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It’s here once again: The season for end-of-summer trips and back-to-school carpools. Also known as the season for vacuuming out the remnants of summer from the car and heading back to reality. For carwash operators, it’s a good time to think about your vacuum system and its maintenance. When customers are lining up to give their car a final detailing, you’ll want to make you’re your vacuums are running smoothly and efficiently. After all, your central vacuum system is removing hundreds of pounds of debris daily and weekly; its performance and lifespan is all dependent on how care for it.
The following is a complete guide to maintaining a vacuum system. I have broken it down by each equipment feature and give you the steps to follow as well as a listing of things to look for, fix, maintain and replace.
Filter separator maintenance
Inspect separator door gaskets for damage, looseness and leakage, and replace if necessary as any leakage will cause vacuum pressure loss. When closing separator door there should be some resistance from the door latch, if not adjust the door latch and replace it if defective. There should be no leakage around the door.
On a monthly basis, lubricate separator door gaskets with 100 percent petroleum jelly as this will keep gaskets soft and prevent them from sticking to separator door. Lubricate door hinges monthly with WD-40 or LPS.
Remove separator filter bags and clean or replace as follows:
• 5000 cars a month or less: every three months
• 6000-8000 cars per month: every two months
• 9000 to 20,000 cars per month: every month.
If filter separator has a vacuum pressure gauge or Magnehelic gauge (inches of water gauge) it should indicate 80 inches to 100 inches when all vacuum hoses are hung up and there are no leaks in the system, depending on the horse power and model turbine you have.
If your separator has a vacuum relief valve installed on it or in the piping system be sure it is pulling in air when your vacuum system is sealed and no one is using it. The relief valve allows ambient air to enter turbine and maintain lower operating temperature. If it is not operating correctly, remove it from separator, remove end cap with holes, clean thoroughly, dry and lubricate with WD-40 or LPS.
When it comes to filter separators, it’s important to shake separator filter bags daily with your hands only. That means, you should NOT use any sticks, boards or pipes. Separator debris bucket(s) need to be emptied daily and cleaned out with a brush if necessary.
To clean bags, vacuum with a shop-vac and pressure wash with water only and hang dry. Do not machine wash with soap or place in dryer and never reinstall filter bags until they are completely dry. Purchase a new set and rotate per your volume.
Filter bag pores will eventually become plugged and cause loss of air flow through the bags. You do not lose suction when your bags or piping system becomes plugged up, you lose air flow and you will notice that fewer hoses can be used, and when you remove a hose the speed of the air diminishes. Cleaning filter bags regularly and rotating with a new set will keep your air flow and pressure [suction] at its optimum.
If liquid is vacuumed and separators are not installed between vacuum hose and piping system to prevent it from entering piping system, blockage will occur and filter separator bags can become wet causing dirt to stick and clog bags, restricting air flow.
Vacuum producer – turbines coupled
With this part of a vacuum system, it’s important to check to be sure correct wire size was used based on motor HP, voltage, amperage and distance from main electrical distribution panel. A vacuum motor amperage draw with across-the-line non-reversing magnetic starter installed is four to five times its full load amps when starting [this is called spiking] except when VFD (variable frequency drive) is used. VFD will lower your electrical cost.
Turbines with a motor coupling drive and turbine bearings must be lubricated. Once a month, lubricate turbine bearings  using a hand grease gun, with two-strokes maximum, with bearing lithium-polymer type viscosity, non-corrosive, extreme pressure grease NLGI grade 1 or 2 grease only. Do not use synthetic bearing grease. Grease the motor every 2,000 hours with motor grease type Multi Temp SRL or LI-Base grease only. Do not use turbine bearing grease.
Vacuum producer – turbines direct drive, non-coupled
Similar to the coupled turbines, for this section of a vacuum, you also have to check to be sure the correct wire size was used.
Vacuum piping system
Before you continue with your maintenance project, how about heading over to the local pet store. Why? Because vacuuming a half gallon of cat litter through each vacuum hose and a couple gallons through your piping system can easily clean their insides.
Before you vacuum with the cat litter, be sure to clean filter bags, empty debris bucket and clean hose drop separators. When you are finished, re-clean filter bags, empty the debris bucket and clean the hose separators again. You should notice an increase in air flow and pressure suction.
As for maintenance, always return vacuum nozzles or crevice tools to their hanger when done using.
If air flow and pressure doesn’t improve, you probably have one of the following problems:
• Worn vacuum nozzles and/or bad nozzle hanger seals;
• A blockage in your vacuum piping system, cracked or loose pipes or fittings, or a blockage where the vacuum piping system connects to your primary or filter separator;
• A dirty or plugged vacuum hose filter bag in need of replacement due to its age (these should be replaced once a year) or perhaps they have not been cleaned or rotated as indicated;
• A filter bag or debris could have sucked against the screen inside the separator where turbine piping attaches to the separator;
• Leaky separator door gaskets;
• An added on vacuum hose may have increased the diameter and/or length of a vacuum hose and exceeded its design limits
• A vacuum piping system was not sized properly based on the number of vacuum hose drops, piping distance, elbows, tees, altitude, etc.; and/or
• A vacuum turbine is rotating in the wrong direction.
Hose drop separators
Vacuum systems with overhead piping from under a canopy or trellis should have a separator between the vacuum piping and vacuum hose connection to remove pens, pencils, jewelry, coins, moisture, etc. These should be cleaned out daily to keep system operating at its optimum. Separators are either plastic or steel with a 4-inch clean out on the bottom.
Vacuum systems with stanchions and a plastic or steel separator should be maintained the same as overhead piping system. A system with overhead piped arch stanchions which have a separator installed toward the top of the support column should be cleaned daily through the bottom.
As for vacuum systems with early model underground piped arch stanchions with a separator installed at the bottom of the support column and a removable lid and flex hose, these should be maintained by:
1. Removing the flex hose with lid.
2. Then removing the five gallon bucket inside and discard the debris (later models do not have a flex hose).
3. Brushing and hosing out the bucket.
4. Checking that the separator lid seals against the gasket. Replace this if it is defective.
5. Lubricating the gasket once a month with 100 percent petroleum jelly to keep it from drying out, getting hard, cracking and sticking to lid.
6. Waxing the arch stanchions, standard hopper and hose drop stanchions every three months to prevent fading due to ultra violet rays from the sun.
Tom Tucker Jr. is the president and founder of Vacutech, a manufacturer of vacuum technologies for the carwash industry. He has been hard at work in the industry since 1968. Tom can be reached at 1-800-917-9444.