Although I’ve been with SONNY’S for 18 years, I’ll always be an operator at heart. I can recall those days as if they were yesterday. Whether we were building new sites or breathing new life into old ones, we always strove to deliver just one thing: clean, dry, shiny cars. Looking back, things seemed simpler. There was really only one proven way to run a wash: the right way. Today, however, the path to success is less clear, complicated by a number of new options that are available to modern car wash operators. Whether you’re choosing between a pre-fab or brick-and-stick construction, cloth configurations, or between a mitter or top brush, understand that the choices you make will ultimately affect how you deliver customer value, and, in turn, how successful your business will be.
Car Wash Buildings: Pre-Fab or Build-to-Suit?
For years, pre-engineered/manu-factured car washes were a mainstay in the gasoline wash market, where low-footprint modular buildings with smaller express tunnels or rollovers helped gas station and convenience store owners add an additional revenue stream to their existing sites. Although these pre-fab buildings were smaller and less flexible than their traditional-construction counterparts, they were designed for rapid speed-to-market. Pre-fab car wash buildings were usually designed with a specific equipment package in mind, which was convenient for the buyer but ultimately limited the number of services that could be offered. For investors looking to deploy multiple washes across different sites at the same time, pre-fab buildings were an enticing option.
Considering just how flexible traditional buildings are, most investors — especially single, standalone site operators — choose to construct their own facilities from the ground up. The advantages here are pretty straightforward: you can build just about anything you like, for any tunnel length, to accommodate any business model. Although I’ve always gone the traditional route, I’ve got to admit that the gap between conventional car washes and pre-engineered buildings has closed — in fact, today’s pre-engineered and modular structures can offer even greater flexibility than conventional buildings, at a cost that’s comparable to new construction. Of course, a lot will depend on your site and situation, but if I were launching a new site, I’d be foolish not to consider a pre-engineered structure that suits my needs.
Car Wash Equipment: Top Brush or Mitter Curtain?
Throughout the years, one thing has remained true: a vehicle’s top surfaces — including the hood, windshield, roof, and trunk — are the most visible areas. If you haven’t cleaned these surfaces properly, the customer will know right away, and you’ll likely need to refund their wash or send them through the tunnel once again. So, how do you avoid this? The answer is simple: a proper friction wash set-up that includes a top brush, a mitter, or both.
Mitters are a simple but battle-tested piece of car wash equipment that frankly hasn’t changed much over the years. True, new configurations such as the half-moon basket have increased cloth movement, stroke, and impingement, but the classic design remains otherwise untouched. With the proper cloth material, mitters provide safe, effective, and gentle cleaning and don’t require any retract mechanisms to work properly. This means that they’re safer to use with cars that have roof racks or pickup trucks with open beds or utility attachments. However, cabin noise can be a concern with any mitter — especially so with front-to-back mitters.
Top brushes were added to the tunnel with the aim to increase vehicle impingement and cleaning quality without the added noise of soaked mitter cloth. With hundreds of reverse-facing foam fingers, an electric- or hydraulic-powered top brush delivers superior cleaning with reduced noise, safely and effectivelyremoving debris from the car’s surface. There was one problem, though: top brushes had the tendency to rip off vehicle modifications and attachments, meaning that cars with racks or pickup trucks with open beds couldn’t go through the wash — or at best, these brushes needed to be manually retracted and disabled prior to the vehicle entering the tunnel. Now, advancements in sonar systems capable of detecting open truck beds or aftermarket modifications and automatically retracting the top brush have helped reduce the risk of damage.
Since both mitters and top brushes can now deliver safe, effective friction cleaning, it can be difficult to discern what is most appropriate for your tunnel. In fact, many of the car washes that I’ve visited recently use both: brushes by default for a quiet, thorough clean, and mitters where a brush would be less appropriate. This is a great option, especially when paired with controls systems that can automate brush retraction.
Car Wash Materials: Cloth or Foam?
When I was washing cars, we had foam — good foam — but it was difficult to argue with the durability of cloth for our rockers and mitters. True: cloth soaked up water, which caused more cabin noise, equipment wear, and was liable to freeze up during the cold New England winters, but cloth is an otherwise abundant and reliable material that’s still used in many mitters and brushes today.
Foam, on the other hand, has come a long way. The foam material used in rockers, top brushes, tire brushes, and wrap-arounds cleans more efficiently, is quieter than cloth, and is more durable than ever. Not only can foam be used virtually anywhere you’ll find ,cloth, there are a few cases (for example, tire and wheel brushes) that may call for something with the enhanced safety features of foam. Foam is more rigid than cloth, yet it gives just as easily when it comes in contact with a vehicle. This means that foam is less likely to cause damage to vehicles passing through the tunnel, or more commonly, to disturb a vehicle’s mirrors and aftermarket accessories.
Wash materials have come a long way, leading to wide-ranging improvements in durability and cleaning quality. Rather than choosing one particular material over another, I’d be more likely to mix different wash materials and motions to clean the broadest range of vehicles.
I’m not entirely divorced from cloth — not by any stretch — but it’s hard to argue that the technology behind foam material hasn’t come a long way. Cloth materials have evolved too (and in particular, with Alcantara), leading to wide-ranging improvements in durability and cleaning capability. With that in mind, there are now unique situations that call for foam where I’d have otherwise recommended cloth.
Operators are faced with more choice than ever, and while that may seem daunting, the benefits associated with each decision have never been greater. Pre-engineered and modular buildings are bigger and more sophisticated than the smaller, simpler models offered in the past; top brushes are safer, and materials have never been more efficient or durable. With this in mind, it might be difficult to make the wrong decisions these days!
Good luck and good washing.
Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.