Considering the traffic flow of modern carwash locations, the basic idea that more vehicles equal more profits is widely recognized. Simply put, moving cars, SUVs and trucks rapidly through an express tunnel is one foundation of carwash performance and success. Thus, ensuring the vehicle load, wash and exit processes are fast and safe is massively important to operators and customers alike.
Over the decades, technical improvements have been made to the conveyor systems utilized by busy tunnel washes. A more recent update to this type of equipment is the modern belt conveyor. This style of conveyance can move all types of vehicles through a car care facility, even if the size or features of a vehicle caused issues with previous conveyor designs. Learn more about how this upgraded technology can expand service capabilities and drive profitability for wash operations.
New transport technology
While belt conveyor technology cannot be classified as new, its application in the “wet side” of carwashing presented plenty of new and somewhat unique mechanical considerations, according to Bob Schaefer with A.V.W. Equipment Co. Inc. Though this technology was commonplace in the industry, today’s direct interface with consumers and carwash operators has proven to be a brand-new and groundbreaking experience.
Now that this conveyor design is “over that hump” in the industry and the adoption of the concept is mainstream, continued development is the overall target, Schaefer explains. The first consideration is ensuring longer physical product life cycles. This will drive the total cost of installation, maintenance and operation per wash down to historic lows.
“It removes the last barrier to completely replacing the old vehicle transport technology,” Schaefer says. “If processing speeds up, damage decreases, the customer experience improves dramatically, maintenance goes down, productivity and profitability are both up, and the return on investment (ROI) is higher, the industry will convert completely. It has to.”
Lawrence Stovall, owner of Auto Brite Co., notes that modern carwash conveyor belt design has brought both safety and comfort to the wash process. This overarching safety covers the carwash workers as well as consumer vehicles. The typical over-and-under conveyor design has rollers exposed to the workers in the tunnel, and accidents have happened where the rollers injured carwash employees who were in a rush and not being careful.
Belt conveyors provide improved vehicle safety as well. “We have all seen the videos of what happens when a customer on a traditional conveyor hits the brakes, turns the steering wheel or does something nutty,” Stovall states. “On a belt, if the steering wheel is moved or the brakes are hit, nothing can really happen — the wheels are stationary.”
Addressing customer comfort, the jerky movement and the “roll forward and then roll back” of some over-and-under conveyors is gone. Stovall points out that a vehicle sitting on the belt is instead riding comfortably and steadily for the duration of a wash. The customer does not feel any sort of pushing or pulling during the wash process.
Earning more money
There are also a few ways belt systems can help a location become more profitable. The first and most obvious advantage is that a belt conveyor allows a tunnel to accommodate a wider range of vehicles, including low-profile sports cars and even dually trucks, according to Stovall. The standard over-and-under conveyor wheel space runs between 13 and 15 inches wide. Belt conveyors can accept wheels from 24 to 41 inches wide. The wider tires commonly installed on high-end sports cars, dually trucks or other vehicles will no longer be an issue.
“Speaking of rims, the belt conveyor prevents expensive rims from being scratched on the guide rails of a typical over-and-under conveyor. That’s also a money-maker in an indirect way,” Stovall says. “The belt design also allows an operator to take low-profile vehicles. Rails can prevent these types of vehicles from going through a tunnel as they are too low for the over-and-under rails.”
Looking to the future, belt conveyors will help open up even more sales opportunities. Stovall describes how the belt conveyor gives owners the ability to offer 24/7 operation at an express tunnel. These hours are currently offered by Kwik Trip in Wisconsin and Petro Canada. Since the belts are easy to load onto, the customer does not need employee help when entering the tunnel. In the near future, the next generation will have self-driving vehicles going through carwashes on their own. The belt system will be easier for the driverless vehicles to load onto than the traditional over-and-under conveyors.
Belt levels and advances
More thoroughly describing modern belt technology, Stovall notes that his company has actively looked for ways to improve conveyor belt systems. One newer trait is building a belt system using a triple-level framework. One major improvement or innovation was an 8-inch, low-profile belt design. The conveyor belt’s frame was only 8 inches in depth compared to the traditional 20-inch-deep frame.
This innovation, developed in 2013, was important because of the tight carwash geography of some locations. Operators were asking for a surface-mount
conveyor system that could be installed over fuel tanks, according to Stovall. This was especially important so a professional tunnel carwash could be added to convenience store operations. The standard 20-inch-deep frame meant a trench had to be dug to install the conveyor. The 8-inch conveyor gave owners a couple of options. First, a wash could surface-mount the conveyor and build a ramp up to the wash. Or, a shallow trench could be dug to allow installation.
The second area of improvement for belt conveyors has been in the resins — or plastics, for lack of a better word — used to make the conveyor material. These materials are improving all the time and give longer life to the belt itself, according to Stovall.
Finally, a third improvement is that a belt system can now have the ability to transfer a vehicle from one belt to another, Stovall reveals. This allows the operator to have the vehicle in park if desired. Having the vehicle in park ensures it is in its safest and most comfortable position. Today, this style of updated belt design has proven popular in Asia.
When it comes to belt maintenance, Schaefer recommends a business always keep the belt conveyor clean. Also, an operator or manager should regularly monitor the system’s sprocket, belt and glide plate wear. Finally, it is important to inspect the return rollers under the conveyor periodically to keep the belt off the pit floor.
Probably the most important thing to regularly check on all conveyors — both belt and over-and-under design — is the tension, Stovall suggests. If there is too much slack, all conveyors tend to bind. Even on systems that come with an automatic tensioner, this tension check should not be ignored.
The second important step is keeping the system’s bearings lubricated, Stovall notes. In the carwash environment, considering the wash chemicals being used, keeping the gears and bearings properly lubricated keeps a belt operational. This step gives the conveyor a longer life because proper lubrication helps minimize wear.
Finally, Stovall agrees with the importance of keeping the belt conveyor clean. Some options come with an automatic belt-cleaning system, so that mud and debris can be kept to a minimum. If the installed belt conveyor does not have that option, a routine cleaning will be a necessary part of the location’s daily maintenance.
“The belt conveyor systems are pretty easy systems to work with, so best practices are still at the maintenance level,” Stovall says. “Make sure the tension looks good, keep them clean, and lubricate the bearings.”
Addressing how belt systems can increase site safety, Schaefer states that belts do not “roll and guide and wrestle” vehicles through the wash. Instead, the belts carry them. Because of this, luxury and sports car owners do not have to worry about dragging rocker panels, wheels, steering knuckles, etc., along the guide rails.
Schaefer explains that there are safety tips in belt conveyor installation manuals. It is the distributor’s responsibility to start the wash after installation, familiarize an owner with the conveyor’s operation as well as share maintenance requirements and intervals. A good distributor is always available to advise on its customers’ technical support issues.
The first and most obvious safety advantage of the belt design versus traditional conveyors is the over-and-under roller is taken out of the equation, according to Stovall. For employees, increased safety is obvious because, unfortunately, they can (and do) get caught in the rollers while prepping. That safety concern is gone with the belt design. In fact, if trained properly, an attendant may even stand on the belt if needed while prepping.
For the customer and the carwash owner, the fact that vehicle wheels do not move on the conveyor prevents accidents caused by customers hitting the brakes or turning the steering wheel, Stovall concludes. As noted earlier, the width of the belts is also safer for all wheel and tire designs.
Michael Rose is a freelance contributor.