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Spot-free rinse: An innovative solution

October 11, 2010
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If you are in the business of cleaning cars — or in any other business for that matter — there are three basic questions you should often ask yourself as a compass for success:

  1. How do I attract customers?
  2. Once I’ve attracted a customer, how do I get them to spend more money at my site?
  3. How do I get that customer to return?

After answering those questions, those in the carwash industry should focus on three basic values to achieve their objectives:

  1. Quality.
  2. Customer Service.
  3. Innovation.

Although this list is not all-inclusive, failure to meet any of these will directly affect your traffic. While many operators strive to achieve high quality and strong customer service, they fail to pay attention to the third value: Innovation. Even if you do everything else right all the time, if you fail to occasionally provide your customers something new, impressive or amusing, you should expect to see your patronage dwindle.

From neo-glide foam and total-body protectants to credit card acceptance and RFID tags, new products and ideas are unveiled every year. These infinite technological advances would make an outsider think this industry is less about washing cars and more about providing an amusement ride. Maybe it is.

This “knock-their-socks-off” mentality has generated an unprecedented rate of change in the industry over the last few years, and it makes one wonder: how does an operator in the self-serve sector keep up? If it’s not just about washing cars anymore, what can a self-serve operator do to maintain and expand his customer base?

To be completely honest, there is nothing offered in the automatic or conveyor sectors that cannot be employed in a self-serve site. In fact, because self-serve customers are an integral part of the cleaning process, (they see it, they touch it, they smell it) the opportunity to knock their socks off is just as good if not better.

Some of the current trends in self-serve sites include offering triple-foam, bug dissolving applications, total-body protectants and spot-free rinse. Of these, the most common development you’ll see today is spot-free rinse in the self-serve bays.

There are several reasons for this. First, many self-serve operators have added in-bay automatics to their sites. Since most in-bay automatics come with provisions for spot-free rinse, the effort required to extend it to the self-serve bays is minimal.

Second, the cost of producing spot-free rinse is low compared to offering another chemical selection. When available, this option also sees a higher degree of use in the bay than most of the other selections.

Finally, with proper signage and customer education, the spot-free rinse option is an invitation to your customer to stay. This is, of course, your ultimate goal.

So how do you go about it?
There are two types of spot-free rinse systems — Reverse Osmosis (RO) and De-Ionized (DI). Because of the high costs associated with frequently replacing the rechargeable DI tanks, RO systems have far outpaced the DI systems in popularity. Therefore, I’ll limit this discussion to the installation and operation of Reverse Osmosis Spot-Free Rinse.

Before deciding on an RO system, you should have a working knowledge of how they operate. The technique is referred to as “cross-flow filtration.” In a nutshell, the system pumps water through a housing that contains a permeable membrane. At 150-200 PSI, this membrane is designed to allow water to penetrate at a 90 degree angle from the direction of flow. Ideally, a third of the water is allowed to permeate the membrane, separating it from most of its impurities.

The rest of the water flows over the surface of the membrane, rinsing away the impurities left behind, and is then “rejected.” This reject water is also known as “concentrate,” although instead of rejecting it, the water should be diverted to other uses.

The water that penetrated the membrane is known as “permeate.” This is the water used in the spot-free rinse.

The ratio of permeate to concentrate is controlled by a system of valves and flow meters. If this ratio is too high the membranes will foul as the concentrate flow is not sufficient to carry off the contaminants. If the ratio is too low, too much concentrate is produced and the costs to produce RO will be too high. A 1:2 ratio of permeate to concentrate is ideal.

The basic equipment requirements are as follows:

1. Water Softener: Soft water is still a must. There is a recent trend to offer RO systems designed to operate on hard water. However, these systems simply pass the hard water through a magnetic field just upstream of the membranes. This is designed to change the polarity of hard water minerals in an attempt to prevent them from fouling the membranes.

This method is similar to the concept of installing a magnet on your car’s fuel lines to increase gas mileage. The jury is still out on whether it works, and in the long run, soft water will save you money elsewhere as well.

2. Carbon Tank: Chlorine will destroy RO membranes very quickly by “hardening” them and making them impermeable. A carbon tank will protect the membranes by removing chlorine.

While many water treatment companies offer a service to swap out carbon tanks on a regular basis, this is not necessary as depletion of these tanks takes many years. Purchase your carbon tank from your RO supplier and replace it only when necessary.

3. Reverse Osmosis System: RO systems have advanced rapidly over the last few years, so when making a selection, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose an RO system with a pre-filter on it. A rope pre-filter should remove impurities down to 5 microns, significantly improving the lifespan of the membranes. It will also catch stray bits of carbon that can be released by your carbon tank which would otherwise damage the system’s pump. These filters are cheap and easy to replace, so keep a few spares on hand.
  • Most modern RO systems have stainless steel membrane vessels. Fiberglass pressure vessels are fine, however, earlier systems relied on Schedule 80 PVC as a material for the membrane housing. Since these vessels are under as much as 200 psi, there was a strong tendency for the PVC to fail, often cracking, sometimes exploding. As a simple safety measure, not to mention the longevity of your equipment, look for stainless steel.
  • RO systems are rated in gallons per day (GPD) of permeate they produce. Some systems use high-efficiency membranes to improve production. In addition, some manufacturers now offer expandable RO systems enabling you to increase the production capacity of the system should your needs expand. The self-serve rule of thumb is 100 gallons per bay per day.

4. Storage Tank: The obvious purpose of the storage tank is to store RO water in anticipation of demand. It is usually not possible to produce enough RO water on demand to meet your spot-free rinse needs. Therefore a storage tank is necessary.

This tank should include a float switch to activate the RO system as volume is depleted and turn it off when the tank is full. If you already have a storage tank for your in-bay automatic, consider a larger one if extending spot-free rinse to your self-serve bays.

5. Delivery System: There are many ways to accomplish this. Avoid applying the spot-free rinse with your existing high-pressure pumps since your customers will be tempted to use spot-free rinse to wash with instead of other, more appropriate, selections.

A typical set-up would be a bladder tank and pressure pump combination to deliver spot-free rinse via low pressure. Another option would be an air-powered diaphragm pump supplying spot-free rinse under medium pressure.

6. Tubing, Valves & Switches: Typically, this is a simple matter of adding to, or replacing a function in your existing meter boxes in the bays and wiring the new option to solenoid valves to control the output of the product.

Finally, you must let your customers know you now offer spot-free rinse. This means signage, Signage, SIGNAGE! Customer education identifying the new option, what the product is for and why they should use it will increase your self-serve traffic and ultimately your bay income dramatically.

Joel Wollin began his career in the carwash industry selling chemicals for a Minnesota carwash distributor. Wollin is now director of sales and marketing for both Autowash Systems, Inc. and Reclaim Equipment Company, both of which are based in Minnesota.

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