Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Writing for touch-free carwashing

October 19, 2005

Writing for touch-free carwashing
Tom Petit

The old argument regarding friction vs. touch-free washing is that friction has a chance of damaging a customer's car and that touch-free possibly doesn't clean the car as well.

I think that this argument had more teeth a few years ago. I think that it's lost some of its merit over the last few years, specifically the last five years.

Friction systems have gotten far better at being safe for the car and touch-free systems have gotten far better at cleaning the car.

I believe that the playing field is leveling off, and I think this may become a moot point in a few years. That being said, there are some definite benefits to touch-free washing.

Customers' choice

From a consumer's point of view, his or her previous experience and expectations are what dictate their attitudes as far as what type of wash they prefer.

If all things were equal — if he gets the same outcome — meaning a shiny, clean car, the universal attitude is that touch-free is going to be better.

The reason, from his standpoint, is that it makes him feel more comfortable. Especially when the customer is riding through, there is less noise, there's less pounding on the car and less worry about damage.

The customer doesn't have to watch his antenna be curled around, or his mirrors folded. There are those sights and sounds in a typical friction wash, but the typical touch-free doesn't have them. The customer feels more at ease without those sights and sounds.

The touch-free wash has the additional benefit that it provides a much more open, brighter, cleaner looking wash bay. It doesn't become a dark cave, as it feels like when all the cloth, brushes or foam surrounds the car.

It stays a light open area. You can see down through the tunnel and many customers comment that they feel much more comfortable with that.

Why choose touch-free over friction?

The biggest advantage of touch-free over friction is marketing. I've seen numerous scenarios where exterior conveyor washes have been converted from friction to touch-free, and overwhelmingly the results have been that the operator has experienced an immediate growth within the first year.

I know several operators with multiple locations who have tested this by converting one of their sites from friction to touch-free and then compared the wash volume to their other existing sites. In the first year their volume grew, in some cases 10 percent and in some cases as high as 45 percent.

Chemical concerns and hesitations

The chemicals that are used are virtually the same between the touch-free and friction. The difference is that in the touch-free wash, the owner tends to use them at higher concentrations.

I would say that the fear of harsh chemicals was warranted 10 or 20 years ago. Now, I don't think it's an issue because all the major manufacturers have made great strides in chemicals and today we don't see the issues of them damaging cars.

The higher concentrations may increase the owner's chemical costs, but to ease that tension, maintenance costs go down. The owner won't have to replace the cloth or the foam, which is even more expensive. Those two things pretty much offset each other.

Although some owners may be worried about higher water costs because of the high-pressure water usage, many touch-free manufacturers have significantly reduced the amount of water used.

Some use about 45-60 gallons-per-car, which is almost right on par with what a friction wash would use. But, some manufacturers' systems are less frugal with water than others.

With the touch-free wash, the system uses a high volume of water all at one point in the wash process.

On the other hand, with the friction wash, you're using lower volumes of water at many points throughout the wash, and when you add them altogether, they're not really that much different.

Maintenance matters

I believe a touch-free system is actually easier to maintain and operate.

A touch-free system generally has far fewer moving parts and far fewer wear items that have to be replaced such as the cloth and foam.

And with friction, the cloth becomes dirty and requires frequent cleaning or replacement in order to maintain a professional looking facility.

Marketing touch-free

The top reason to choose a touch-free wash would be that the owner is able to gain additional market share. It is simply more acceptable to a larger number of people.

Many customers have the opinion that there's a chance their car will be damaged with friction. Some of them do not, however. Some customers just inherently think that friction on their car is going to clean better than soap and high-pressure water.

I once had a customer who was puzzled when we converted a site from friction to touch-free. Her comment was, "How are you going to get it (the car) clean? Are you just going to wish it clean?"

In her mind there was nothing there that was going to clean it. For some people the friction just seems necessary. Again, their previous carwashing experience is important. Their previous experiences with friction or touch-free washing, whether they have been positive or negative, will determine their expectations and attitude toward each type of wash.

We market a touch-free wash by calling it, "a 100 percent clean, worry-free carwash." And that's all we've got to say. We give it as a guarantee. We'll never do any negative marketing about friction. We just explain what our wash is good at.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. If the car comes out clean at the other end, then that's really all the customer is concerned about. They just want a clean car without having any problems.

The perfect wash

Cleaning capability will always vary from wash to wash. The ideal situation is for a wash owner to push a button and have a perfectly clean and perfectly dry car come out of the other end of the wash.

There are two ways to look at the question of whether touch-free is better than friction.

First, you can look at it from a purely mechanical standpoint: what is the most sure-fire way to do the least amount of work and get a clean car? This would be our point of view as carwash owners.

The other way to look at this issue is, what is the customer's point of view, what does he or she perceive as best?

From a mechanical aspect regarding purely just clean-ability, there has never been a perfect automatic carwash ever built. There's always a trade-off with everything you do — touch-free or friction.

Probably the carwash that approaches the best of all worlds and gets us closest to that perfect wash is a 240-foot-long hybrid. With that much conveyor, you can put the vehicle through a touch-free wash, follow it with a friction wash, and then dry it.

That is from a purely mechanical standpoint, the best way to get the cleanest car every day. Anything else that you do is a compromise.

If you take out the friction you compromise something, just as if you take out the high pressure you lose something. But, most people do not have the luxury of building such an extensive tunnel and having both, so they must choose between the two.

Now let's look at this issue from the customer's point of view, since it is their decision to spend money getting their car washed that generates our profits.

The carwash customer doesn't care much about what we (carwash owners) think, and they don't care much about making our lives any easier.

What they care about is getting a clean car without having any problems. So which type of wash do they prefer?

The majority of people responding to the 2002 ICA Survey of Customers Attitudes indicated they preferred a high-pressure spray wash.

Another indicator of customer preference would be the many instances of positive growth shown by washes that converted from friction to touch-free.

And finally, I would say that the stellar growth of the touch-free in-bay market would indicate that touch-free is the carwash of choice for many customers.

In the end

There will continue to be a market for both touch-free and friction washing and as technology and the industry advances the difference between friction and touch-free may become less of a debate.

However, as I've outlined above, there are still several reasons why a touch-free system would be the optimal choice.

Tom Petit is the owner of Petit's Auto Wash, Norton, OH, a chain with 14 operational locations.