Vacuum service at express car washes has evolved dramatically in the last decade. Most notable has been the rise of “free vacuums.” Customers no longer see free self-serve vacuums as a perk — they now expect the service to be included in the price of their wash. Unlike consumers, many car wash owners have grown weary of giving away this service. Existing operators and new investors are looking for ways to take back their vacuums, without alienating customers.

One solution gaining popularity is the use of metered vacuums. These allow owners to offer free vacuums, but not free unlimited vacuums. Customers enjoy free time for a predetermined period, then suction automatically shuts off when time expires. Customers then have the option to purchase more time. Let’s look at common vacuum models and explore options for metered vacuums.


High-speed vacuums are standalone units that serve one vacuum lane individually. These canister-type units are commonly installed at smaller car washes, such as roll-over in-bay automatics and/or those attached to gas stations. Originally, customers would drop coins or tokens in these vacuums to purchase a few minutes of vacuum time. But as the free vacuum trend took hold, these washes began offering free vacuum time to keep up with the competition. Washes with attendants began handing out tokens with the purchase of each wash or, in some cases, coin acceptors were replaced with push buttons that start the motors. These high-speed motors run for a predetermined time, and customers simply push the button again for more time.

This model is well suited for low-volume washes, where there’s frequent downtime between cars, allowing the motors to cool. The problem many operators now face is that the free vacuum trend has unintentionally changed customers’ behavior: consumers are vacuuming longer than they used to. This is taxing on high-speed motors — increasing maintenance costs, shortening equipment life, increasing electrical operating costs, and adding to wait times.

The Solution: Metered Standalone Vacuums

The solution is to employ metering devices that let operators include a limited amount of free time with the purchase price, and then offer more time for purchase.

There are many options available for the activation device: token/coin acceptor, keypad, barcode scanner, radio frequency identification (RFID), in ground loop sensor, or a combination thereof. The best practice is to stick with whatever interfaces easily with what you’re already using at your wash. For instance, at a gas station/car wash combo that utilizes a keypad to enter the wash, owners can simply add a keypad to each vacuum, where customers can input a code printed on their receipt.

Standalone vacuums.

In models that include an attendant, token acceptors are a straightforward solution. As described above: the attendant gives each customer a token to drop in the appropriate vacuum to start suction. Additional tokens can be purchased from the attendant and/or a dispenser. However, remember that there are labor costs associated with emptying the tokens. Where RFID is in use at the entry kiosk, owners can add such RFID readers at each vacuum. Barcode scanners at each vacuum are also an option (the car wash payment receipt includes a printed barcode). In-ground loop sensors can also be installed to activate vacuums for a set time period, but an additional activation method is required to offer the sale of more time.

Another important issue to address is hose length and/or piping. If each customer will have access to just one vacuum, be sure the hose is long enough to vacuum the entire vehicle. Or, if you are in a position to add piping or vacuum stanchions, there are several options available that alleviate the hassle of managing cumbersome hoses. In the photo (above) a series of double vacuum arches delivers one hose to each customer.

Suction is delivered directly to the point of use and hoses are suspended off ground and never require coiling.

In any high-speed vacuum scenario, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of your car counts and overall volume. Many operators have come to realize that these canister type vacuums are inadequate for continuous use. If they are over-used, they require frequent repairs and/or replacement. Although the initial investment of these standalone units is lower compared to central vacuum systems, there is a tipping point. When volume increases past a certain level, maintenance costs and downtime result in the units becoming more costly than a central system. If you are facing this problem, congratulations on your very busy car wash! Still, it’s probably time to explore the option of a central vacuum system.


Central systems are best suited for large washes with high volume, and for smaller washes with unusually high car counts per square foot. Suction is provided by one or two large centrifugal vacuum producers, and piped to each vacuum stall. Filtration devices throughout the system remove dirt and debris from the airflo

Central vacuum system.

The motors are engineered to run continuously during operating hours, day in and day out. To ensure energy efficiency and cut electrical costs, central systems should be fitted with variable frequency drives (VFDs). These VFDs constantly match motor production to demand, ramping up production as business increases, and returning to idle during down time.

Central vacuum systems gained wide popularity as free vacuums swept the industry. They are by far the most effective — and most efficient — way to simultaneously serve multiple customers. With proper routine maintenance, their equipment life is exponentially longer than high-speed vacuums. The initial investment is higher, but in the right application ROI is realized very quickly. In high volume car washes, the total cost over the life of the equipment is much lower than the cost of constantly repairing/replacing over-worked high-speed vacuums.

Even with these long-lasting, energy-efficient vacuum systems, car wash owners are growing weary of offering free unlimited vacuums. Let’s face it, that sign suggesting “5 Minute Maximum” is normally ignored and rarely enforced. Most customers pay no attention to time limits, some are even oblivious of long lines of waiting cars. Add to that rising energy costs, and it’s easy to understand why car wash owners and investors are ready for a change.

The Solution – Metered Central Vacuums

As described above, the solution is metered vacuums — offering free vacuums, but not unlimited free vacuums. Advancements in metering devices for central systems now allow car wash owners to provide suction to one vacuum stall for a limited period of time. Once time expires, customers have the option to purchase more time.

V-shaped arches offer a unique architectural twist.

How it Works

The central vacuum producer operates as normal; suction is piped to each vacuum stall, delivering suction to a separate hose on both sides of every vehicle. This is achieved with either a double arch (see diagram, page 20) or a V-shaped arch (see picture, above). The double arch looks similar to traditional arches, whereas V-shaped arches offer a unique architectural twist. Piping is connected to an individual cyclonic separator at each stall.

The mechanism that makes metered central vacuums possible is made up of specialized pneumatic valves housed within each separator. The vacuum producer operates continuously, but airflow to each stall is managed independently, finally allowing car wash operators to reclaim control of their vacuums. It’s worth noting that these separators also serve as the first line of filtration, capturing dirt and debris before air returns to the main piping lines. They extend equipment life, minimize clogs, and allow for easy recovery of mistakenly vacuumed items.

Options for the activation devices are the same as described above: token/coin acceptor, keypad, barcode scanner, radio frequency identification (RFID), in ground loop sensor, or a combination thereof.

Making the Transition

The transition away from unlimited free vacuums to metered vacuums should be made with thoughtful consideration — especially in existing washes with a loyal customer base. Consumers will quickly perceive a loss in value if you advertise “free vacuums” and then set unrealistically short vacuum intervals. The key is to find a balance that will keep wait times to a minimum and still offer a reasonable amount of vacuum time. Naturally, it’s important to communicate the value of the change through current marketing efforts.

As consumers become accustomed to the change, the time limit creates a sense of urgency during vacuuming, encouraging them to move more quickly through the vacuum process. This helps curtail marathon vacuum sessions, and thereby minimize wait times. Of course there will still be the occasional customers who are set on removing every speck of dirt from every seam, but only a portion of it will be on your dime.

Steve Tucker is president of AutoVac Vacuum Systems, which serves the car care industry worldwide. Tucker has more than 20 years of manufacturing and design experience and can be reached at