Maximize Your Wash Quality Without Increasing Chemical Costs

Rising gas prices, adverse weather, a sluggish economy…they all mean one thing for carwash owners: lower volumes, less profit and hard times. You can compound these wash problems by factoring in high unemployment rates, an uncertain economic future and increases in other daily living expenses like utilities and groceries and you're facing some pretty steep hurdles to be successful in the car wash industry today.

For operators, this means revising their game plan for 2013-14. Some have increased pricing; some have upgraded their facility to attract business. Others have increased or improved marketing efforts to attract more business. Many are taking a hard look at their operating costs, including labor, maintenance, water, sewer, power and chemicals, to find more wiggle room. Before you reduce the amount of chemical or change the products or product mix you are using, remember you may also be sacrificing quality and potentially losing business, reducing revenues and setting yourself up for failure. You need to understand how the chemicals you are using work to find the real methods to decrease your bottom line without jeopardizing wash quality. Maximizing your wash performance may be more of a matter of selecting the best product mix for your wash rather than increasing cost or changing suppliers.

Choosing the right chemical mix for cleaning a vehicle

The basic factors that affect cleaning in any wash are especially critical in any wash process whether it is touchless, friction or hybrid. Type of equipment, chemistry, water temperature, dwell time, water quality, are important variables affecting your overall wash quality. This article will focus mainly on the chemistry aspect of this equation, but the other factors cannot be ignored.

Your ability to produce a clean, dry vehicle depends on the proper interaction of several factors. If you do not produce a clean vehicle you seriously affect your ability to dry it. If you change one process or product, it may require adjustments in one or several other processes or products to create the proper balance. For instance some possible consequences:

  • Reducing the temperature of your pre-soaks may require additional chemical or dwell time to maintain cleaning.

  • In a touch free wash, reducing your dwell time to increase throughput will mean you will have to increase the strength of your cleaning solutions.

  • Maintaining your water softener properly can save you chemical costs while failure to do so will not only increase costs but also have a negative effect on cleaning ability.

  • While changing nozzle sizes or reducing pressure may save water you may also need to adjust your chemicals to maintain wash performance.

  • Balancing your production chemicals (basically those in the cleaning process) is important for better cleaning as well as improved drying ability.

  • Selecting the right tri-foams and sealants may keep those costs in line without sacrificing quality.

  • Changing the speed of the wash process either by increasing conveyor speed or the speed or amount of passes in an automatic without adjusting chemicals may not only affect the performance of the process but also the cost.

The right chemical set-up involves creating the proper balance among pre-soaks and shampoos, triple foams, sealant/protectants or super sealants and drying agents. Any changes made in the product mix could adversely affect cleaning and/or drying. The most popular pre-soak set-up is the two-step process of a low-pH (acidic) application followed by high-pH (alkaline) application. Some reverse that order, while still others use two high-pH applications.

Regardless of what approach you prefer, it is essential that you maintain the proper chemical balance. Make sure your 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 for your pre-soaks, be sure check with them on compatibility issues. Some of the possible compatibility issues you may experience include decreased show (foaming), creation of solid residue particles on the vehicle's surface due to the reaction of the chemicals to each other; clogged lines or nozzles and/or problems in the pit or reclaim system.

Understanding tri-foams and sealant/protectants

There are two basic types of triple foams on the market: foaming detergents/conditioners or foaming polishes. You must be careful to make sure which you are using. Some manufacturers may call a detergent/conditioner a polish while the most distinguish between the two. If you are unsure one way to tell is that there is usually a significant price difference between the two. A foaming detergent/conditioner is basically a colored soap with a fragrance. While they may have a good show and be cheaper than a polish, it may not rinse well, will not add any protection or shine to the vehicle and may inhibit drying. A true polish should have a good show with a fragrance and will add to the protection and shine as well as rinse well and enhance drying ability. A true polish usually costs as much as 20-25% more than a foaming detergent/conditioner. A good alternative is a low ph conditioner which will enhance drying but not add to the shine or protection of a vehicle.

In addition to the traditional sealants/clear coat protectants most chemical companies offer a super sealant. The new super sealants offer better shine and protection as well as drying because they contain water soluble polymers that work in a similar fashion (to a lesser degree) as a paint sealant application. These are usually premium priced products that operators can charge more for than a traditional sealants/clear coat protectant.

In most cases a super sealant not only improves the overall wash quality but also is a very profitable addition to a wash. With an older wash it may also require the addition of an application arch or an additional function which may or may not be an option with your equipment. If you do not have this option you may choose to use the drying agent application for the super sealant and use your sealant/protectant as your drying agent. This may slightly increase the cost of your basic package but the offset of offering the super sealant in your top package should make it worth your effort to do so.

Effective drying is important too

Other than doing the best job possible cleaning, shining and protecting the vehicle, you want to get the best possible results drying. Drying is normally more difficult with the wash packages that do not include triple foams, sealants or super sealants. The usage of the proper sealant/tri-foam combination can increase drying capabilities, however, when tri-foams 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 protectants or super sealants 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 should be close to neutral or slightly acidic. If you are using two applications of an alkaline pre-soak it is essential that the vehicle be rinsed as much as possible before the protectant/sealant is applied to reduce the concentration of your surface alkalinity or in the case of a friction wash the use of a low pH or neutral shampoo is important.

Balancing overall cost versus quality

In addition to balancing your chemicals to maximize your wash quality one must also balance the cost as well. There are some very good products available that are produced locally or available on a direct basis, but unless they are applied properly the money that may be saved is lost in poor performance. If you are not comfortable with tweaking the chemical application yourself, a good chemical rep should be cost competitive while at the same time be able to use their skill to produce the best possible results in your machine.

In either case make sure that you are getting the best "bang for your buck". For the most accurate measurement of your cost it you should become familiar with the concept of cost per car as opposed to cost per gallon. While some products may appear to cost less per gallon, the actual use cost may be more than the products that cost more per gallon but use less per application. The process of calculating cost per car by measuring each application is not as complicated as it may seem. There are sources like on-line discussion groups sites that will help you learn the process or a competent chemical rep should be able to teach you about the procedure. If you choose not to do this, an alternative but not as precise method involves keeping an accurate inventory of the amount of products you consume in a month and dividing that cost by the number of vehicles washed. This method should at least give you a good ballpark figure. While not as accurate as the formal cost per car method it can be valuable in controlling chemical costs.

Maximizing the quality of your wash while controlling chemical costs is an absolute essential in today's competitive car wash market. It is one of the key elements of successful management of a wash along with controlling labor costs, effective water usage, proper maintenance of equipment and a well-conceived marketing effort. Continued success operating a wash requires the talent and attention of the operator in an on-going basis. At the heart of that success is producing a clean, dry vehicle at the best cost. Knowing the chemical basics, how chemicals interact and the importance of balancing your chemicals will help you make better decisions when choosing wash chemicals and understanding how they interact in the wash process.