That was the exact question I got at a recent tradeshow from someone exploring the industry for the first time. As I think back over the years, I’ve responded to this very same question many times providing many different answers. Like all industries, car washing is also an ever-evolving industry. When I started, there was no Googling “swimming Tesla Model S” on my cell phone only to find a video of an electric car swimming through a flooded street.

Can you believe, my father’s first tunnel car wash was electric drive. It’s true. Back in the 1960s, electric drive conveyor, wraps, side brushes, and wheel brushes were, believe it or not, the norm. Our back room was stocked with spare electric motors, sprockets, and chain. The ratios of the gear boxes were limited so different size sprockets and torque convertors were used to set the speed of the equipment. At 17 years of age, commuting to my local college, I would often remove and replace a motor between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., go to class, drop off that motor and pick up one that had just been rewound before returning to the wash. I’m guessing a few of you are chuckling at similar memories right now.

Back then, constant motion, varied detergents, and drastic temperature fluctuations seemed to only help water wear down a path to sensitive electrical tunnel components. Short circuits were an issue. Unscheduled closure for repairs was common. No amount of sealing was up to the task.

Hydraulic motors introduced

In the 1970s, operators began converting to hydraulic motors. A single hydraulic power pack could be in the equipment room, away from the wet environment. This configuration was more reliable, easier to maintain, and improved the safety of the wash. One power pack could be sized to drive multiple pieces of equipment at different speeds, easily adjustable with the turn of a knob. Toss in the fact that the initial purchase price of a hydraulically driven component was typically less than a comparable electric-drive component — it’s no wonder hydraulic is still the preferred technology for most car wash operators.

Hydraulic isn’t perfect

The first drawback to hydraulic is energy loss. As a rule of thumb, it takes 1.5 horsepower from an electric motor running a hydraulic power pack to deliver 1 horsepower of energy to a hydraulic motor. Second, hydraulic motors can leak oil into the surrounding environment when not properly maintained. Although water-based hydraulic fluids mitigate the latter weakness, the energy loss issue is an inescapable fact. Until recently, the additional cost of running hydraulic motors was relatively minor and easily justified by the lower purchase and replacement price.

Keeping up with innovation

That same phone in my pocket that can live stream a video of a swimming Tesla also happens to have an IP68 rating. Meaning my phone can be submerged in 6 meters of water for 30 minutes and keep on working. I haven’t tested this yet, but safe to say waterproofing electrical components with modern sealants isn’t the challenge it once was.

There are numerous motor gear box combinations that are IP66 rated. These sealed components feature windings that are coated in an epoxy, urethane, or double varnish to make them much less susceptible to shorting out the motor.

More waterproof, more energy efficient

Utility prices are rising, dramatically in some areas. Suddenly that 50 percent energy loss to convert electric energy to hydraulic drive begins to add up. Also take into consideration you can run more electric equipment from the same electrical device, than you can hydraulic equipment.

In addition, many municipalities are imposing escalating impact fees for larger electrical service capacity. Meaning, if a location can run with a smaller incoming service by using electric instead of hydraulic, there is a potential savings on monthly consumption and the service connection.

Increase throughput from the same electrical service

Whether you’re looking to eliminate labor or improve wash performance and consistency, often the first barrier to adding equipment is that the location is at capacity for the electric service. Rather than upgrade the service, it is sometimes more economical to convert some hydraulic items to electric drive to free up service for additional components.

The VFD savings multiplier

It’s a numbers game. VFDs save energy by enabling electric motors to operate at less than full speed.

Reducing motor speed by 25 percent can decrease energy consumption by nearly 60 percent. Reducing motor speed by 50 percent can decrease energy consumption by nearly 90 percent.

Once considered too expensive for the car wash industry, VFDs are becoming increasingly affordable and common. Every motor, from brushes to vacuums and beyond, may benefit from adding VFD controls. Do the math. The ROI on a VFD investment can be faster than you think with long term energy savings that continue to grow.

The benefits of today’s VFD controlled electric drive is more than reduced monthly electric bills. The slower operation with softer starts reduces wear and tear on motors, bearings, and everything in between. Not to mention that many municipalities offer rebates that can nearly offset the entire investment from the get-go.

Getting smarter at an alarming pace

Smart motor controls. Algorithm enhanced VFDs. Smart technologies are delivering a value and because of that, they are quickly working themselves into the car wash backroom. Equipment that notifies you of a required repair before it breaks.

Vacuums that automatically adjust suction, so every customer has a consistent experience. Reports that identify anomalies in chemical consumption before they impact wash quality, or your bottom line. Energy savings that pay for themselves in months, not years.

What’s old is new again

There’s no question that those of us with long memories and livelihoods in this industry have a natural tendency to shy away from placing electric motors in our tunnels. I’ll never be able to escape the belief that what can go wrong, will go wrong — always expecting water to penetrate some connection and shorting a motor; always fearful of the risks and liabilities presented when working with three phase electrical power in a wet environment. At the same time, I now recommend the use of electric motors for anything above the side mirror. And I will happily convert any component, even the conveyor, to electric drive if it allows me to increase wash throughput without upgrading the electrical service.

Some things never go out of style

Getting back to the original question, why do we use hydraulic motors in the car wash? Because they make financial sense in many applications. And why do we use electric motors in the car wash? Because they, too, can make financial sense in many applications. And which one is the right one to use? The option that delivers the greatest value to customers at the lowest cost specific to the variables at your business at the time. A simple formula that never gets old.

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.