Regardless of the type of wash facility you operate — full-service tunnel, express tunnel, in-bay automatic, or self-serve bay — vacuums will be a part of your business… but, what kind of vacuums?

In today’s world, there are basically two options an operator has to consider: a central vacuum system, or individual freestanding vacuum units. Which of these is the best choice for your operation? Ultimately, you will have to make this decision, so here are some things to consider.


You operate a professional car cleaning facility, and your customers expect you to provide superior equipment and services. That means your vacuums need to offer performance superior to anything they can do for themselves, at home. The performance of a vacuum can generally be defined by two measures: the maximum airflow the machine can generate (cubic feet per minute – CFM), and the maximum sealed suction power the machine can generate (inches of water-lift). These are both terms that everyone is probably aware of, but not everyone really understands how these measures relate to the performance of the vacuum.

In order to move dirt, you need to have airflow. The bigger and heavier the chunks of debris are, the faster the airflow needs to be in order to pick it up and make it move. In order to maintain high levels of airflow against greater resistance, you need to have higher water-lift (suction power). When you or your customers are vacuuming their carpet and upholstery, you only need airflow to pick up the debris that is sitting on the surface, but if you want to suck up the dirt and debris that is buried deep in the weave, you need to have a vacuum that generates higher suction. It is the higher water-lift that enables the vacuum to maintain enough airflow to move the dirt, despite the heavy resistance to airflow that the carpet and upholstery impose on the vacuum. In short, you could say that the suction power (water-lift) of the vacuum dislodges the dirt, and the airflow (CFM) of the vacuum picks it up and pulls it into the vacuum.

With a central vacuum system, the airflow can be ramped up as more demand is put on the system, but the high suction power needed to deep clean the carpet or upholstery is significantly compromised when there are multiple hoses “in use” at the same time. If you are using an individual freestanding vacuum that has a single hose, then you are getting 100 percent of the airflow and 100 percent of the suction power that the vacuum can generate. If you are using a central vacuum that has multiple hoses, you may be able to ramp up the airflow to accommodate all users, but if one person is trying to suck dirt from deep in their carpet (which requires suction power), and the other person has their tool in the air at the same time, the vacuum is going to draw air in through the path of least resistance, and it will not create the suction power needed to dislodge the dirt from deep in the carpet.


You need to decide if you plan to charge your customers to use the vacuums, or are you going to offer free vacuums? If you are going to offer free vacuums, then either type of system will work fine. If you plan to charge your customers for the vacuums, then the best and easiest way to do this would be to install individual freestanding vacuum units. Although some central vacuum manufacturers offer a system that allows you to charge the customer for the vacuum, the majority of systems that I am aware of are set up for free-use only.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t operate my business by giving anything away for free. If I have money invested in a piece of equipment, it needs to be making me money, not just to provide a return on the initial investment, but to cover the costs of ongoing maintenance and repairs. When I came into the car wash industry about 15 years ago, I remember talking to operators, and I remember how they raved about their vacuums — they offered the highest level of profitability on the site and they made money week-in and week-out. If you are going to offer free vacuums, then I highly recommend that you control access to the vacuums on your site so that only customers who use your wash have access to the vacuums. If this is not an option, then I would recommend that you have your vacuum system set up so that the customer is required to pay for the operation of the vacuum.


From what I know, the up-front cost of installing a central vacuum system is higher than that of installing a network of individual freestanding vacuums. The dollar amount of this difference obviously depends on the nature of the systems being considered, but it can be a substantial difference. That being said, it is likely that the long-term costs of maintenance and repairs for the network of individual freestanding vacuums will be higher than those of the central vacuum system.

Limit access to free vacuums on you site to customers who use your wash.

While the motors in an individual freestanding vacuum are relatively inexpensive, they will require replacement with some regularity. On the other hand, the industrial-grade drive motor and producer unit used in most central vacuum systems will typically last for many years, and should not require replacement. The degree to which there is a discrepancy in the long-term cost of maintenanceand repairs to other components (besides motors) in the two systems depends on the specific nature of the systems installed, but this difference will likely be more negligible.

In terms of energy costs, a central vacuum system will typically consume more energy (cost) than the network of individual freestanding vacuums. The issue here is that the central vacuum is always running, and the individual freestanding vacuums only run when they are activated by the customer.


Many people feel that the maintenance and reliability of a central vacuum system is superior to the maintenance and reliability of a network of individual freestanding vacuums, but this is not necessarily true — each system has its pros and cons.

While the motor and producer of the central vacuum system is intended to last for many years without replacement, the vacuum motors in an individual freestanding vacuum are consumable, and will require frequent replacement. On the other hand, in a network of individual freestanding vacuums, there is a high level of redundancy, so if one unit goes down, it is not a big deal. Contrarily, if the motor and producer in a central vacuum system fail, you have no vacuums at all.

You need equipment that is capable of performing at a superior level.

The discrepancy in maintenance time is probably minimal, especially if the central vacuum system has individual separators at each drop location. In a network of individual freestanding vacuums, each collection chamber and set of filters must be cleaned. In a basic central vacuum system, all the dirt is collected in a central chamber with one set of filters, but if the system has separators at each drop, then these must also be cleaned. Further, in a central vacuum system, the piping network is subject to the build-up of dirt and debris, and must be cleaned out periodically — this is no small task. By comparison, the individual freestanding vacuums have no such requirement.


If your goal is to provide superior interior cleaning services for your customers, you need to have equipment that is capable of performing at a superior level. Either of the systems discussed is suitable to meet the needs of your facility, but which is best? Of course, I am biased, but I believe that the individual freestanding vacuum units offer the best overall solution for your business in terms of performance, flexibility, costs, and maintenance and reliability. The purpose of this article is not to persuade you one way or the other, but to point out some issues you should take into consideration if you are building a new facility, or if you are looking to make some changes to an existing one. Maybe your conclusions are different, and ultimately you need to make that decision for yourself. 

David H. VanGorder is president of Kentwood, MI-based Doyle Vacuum Systems LLC. You can visit the company on the web at