Self-service car washes are by their very nature particularly vulnerable to crime. Most operate 24/7, are unattended for at least some part of the day, and feature cash accepting units such as bill changers and vending machines in plain sight. This can create a tempting target for any thief or vandal.

While the five security issues discussed below might not top your security priority list, each can contribute to the creation of a safer, more secure self-service wash.

1. VAULT VACS

There are systems consisting of vacuum devices and pipe, which automatically suck all the coins from the coin boxes into one large, central safe in the equipment room. These systems have been on the market for quite a few years. They have not seen widespread usage, but they definitely have been growing steadily in number and generating a lot of serious interest especially in new construction.

Multiple wash owners really appreciate vault vacs. It’s a matter of both security and convenience. Every time you stop, unlock a vault or a coin box, and focus on dumping coins, your attention is diverted — your back exposed. You might do that more than a dozen times emptying vaults and boxes at a typical self serve. But with a vault vac, coin collection is so much faster and safer when there is only one vault to dump. Your exposure to robbery risk drops dramatically. Dumping one central vault in a secure pump room is so much easier, safer, and faster.

Apart from the cost (about $3,000 to $6,000 plus installation for six bays), the only downside to vault vacs is the inevitability of an occasional jam. When quarters get stuck (usually at an elbow), clearing the obstruction can be exasperating. Some use plumbers’ snakes, other operators get a heavy-duty air compressor to blast the lines open with high volume of air, thus freeing the stuck coins.

The most secure, clean system carries the coins underground through conduit to the pump room. That’s what is done in most new installations — before lots and floors are paved and walls finished. That makes it possible to hook the vacuum/vendor islands into the system much more easily and more economically.

Operators who have had their wash bays retrofitted with vault vacs say that when those sure-to-happen jams do occur, they’re glad that the PVC piping carrying the quarters runs overhead through the ceiling. It can be much easier to pinpoint, get to, and clear a jam when that coin conduit is exposed and those elbows so accessible.

If worse comes to worse, you can easily cut the pipe to clear it and then just replace the section you removed.

I’m sure you see some risk in that configuration. There have been a few instances of thieves discreetly cutting — “tapping” — those overhead lines and skimming quarters. But weekly inspections of those lines and checking your coin revenue against your metered counters allays that worry.

Here are a couple of tips for those considering vault vacs:

• Gentle curves in a line are much less prone to clogs than more sharply angled elbows.

• Where you must have elbows, you may want to consider using stainless steel rather than PVC. Consider the tremendous force generated by the powerful vault-vac motor. In an attempt to minimize clogs, some operators even install additional vac motors. Those quarters go ripping along the line very fast. When the metal edges on coins slam into an elbowed turn, they can chew up that plastic after a while, which can lead to holes in the pipe and/or frequent clogs.

• Do not allow coins to accumulate. Operators find that the shorter the lag between vac cycles (and the fewer coins to suck up), the less clog prone the system becomes. A system that triggers as coins are inserted (rather than at timed intervals) is probably the least clog-inducing way to go.

The bottom line: operators who have vault vacs gripe about those clogs, but the vast majority of those who have ‘em seem to love ‘em.

2. LIGHTS

Let me back into the subject of lights by poking a hole into the “broad daylight” myth. Breaking into a place in broad daylight is sure to attract someone’s attention, no thief would dare … right? Well, I’ve forcibly removed broken locks, drilled others, used my grinder on some, hammered, pried and bashed. In short, at one time or another at each of the nine washes I’ve owned, I’ve done just about everything a crook would do. And I’ve always done it in broad daylight.

I’ve never been questioned by anyone. Not a soul has ever phoned the police and reported that something suspicious seemed to be going on at the local car wash. I’m puzzled. Just what the heck would it take to make a customer or a passerby concerned enough to question me or call the cops?

I suppose that helps build the case for wearing identifiable car wash clothing/uniform and more personal involvement at your wash, making yourself known to customers to develop a personal “connection.” That would generate more protective loyalty to you — and your business.

Regardless, I guess my suggestion is not to get complacent during “broad daylight,” and don’t reserve those sensors, alarms, cameras, and security patrols for after sundown.

With all that said, when it comes to lighting, more is better. Does anyone doubt that? It is not merely a matter of not providing the crooks with a dark area in which to ply their trade, but lights offer customers (especially female customers) a feeling of security while allowing them to see what they need to see to wash and vacuum their cars.

There’s more to lighting a wash than just light fixtures. The walls and ceiling are as important as the bulbs and wattage — perhaps more so. To me, four 175-watt (or CFL or LED equivalent) fixtures per bay are what’s needed, along with ample lot lighting. The light level can be reduced below maximum level when there’s little likelihood of much business — midnight to 4:00 a.m. — but ample to generous amounts of light are a required security measure.

3. IS THE POWER METER SECURE?

By removing the power meter, any thief can have total darkness in which to work. Does it seem unlikely and too risky for any thief to attempt? Well, consider that typical meter-removal is easy, low risk, requires minimum tools, and may be done for reasons other than thievery. For example, I’ve had my utilities shut off by vandals just for the fun of it.

Meter disconnects, while not terribly common, have proven to be enough of a problem that encasing the meter in steel is a growing trend.

4. WHAT NOT TO STORE IN THE EQUIPMENT ROOM

Cutting torches and grinder/cutters should not be in equipment rooms. Any tool that lends itself to easy changer entry should be kept elsewhere — or at least well secured and certainly out of sight.

Keys, especially spare keys, should not be in the equipment room. If you must keep keys to the bill changers in the equipment room, then either hide them extremely well or put them in a safe — preferably a commercial grade floor safe set in concrete.

It is quite easy to convince oneself that multiple locks, alarm systems, and other security measures will make it unlikely that anyone will be able to enter your equipment room. My experience has proven that to be wishful thinking. Moreover, service people, delivery people, and occasional customers sometimes are present in equipment rooms. Being able to see keys, grinders, torches, or, in some cases, money could prove quite tempting.

One more point: It is not safe to exit the equipment room (and leave the door wide open) even briefly to help that grandmotherly looking lady who says she’s ripped her pantyhose on your wand holder, because her disreputable accomplice will snatch your money and keys and be gone before you know it. Unlikely scenario? Perhaps, but it’s not impossible.

5. ATTENDANTS AND SECURITY

Do they cost or do they pay for themselves? The debate about their cost effectiveness continues, but my belief is that self serves are employing attendants in ever increasing numbers. No doubt, there are small and low-volume washes that can ill afford attendants. Yet the unattended Laundromat has virtually vanished from the American scene despite being everywhere in the days of my youth.

The perception of customer safety is much enhanced by attendants. Women customers especially appreciate the presence of a uniformed car wash attendant. And while on duty, easily identifiable attendants will protect the facility from burglary and vandalism. In some areas, self serves are open only when attended and are locked behind fences and gates at night after closing.

There are areas of this country where the mandatory presence of attendants during all hours the wash operates is a topic of possible legislation. This seems extreme, particularly as the trend toward attended washes appears to be well established.

Patrick H. Crowe owned and operated nine self-service car washes over a period of more than 40 years. He is the author of The Car Wash Appraisal Handbook. He also wrote 30 self-service car wash technical bulletins, of which the above article is an excerpt. He has been a frequent speaker at car wash conventions. For more information on his products and services go to: Carwashappraisal.com.