Delivering a Clean, Dry Car

It is more than obvious that today's economy and high unemployment is having an adverse effect on most car washes. Many are experiencing lower volumes due to rising gas prices and unfavorable weather compounded by increases in food and other daily living expenses. In searching for answers to compete and maintain profitability operators are looking at many ways to survive. Some have turned to restructuring their menu offerings or increased prices. Others have upgraded their facility by improving or replacing equipment. Some have worked harder on their marketing efforts to attract more business. Many are taking a hard look at all their operating costs including water, sewer, power and chemicals. Regardless of what avenue taken to succeed, probably the most important element in a car wash operation is to consistently product a clean, dry car.

In a car wash cleaning and drying are codependent. If a car is not clean it is impossible to achieve optimal drying. In the eyes of the customer a clean car must also be a dry one. So, in effect, the drying process begins with the cleaning process and the perception of a clean car starts with a dry car. They are inexorably linked. Whether your wash uses friction or is touch free, the first step you must take is to work on cleaning the car is to make sure your equipment is functioning as it was designed to operate. Make sure the nozzles are not clogged or have lost their pressure or cleaning angle due to age. Make sure your friction media is clean and in good operating condition. Check your pumps, injectors and mixing devices to ensure proper application of your chemicals. Remember, this is not a onetime activity but must be done on a regular basis. The last thing you want to do is find out your wash is not performing properly by being informed by unhappy customers.

If all is well with your equipment, the next step is to check the chemistry of your wash. The most effective chemical set up for any wash involves creating the proper balance among presoaks, trifoams, and sealant/protectants and/or super sealants. Any changes to any of those products could adversely affect both the cleaning and/or drying. Perhaps the most popular presoak set up is the two step process of low pH (acidic) and high pH (alkaline) applications. In some cases others may use two high pH applications of the same or two different products. In most hybrid setups using the low high approach (a combination of touch free chemistry and limited friction) these applications may also be followed by a low pH shampoo for additional cleaning and setting up for drying. Regardless of what approach you are using, it is essential that you maintain the proper chemical balance. Make sure the chemicals are compatible with each other and work together in the cleaning process. Normally you will have no compatibility problems if the products are from the same manufacturer. If you are using two different suppliers or sources be sure check with them on compatibility issues. Some of the possible compatibility issues you may experience are decreased show (foaming), creating solid residue particles on the surface due to the reaction of the chemicals to each other or creating problems in the pits or reclaim system.

Your choice of your extra service products is also a critical one. Basically, there are two types of trifoams available. One, usually called a conditioner, is built to offer a good “show” rather than cleaning or protection. Normally these products are cheaper than the other type, a foaming polish. One option here is to use a low pH conditioner which not only produces a good “show” but also helps reduce the surface alkalinity to assist in the drying process. These products are normally more expensive than a regular conditioner but are a good option if you choose not to use a foaming polish. The third option would be foaming polishes which not only produce a good “show” but also add the element of protection and shine to the equation. Foaming polishes not only assist in the drying process but also tend to rinse better than the other two options when applied properly.

If you are not using the low/high approach you may want to consider using low pH conditioners or foams in your trifoams instead of a regular alkaline ones to bring the surface alkalinity down. If you are using the high/low system you may be able to use a less expensive conditioner or foam for your trifoams as long as they do not significantly increase surface alkalinity. If you are using the high/high approach it is very important that you use low ph trifoams. If you are still having rinsing or drying issues you may want to consider using a foaming clear coat protectant as one of the trifoams. In addition to enhancing drying, a foaming clear coat protectant will also assist in rinsing off the foams especially from areas where your rinse pass does not hit directly like door jambs and open spaces on the hood and trunk.

A word of caution here. Conditioners and true polishes do not play well together. If you decide to switch from one to another make sure you thoroughly clear the chemical lines and mixing devices to avoid what is commonly called chemical “snot”. A good chemical rep or company should make you aware of this possibility.

Other than doing the best job possible cleaning the vehicle, you want to get the best possible results drying. Drying is normally more difficult with the wash packages that do not include trifoams and/or sealants. In some cases, especially in many automatics, a sealant is used instead of a drying agent. The proper application of trifoams and sealant can help or even hinder drying capabilities. However, when trifoams or sealants are not applied, one must be sure they are doing all they can in the wash process to create the best drying conditions.

The drying ability of any sealant or drying agent product is greatly improved if the surface pH is either neutral or acidic. Ideally, if you are using both an acid and alkaline presoak the resulting surface pH will be as close to neutral or slightly acidic. If you are using two applications of an alkaline presoak it is essential that the vehicle be rinsed as much as possible before the drying agent is applied to reduce the concentration of your surface alkalinity or, as mentioned previously, if possible in a tunnel a low ph shampoo should be applied.

A true drying agent or using your sealant as one is the only chemical application that has a “window”. You must use the proper amount or they will not work properly. Using too much or too little will cause them to fail. Most drying agents should work at between a quarter to a third of an ounce or in some cases as much as a half ounce under low pressure or as much as an ounce to two ounces using a high pressure application. Check the product tech data sheet or with your chemical rep for the proper usage.

With addition of the new super sealants drying has become a little easier for those who have installed one of them as an option. These products not only produce a better looking result but should really assist in the drying process. If you do not notice a significant difference in the results between those cars that receive the super sealant and the regular sealant you should check to see if it is being applied properly or the quality of the product you are using may not be what it should be. Unfortunately there are some super sealants out there that may cost more than a sealant and do little more than the cheaper sealant does. Make sure you are getting the quality you are paying for when it comes to a super sealant.

Finally after all the chemistry comes the dryer. Regardless of how well you balance the chemistry in your wash there will always be a need to remove what is left. A major consideration with a dryer is not only the power but the direction the nozzles are pushing the existing water off the surface. This is especially important when more than one series of dryers are being used in a tunnel. Remember the vehicle or the equipment is moving in one direction. If is most effective if the water is being blown in the other direction away from the center of the vehicle. If possible it is also desirable to have the air flow pushing at an angle to create greater impingement (angle of force) that will work to “peel” the water while it is pushing it. A poor or inefficient dryer or one not properly set up can undo much of the work your equipment and chemistry has done to create a dry car.

One of my favorite sayings regarding car washes in general is they are all the same – they are all different. Nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to producing a clean, dry car at your wash. The basic factors of cleaning - chemistry, temperature, time, water quality, and friction or a combination of impingement and water pressure – all play an important role in that quest. If you decide to tinker with your wash for whatever reason, you cannot forget the interaction of these elements without suffering some serious consequences as far as cleaning and drying a vehicle. The cardinal rule here is you should never make two adjustments at a time. Your ability to produce clean, dry vehicles depends on the proper interaction of all these factors. If you change more than one at a time you not only risk the possibility of making things worse but it will make it difficult for you to discover which change helped and which one may not have done the job you intended.

For instance if you reduce the temperature of your presoak while increasing dwell time and wash quality improves how will you know which change worked. Maybe you did not need to increase the dwell time when the temperature was reduced. Maybe the temperature was higher than it needed to be in the first place. If you reduce your dwell time to increase throughput you may have to increase the strength of your cleaning solutions. If you do not maintain your water softener properly and reduce its ability to soften your water you may need to boost your chemicals to get better cleaning. If you change nozzle sizes or reduce pressure to save water you may need to adjust your chemicals or increase dwell time. As you can see, any changes in one may require adjustments in others to maintain quality but do so one at a time.

If you are a hands-on guy that does it all by yourself make sure you are doing what is right to enhance the cleaning/drying ability of your wash. If you have any doubt about what you a doing is correct you should have a good relationship with your equipment and chemical distributors so they can help you achieve the best results. Most equipment is designed to do a good job and in general most good chemical products available will clean and dry cars but unless they are set up properly and applied properly the money that may be saved by doing it yourself may be lost in poor performance and ultimately loss of customers. It may seem like a lot of money to call out an equipment distributor or use a good chemical rep but at the same time allowing them to use their skills to produce the best possible results with your machine may pay off in the long run.

More than any other time in the car wash industry it is essential to provide your customers with a clean, dry car at the best cost. This requires both the skill and attention of the operator or dealing with companies that will do it for them. Whether you depend on your skills or the capability of your local distributors your equipment and chemicals must provide your wash the ability to compete and succeed in today’s difficult market with a clean, dry car.