Today, many express format carwashes have figured out how to get extra work out of their vacuum systems. Instead of hiding these stations in the back corners of the lot, many washes now place the popular equipment front and center and closer to the street. Modern carwash design now calls on vacuums to provide curb appeal, because convenient and operational vacuums are one item that many customers look for when selecting a wash to visit.

Though the equipment has proven popular with almost every customer, large and bustling vacuum stations can consume a sizeable amount of energy. Thus, even the most up-to-date vacuum systems require regular upkeep and fine-tuning to ensure efficient and affordable operation. This article covers expert tips and best practices to keep vacuum energy costs low while offering optimal results for customers who prefer cleaning their own interiors.

Efficient equipment

Central vacuum systems, which have become increasingly popular with carwash operators, have proven to be more energy efficient than their canister counterparts, notes Steve Lieneman, vice president of sales and marketing for Vacutech. Generally speaking, central vacuum systems run just one motor compared to the multiple motors needed for a canister system setup. This difference can significantly decrease vacuum energy use.

Wes Taggart with AutoVac’s Industrial Vacuum and Blower Division states that energy-efficient central vacuum systems are now an industry standard. Over the years, they have replaced standalone, canister-type vacuums. Central vacuum systems are comprised of one or more large centrifugal vacuum producers, various stages of filtration and engineered piping that delivers suction to multiple vacuum hoses or “drops.”

The vacuum systems’ energy efficiency is increased even more by the use of advanced motor controls, which include variable frequency drives (VFDs), Taggart reveals. Via this equipment, the large vacuum producers can be programmed to match demand. This “vacuum-on-demand” model is extremely energy efficient and reduces electrical costs dramatically.

“It’s crucial that the motor controls include the necessary software to constantly match vacuum production to customer demand,” Taggart continues. “Some VFD applications simply bump a motor’s production to a few pre-set levels. While this is more efficient than running the motor wide-open all day long, it can’t come close to the cost savings achieved through a truly dynamic VFD motor control system.”

When a VFD is programmed properly, an operator can save upwards of 90 percent when the system is at “idle” and about 60 percent throughout the day, Taggart states. Operators should ask their vacuum manufacturers to provide a written energy cost-savings estimator. This will help an owner better understand the anticipated cost savings as well as the rate of return for an investment in this technology.

Lieneman also notes the energy-saving importance of VFDs when it comes to vacuum operation. VFDs have increased in popularity in recent years because they significantly reduce the amount of energy needed during startup. Further, the drives moderate the speed of the turbine during normal use. This often reduces both a wash’s cost per kilowatt hour as well as electrical usage.

Running for decades

But, energy efficiency is only part of the carwash vacuum equation. The lifespan of the vacuum equipment will have a huge effect on the overall value of the system purchased. Taggart explains that a well-designed vacuum system will run reliably for decades if a proper maintenance plan is followed. Here, carwash operators must keep a few vacuum factors front of mind:

  • Vacuum producers are the heart of the system. Follow the manufacturer’s motor maintenance guidelines, Taggart recommends. Mount the motors properly, grease them per the manufacturer’s recommendation and prevent any and all debris from entering the producer.
  • Filtration acts as the lungs of a system. Keep all filter bags clean, and replace when necessary, Taggart states. Maintenance is relatively easy: Empty the debris buckets on an as-needed basis, check the gasket seals for a good fit and keep the filter bags clean. A decent set of filter bags can be laundered at the cleaners or washed in a washing machine at the wash and then sun dried. A second set of filter bags is good to keep on hand to alternate and eventually replace the existing set.
  • Piping is the system’s arteries. The vacuum manifold is often forgotten, but it is generally where most clogging in a system is found, Taggart notes. The correct use of line loss calculations for plumbing and pipe reduction, appropriate clean-outs throughout the line and a filtered manifold all work together to keep the vacuum suction high and customers coming back.

“Be sure to keep an accurate maintenance log for your own peace of mind and in case there is ever a warranty issue,” Taggart says.

Lieneman states that well-built, well-engineered systems manufactured from quality materials — and that are properly installed — will be fairly low-maintenance options. Operators should consult with system manufacturers to determine what maintenance to perform at specific time intervals.

“Central vacuum systems have always been the most reliable vacuum solution. However, the use of newer technology and materials in the manufacturing process allows for improved component fit and longer component life,” Lieneman says. “In combination, this translates to a reduced need for system maintenance, improved durability, increases in performance and reduced electrical usage.”

Proven popularity

Simply put, well-maintained and colorful vacuum systems can grab a customer’s attention and keep visitors coming back to a wash, according to Lieneman. Central vacuum systems — especially those with attractive arch designs, lighting features and shade awnings — catch the eyes of drivers even from a distance. These days, central vacuum systems are often a major contributor to the aesthetics of a carwash site. The colors, architectural details and beautiful designs that come with new or upgraded central vacuum systems will draw in customers.

But, a sparkling appearance is only half of the equation. Lieneman points out that, typically, vacuums are the only piece of carwash equipment that customers will use themselves. It is imperative for operators to make sure customers find the vacuums to be comfortable, easy to operate and convenient to use.

“Vacuum power and performance are critical to a complete and efficient vacuuming experience,” Lieneman continues. “Great vacuum performance not only impresses your customers, [but] it also cuts down on time needed to vacuum, letting you quickly move people through your site.”

Thoughtfully designed areas that make vacuuming easy and efficient are a key way to separate a wash from its competition. Vacuum system accessories that assist in creating a comfortable and convenient experience will ensure customers choose a specific wash again and again. Lieneman’s list of popular accessories includes:

Conveniently located and accessible waste receptacles

  • Floormat holders
  • Shade awnings
  • Two hoses per vacuum space.

Making the upgrade

For operators looking to upgrade their vacuum systems, the first step is choosing the right vacuum equipment for a specific site. Taggart states that there are four factors to consider when upgrading a vacuum system, and all of them contribute in some form or fashion to a system being efficient: vacuum producer, filter separation, piping and electrical. Having the correct horsepower and filter separation is important to all carwashes, and just as important is the vacuum manifold consideration that conveys air and debris to the vacuum equipment.

“Upgrade installations can be simple in nature, such as the addition of a dynamic VFD. Others may take more significant planning and resources when considering upgrades to vacuum equipment and outlying structures, such as vacuum canopies,” Taggart continues. “Electrical and construction costs need to be identified as well.”

Installation steps and timelines vary based on the size and complexity of a vacuum system and the wash site, Lieneman notes. Generally speaking, installing a new central vacuum system can take as few as two days or as long as four weeks once any necessary site work, such as removal of existing equipment, concrete and underground piping as well as electrical work, is complete.

Lieneman shares that a central vacuum system’s installation — new or retrofit — generally consists of:

  • Completing any necessary site work
  • Setting power equipment in place
  • Standing up arch stanchions
  • Attaching arch arms and accessories to stanchions
  • Plumbing all vacuum piping
  • Making electrical connections (by a certified electrician)
  • Testing system performance.

Research and distributors

Another important step for operators selecting new vacuum equipment is independent research. Lieneman suggests visiting other carwashes to see what vacuum equipment styles and brands are preferred by fellow operators and carwash customers. Try the equipment, and do not be afraid to talk with carwash customers about their experiences as they vacuum. This can help an operator determine the style, features, accessories and tools he or she prefers.

Next, Lieneman states that an owner should contact the distributor who represents the preferred vacuum equipment manufacturer. Choose a distributor that has experience and expertise specific to vacuums as well as a solid reputation for excellent customer service before, during and after a sale. Operators should communicate to the distributor any preferences developed from research and learning. Knowledgeable distributors will work in conjunction with an owner and the vacuum system manufacturer to design and engineer the correct system for a specific site.

“An experienced distributor will have great ideas about vacuum equipment and site layout, ingress and egress into the vacuum areas, vacuum equipment and accessory recommendations — even aesthetic things such as colors and branding,” Taggart concludes. “Ultimately, the owner working side by side with the distributor and vacuum manufacturer is always a recommended path for success. If you don’t have a distributor, call your vacuum manufacturer for recommendations.”


Jonathan Abrams is a freelance contributor.