Since the advent of automated carwashing, site upgrades and the addition of new technology have both excited and intimidated profit-conscious operators. The first thought of most owners will be the cost associated with updating a wash. Further, financing, installation and downtime are all concerns that will scare even the savviest of operators. To soothe these fears, owners should look for more information and reportage of repeatable success. Multiple sources and a multitude of case studies will confirm that smart site investments have paid off again and again.

Also, many owners are still unsure why technology upgrades in carwash tunnels and bays have become so critical. Today, the threat of competition close to almost every wash location cannot be overstated. Washes that are slow to upgrade can get left behind when a flurry of new or updated locations emerge. But beyond beating the washes down the street, new technologies and upgrades will drive efficiency and improve wash results while increasing customer satisfaction and reducing labor dependence.

Vital equipment needs

David Dougherty, senior product manager for in-bay automatics with PDQ Manufacturing Inc., confirms that carwash upgrades have become critical for many reasons. Today’s carwash owners are constantly looking for ways to improve revenue generation and reduce costs at their sites, so many are performing an upgrade or adding a special service that can lead to improved revenue per vehicle.

“Working with your local distributor or manufacturer can lead to opportunities that not only increase revenue but also reduce overall operating costs,” Dougherty says.

Additions that allow an operator to increase prices by offering a new feature are the most popular carwash upgrades, according to Dougherty. Adding a simple feature is far more economical than a complete machine replacement, and it can offer a quick improvement to the average sales price per vehicle.

Thomas Ennis, founder of NS Wash Systems, states that his company currently works with a lot of owners interested in dryer upgrades. In addition, conveyors perform heavy work on carwash sites, so they are always wearing out and needing to be upgraded. When it comes to new and unique equipment upgrades, blaster systems designed to take off approximately 95 percent of dirt as well as updated brush systems have proven popular with operators.

Using less labor

Ennis notes that labor costs are a critical driver for technology upgrades. In today’s labor market, dependable employees are hard to find. When an owner does find one, it’s rare that he or she stays with a carwash for more than a month. Even in markets with constant turnover, new technology, machinery and equipment are always ready to work.

“Machinery doesn’t want days off. It doesn’t show up to work unable to work,” Ennis continues. “No problems with it ever getting hurt. Adding equipment to your carwash that can eliminate personnel is really the way that the industry has to go.”

Ennis states that the reduction in labor dependence is one of the main reasons that the express carwash model has become so popular. While express washes require less labor, they still take in a dirty vehicle and turn out a clean and dry vehicle in a short amount of time. Yet, new technologies also offer benefits for full service washes. If the equipment is performing the exterior washing tasks similar to an express location, then all the full service wash needs is labor to clean the inside windows and vacuum, and it’s back to being full service.

“You can add equipment to eliminate labor, especially when it’s going to turn out a better job,” Ennis explains. “If I can eliminate two guys inside the bay and I can eliminate the man out front with a high-pressure hose, I’ve just saved you three people. At an average of $30,000 per year, that’s $90,000. And a piece of equipment may cost only $40,000, so it’s a payback in less than a year.”

New wash efficiencies

The technology used in today’s carwash equipment is far superior to years past, Dougherty notes. Using variable frequency drives (VFDs) and special software focused on improving efficiencies will ultimately lead to lower operating costs overall, chemicals included.

Ennis states that new equipment drives efficiency in many ways. Chemistry is one area where many washes are finding savings. Ennis’ company operates a chain of Green Forest carwashes in California, and in their tunnels the chemical use is in the 20 cent per car range. The washes utilize bubblers, or bubble machines, versus foam machines. There, the foam machines use more chemical, and the foam is harder to rinse from the vehicle surface.

“Foam is hard to get out of the rearview mirrors. It’s hard to get off the car. So you have to use a lot more water to rinse it off,” Ennis says. “Utilizing the bubbles, they rinse off a lot more freely and you can use less rinse water, so you’re saving all the way around.”

Another area of “big savings” can be the smaller motors running newer equipment. Ennis states that his company only uses one horsepower motors on brush systems. “There’s no need to use anything more than one horsepower for any brush. So that saves a lot of energy.”

Finally, efficient dryer systems are available that use as little as 15 total horsepower. Owners are interested in these systems because they can see a $2,000 to $3,000 per month reduction in their power bills by utilizing an efficient dryer system, according to Ennis.

An upgrade education

When it comes to making carwash upgrades, Dougherty states that the best approach to learn about the options available is to contact your local carwash distributor and/or speak directly with the manufacturing company. These companies will have all the tools to ensure that an owner’s carwash needs are met.

Carwash manufacturers offer a wide variety of upgrade options for carwash operators. Dougherty notes that his company offers everything from simple option add-ons for existing sites all the way to new equipment. Each option can be catered to meet the needs of specific carwash operators with a focus on both revenue generation and cost reductions, and this approach ultimately leads to faster ROI.

First, Ennis says his company will analyze a location and look at what the owner is doing and how he or she is operating. Only then can the manufacturer offer the operator a good value and show what the ROI would be on a particular investment.

To learn more about equipment before contacting a manufacturer or company, Ennis recommends attending carwashing conventions and reading trade magazines. Also, operators can learn a lot about carwash upgrades and equipment on the internet. This type of internet shopping can help owners come up with good questions and put them in a “better league” when it comes to technology knowledge.

Most owners who are upgrading existing carwashes are knowledgeable, Ennis states. “They’re really smart on what they have and what they need, but the problem is a lot of operators get what I call stagnation. You get so used to it, and you accept it.” This mindset can prevent experienced owners from asking, “What can I do better?”

Change the outside too

Once upgrades are made inside the tunnel, it can be hard to communicate the changes and generate new customer interest. An owner can add new equipment, but customers might not notice. Once a tunnel upgrade is complete, Ennis suggests making exterior appearance changes to the carwash’s building.

The exterior updates Ennis recommends include painting the building’s exterior, painting the border and changing or updating signage. “Do something outside so they know something’s happened at that location.”

Also, if a location is going to be down for a few weeks during the upgrade process, then plan another grand opening, Ennis notes. “Canvas the neighborhood. Give free carwashes away. Get the people coming in and get it busy. Once it’s busy, it will stay busy.”

Again, operators have to think about the customer. What does the customer see? How does he or she view your carwash? “Customers see the same equipment year after year after year, and they get tired of it,” Ennis concludes. “So when adding new equipment, they get excited, they feel it’s new, they feel you’re progressive and they like to see what you’re doing.”


Jonathan Abrams is a freelance contributor.