I was recently asked to provide training and consultation for a Midwest auto dealership’s detail shop. Initial observations yielded many classic signs of a struggling operation. It’s not important to call out this dealership by name because it is only one that happens to exemplify so many dealership detail shops.

As I worked with the detail crew over a number of days, more and more challenges arose. The issues this detail operation faced are not dissimilar to those faced by any detail operation. So I thought it would be interesting to share the problems that I observed as well as the solutions to those problems, the hope being that the reader might find some ideas that could help his or her operation.

The detail shop is so crucial to the success of the dealership for one simple reason: cars that are clean will sell faster and for more money. Yet few dealerships understand the importance of investing in the detail operation, whether for supplies or for training. Although this particular dealership actually paid for training, it was painfully obvious that so much more investment was needed in shop supplies and infrastructure.

To set the scene, this shop had one wash bay and three detail bays. One technician manned each bay, and the shop had a dedicated manager.

FACILITIES

So often the production level of the detail shop is hampered by the lack of the simple basics. Adequate work space, electrical supply, and light are the big three. This detail shop actually did pretty well on space, but the other two items needed work.

Electrical

The outlets in the bays did not have adequate amperage to power the hot water extractor by itself, or more than one shop vacuum at a time. The result was the need to reset circuit breakers several times during the workday. This not only wastes time, but also is frustrating for the technicians, who have to interrupt their progress each time the circuit breakers trip. I suggested that each outlet in the detail shop should have its own 20-amp circuit.

Lighting

Poor lighting is a chronic problem in dealership detail shops. The typical work-around is to do the best job possible, then inspect the car outside and clean it up as necessary. What a supreme waste of time! Of course, the management thinks the detail shop has plenty of light as they glance at the detail bay while walking by. But the technicians working inside the car can’t really see what they are doing, resulting in unacceptable results and re-work.

Wash and store window,
wax-remover,
and interior towels separately.

My suggestion is to bring management over to the vehicle in the bay and have them look inside the car, which should lead to a better understanding of the problem. Then I suggested that they have their electrician drop 8-foot shop lights between each bay to allow for side lighting of the vehicle interior.

CHEMICALS

Time and time again I see it: Using too much chemical or the wrong chemical. These guys were using an industrial-strength degreaser in the wash bay. This degreaser was categorized as a “Class 8 Corrosive,” just about the strongest alkaline cleaner you can get. “Class 8 Corrosives” will eat your skin off. Even when diluted, spraying the stuff caused everyone to cough during use. Not good. Long-term exposure to this kind of chemical can have multiple health consequences.

Not only was it the wrong chemical, it was also not being diluted enough — not even close to the manufacturer’s recommendation. So they were using a super-strong chemical in an overly concentrated form.

Here’s the rub: it was completely unnecessary to use this particular chemical in the wash bay. There are plenty of terrific heavy-duty alkaline cleaners that are not nearly as dangerous. These folks were simply misguided by their supplier.

The car wash soap was being diluted, but not enough. It could have been cut four more times. This is because of the common misconception that “lots of bubbles are better.” I showed them that they can get the car clean just fine with less product, and they could reduce their car wash soap expense by 75 percent.

EQUIPMENT

There was either not enough equipment to go around, or what they had was inadequate for a high-production shop. An example of the former is the hot-water extractor. The unit they had was actually a high-quality, large capacity extractor that worked well. But there was only one unit for three bays, and the technicians, who each processed two to four vehicles, had to wheel that cumbersome thing over to their bay each time they were ready to extract carpets.

So that one extractor was moving around the three detail bays up to 12 times per day. I suggested they purchase a couple more mid-sized extractors so that each bay could have its own unit.

Wax was being applied by hand. This is a huge waste of time and chemical. Using a good dual-action polisher and a finishing foam pad, the vehicle can be covered in wax in a matter of a few minutes. Moreover, the wax is applied in a more even pattern. Less product on the vehicle surface makes it easier to remove. Additionally, applying wax with a polisher tends to use about a quarter of the product compared to hand-application. The investment in the machines is easily recovered by lower wax expenditure over the year. I suggested they have one dual-action polisher per detail bay.

I also made sure to emphasize the necessity to have a supply of one to two dozen pads per polisher. So many times I’ve seen shops with polishing equipment and only a couple of worn-out pads — and they wonder why the paint has swirls.

This particular shop also performed quite a bit of rotary (high-speed) buffing. It was standard procedure to buff every car. Unfortunately the buffers that they were using were inadequate to begin with, and were worn out. They had virtually no torque left, resulting in much longer buffing times per vehicle. I suggested they invest in some new, high-quality buffers.

And don’t get me started on the buffer pads. Foam pads were worn down by as much as a quarter of an inch, and many of the pads had chunks missing. I explained that finishing pads that are worn essentially become cutting pads. So the suggestion was to buy all new pads and then not try to stretch the life of the pad for too long; using pads that are in good condition results in more efficient buffing and less swirl marks.

Additionally, it was routine to leave pads out in the open, allowing them to collect dust, dirt, and even metal debris from the active repair booths next door. Pads should be kept in their original plastic wrapper when not in use.

The portable shop vacuums that were being used were low-end, consumer-grade units that are hardly adequate for a high-production detail shop. They had short electrical cords and 12-foot hoses. So the technicians were constantly moving vacuums around while working on the vehicle interiors. I suggested they invest in commercial-grade units with 25-foot hoses. These can be placed at the back of the detail bay, and with the long hoses, never have to be moved, which saves time.

I was surprised at the relative dearth of detail brushes. The nature of our work is to clean all the nooks and crannies (the details) inside and out. Compressed air and pressure washers can only do so much. There still needs to be a hands-on touch to complete the job, and that touch is greatly assisted by a complete set of brushes that promote quick and effective cleaning.

And then there were the towels: A rag-tag collection of odds and ends that looked like they should have been thrown out months ago. There were not enough towels to supply one day’s worth of detailing, so laundry was a daily distraction. Moreover, the one basket of available towels was kept in a central location, forcing the technicians to walk over for new towels each time they started working on a new job. I suggested that they invest in a few dozen towels per bay so that each bay could have its own supply of towels.

Additionally, all of the towels were washed together. So the window towels were mixed in with the wax-removal towels. It’s no wonder there were problems with streaky windows! I suggested that they establish towel colors for each purpose (e.g., blue for windows, green for wax removal, yellow for interior) and then wash and store these colors separately.

SUMMARY

As I started writing this month’s column, I thought that all of my observations from this one Midwest dealership’s detail shop would fit into one article. I was able to touch on some notes about facilities, chemicals, and equipment. If you do nothing more than ensure that these three items are adequate in your shop, you will be ahead of the game. But there is so much more to share, which will appear in a future column, so keep reading.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.com or call (619) 701-1100.