Although I’ve been with SONNY’S for 18 years, I’ll always be an operator at heart.
I can recall those days as if they were yesterday. Whether we were building new sites or breathing new life into old ones, we always strove to deliver just one thing–clean, dry, shiny cars.
Looking back, things seemed simpler. There was really only one proven way to run a wash—the right way. Today, however, the path to success is less clear, complicated by a number of new options that are available to modern car wash operators.
Whether you’re choosing between a prefab or brick-and-stick construction, cloth configurations or between a traditional conveyor or belt, understand that the choices you make will ultimately affect how you deliver customer value—and in turn, how successful your business will be.
That’s why this month I’ve decided to review some of the most common choices modern car wash operators will encounter and, weighing the factors that make each more appropriate.
Let’s take a look at three.
Car Wash Buildings: Prefab or Build-to-Suit?
For years, pre-engineered and manufactured car washes were a mainstay in the gasoline wash market where low-footprint modular buildings with smaller express tunnels or roll-overs helped gas station and convenience store owners add an additional revenue stream on their existing sites.
Although these prefab buildings were smaller and less flexible than their traditional construction counterparts, they were designed for rapid speed-to-market. Prefab car wash buildings were usually designed with a specific equipment package in mind, which was convenient for the buyer but ultimately limited the number of services that could be offered.
For investors looking to deploy multiple washes across different sites at the same time, prefab buildings were an enticing option. You could build and open multiple identical sites simultaneously with far less headache than dealing with local contractors.
Considering just how flexible traditional buildings are, most investors–especially single, standalone site operators–choose to construct their own facilities from the ground up.
The advantages here are pretty straightforward. You can build just about anything you like, for any tunnel length, to accommodate any business model. Although I’ve always gone with the traditional route, I’ve got to admit that the gap between conventional car washes and pre-engineered buildings has closed.
In fact, today’s pre-engineered and modular structures can offer even greater flexibility than conventional buildings at a cost that’s comparable to new construction. Of course, a lot will depend on your site and situation, but if I were launching a new site, I’d be foolish not to consider a pre-engineered structure that suits my needs.
Car Wash Equipment: Chain Conveyor or Belt?
Here’s where I’m bound to surprise a few of you who know me well. For years, I’ve preached about the advantages of chain-and-roller conveyors over belts. With reliable demand, redundancy, and serviceability, traditional chain conveyors have long been my personal choice for any model car wash.
Belts had their place–particularly for unique situations that called for a creative solution, such as in a detailing facility, but I’ve long believed in the superiority of the chain-and-roller conveyor and view this as the most effective format for delivering a consistent car wash including both wheels and tires.
Recently, however, I had the opportunity to visit a car wash in Littleton, Colorado that showed me that a belt conveyor can be done right in the express exterior model. Despite the unpredictable—and occasionally cold Colorado weather—the belt ran smoothly. I’m still not a convert, but I’m not as adamantly opposed as I once was.
As a consumer feature, belts are certainly unique in the market. Roller-and-chain conveyors are practically industry standard–and for good reason–but this means that a belt conveyor might be a key point of differentiation in a competitive trade area.
Let’s be honest. Most guests prefer a quick, efficient, and consistent wash, regardless of how they get through the tunnel. They aren’t concerned with what the belt will cost you (unless it hits their wallet), or how it affects your maintenance schedule.
However, some will find it less intimidating to enter a wash. As a part of a car wash setting that includes a unique brand, equipment package, and/or service offering, a belt conveyor system could make good business sense.
Car Wash Materials: Cloth or Foam?
Here’s another area that’s been dramatically affected by breakthroughs in material design and engineering over the years.
When I was washing cars, we had foam–good foam–but it was difficult to argue with the durability of cloth for our rockers and mitters. True. Cloth soaked up water, which caused more cabin noise, equipment wear and was liable to freeze up during the cold New England winters, but cloth is an otherwise abundant and reliable material that’s still used in many mitters and brushes today.
Foam, on the other hand, has come a long way. The foam material used in rockers, top brushes, tire brushes, and wrap-arounds cleans more efficiently, is quieter than cloth and is more durable than ever.
Not only can foam be used virtually anywhere you’ll find cloth; there are a few use cases (for example, tire and wheel brushes) that may call for something with the enhanced safety features of foam. Foam is more rigid than cloth, yet it gives just as easy when it comes in contact with a vehicle. This means that foam is less likely to cause damage to vehicles passing through the tunnel, or more commonly, to disturb a vehicle’s mirrors and aftermarket accessories.
Now, all wash material has come a long way, leading to wide-ranging improvements in durability and cleaning quality. Rather than choosing one particular material over another, I’d be more likely to mix different wash materials and motions to clean the broadest range of vehicles and surfaces.
I’m not entirely divorced from cloth–not by any stretch–but it’s hard to argue that the technology behind foam material hasn’t come a long way. Cloth materials have evolved too (and in particular, with Alcantara), leading to wide-ranging improvements in durability and cleaning capability.
With that in mind, there are now unique situations that call for foam where I’d have otherwise recommended cloth. This is certainly a space to keep an eye on.
Looking back at my time as an operator, things seemed simpler and more straightforward–however, it’s truly an exciting time to be washing cars.
Operators are faced with more choice than ever, and while that may seem daunting, the benefits associated with each decision have never been greater. Pre-engineered and modular buildings are bigger and more sophisticated than the smaller, simpler models offered in the past.
Belt conveyor systems make good sense in certain applications and materials have never been more efficient or durable.
With this in mind, it might be difficult to make the wrong decisions these days!