No other business conspires against its owner to disrupt consistent customer satisfaction across locations quite like a professional car wash. Temperature, humidity, climate, water quality, and physical characteristics such as available drip space change from location to location. What worked at one wash will not necessarily work the same at the next location you build.
Nowhere is this truth more evident, and disruptive, than getting a perfectly dry car. Water, or worse, foam, spreading in a stream of residue across windows as the customer drives off is a difficult experience to recover from. It forces a customer to seek a better experience from a competitor. It’s also the process most disrupted by environmental factors. Eliminating any variable such as drip space, which I’ll address, can help improve consistency across your locations. But it’s only one of many factors you must master. Drying issues, and opportunities to improve performance, originate at the beginning of the tunnel.
First, you cannot dry a dirty car. Second, you cannot clean a car without an alkaline presoak and sufficient friction. Third, most city water is alkaline at a pH of 7 or above – and that’s done intentionally to protect pipes. Basically, the process of cleaning raises the alkalinity of the vehicle surface, and therein lies the problem.
You Cannot Dry an Alkaline Car
The heavy lifting of getting water off a car is done by gravity. Water must spill off the car. Blowers are designed to remove the residual droplets that stick. Unfortunately, water sticks to an alkaline surface. To get the best results when drying a car, it is important to have an acidic pH of 4-5 on the surface before entering the final rinse. You will need to work carefully with your chemical and water treatment suppliers to select the proper pre-soak, priming sealant, and wax applications that will produce a slightly acidic surface before entering the final rinse. It is also important to consider how your fresh water supply affects surface pH. You may have to condition the pH of the water you use to mix with chemistry; tools exist to remedy any situation.
Once the surface is acidic, rinse the car dry. I prefer a 4-step rinse process. First, a freshwater rinse to break down all foam. Depending on freshwater quality, and the amount of foam being applied, you may need to inject extra chemistry here to help break it down. Second, a drying agent is applied to make the surface of the vehicle “hydrophobic,” which literally means afraid of water. The drying agent promotes water to pool and break off the vehicle surface, leaving only residual droplets for your drying system to handle. Too little and water won’t break; too much and you can get spotting. Each supplier offers multiple drying agents with recommended concentrations because they all use similar raw materials, but what works best may differ based on temperature, conveyor speed, and water quality. Get your water tested and work closely with your chemistry provider to identify the optimal products to use.
Drying agents and sealer waxes are not the same thing. Some drying agents promote themselves as both a drying agent and sealer wax in one. I prefer to use a distinct drying agent followed by a separate sealer wax. It provides more variables to refine to optimize performance while also enhancing sheen as the third step of proper rinsing.
Ensure Customer Satisfaction with a Final Spot-Free Rinse
R.O. spot-free systems remove all water contaminants so even if your drying system misses a drop of water, it will evaporate without leaving spots on the vehicle surface. On my current menu, I only promote the spot-free rinse as a feature in my top wash package but include it on every wash. I use multiple manifolds to flush mirrors and cowlings and consider it a form of insurance that my customer will be satisfied with the finished product for days to come.
Best drying performance happens with 24 to 30 inches of drip space. Zero-degree “rain style” manifolds combined with 10 feet or more of drip space was once upon a time the prescribed best practice. Rain manifolds pointed to the ground reduced mist and were able to deliver dry cars at the highest chain speeds. As equipment encroached into valuable drip space however, innovations in technology and best practices have come together to make a drip space of more than 30 inches obsolete.
Turn your spot-free rinse rain manifold 90 degrees to the exit of the wash. Yes, you read that correctly. Install the final spot free rinse rain manifold 10 feet off the ground and rotate it 90 degrees toward the exit so that it pushes water horizontally into the air stream of a wet environment dryer installed 24 to 30 inches away. The water streams will hold together for low mist gravity impact but with greater force to flush any residual foam from the cowling. As a bonus, it aims water at the back of an SUV to improve rinsing of this previously hard to reach area.
You Can’t Dry With Wet Air
Your air-drying system should be designed to use the driest air possible. This starts by using a rinsing system that doesn’t create mist. Zero-degree rain manifolds and a properly sized air blowing system are sufficient in most cases. If variables such as climate and conveyor speed are causing problems, you may want to consider a physical barrier such as a wall to ensure mist is not recirculated by the blowers.
Direct water to the ground. Various nozzles and flipping actions are available to direct residual droplets off the car and to the ground without blowing them onto the next car. It’s vital to understand how to adjust blowers to work in conjunction with one another. Moving a blower just a few inches will make a dramatic difference on the finished product. Changing the timing of when you flip a side blower to force all water out of mirrors can be the difference of a customer never returning because foamy water streamed across and dried with streaks on the window of their door. Climate, water, chemistry, equipment, and predominant vehicle types in a market make every car wash unique. There is no single energy efficient solution that will work universally. Invest the time to incrementally tweak dryer position, nozzle types, and flipping motions until you achieve optimal results with the minimal amount of electricity.
Buff the clean, dry finished product shiny. After the vehicle is completely dry, the final finishing step for your top package customers is to buff the surface for a deeper shine. The finishing step is not part of the drying process. I prefer to use both a top brush and wide side wraps loaded with gentle buffing material that envelope the customer in a satisfying and memorable 360-degree towel-dry experience. Drying a car is a delicate recipe involving pH, detergent, equipment, temperature, and more. Never assume what you did at one wash will work at every wash. Adding more of one ingredient won’t normally solve a drying problem. Likewise, removing one ingredient won’t work either. Everything must be “just right.” Work closely with your equipment, chemical, and water suppliers and reach out to other operators. With experience, and effort, you will be able to deliver a consistent result every time across as many locations as you wish to build.
Good luck and good washing.
Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.