It’s undeniable that water and electricity are two of the greatest expenses for a carwash. As critical components of the business, these utility costs will recur month after month. Since you’re already committed to spending gross amounts of money on utility bills, there’s nothing more you can do than suck it up and learn to live with it, right? Wrong.

Certainly, these bills will always be a necessary evil, but with a little planning and patience, you’ll find there are several ways to lower both your usage and your bills. In addition, you get the bonus of becoming eco-friendlier, which is a plus in the eyes of many consumers nowadays.

Water you going to do first?

Water Reclaim Side bar March

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Water is the lifeblood of a carwash. Unfortunately, as Ted LaVigne, vice president of sales for New Wave Industries, points out, “The rising cost of water and sewer rates has quickly made it one of the most expensive consumables in the wash process.”

Humankind has always believed in reusing water. In ancient times, for instance, families used the bath one after another — from oldest to youngest — until it become too dirty to see through, hence the origin of the phrase, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Nowadays, water recycling and recycling in general have become popular practices. So, it makes sense that you should do the same with your carwash by investing in water reclaim systems.   

Water reclaim systems are designed to separate carwash sediment, such as dirt, grease, oil and chemicals, from the water to make it reusable. Depending on the sophistication of the system, different systems can filter finer particulates from the water, allowing you to use different levels of filtered water on different parts of the vehicle. For instance, you can use slightly less-filtered water in undercarriage washes, but you’ll want to use more highly-filtered water on body washings.   

As an added bonus, water reclaim systems come with varying levels of odor and clarity management — always a plus for the customer experience. According to LaVigne, the traditional and most basic method of controlling odor is by introducing oxygen into the reclaim tanking system, usually through aeration methods. However, LaVigne notes, the newest method of oxidation is using Peroxone, which is created when ozone and hydrogen peroxide are combined in a mixing chamber and injected into the settling tanks.

“The combined value manages the odor while oxidizing residual color from chemical dyes and breaking the surfactant bonds with the water. The end result is a cleaner, clearer water being processed for the wash,” he says.

Nowadays, water reclaim systems are recycling more than ever. “The advancements in reclaim systems over the past five years have pushed the [reclaim] percentages from 65 percent up to 85 percent in traditional systems and, in some cases, 100 percent, where a total closed-loop system is required,” LaVigne states.

With so much water reuse, the return on investment (ROI) for a reclaim system has a typical payback period of nine to 18 months. Furthermore, several cities across the U.S. offer rebates for installing water reclaim systems, so be sure to check if your local municipality does. Not only is water reclaim better for the environment, but it also helps your city by reducing demand on the existing water infrastructure and allowing for municipal growth without having to increase the size of processing plants in tandem, LaVigne adds.

In addition, he notes, the overall maintenance of water reclaim systems has decreased due to enhanced programming, self-cleaning orafices and new cyclone technology that enhances the separation of particles from the water, so you can trust that your investment will help you save more money.

“The technology and expectations for reclaiming water have changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” LaVigne explains, “so it’s important that an owner/operator contact their local distributor and/or reclaim manufacturer to discuss the objectives of the project, what the expectations may be once the equipment is installed and operational and what the return on investment might be. A comprehensive feasibility assessment at the facility is a must to determine tanking size requirements, underground piping and stub-up connections in the equipment room.”   

Of course, while your water reclaim system may be controlling the amount of water you pull from the city’s system, it’s still using a significant amount of electricity, so it’s critical that you also manage energy consumption. “A modern reclamation system will have variable speed drives and motors to control the exact horsepower as is needed, advanced programming to manage the entire operation as well as self-diagnostics to reduce downtime and limit the cost of repair,” LaVigne concludes.

Drive down your electric bill

Variable speed, or frequency, drives (VFDs) aren’t only useful for monitoring your water reclamation energy usage. They can, in fact, be tremendous cost-savers when used with other high-powered equipment around the wash.

VFDs control the amount of electricity that equipment uses by regulating motor speed and power surges. For instance, it takes more energy to turn such equipment as blowers on and off multiple times a day rather than to just leave the equipment on at a lower power setting for the duration.

PC&D previously published an interview with Kevin Detrick, president of Innovative Control Systems Inc. (ICS), about the diverse uses for VFDs around a carwash. According to Detrick, VFDs can not only save money, but they can also improve wash quality and provide a better and more consistent customer experience.

If your priority is to save money, there are two key areas where you should begin VFD installation. “The bigger horsepower items like the vacuums and the blowers are typically where you are going to save the most money and get that higher return on investment,” Detrick says. These are the two greatest power consumers at your wash, he adds, but other notable power-users are hydraulics, water reclaim pumps, high pressure pumps and booster pumps. Here, we’ll concentrate on how VFDs can specifically affect blower and vacuum performance.

Blowers, which Detrick says generally have the highest amount of horsepower at a wash, can be run at three speeds using VFDs. “The ability to set your blowers to three different speeds can have a really nice impact for your customer experience and your utility costs,” he notes.

As Detrick explains, the first way to lower usage is to idle blowers at half-speed between vehicles and to close the blast gate, if there is one. The second speed setting is to run some blowers at 52Hz, or about a 10 to 15 percent speed reduction, without impacting drying power. Finally, for pickup trucks and convertibles, he notes, instead of shutting off dryers and turning them on again after the vehicle passes, which increases electricity usage, you can drop the blower speeds by 25 to 30 percent. In this way, you can not only get approximately 70 percent of the water off the vehicle, but the airflow is also not enough to blow debris out of a truck bed and onto the car behind it.

As for vacuums, the other top energy-eater at a carwash, they can also benefit from VFDs not only in terms of utility usage, but also in terms of customer experience. By running the vacuums at lower power settings when there are fewer customers, you can save energy and provide a consistent vacuuming experience.

“You can enhance the customer experience by always offering the same amount of suction or lift. You want the optimal amount of lift at the vacuum nozzle, and you can generally get there at a lower RPM,” Detrick explains. “As more people use the vacuum/turbine, the turbine speeds up, and this will increase your energy consumption as well. In this situation, you are able to regulate the energy consumed based on the amount of usage or need, and the customers will in turn always get the optimal amount of suction.”

By delivering a consistent amount of powerful suction with your vacuums, you add value to them, because free or not, if customers feel they can get better lift out of a vacuum at home, they won’t feel the need to use your vacuums, making them a pointless part of your wash, Detrick notes.

So, how much money can you save? Well, according to www.focusonenergy.com, Wisconsin’s utilities’ statewide energy efficiency program, “As a rule of thumb, adding a VFD to an applicable system costs approximately $200 to $500 per horsepower installed.” Of course, installing VFDs from the onset is cheaper than replacing what is already installed, but don’t discount the energy and cost savings you could reap from doing so anyway.

Ultimately, like all ROI considerations, each calculation is unique based on your utility bill. “VFDs are eliminating in-rush, which equates to the demand portion of your energy bill … [and] reducing kilowatt usage by running motors and pumps at slower speeds,” Detrick says. “If you look at being able to drop energy consumption on things like your hydraulics by a third, you can easily translate that savings and calculate an ROI.”

Light the way to savings

Let’s face it though — your electric costs aren’t just coming from your equipment, although the majority most likely is. But anywhere you can cut back counts. Last issue, we covered the benefits of implementing LED lighting throughout your wash. In addition to providing better light quality, the experts we interviewed noted LEDs also save money in the long run, and their costs are so much lower now than in past years that they really shouldn’t be a factor.

While LED fixtures do cost more upfront than traditional ones, Michael Call, vice president of sales and marketing at Mile High LED Systems, says, “Incandescent, fluorescent and even neon [lighting is] expensive to operate. LED lighting can save 50 to 80 percent in power costs.”  For example, he says, a 320W metal halide and ballast fixture uses 368W of power to deliver about 8,500 lumens (the amount of light emitted per second). A 57W LED fixture, in contrast, can deliver 8,992 lumens. So, the LED fixture uses around 85 percent less power but provides better light.

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In addition, Call says, LEDs have a useful life of at least 100,000 hours, meaning there’s no annual maintenance, unlike with traditional lighting. But if you’re still not sure that your current lighting is contributing terribly to your current electric bill, Call advises, “Start with a complementary review of all lights on the property to determine which lights are costing you the most in lost business or in power.” Even if you can’t afford to switch out all your lights at once, Call notes that this review and a complementary savings report for all light fixtures helps businesses prioritize which lights to upgrade first.

In some cases, it will take only about a year to recoup the expenses of the fixtures through energy cost savings, and considering that LEDs can last up to 20 years, that gives you 19 years of ROI. For further savings, you can check out www.energystar.gov/rebate-finder to find rebates in your area for LED (and other appliance) purchases.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Every tunnel carwash needs a tunnel controller. However, did you realize that the type of controller you choose can greatly affect how much electricity and water you use, depending on its services?

According to Dave Ragle, product engineer with DRB Systems, there are a few utility and cost-saving factors you should keep in mind when shopping for the right tunnel controller:

  • To-the-inch accuracy. Tunnel systems that deliver water, soap and chemicals to-the-inch only apply these resources within an inch of the front of the car and stop applying them within an inch of the rear. There’s no need to waste electricity, water and chemicals by having your system deliver them before the car even reaches the arch or after it passes through.
  • Stagger-starting. “One of the ways that carwashes and other commercial and industrial businesses get charged for electricity is based on peak electricity usage,” Ragle says. So, he adds, if you turn on your blowers, vacuums, hydraulic motors and other high-consumption equipment at the same time, you’ll pull a huge load from the electrical system, and the electric company will see how much your peak electrical usage is and charge you based on it. A tunnel system that uses stagger-starting allows you to spread the load over a greater period of time by placing a time gap between the start of these high-load devices. So, if the system notices that you’re starting another high-load device within that time frame, it will wait until that time gap has elapsed before it turns it on. Not only is this useful for initial workday startups, but it’s also helpful for those times when you have to shut down the system for repairs and maintenance.
  • Look back. Look back allows a system to realize there’s another vehicle approaching within a certain time frame behind the present one. For instance, this technology allows the system to signal blowers to remain on if a car is within the allotted distance instead of turning off and restarting again, which uses more energy.
  • Time-based priming. Time-based priming allows a tunnel system to control when equipment, such as arches or blowers, turn on and prime based on the flow of cars so that they don’t initiate too early. For instance, arches need a certain amount of time to prime, filling with water and chemicals, before the car approaches. But if cars run closer together, it takes less time to prime because the arches haven’t fully drained. Therefore, the tunnel system helps adjust when to turn arches on so that they begin filling and are primed to apply loads to the vehicle at the right time. “You can see some significant water and electricity savings by correctly using a priming capability to be able to take that [timing] into account,” Ragle notes.
  • Device saturation control. This type of control tracks how much chemical has already been applied to a vehicle and prevents the system from applying more, saving chemical and water.
  • Vehicle profiling. This technology helps save even more in terms of water and chemicals. For instance, it allows your system to detect open truck beds and keep from unnecessarily spraying water or chemicals in them. Vehicle profilers also have detection systems for other parts of a car, such as windshields, that allow the system to deliver specific services (like windshield protectants) to these areas of the vehicle.

“The average tunnel controller can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, depending on how many functions and devices the tunnel uses,” Ragle notes, so your ROI will obviously vary. Just keep in mind that while a tunnel controller is a necessary cost, depending on how much you invest in it, it has the ability to help you save on those other necessary utility costs.

Other ways to save

Of course, as with residences, there are other ways to lower your utility bills. For instance, you can install solar panels or solar water heating, for which you can apply for a 30 percent tax credit, according to www.energy.gov. Keep in mind, however, that the current credit rate is only available through Dec. 31, 2019 and will begin to decline in the following years.

In addition, consider your landscaping. If, for instance, you live in an arid region and have planted foliage that is not native to the area and requires greater amounts of water, you could consider introducing native plants that retain moisture better and require less water in order to save on water bills and promote a more natural environment.

As utility costs only continue to increase, it is important to understand that there are multiple money-saving options available for your carwash, although seeing the results will take a little time. As you strive to save money and the environment, remember to advertise your energy- and water-saving techniques to educate customers. Environmentalism has become a huge part of consumer ideals, and putting forth an investment towards it may not only reap you rewards in terms of cost savings, but it may also provide an increase in business as well — the best ROI.