What I learned my first year running a car wash

Last year my business partner and I bought a car wash. Neither of us had any experience in the industry so the prior owner stayed on for a month to show us the ropes. It has been a great experience so far and I have learned quite a bit in the short time period since we opened.

 

My Car Wash Set Up

  • 2 In Bay Automatics, both Razors from Wash World
  • Unitec C-Start POS system
  • 3 JE Adams Vacuums
  • 1 JE Adams Vacuum/Tire Shine combo
  • Vending machine selling air fresheners and basic detailing supplies
  • Bill changer

 

Below are some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the year. It is not an exhaustive list and is geared towards operators interested in the industry or just getting started.

 

Maintenance:

  • Fix it when you find it, especially the little things.
  • You can save a lot of money/profit by learning how to maintain and fix things yourself. This is especially true in smaller operations. I keep a shelf with the printed manuals for every piece of equipment at the wash. They’re not always helpful but can be a good starting point.
  • “Buy once, cry once”, aka get a good set of tools. We bought a cheap set of harbor freight tools that literally fell apart trying to use them. The tools I use most often are listed below. I find Klein tools to be a good value.
    • Vice Grips
    • Long, thin, slotted screw driver
    • Small Philips head screw driver
    • Adjustable crescent wrench large and small
    • Open ended wrenches various sizes
    • Razor knife
    • Diagonal cutters
    • Zip ties
  • You’re going to get dirty, usually when you’re “just stopping by to check on things.”
  • Solenoid valves don’t last forever. Rebuild or replace annually or the first sign of trouble.
  • Don’t over-grease your bearings
  • Keep common spare parts and hoses on hand
  • It helps to have a printed set of maintenance lists hanging in the machine room. If there is interest in the comments I can post our daily, weekly, monthly, annual maintenance plans.
  • I also keep a binder where I write down a quick note every time I do some kind of machine repair of replacement. This is helpful to look back on because my memory isn’t so great and having a simple maintenance record is helpful when troubleshooting.
  • Visual inspections are very important. Learn how to inspect your equipment, look for loose or hanging wires or hoses before they catch on something.
  • Pump station vibration can wear holes in wires and hoses, often where you least expect to look. I popped a leak in my triple foam air hose that was resting on a bracket on the pump station. It wasn’t sharp – it just wore down after vibrating against the part. I found a few other areas where this happened and wrapped some old hose around them to protect them from further damage.

 

Web presence:

  • This is an area that can have a big impact. When we started there was no web presence for our car wash, so I set up the basics. This included a basic website with pictures, directions and the ability to buy gift cards. I also claimed the business in Google and Google Maps and set up an account in Google my Business so I can track the website and maps traffic. As you can see we’re getting over 7,000 hits every quarter from Google and Maps searches- so this was well worth the effort. Having your business listed on google also lets customers give you a star rating as well as interact with you via an Instant Message program that you can link to your cell phone.

 

Chemicals

This is obviously one of the most important “systems” at the car wash, especially in the touch-free world. There is a lot to learn in this area. Here are a some of them:

  • Check everything carefully after making changes. Small changes to the chemical system can have a big, and sometimes costly, impact. We doubled our pre-soak usage after making a change to the wash packages. We probably wasted a 55 gallon barrel before we figured it out. Another change led to low water alerts because our water couldn’t refill the tank fast enough after a high pressure rinse. This is kind of obvious but it really pays to pay close attention directly after making changes to the system. We were focused on the outcome of the changes from the “quality of the wash” perspective but missed some important things.
  • It helps to have a knowledgeable chemical rep especially if you’re just starting out. It was helpful to have our chemical guy staying on top of the chemical systems while we learned the maintenance and other operations. Most chemical supply companies will assign a representative to your car wash. A good rep will help get you set up to get a great wash from your system, and will offer quick, knowledgeable support. This is not a one time, set it and forget process, especially here in New England. Changes in weather, equipment wear, water quality, etc. all impact how dialed-in your wash is. Lean on your rep to help keep on top of this.
  • I think there is some debate as to whether they clean better and I’m not going to give an opinion on that. I do like the cleanliness of the machine room using the concentrate system. Note, we still use the big barrels for presoak and clear coat.

 

Resources (I include a list of links at the bottom of the post)

  • I find the forum at http://www.autocareforum.com/ to be a great resource. It is an active forum of experienced (and quickly learning) operators and industry reps who are willing to lend a hand with technical support and advice on a number of issues. I’ve been able to solve a handful of issues over the year with the help of the forum.
  • I am not an onsite operator so I rely on technology to keep me connected to my car wash and minimize unnecessary trips to check on things. I use Systems Go from Equilibrium Point IoT (https://www.eqpiot.com/carwash/) I can check everything from my phone from anywhere. Disclaimer: I helped them design the system from a car wash operator’s perspective.
  • New England Car Wash Association: We joined NECA in the Spring in time for the table top show and bus tour. I’ve been on a couple of the bus tours and find them to be a great learning experience and networking opportunity.
  • WashWorld Operator Training: My business partner and I flew out to Green Bay to attend the training session that Wash World hosts for owners of their equipment. This was a three-day class held by the people who build and service the equipment. This was a great crash course that I highly recommend if you own their equipment, if not see if your manufacturer offers something similar. Best part…it was free.
  • E. Adams – I wasn’t expecting to get technical support for trouble shooting things like jammed quarters or other issues with my vacuums and tire shine machines – so it took my months before finally calling. I wish I hadn’t waited. These guys have great technical support!

 

General

  • My business partner likes to say that no one wants to take a bath in dirty bath water. We do a thorough cleaning of the trash and parking lot at least daily. We pick up the smallest piece of trash across the entire property. It is also important to keep the areas that are in view clean as well. This includes the vacuum hoses and nozzles, POS screens, vending area and trash bin lids. Also very important to keep the bays themselves clean. A customer will typically spend 3-5 minutes watching the car in front of them getting washed. They’ll notice grease splatters on the bay walls, dirty bay floors, mildew growing on arches and dirty carriage trolleys.
  • We zip tie the doors on our vacuum stations. This help prevent people from casually rummaging through the bucket looking for loose change. When this happens the seal usually fails and we get complaints about poor suction. This doesn’t stop someone from being able to get into the bucket if they vacuum up something important.
  • It is important to have a damage insurance claim process before you get a damage insurance claim. Our first incident was a mess because we had not created a process and appropriate forms in advance. I’d recommend having a “customer experience” form that gathers all of the important information from the customer, a documented process, and a period of time to deliver a formal response.
  • Related to damage claims, we are planning to add a disclaimer that states we are not responsible for damage to cars over 10 years old. We had a customer who purchased second hand tail lights for a 12 year old car. When he used our wash the high pressure rinse knocked the passenger side cover off and loosened the drivers side. When inspecting it you could see the glue was all dried and crackled.
  • I started noticing stacks of 5’s in our bill changer. I was perplexed as to why someone would need $20 in quarters. I now suspect a local store or restaurant is using our machine to make change. We don’t run out of quarters so I actually don’t mind the bigger bills.
  • Don’t go it alone. I am fortunate to have a great business partner in this adventure. We have different but equally important skill sets. If you don’t have a business partner having someone to do the daily chores like emptying trash bins and cleaning the bays can be a big help and let you focus on maintenance and running the business.

 

Resources Links:

 

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