A vacuum system should fit the needs of the carwash it serves. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all vacuums. The market is changing and vacuum technology is changing with it.
Vacuums for full-serves
A typical central system consists of one or two vacuum producers, a piping system that carries suction to the vacuum area, and an appropriately sized separator to remove debris from the airflow. The conveyor speed should dictate the time it takes to complete a car — not the vacuum process.
In order to keep pace with today’s conveyors, a successful full-serve needs a reliable vacuum system with powerful suction and minimal downtime.
Traditional central vacuum systems are often designed with maximum capacity in mind. Carwash owners understandably want the best possible suction at all of their drops during peak business. This often results in a vacuum system that runs full speed, all day and every day the wash is open — regardless of traffic flow.
The trouble with this model is that you’re paying the electric company the same amount whether you’re washing one car an hour or 100. Unless your wash is in full swing, this model is extremely inefficient and cuts your profit margin, especially in areas with high energy rates.
Just because you need powerful suction doesn’t mean you need to pay a premium to the power company. With the right technology, your vacuum system can achieve optimal performance with minimal operating costs.
A new approach
An investment in a little technology can yield tremendous cost savings. By introducing the right motor control to your central system, you can manage the operating speed of your motor so production matches demand. You only pay for the suction you need, plus your equipment life is extended because it’s not maxing out every time it’s on.
The most effective motor control is a properly programmed variable frequency drive (VFD).
In most cases, a VFD can reduce energy consumption by more than 70 percent. And because they are environmentally friendly, utility companies across the country are offering rebates just for installing approved VFD products.
Choosing the right motor control
VFDs are motor controls designed to maximize the efficiency of an electric motor. VFDs are growing in popularity because of their potential for tremendous energy savings.
Buyer beware: a VFD without the proper programming is nothing more than a glorified soft-starter. Think of it in terms of buying a computer off the shelf. The computer isn’t very useful without the right software.
While the soft-start process does reduce wear and tear and prevent costly power spikes at start-up, there is no benefit while the system is in use — the motor simply runs at full speed. Some VFDs may even tout two or more operating speeds, but these will not yield anywhere near the savings offered by a truly dynamic drive.
In order to truly reap the maximum cost savings, your VFD must work dynamically with your vacuum’s motor throughout the entire cycle process. For this, it must be equipped with the proper programming.
What your VFD should do for you
An effective VFD will power up your vacuum in soft-start mode and then control the RPMs as demand rises and falls. As more vacuum hoses are used, the VFD recognizes the increased load and ramps up production to match demand.
The system produces just the right amount of suction at any given time and then returns to idle or off when demand slows. The beauty is that operating costs match operating levels.
Before buying any VFD, ask your vacuum supplier for a cost savings projection. This report will paint a clear picture of the return on investment you can expect. This report is required by utility companies in order to qualify for rebate programs.
Vacuums for the express exterior carwash
Speed is the name of the game when it comes to the express wash. You certainly don’t want a backlog at the vacuum island slowing the process.
More and more express washes are offering free vacuums to their customers as a marketing tool. The debate goes on about how this affects the industry as a whole, but there’s no arguing that free vacuums are a reality.
The important thing to keep in mind is that free vacuums shouldn’t cost a fortune to run. In fact, if your market demands free vacuums, low operating costs are more important than ever. Just as with full-serve vacuums, there are ways to minimize costs while offering customers a great vacuum experience.
Some operators modify existing pay-per-use vacuum canisters to offer free vacuums. Others opt for energy conscious central systems, complete with metered vacuum stations.
The design is similar to a traditional central system, but suction is piped to a customer vacuum area and metered at individual vacuum stations. Each station allows suction to one hose as it’s activated (by token, keycode, underground sensor, or a customer lifting the vacuum nozzle). These metered stations work in conjunction with a programmed VFD, so the system is always energy efficient and equipment life is extended.
A word to the wise: Don’t make the mistake of relying on your customers to return the vacuum hoses to their hangers. Instead, program your system so that each hose receives suction for a set period of time. That way you can offer free vacuums but not free unlimited vacuums. This will also prevent customers from camping out all day at your vacuum island. If you choose, you can offer customers the option to buy more vacuum time (on their dollar) after their free vacuum time expires.
Vacuums for the flex-serve carwash
A successful flex-serve wash can benefit from a flexible vacuum strategy. With today’s technology, you can use one central vacuum system to handle your full-serve customers and your express customers. Here’s how: Suction is piped from the central vacuum producer(s) to your employee vacuum area for full-serve. Suction is also piped from the same producer(s) to self serve vacuum stations in a customer area.
A central system can also be designed to grow with your wash in stages. You may want to start with vacuums that handle only full-serve customers, and then add self-serve stations at a later date. The key is flexibility.
Steve Tucker Jr. is president of AutoVac Industrial Vacuum Systems, manufacturer of vacuums, parts and accessories which is headquartered in San Diego, CA. Tucker has more than 16 years experience in the carwash industry and can be reached at: Steve@G2Equipment.com