Let’s get something straight. A free service is never free. I know it. You know it. We all know it. Every single “free” perk you see is merely bundled in the price of another product or service being paid for. Despite understanding that, I’ll admit that I’m as much a fan of the free perk as the next guy. And one of my favorites is free hotel breakfasts. Not because the food is all that great because it’s usually not. But it’s a fast meal. You see, I’m not a big breakfast guy. Something small to grab and eat on the way with a cup of coffee is all I wa

On a recent trip, Day 1’s free hotel breakfast was perfection.

Decent coffee and a full spread of choices that included a pre-packaged sandwich that I grabbed and ate in the rental car; exactly what I expected.

Day 2, a different brand of sandwich with lukewarm coffee. Day 3, no sandwich, no hot food, tons of cereal and yogurt. Day 4, no sandwich but a full hot breakfast I couldn’t take with me and didn’t have time to eat. I instead grabbed a breakfast sandwich from the gas-station and was a few minutes late to my appointment.

The hotel was comfortable and clean. Yet I left feeling disappointed.

It reminded me of an expression one of my dearest mentors used to yell [with compassion] to a car wash owner offering inferior free vacuums and struggling to grow their car wash business: Free and no good is still no good!

If you’re going to offer a free perk, make sure that the perk enhances value and adds to the overall experience. Ensure consistency. Take free vacuums for instance. Both your first and last customer of the day must be met with the same great experience. Customers on a busy Saturday must leave with the same satisfaction as someone on a Wednesday morning. Makes sense, right? Make it a routine for you and your employees to walk the lot every few hours to check the suction, clean up around the site and, overall, create customer experience consistency.

Nobody Cares How Busy You Are

Customers don’t care why the vacuum isn’t sucking; they just know it’s not working. They expect you to care enough to correct the issue. On the flip side, too much suction can be just as bad as not enough suction. And in reality, only two people care about correcting the issue: You and your vacuum-system supplier. Get into the weeds with them. Talk about balancing horsepower with redundancy against utility consumption. Details matter — from the type and positioning of your vacuum lines and fittings, to the size and location of your producers and separators.

Leverage Technology Wherever Possible

Vacuums are not an exception. Intelligent controls have improved the performance of every aspect of the wash. Software-based management systems that ensure consistent suction automatically at every station reduce maintenance and extend equipment life are increasingly common at newly built washes. Why? Because ensuring the performance of your free vacuum system is as important as wash quality to overall customer satisfaction.

It’s important that my vacuum system automatically detect a drop in one producer and shift production to another to ensure my customers remain loyal to my business while a repair is made.

Customer’s Viewpoint

Once upon a time, free vacuums were enough. But it’s no longer that way. Perception is reality. Take a hard look at your vacuum area from your customer’s point of view. Are you offering enough? Is it clean?

Do your accessories meet your customer’s needs? Do you need to offer mat cleaners, blow guns with compressed air, a bug-prep station, easier-to-maneuver hoses? Keep on top of innovation. Effort matters and when you show your customers you care about their experience, loyalty grows from there.

Size for Peak Capacity

I often get asked how many free vacuum stations is enough. My answer: look at your proforma. Don’t have one? Get one. Every car wash proforma calculates anticipated peak volume. It’s used to determine equipment requirements to deliver a fast efficient wash during the busiest hour you’ll see. If you design your tunnel to process 150 cars per hour, as a rule of thumb, you’ll want 30 or more vacuum spaces. The math is simple. 150 cars divided by an average of five minutes to vacuum means you’ll need 30 vacuum stations for everyone to have a reasonable experience. Every market is different. In some regions people average far more than five minutes. Others, somewhat less. Err on the side of having too many because a free vacuum perk that’s overcrowded is the surest way, I know, to lose customers.

Don’t Sacrifice Convenience

Maximize the number of available spots, but don’t sacrifice the size of your spaces. If you make the spaces too small, it might lead to unhappy customers. On the other hand, large spaces take up valuable area. Ensure that somebody with car wash vacuum experience reviews your site plan.

Failure to Plan is Planning to Fail

Planning the perfect free vacuum stations will fail without a plan for maintenance. Customers drop gum on the driveway. How frequently do you schedule staff to pressure wash? Customers throw piles of trash on the ground. At what intervals does your team check and empty receptacles? Nozzles, hose, and canopies wear.

How often do you proactively replace? Signage will fade and yellow. At what frequency have you decided to replace and update your signage?

Separate for Success

There’s only so much abuse a turbine, separator, and all of the associated pipes can take. Customers get overzealous, sucking up everything from forks and knives to pens and plastic bags — all things that can overload a traditional vacuum system. Avoid premature wear, and protect your turbine with a multi-point separation system designed with point-of-use separators. The point-of-use separators catch large objects before they get into the system and cause clogs — or worse, destroy the turbine.

What’s Not to Love About Free?

There’s a reason why free perks are so popular — when done correctly. Perks add tremendous value and can even become a key differentiator in a saturated and increasingly commoditized market. Free vacuum systems are a favorite perk that is extremely important to customers. Do it right, and you’ll retain many customers on the merit of free vacuums alone; do it wrong, and this is one perk that might just work against you. You could be providing a great product with great service, but if the free vacuums are negatively impacting the perception of your wash, then you have to address it.

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 over 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.