In the 1950s and 1960s steam cleaners were a mainstay in the development of the roller-chain (push-me/pull-me) car washes. It was very difficult to get the bugs and hard particles off the vehicle surface by scrubbing alone. White sidewalls never came clean until the advent of the steam-cleaning process. Sending a 325-degree stream of hot water out of a four-inch flat nozzle at 240 GPH accomplished the job in short order.

You could include a chemical detergent, sometimes pretty strong, and inject it into the insulated steam gun. Only experienced staffers were allowed to operate the steam cleaners because there was a definite danger element from the high temperatures and caustic chemicals. The wash would station an operator on each side of the vehicle by the prep area, and they were kept very busy with streams of cars passing through. The companies that developed the steamers for the car washes included Malsbary, Chem Therm, Storm King, Kelite, and Clayton-Kerrick. High-pressure JENNY never produced a large stationary machine.


The bane of these steamers was the continuous on/off cycling required for each car. Lots of parts wore out prematurely plus they leaked profusely. Monthly maintenance visits to keep them operating was the norm. When it became maintenance time, it was generally necessary to descale the internal lime and chemical deposits with a diluted hydrochloric mixture. The distillation of the dissolved solids in the pipe was produced by the high temperatures.

Most machines operated around 100 pounds pressure and the pumps of choice were rubber diaphragm style with inlet/outlet valves. Using the machine pumps to descale would abuse them, so that process was done by service pumps and buckets. On occasion the inner coils were plugged and we would take them to the shop to see if our 10,000-psi pump could unblock them. Schedule 40 pipe coils could last only two or three years because the constant descaling wore them thin. Replacement coils were a nice invoice.

The high cost of maintaining steamer operations and the sizable natural-gas bill that went along with it were necessary evils. To lessen the burden, semi-automatic wheel/tire cleaners came on board. These machines were on rails and traveled with the vehicle’s tires through a complete rotation. Then an air hydraulic cylinder sent them back to their starting point for the next set of tires. These were maintenance nightmares, but they produced clean tires at a large savings for the wash.


My first car wash experience involved a service call. This was in 1959. A colleague and I made our way to the Barnhardt Car Wash in San Francisco. It was located on the western end of Lombard Street, also known as the “Crookedest Street in The World.” (I believe Mr. Ponzi even had a house on that street.) Just before 7:00 p.m. closing time, we pulled onto the property and drove behind the wash. That was when I heard this clackety–clackety sound emanating from a relatively small tin shed.

Opening the door revealed a very noisy Malsbary model 527 doing its business while a 35-GPM John Bean pump was adding to the racket. On top of the din, a 1.5 million-BTU burner was sending out waves of heat. Between the noise and heat I was close to being terrified.

After the initial pump repair, the pump still leaked, but, being Boy Scouts, we had another set of packing on the truck. The wash was shut down, of course, but had to be operational the next morning. So we put on the spare set of crush gaskets. We were careful and meticulous, which was time consuming. Realizing that we would not know whether we got it right until we pushed the start button added to our anxiety — the operation had to be up and running the next morning.

We got it right, though, and were rewarded with light traffic on the Bay Bridge as we headed back to the shop in our truck. The experience left my colleague in a foul mood. I, however, felt I had accomplished my mission and was back in my trailer in San Leandro by 2:30 a.m.


One of the first, if not the first car wash with reclaim was built in Phoenix, AZ in the late ‘50s. I was introduced to it in 1966. It was called the Rainbow Room, so named for the colorful lighting feature that projected beams of light against the water spray. Yes, even then, operators knew to put on a show.

With my toolbox and a trailer-mounted Malsbary Steam Cleaner on the truck’s bumper, I answered a call from the owner to steam clean the wash prior to its subsequent rebuild. After the completion of the clean-up job, and while waiting for the check-signing process to complete, the owner asked whether I had any experience working on car washes. My response was that I had once helped tear one down in the middle of the night in Berkeley, CA. That must have sounded alright to the owner at that moment, so he hired me to rebuild his wash to specifications that were quite different from the wash we were standing in at that moment. I obliged and began on the teardown.

The Rainbow Room was a 20-foot-long section of the wash and fully enclosed with see-through paneling. It was the major means of getting the vehicles clean. It worked in this manner: The wash-water runoff made its way into two sunken container pits, each one 8’ X 8’ and 6 feet deep. In between the pits were two each positive displacement F.M.C. John Bean pumps operating at 20 gallons per minute and 200 psi. There were berm walls in the pits to stop and catch the heavier sediment and also a large screen to stop the garbage. In addition, a large strainer then completed the cleanup of the used water. John Bean pumps were designed with ball checks and ceramic-coated cylinders to take the abuse of sandy water — the same engineering that is used on down-hole drilling rigs.

Each pump sent the sediment-impregnated water to the nozzles on a large spray arch in the Rainbow Room. The impingement from this potent stream removed the bugs and stuff but, more importantly, it broke the electrostatic bond of the road film. This was all accomplished without dulling the surface of the paint on the vehicles (ahem, cheater wax was put on at no cost or mention). Once through the final rinse and towel dried, the vehicle would look great and shiny. Obviously, there were some misadventures during this operation and that could be the reason why the owner wanted to make the equipment change and do the rebuild. I was happy with the opportunity and once the pumps were rebuilt, I sold them to a drilling company. Six months after that, and because of the car wash caper, I married the most wonderful women. We have been together for almost 51 years now.

Bill Sommers is the owner of Phoenix, AZ-based Pressure Systems and can be contacted at