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The smarter way to offer free vacuums

October 11, 2010
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As an express wash owner you’re probably all too familiar with the concept of free vacuums. Maybe you chalk it up as a marketing expense, something you build into the price of your wash. Maybe you see it as a necessary evil, something you must offer to keep up with your competition. Or maybe you cringe at the very thought of giving away any service, especially one that takes up valuable real estate and translates to hard costs in energy consumption.

It’s no wonder free vacuums garner their fair share of disdain. Is your tunnel speed slow during peak times because the vacuum spots are full? Do you feel you need more property just to accommodate the popularity of free vacuums? Are you tired of careless customers who don’t return vacuum nozzles to their hangers? Are you at the mercy of “free vac freeloaders” who drive up energy costs with marathon vacuum sessions?

There is a better way. Create a vacuum platform you can live with (and maybe learn to love). The key is to stop offering free unlimited vacuums — and start metering your air supply.

Taking control of your vacuums
The smarter way to offer free vacuums is to do so it moderation. Start with the most efficient vacuum equipment available and then meter the air supply to each customer so he or she may vacuum free of charge for a set length of time. Once the free vacuum time expires, offer the option to purchase more time at a reasonable price.

You get the marketing benefits of free vacuums, along with a manageable vacuum system that should pay for itself — or better yet, become a profit center. In the process, you also address headaches caused by
customers abusing free vacuums.

Step 1: Maximize efficiency
First off, make sure your central system operates at maximum efficiency. Hands down, the most energy conscious, cost-effective format is a central vacuum system with a properly programmed variable
frequency drive (VFD). The VFD works dynamically with your central system to provide vacuum on demand — and it can cut energy consumption by 70-90 percent. This saves real dollars every month in energy costs and extends equipment life.

And in many areas, energy providers issue substantial cash rebates for installing these environmentally-friendly devices. To qualify for a rebate, you’ll need a report that trends data in real time and proves the cost savings. Your vacuum supplier should be able to provide this report or give you access to a software program so you can run the numbers yourself.

VFDs: Dynamic vs. Static
In order to achieve vacuum on demand and reap its financial benefits, your VFD must be dynamic, not static. A dynamic VFD manages your central system to provide true vacuum on demand — constantly matching the motor’s RPMs to the demand for suction. The motor works as much or as little as necessary according to the number of simultaneous users. It then returns to idle or switches off when business slows. You only pay for energy consumed by active vacuuming.

In contrast, static VFDs have set speeds or levels of performance. As business increases and more users come on line, RPMs jump up to the next pre-set level, then the next, and the next. Savings are limited to those predetermined parameters. The operator ends up paying for the valuable kilowatt hours that are unnecessarily consumed when business levels are
in-between those set levels.

Step 2: The metering device
The next step is to install metering devices at the vacuum area. The exact design and activation method can be
customized to fit your carwash. Generally there are two vacuum meters mounted to one stanchion, thereby serving two
parking spaces (see above illustration). Each meter serves as a junction point between the piping system and the customer. The vacuum hose is always connected to the air supply, but the metering device only allows suction to the appropriate hose when properly activated. Once activated by the customer (with a token, key code, etc.), suction is provided to the respective customer.

When free vacuum time expires, additional time may be purchased for a set interval. The price point, time intervals and payment methods are all decided by the carwash operator and can be adjusted as necessary. For example, you might charge $1 for five minutes of vacuum time, payable by coin, cash or credit card. The choice is yours.

As with any central vacuum system, be sure your piping and separators are properly engineered to carry suction and manage debris effectively.

The balancing act
How much free time is right for your carwash? How much should you charge for additional vacuum time? At what interval? It all depends on your market and your core customer. You may have some customers who don’t vacuum at all — like the salesperson who’s short on time or the minivan mom with sleeping babies. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the marathon vacuum-ers who camp out, devoted to removing every speck of dirt, from every crack, crevice and cup holder in their SUV.

As a rule of thumb, cater to your core. The key is to find a balance that will keep wait times to a minimum and still offer a reasonable amount of vacuum time. Remember, your customers will quickly perceive a loss in value if you advertise “Free Vacuums” and then set unrealistically short vacuum intervals.

Find the interval that offers them a good deal for their money, but helps you better manage an efficient, profitable express exterior carwash.

Steve Tucker Jr. is president of AutoVac Industrial Vacuum Systems, a manufacturer of vacuums, parts, and accessories headquartered in San Diego. Tucker has more than 16 years of experience in the car- wash industry and can be reached at

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