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FixedOps Magazine

Transforming Your Dealership Car Wash

How To Keep Your System From Being A Drain On The Bottom Line 


For the auto dealer, the embodiment of a “necessary evil” is the business’ car wash. Or, if that term is too strong, let’s call it a “necessary nuisance.” Usually tucked into the back corner of the dealership’s property, the car wash is generally used to clean vehicles that are in for Service or Collision repair work, or to periodically give a nice shine to the on-lot vehicle fleet.

Historically, auto dealers have selected a car wash technology that features a small bay into which the vehicles are driven. The bay is outfitted with a friction machine that utilizes cloth strips (known as brushes) to wash the vehicle. Many, however, are relying on wash-system technology that can be upward of 50 years old. And even if they’re not quite that old, there’s still no need in 2016 to be dealing with messy, unsafe hydraulic systems from the 1970s.

Some dealerships, tired of incurring the maintenance costs associated with keeping the wash up and running, have simply gutted their wash bays and now rely on hand washing and drying vehicles. But that doesn’t result in a wash that meets the high quality produced by an automated vehicle wash system. In fact, hand-washed vehicles might just result in an unhappy customer.

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Producing Profits

What many auto dealers don’t realize is that they can turn their disappointing car wash from a cost center into a profit center through one simple act: Make it open to the public.

This can be done to varying degrees. The most all-inclusive means is advertising that the wash is available for public use, which will draw drivers to your dealership. That not only promotes the dealership, but it puts potential customers in close proximity to the vehicle fleet. Another approach is to give vehicle buyers a gift card that entitles them to 12 free washes over the ensuing year. This will bring them back to the dealership at least 12 times, which, if the wash is performing as it should, will improve customer retention and overall satisfaction.

One auto dealer who has found success with the latter approach is Steve Sherman, Owner of Dean Honda in Pittsburgh, Pa. Sherman’s dealership serves the South Hills area of the city, as well as the rest of Allegheny County.

“I wanted people to come back if they could every month, and basically what we do is give out 12 free car washes when people buy a car," Sherman said. “So that helps our retention, and our retention numbers have been going up over the last couple years. So we think it’s working.”

In addition to higher retention numbers, giving customers 12 free car washes can also have positive benefits for the all-important Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI). Auto dealers are notoriously tuned in to their CSI scores and will investigate and implement a variety of different ways to improve those scores.

Friction Or Touch-Free?

Once you decide to turn that car wash into an engine for profit production the next step is procuring the best vehicle wash system for your operation.

Fortunately for those who still want to use a friction wash, a series of recent technological advances have made such systems safer and more reliable. These include:

  • Improved brush control is the result of the utilization of electronic variable frequency drives (VFD) that control the movement and impact of the brushes on the vehicle, which reduces the chance of the vehicle incurring damage during the wash process. VFDs are a good replacement for old hydraulically powered systems that can be prone to leaks and breakdowns, which in turn lead to higher maintenance costs, downtime and possible environmental damage.
  • A significant improvement is found in the construction of the brushes themselves. Next-generation brushes are constructed of a closed-cell foam material, usually neoprene, that is softer, quieter and more efficient during the wash cycle with the added benefit of not allowing dirt and grime to cling to it, making for a cleaner wash.
  • The elimination of floor-mounted treadles. Today’s systems no longer require a driver to position the car on a treadle. Instead, “open bay" designs allow the vehicle to be positioned under the wash arms. A computer then reads the vehicle’s position and instructs the arms to move around it without the worry that the vehicle will be damaged. The open-bay design concept easily accommodates larger SUVs and trucks with four-wheel rear axles.

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The other type of wash that can be chosen is the touch-free style, in which a series of high-pressure nozzles travel around the vehicle and apply wash chemicals, polishes and rinse water. Today’s touch-free wash system designs deliver easy operation and lower maintenance and equipment costs for the operator. The technology of the touch-free, in-bay automatic wash has also advanced to the point that sensors located in the wash components can read how the vehicle has been positioned in the wash and adjust the route that equipment will take around the vehicle. This capability allows the wash to be constructed with the treadle-free, open-bay design.

Touch-free washes can also be powered through new electronic VFDs, which, in addition to eliminating the need for less-reliable hydraulics, optimize the use of electricity, requiring only the amount of power necessary to operate the machinery. Additionally, touch-free wash systems have been designed to minimize water consumption and can require as little as 21 gallons per wash.

Friction and touch-free systems can benefit from the advances that have been made in wash-control technology. New-age systems utilize a Web browser that can be accessed via computer, tablet or smartphone without the need for any special computer software. This gives the operator real-time access to all key operating functions of the wash equipment. It also allows the remote configuration of wash packages, machine functions, sales monitoring and wash activity with the touch of a button.

Once your dealership decides to make the car wash available to the public, the final step is selecting an entry station that inter-faces with a loyalty system. There are now Web-based loyalty systems that provide the data-management and technological resources that are needed to operate a successful and easily manageable loyalty program.

Incorporating a Wash and Loyalty System

The best kind of “necessary evil” is one that can be turned into a positive. Auto dealers who have lived with the high up-keep, maintenance and labor costs associated with their ill-performing car wash now have access to the tools that can turn that cost creator into a profit producer.

By creating a wash and loyalty system that features the newest technology, the neglected car wash can become a source of pride that will keep present customers coming back and create opportunities to secure future business.

“On busy days, when I’m out there cleaning up, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, people roll down their windows and tell me how much they appreciate the car wash,” Sherman said. “In fact, some people have said this is the best part of the dealership!”

David Dougherty is the Senior Product Manager for In-Bay Automatics at PDQ Manufacturing, Inc., in De Pere, Wisconsin. PDQ is a technological leader in vehicle wash systems.