On some days, it feels like complaints are the engine that drives the carwash industry. Owners might complain about technical issues, climbing utility costs and the competitive carwash market. Customers could complain about long wait times, unsatisfactory wash results or dirty restrooms. And everyone, employees included, can always complain about the weather.

A big step for operators looking to stay ahead of potential complaints is to address small issues before they become big problems. One good example is the vehicle features that are now causing headaches and sometimes auto damage claims in tunnels and bays around the country. Sensors, locking systems and more engaging at the wrong time can definitely give owners and customers a thing or two to complain about. So, what features commonly cause complaints for today’s carwashes?

The auto damage culprits

According to Carl Howard, COO of Autobell Car Wash Inc. and an ICA board member, a site’s auto damage risk potential can depend on what type of carwash it is. In the soft cloth carwashes Howard is familiar with, anything loose on a vehicle can cause a problem. The list includes loose trim and loose side mirrors.

“If you can identify loose items, that helps a lot,” Howard says. “Mirrors are probably one of the bigger items that we see. That’s basic equipment damage that’s difficult to mitigate.”

Brian Gleason, vice president – sales and marketing with PECO Car Wash Systems, notes that rear wipers can get snagged occasionally, causing damage. Other vehicle features that cause many washing problems are auto sensors that instigate automatic braking. Thankfully, for the most part, this problem is in check when vehicles are in neutral.

Howard also sees problems with vehicles not going into neutral when they are turned off. In Autobell’s wash tunnels, the customer is out of the vehicle, and the chain’s operating rules or policies state that employees don’t leave a vehicle running. The general rule is that, if a vehicle is unattended, the engine needs to be off.

“There are several models of vehicles [where] there is no provision for the car to be in neutral with the engine off, and that presents a problem,” Howard explains. “In those cases, we have had to actually put the customer in that car and change our operation a little bit.”

Similarly, Howard notes some anti-collision technologies cause vehicles to auto brake inside carwashes. Typically, those systems shut down when the car is shut off, but there are one or two models in the market that do not. Thankfully, this issue is improving. More auto manufacturers are beginning to shut these systems off when the vehicle’s ignition is turned off, so Howard doesn’t think this issue will be a concern moving forward.

If auto damage does occur, operators should know that it will probably cost them more than it used to. The cost of claims relative to the revenue that carwashes generate has gone up, according to Howard. When going to a body shop if a car needs to be painted or a mirror needs to be reattached it’s not a $100 deal anymore. Now it can cost up to $1,000 for a simple side view mirror.

“I don’t really think the equipment’s any worse or the cars are built any worse,” Howard states. “I just think that body shops charge a bit more for what they do than they used to.” Plus, with the infusion of technologies into these auto components, parts can cost more today.

Related: How to protect your carwash from auto-related accidents

Training and prevention

When it comes to damage claims, Howard reminds owners that employees cause auto damage claims as well. All employees can be careless at times, and some may be ill-trained to handle on-site issues. There are always various factors that can cause things to go wrong, and sometimes employees and customers don’t pay attention where needed.

Since Howard works with a full service chain, he knows carwash employees are driving cars around the lots. Even though they’re not driving very fast, bad things can happen. Because of this, Autobell has specific driving procedures set for its employees.

“We spend a lot of time working with our people, and we have a specific procedure that we want our people to follow,” Howard says. “If something rapidly occurs with a vehicle, a rapid acceleration or what have you, they’re prepared for that. I can’t stress that enough.”

Employees are asked to visually confirm that they have a foot on the brake before they put the vehicle into drive, according to Howard. They should have a hand either on the key or on the start/stop button to stop the vehicle if there’s a sudden acceleration. Finally, they’re trained to drive the vehicle no faster than a walk.

Another situation that Autobell addresses thoroughly is when an employee has to drive a vehicle in reverse, which accounts for the highest instance of accidents on a carwash lot, Howard notes. The chain’s training absolutely mandates that an employee has a spotter so that he or she does not run over something unseen. Many carwash sites are small and tight, and there are many vehicles moving in different directions. “We just make it mandatory that [employees] have a spotter before they put a car in reverse.”

Gleason agrees that employee training is supremely important. Operators should make sure that vehicle technology issues and proper equipment set up are part of their employee training programs. Wash owners need to have proper programs for all employees with built-in continuous improvement measures.

For auto damage claim prevention, Gleason states that in the wash tunnel or bay, sonar detectors and retracts are an owner’s best bets.

Howard explains that employees can be a big part of damage claim prevention as well. Though carwashing is a fast-paced business, one of the big things that Autobell locations try to do is train employees to pre-inspect vehicles as much as possible. They look for existing auto damage and point it out to the customer before he or she goes through the wash.

Customers in or out?

According to Gleason, it is becoming a standard practice for customers to remain in their vehicles even in full service or flex-serve washes. The main reason is to compete in today’s marketplace with the express exteriors. Even some full service washes have opted for this practice in order to manage their labor and keep costs in check. By having only one point of entry at the finish end a business can reduce the labor needed on-site.

That said, the Autobell chain asks customers to exit their vehicles. The company started in the late 1960s in the exterior carwash world, and every customer stayed inside his or her vehicle. Though employees are in customer vehicles now, Howard is familiar with that format. In this instance, people behind the wheel of any car in a situation that they’re not accustomed to especially new customers can do bad things inside a carwash. “That was happening in the ’60s, and it’s happening today.”

Still, when an operation removes the human element by asking customers to exit their vehicles, there won’t be as many instances of vehicles going through a tunnel in drive and customers trying to steer when they shouldn’t, Howard notes. Accidents and damages like this will definitely lessen with customers in a waiting room. Part of this is giving customers proper instruction and offering them a clean, well-lit and comfortable waiting area inside the carwash. This makes them feel at ease and tends to help mitigate some auto damage problems.

Issues of the past

With all these concerns about auto damage while in the carwash, it’s nice to know there are a few instances where operators don’t have to worry. Today’s paints and clearcoats are no longer an issue for automated washes. Gleason states that, with proper wash and wax applications, they have become easier to maintain.

Howard agrees and says that when clearcoats first came out, the carwashes weren’t the problem; the clearcoats were the problem. Initially, some clearcoats weren’t staying on the vehicles, but the manufacturers and paint suppliers have sorted that issue out.

“We don’t see any problems with the paints that we have today,” Howard confirms. “They’re very easy to clean. I think actually the shiny clearcoats that are on cars help our business because people like it when they’re nice and clean.”

Industry resources

Autobell began documenting common vehicle technology issues, and then the company developed a booklet. Howard says it is a flip book called “Special Needs Vehicles” because carwashes have to change their operations to accommodate these customers’ cars. There are approximately 45 different makes and models listed in the book, and subjects covered include problem crash sensors, how to start a vehicle that is different as well as how to stop a vehicle that is different.

“We shared that information with the ICA, and the operator can absolutely check the ICA website, get in contact with the ICA and receive that information,” Howard notes. “We update that information periodically as well, so it’s a great resource.”

As an ICA board member, Howard says that the group is also working with a consulting company to help operators get in front of the automotive manufacturers. They want to communicate the common challenges that carwashes are having with some of these transmission, starting and anti-collision technologies.

“I feel good about our prospects to, at minimum, have a conversation with different manufacturers and hopefully get them to mitigate some of these challenges that we’re having,” Howard concludes.


Phil Ashland is a freelance contributor.