow the operator to put off repairs until after the carwash has finished operating for the day.

PC&D: What are some things an owner and operator would need to be made aware of if thinking of switching to VFD–run tunnel line?

MM: As mentioned above, VFDs provide the foundation for a smart, responsive carwash that can lower energy costs, maximize uptime, and increase the operator’s return on their equipment investment.

But, to fully realize these benefits, the VFDs must be controlled by a well–designed, powerful and user-friendly control system. This control system is the “brain” of a VFD–driven carwash, and provides the interface that allows the operator to interact with the carwash.

Without this integrated control system, a VFD–driven carwash simply cannot offer one–touch or automatic responsiveness to changing business and weather conditions.

A smart controller doesn’t just react to manual instructions to meet the operator’s changing needs. It anticipates those changes, with the ability to automatically speed or slow the entire wash during certain hours of the day or days of the week.

What’s more, the controller should offer full remote access and control, so the operator can manage the carwash from anywhere — corporate office, home, or on vacation — just the same as being on location at the carwash site.

Once the prospective owner is satisfied with the savings, power and control offered by the VFDs and controller package, their attention should turn to the carwash equipment itself. Does it offer proven longevity? Easy maintenance? Is it well–designed? Robust? Attractive? Easy to keep clean? And does it have a track record of doing what matters most — producing clean cars, consistently and reliably, so customers keep coming back?

In our current economic climate, these considerations become even more pressing. By providing better tools to help manage their carwash business, a well–designed VFD carwash and smart controller can give operators the advantage they need. More importantly, such a wash can help meet the operator’s business goals while requiring less of their time, money, attention and energy to manage and maintain the equipment itself.

Marcus McLaughlin is part of the marketing team at Belanger, Inc.
Belanger is a carwash products manufacturer based out of Northville, MI.