“There are two pedals. I have two feet. I think you must have made that crap up about it not being safe to drive with both feet.” First week behind the wheel, with typical sarcasm, my son said something along those lines. It earned him a long and drawn-out explanation on the dangers of driving (an automatic transmission, that is) with two feet.

Yet today, sitting at my son’s wash, contemplating how to best navigate this economy as it unfolds, I realize I might have been wrong. Job reports, inflation, political conflicts, too much supply, too little supply, and whatever else we’re hearing about. It’s like driving down the highway, the car in front is swerving a bit and you’re trying to figure out if you need to slow down, speed up to pass, or slam on the brakes.

Part of me feels that as car wash owners and operators we may have to do all three in rapid succession. Another part of me feels like it will propel the growth of our industry even more. I can argue both. But as a person who likes to be as prepared as possible for what may or may not happen, especially if it’s largely out of my control, I think one foot on the brake and one on the gas may just be the best bet.

Check Your Variable Expenses

Why variable expenses? Because when times are good, as they are for many washes right now, you glance at the monthly bills, write out the check, and look to wash more cars. Acquiring customers, increasing average ticket, and maximizing growth has been far more important than managing pennies.

Here’s where I suggest you tap lightly on the brake with that left foot now and take the time to ensure you’re operating at peak efficiency. And keep the right foot steady on the gas to continue growing your business. If volumes drop off, and you’re not confident in the efficiency of your operation, you’ll make knee-jerk reactions to cut back. Customer experience will suffer and then you really will have a problem. Get your wash operating at peak efficiency now so you know where you can cutback should you need to.

There are numerous variable expenses but the big four are electric, water, labor, and soap. Locations in cold climates may want to break out heating oil or natural gas as a separate line item, while sites with poor water quality may warrant tracking salt consumption for water softening. Whether you keep a notebook, enter values into a spreadsheet, or get reports from your tunnel controller, make sure you have a system to easily compare year-over-year and month-to-month periods. You want to be able to easily highlight spikes on your variable cost per car.

Evaluate Consumption, Not Only Cost

A large detergent bill for the month can be caused by many things including volume spikes, equipment malfunction, or an earlier than normal delivery schedule. And with the recent inflation news, year-over-year comparisons of cost alone (without consumption reporting) could cause a misrepresentation for your decision making. Some locations with newer controllers may already have software that includes this reporting function. Otherwise, it can be as easy as comparing invoices with meter readings, measuring detergent consumption, and calculating man-hour per car for the month.

Structure a program that shares relevant financial information in such a way that it’s easy for your staff to understand. Include them in the goals and appreciate the value of your staff’s daily work.

Suddenly, the staff’s role in monitoring equipment function, performing preventive maintenance tasks, and turning off lights will have a positive impact to your bottom-line number.

Shave Electrical Consumption

Absolutely tune equipment activation and utilize VFDs on blowers and vacuums to lower electric bills, but don’t stop there. Calculate the savings of replacing older motors with the newer, more efficient products on the market. Compare the utility consumption on older compressors, pumps, and heaters with the estimated consumption of newer, more economical designs. And then, take into consideration that discounts and tax incentives are often available for energy saving initiatives. Your utility provider can share the programs available.

Optimize Every Drop of Water

For the most part, water reclamation has become a standard practice but many wash locations can increase the percent of water re-used. It’s worth taking the time to leverage the latest reclaim technology that practically pays for itself with the savings. Be sure you are using check valves and sizing nozzles accurately for maximum efficiency. Check that RO membranes are performing properly. Test the water in and out of the softener and replace media as needed to ensure your water is up to the task of improving chemical efficiency. My last point, if you’re facing exorbitant sewer bills, explore systems that measure water discharged to the sewer for more accurate billing. No sense paying what can be 50 percent of your water bill for sewer discharge if you’re recycling 100 percent of your water.

Control Chemistry Cost

As with electrical, accurate tuning of your controller for efficient equipment activation can deliver handsome savings on detergent. Review your preventive maintenance routines and documentation to make sure you’re on top of your application systems. Excessive detergent consumption can often occur gradually and unnoticed as nozzles wear and small leaks occur. Attention to comprehensive daily preventive maintenance can literally save tens of thousands of dollars each year.

Keep Careful Control of Your Thermostat

Car washes in the winter often experience what I like to call the greenhouse effect. During the day, when the heating system is already running non-stop, freezing employees crank the thermostat to full blast burning our cash. It’s frustrating to open the wash the next morning to a burst of hot air and a tunnel that feels like a green house. There are ways to control this. You want to keep on top of efficient technologies and fuels, along with the incentives that make equipment upgrades the right choice.

I Can’t Drive 55

For those of you who recognize my opening reference to this iconic Sammy Hagar song from the 1980s, it’s what’s been in my head while writing this.

Everything I read in the news says a serious economic traffic jam may happen. Everything I see and have experienced says professional car washing will race through it stronger than ever.

I’m putting one foot on the brake and exploring new technologies and ideas to improve efficiency. I’m putting the other foot on the gas and growing my monthly memberships. I’m taking the time to document and report my variable expenses so I can hit that brake and gas simultaneously with greater confidence. Once you know where you are, it’s easier to make the right decision on where to go because I can’t drive 55.

Good luck and good washing.

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.