From express to full service, it is all about the customer experience.

New express washes are sprouting up seemingly everywhere. How will these operators survive and compete when there may soon be one on every corner in some locations?

Cloth mitters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, how will the decreasing number of full-service car washes succeed against such competition when labor costs are inevitably rising to as much as $20 per hour, including employee benefits?

While cost cutting has long been the focus of many in the industry, operators from both ends of the spectrum have begun to realize that you cannot drive growth by “pinching pennies,” which can lead to a sub-par customer experience.

Now a counter-trend is occurring as a growing number of operators seek to add value by providing a better wash and experience from start to finish, so the customer is greeted with a smile and leaves with one. The goal is a simple one: when competition is stiff, outperform the other guy down the street.

“Car washes will be more profitable when operators pay attention to the details that customers care about,” says Dan Pecora, an expert on brush materials and CEO of Erie Brush in Chicago, IL, a brush, cloth, foam, and detailing supplier to the car wash industry since 1948. “When they do this correctly, customers are willing to pay a little more, return more often, and tell their family and friends about you.”

IT BEGINS WITH EQUIPMENT

In terms of doing the best job possible for customers, every detail of the wash should be considered: from the water condition, to the equipment adjustment, to the quality and types of brushes used.

In express and full-service washes, for instance, one hazard of choosing the cheapest brushes is how quickly they can accumulate grit and particles from recirculated water, which can mar paint finishes, according to Pecora.

“Recirculated water carries sand and other particles that can act like sandpaper if they build up on the surface of the washing material,” says Pecora. “To save a little on material costs, cheaper cloth has larger gaps between the fibers. However, these gaps can trap sand and grit, which is a major cause of paint marring, particularly of black mirrored finishes.

Gentle foam.

To prevent this, Pecora says it is better to utilize cloth material with very small gaps between the fibers. The gaps should be too small to allow such particles to lodge.

Pecora cautions that the wash equipment in the tunnel must also be properly adjusted, so they “just tickle the vehicle.”

“You do not want the machines to push too hard,” he says. “That would push any particles on the cloth, filament, or foam harder into the vehicle’s paint surface.” Overly aggressive machines with harder brush materials could also give customers the impression that their vehicles are being “beat on” during the ride through the tunnel, which could scare them away, he says.

In full service washes, owners often direct employees to hand wash certain spots, typically with various handheld brushes on a stick. However, employees cannot do the job properly without the right tools.

In this regard, cheaper brushes tend to have a hard core that can accidentally “bop” the vehicle, causing customers to question whether damage was done and potentially scaring the customer away. Better brushes, however, are designed with no hard brush core exposed and have softer bristles or materials that will not bang, or leave a mark, on the vehicle.

A SOFTER, QUIETER TOUCH

While express and full-service washes can do a good job with filament, cloth, or foam brushes, it is important that these provide a softer, quieter touch that still thoroughly cleans the vehicle and eliminates the grit problem. Using a softer brush with better lubrication can accomplish this.

“The softer the brush filament used, whether cloth, closed cell foam, or hog’s hair, the easier it is to release grit, and the quieter the wash,” says Pecora. “Tough cloth or foam might last a long time, but won’t clean the car’s nooks and crannies. Soft cloth or gentle foam, when utilized correctly, is gentler on paint and will clean hard to reach areas.”

Since foams can squeak when rotating without adequate lubrication, he also suggests using enough soap and water for a quieter customer experience on the ride through the tunnel.

Wheel brush.

According to Pecora, an exterior car wash using a high-quality “gentle foam” with smooth car wash equipment, can reduce damage claims to near zero, while offering a quieter wash and better final polish. Unlike typical foam, which is usually offered at standard levels of softness, gentle foam significantly increases the level of softness.

“I’ve noticed that gentle foam doesn’t catch and pull on mirrors, antennas, license plates, or loose moldings like cloth sometimes can,” says Bill Seniw, owner of Beverly Hills Car Wash in Chicago, IL. “It’s so soft and stretchable. I’ve had no damage claims since I opened my express wash almost three years ago.”

Along with softness, Seniw credits the gentle foam with providing a quiet wash that puts his customers’ minds at ease when they ride through his tunnel. “The gentle foam is so quiet that customers can’t even really hear it. So they know we’re being gentle on their vehicles.”

For any trouble spots that commonly need to be touched up on the conveyor wash, such as around headlights, license plates, and door handles, Pecora recommends using a hog’s hair brush at the car wash entrance.

“Hog’s hair — actual hair that comes from hogs — has the smallest diameter tapered filament, which helps to make it the softest,” says Pecora. “Since it is soft, tapered, and feathered at the tips, it tends to release grit when properly lubricated and will not grind it into the car surface. Because of the taper, the hairs still retain stiffness for washing up close, if scrubbing is needed.”

LARGER VEHICLES, BIGGER WHEELS

Another challenge to the car wash industry has been how much the market has changed since many facilities were constructed. With light truck sales, including vans, SUVs, pickups, and crossovers accounting for almost 60 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales last year, it is clear that consumers now prefer larger vehicles over the sedans of the past.

In this regard, the problem has been greater difficulty in efficiently cleaning tires and wheels, which have become significantly larger and more intricate than in previous decades. High-pressure sprayer systems, in general, have raised costs while failing to sufficiently remove all the accumulated dirt and debris without scrubbing and friction.

“Previously, full-service washes required a lot of help to wash tires and wheels, and other washes tended to let them go out dirty,” says Pecora. “High-pressure sprayer systems lack the ability to scrub tough-to-remove dirt and grime as well as add a shine. The creation of wheel brushes with varied filament lengths basically eliminates the need for labor and costly high-pressure sprayer systems to clean wheels.”

Identified with unique names like the “poodle brush,” which Pecora coined because it resembles a well-manicured poodle, and the “wheel wonder,” these brush filaments vary in size between three to seven inches in a wave-like pattern. As vehicles travel through the conveyor car wash, the longer bristles reach deep into wheel crevices while the shorter bristles clean the tire and wheel surface.

These brushes are now helping to save money and bring more return business, as labor is saved and tires and wheels emerge cleaner from conveyor washes.

For conveyor washes, brushes are also available that can apply a tire shine automatically to save labor. For this, Pecora advises using an engineered rotating brush utilizing cloth or filaments to better hold the tire shine liquid.

In a similar vein, to enhance efficiency at full-service washes, brushes also exist that can be adapted to foam feed, as well as include a water nozzle.

The bottom line to remember from all this is that professionalism will be rewarded, even as the competition gets tougher and the number of express washes continues to rise.

In the end, operators who pay attention to the details that customers care about, add value, and improve efficiency will attract more business, improve profitability, and gain market share from those simply “pinching pennies.”

Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, CA.