All too often, car wash crime hits the headlines. It seemingly is a weekly occurrence these days at both unattended and fully staffed washes. This is happening across the United States — not segmented into niche markets anymore. Just as picking the right camera or new security technology can help safeguard a wash, working with an insurance provider can help limit a new car wash owner’s exposure to risk when it comes to crime — internal or external. When combining preventative measures, surveillance, and protection, new car washes can lower their exposure to crime. I’ve put down answers to some frequently asked questions and a few tips and tricks to help you along your journey toward protecting your investment.
EXPOSURE TO CRIME
In what different ways are car washes susceptible to crime? A simpler question would probably be to ask in what ways car washes aren’t susceptible to crime. Unfortunately loss in these types of businesses comes from all sides. There’s thievery and vandalism of course, but that only covers so many misdeeds. It includes people breaking into vaults or pay stations, people stringing changers, breaking into vacuums, and ripping off vendors or hoses or wands at the free vacuums.
On the other side of things, there are people who vandalize coin-bay doors thinking they can somehow get free time at self-serve locations; others bucket-wash in your bays denying access to paying customers. What about the people who use stolen credit cards at pay stations? That’s an entirely different kind of crime, but you still pay for it in many ways. Not to mention the internal side of the equation: employee theft of money or products or giving out free washes to friends and family members.
Attended facilities can experience as much, if not more, crime because the threat comes from multiple sides for more hours of the day. These are issues that cameras and surveillance systems can alleviate and/or completely prevent for owners. Having eyes on your business at all times 24/7 with remote access to live and recorded footage can save you a lot of money in a very short amount of time. Money you didn’t even know you were losing in some cases.
What type of security and surveillance equipment and tech should new car wash investors/owners consider?
1. If you hear nothing else, hear this: there is no one-size-fits-all camera system that will work for everyone. Expectations are different, preventative measures needed at each facility might be widely different based on location, clientele, type of wash, services offered, business hours, etc. If you have existing equipment, compatibility could be a further issue. Likewise, if you have a chain of locations all needing everything from the ground up. Make sure to work with a manufacturer that listens to what you want instead of promoting what they have on special this week. Definitely work with a company that can send you a custom quote for each of your facilities. Look for someone that will hold your hand through the entire process — quoting, questions, purchasing, tech support, etc. That kind of customer service is worth a lot more than people think.
2. Get good quality, IP68-rated cameras that are specially designed and tested for the car wash environment. A camera made for a day-care playground isn’t going to withstand the harsh chemicals and humidity a car wash can throw at it. Getting the right camera for every area of the wash will make your life so much easier now and in the future. If you’re like me, you want to put in a system one time and it be amazing from the first time you push on the power button. When it comes to cameras, you get what you pay for.
3. Any facility that has a tunnel/conveyor or in-bay automatic really needs to consider a vehicle condition documentation system. This is especially true for very busy locations where you or your employees can’t physically look at every vehicle in as detailed a manner as you would like. There are customers who have paid for their entire camera system with a single claim they were able to disprove using a vehicle condition documentation system. These systems look at every inch of every vehicle except the undercarriage. These systems can hold recordings for months so you’re covered for people who claim you damaged the car right after it was washed and for the people who come back two weeks later after they’ve been to Wally World 14 times and let their little-old-lady neighbor borrow the vehicle to go get her hair done.
4. High resolution. High resolution. High resolution. You want to buy high resolution. The difference between an analog camera and an HD camera is night and day. You get four to eight times or more the resolution with HD cameras at no additional cost, and the picture quality is incredible. Most of the great camera equipment manufacturers are building several kinds of series of equipment so they can help everyone with what they need. IP, TVI, and analog are just a few of the “kinds” of systems out there these days. If you buy an existing car wash that already has a camera system, it’s really nice to be able to use the cameras and cabling that are in place and still working and just upgrade the DVR and some key cameras. Use what you have until you need to change it. If you’re starting fresh and need everything from scratch, than go with the IP system hands down. It’s higher resolution and, thankfully, there are manufacturers out there that did a lot of research and development to get IP to a place where it’s as “plug and play” as a TVI system. I’ve never heard anyone say they were sad they went with the higher-res equipment. It’s worth spending a tiny bit more for the much higher picture quality.
What site upgrades, such as lighting or landscaping, should car wash owners keep in mind as part of their risk assessment and crime deterrent strategies? At our own car washes, we came up with an acronym that helps us deal with problem areas or cash points: C.A.L.L. It stands for Cameras, Alarms, Locks, and Lighting. Some or all of these defenses will be needed at each area of your wash.
A well-lit facility, with visible cameras around, with alarmed doors and placards, that also has a well-thought-out landscaping design that eliminates hiding places, shadows, and visibility problems, is much less likely to get broken into. Not giving people places to hide, and highlighting the wash’s architectural elements can absolutely work hand in hand. Your risk goes down substantially, and it all adds up to a massive crime deterrent.
Theft and employee theft normally occur because it’s easy for them to do it and get away with it. They’re looking for the opposite of working hard. So don’t make it easy for them. Put up infrared cameras that can see day and night, put them up all around so customers can feel safer because of their presence — thieves will go the opposite direction. Put the cameras up in areas where employees might be tempted to steal: equipment rooms, break rooms, kiosks, etc. Two-stage lighting that brightens when someone enters an area is both a help to customers, and a deterrent to criminals. The best scenario is to prevent something from happening as opposed to having to deal with a break in or burglary after the fact. Getting to sleep at night instead of being woken up at 3 a.m. because someone snuck around the dark areas behind your building and ultimately took a cutting torch to your equipment-room roof, is way better. I’ve lived through that nightmare. It was awful.
What new features in security and surveillance equipment are available for new, hi-tech car washes, and how can new investors take advantage of them? Do you remember the comments above about high-resolution cameras and vehicle condition documentation systems? Good! Cause I’m gonna talk about it again! Vehicle damage is a very real problem for express, flex-serve, and full-serve facilities alike. Minimizing these claims, fraudulent or perceived real, can put thousands of dollars back in your pocket. Some opportunistic people see car washes as an easy target to get free money and work done on their car. It’s not a nice reality but it’s unfortunately one we have to work with. Facilities with no vehicle inspection system in place will lose against a complaining customer every single time. Being able to show there was or was not damage on a vehicle prior to it entering your tunnel is all it takes to disprove a false claim and shut down the fraud or mistaken finger pointing.
Now let’s talk about the other side of the equation: the customer who came to your wash, left, got his vehicle damaged, but then decided for whatever reason that it had to be the wash that did it. (cough-neighborgettingherhairdone-cough.) Some of these customers truly believe it was the wash. Even when vertical scratches show up and all your equipment does is rotate horizontally. You have to have proof that no damage was on the vehicle when it entered — wait for it — and when it left. So if you only have an inspection system at the entrance of your facility, you’re only going to be proving half the equation. Covering both ends is the only way to prevent all fraudulent claims. Your insurance carrier will be very happy with you when you put a system like this in place. A lot of them will give you rate discounts because of it — more money back in your pocket. And these higher resolution IP systems can see blatant damage and subtle scratches as well. Go team!
DON’T BE A CRIME VICTIM
How can car washes prevent becoming victims of crime? I know it might sound goofy, but “be present.” Talk to your customers; engage them, their families, and kids. Connect with your neighboring businesses and the community as a whole. Go to town meetings, sponsor sporting events, have a “town washes for free” event once in a while. It’s amazing what can happen when people “know” you and are invested in your business even in small ways. Having a community looking out for your business can pay off in big ways. Customers can stop incidents from happening when you’re not there. They can be witnesses to things happening even when they’re just driving by. They could call the police or even call you directly if your number is posted. “Be present” as much as possible, and it will pay off in spades.
Jennifer Spears is a car wash owner and sales manager with CarWashCameras.com. With more than 18 years of experience working with car washes and more than 10,000 camera systems under her belt she’s seen it all. Her favorite phrases when it comes to cameras at any type of vehicle wash facility? “There are never enough cameras!” and “You need another hard drive with that?” She welcomes comments and questions and can be reached at (866) 301-2288 and firstname.lastname@example.org