In last month’s issue of Auto Laundry News, we discussed five security issues, each of which can contribute to the creation of a safer, more secure self-service wash:

• Vault vacs

• Lighting

• Securing the power meter

• Equipment-room storage no-nos

• Attendants

This month, we consider ways of preventing miscreants from entering the equipment room. This calls for an alarm system, but that by no means offers sufficient or complete security. Alarms report burglaries; they are not designed to prevent them. It is the intent of this article to detail the ways the equipment room at self-serve washes can be made secure from the effort of thieves.

Entry to the equipment room is gained by going through the walls, the roof, or the door. In this article we’ll consider the first two of these entry points.


Anyone considering building a new self-serve wash should certainly plan on pouring the walls and the roof of the equipment room out of reinforced concrete. It’s costly. But I believe that it’s worth the cost. Anybody smart enough to figure out which end of a sledgehammer goes in your hands knows that block walls are no challenge for a 16-pound sledge. Need I say more?

If the appearance of raw concrete walls is distasteful, walls can be covered with one of any number of available wall-cladding options. The advantage of leaving the reinforced concrete walls of the equipment room exposed to full view is that such walls send the clear message: Don’t even bother attacking here.


Protecting existing block walls is a difficult problem. Of course, they should be replaced with reinforced concrete. But such a rehab would consume considerable time and money. What can be done to protect existing block walls if replacing them with reinforced concrete isn’t practical?

The wall protection either has to go on the inside or the outside of the walls. Interior protection of the walls is complicated by the fact that the walls will have electric, gas, and water lines attached to them. Equipment, shelving, and workbenches will either be attached to the walls or up against them. Adding steel reinforcing, angles, sheets of steel, or reinforcing rods to the interior of the walls can be done. Protect the lower portions of walls since that’s where they are most likely to be attacked with sledges (or stolen cars). Outside protection seems more feasible to me.

If I were to do another rehab of an older wash with block walls, I would cover the equipment room walls with rust-protected steel before I put up the fiberglass reinforced plastic panels. For block walls already covered with FRP panels (I have some), it’s a tough call whether interior protection or taking down the panels, putting in the steel, and replacing the panels is the better choice.

No doubt many owners will rationalize that reinforcing block walls is unnecessary, especially if alarmed. It’s too expensive and just too cumbersome. I have shared the feeling that I should not have to be considering doing this. It annoys one to think about it, but clearly the evidence indicates that block walls are just not adequate.

Owners of block buildings of all types have to be frustrated when they realize how easily the block walls give way. Their frustration has to increase as they ask themselves: Will the day come when the thieves arrive at steel-reinforced block walls with torches to cut the steel and then smash the blocks? It’s unlikely. Someone smart enough to light a torch knows that cutting into a wall where you can’t see what’s on the other side is very high risk. Obviously a gas line could be on the other side of the wall. But, then again, you cannot ignore the amazing determination and idiocy of many criminals.

Only one of my washes has the most vulnerable type of cinder block walls covered with glass board. Steel reinforcement is on my security upgrade list. Whenever I get around to that, I’ll add yet another layer of protection: “black stuff.” Between any steel reinforcement and the blocks themselves, I’ll put in a layer of black roofing cement. I’m told the stuff gives off so much smoke when it burns that it’s very difficult to see what you’re doing. Besides, smoke attracts the fire department. The response time for the fire department (at least where I live) is far shorter than that for the police.

I would sure like to be able to convince myself that protecting these walls from sledgehammers is unnecessary — but I know better.


The use of an interior ceiling of expanded metal screwed or welded to the roof supports provides an extra layer of protection and something else. It can serve as a “horizontal pegboard.” I have found it to be very handy for attaching hoses, conduit, and anything else you might want to hang from the ceiling.

Expanded metal can be purchased in 4’ by 8’ panels and in a range of weights. I would not consider getting anything lighter than 16 gauge, which costs about $27 per panel. In my washes, I’ve installed 12 gauge panels at a cost of almost $40 a panel.

Flat metal roofs are rarely heavier than 16-gauge metal; 20 or 22 gauge is commonly used. Some are even lighter. Such metal is quite vulnerable to cutting with an axe or any portable saw. Even a good pair of tin snips could cut through 22 gauge. I’m fairly sure many owners realize that, but hate to admit it. Here’s the best solution:

Pour a Roof

First, lay down a grid of steel rebar. Then pour a layer of 3 or 4 inches of concrete right over the metal roof.

Be sure to fortify the flues too. Cut four holes at 90-degree intervals in all flues that come through the roof. Cut the holes just above roof level and extend the reinforcing rods through the holes out into the area where they will be covered with concrete.

Perhaps there’s some concern about whether a flat metal roof can hold the weight of the concrete and reinforcing rods. If the roof is light gauge, old, or rusty, concerns are justified. Consult an engineer.

My analysis: Concrete weighs about 3,000 pounds per cubic yard. It can be ordered heavier, but I buy the cheap stuff. Therefore, concrete weighs about 110 pounds per cubic foot (3,000 divided by 27). If concrete is poured 3 inches thick, then each square foot of the pour equals 1/4 of a cubic foot. A piece of concrete 1 foot by 1 foot and 3 inches thick will weigh less than 30 pounds. A 200-pound man standing on one foot exerts much more than 30 pounds per square foot of downward force. Therefore, if a 200-pound person can jump up and down on a car wash roof without adverse consequences, then it’s probably safe to pour 3 inches of concrete on it. Common sense.

I know some operators protect their roof with razor wire. In the hotheaded, angry days just after a break-in, razor wire might seem fitting. I hate the looks of it. It does send a clear message: This wash is tougher than you, so stay away! If used, I’d want to shield it from view with fascia. Its presence would only be obvious once a person was on the roof. I’m told that in some jurisdictions it may be illegal to use it. It is considered tantamount to booby trapping and could expose the owner to liability problems. It’s relatively cheap, but nasty to work with.

All in all, concrete really does seem to be the best option for roof protection. By my calculation, I can do a 3-inch pour on a 10’ by 25’ equipment room and spend less than $300 for materials. It’s a good opportunity for us rookie concrete finishers to hone our skills. You don’t have to be as fussy about the finish as you’d be if pouring the new sidewalk in front of your church. If you can finesse a slight slope for rain run off, so much the better.

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: