At the recent ICA Splash! event in Las Vegas, one of the talks started off with an impromptu survey consisting basically of inviting the audience to ask themselves questions about their own operation: How many of you ignore express tunnel customer complaints about dirty wheels or wet windows? Who ties back their wraps when they aren’t working and processes cars anyway? Whose wash offers and advertises a service that you don’t deliver?

Roughly 20 percent of the items sucked up from car
interiors probably cause 80 percent of the clogging.

Not surprisingly, in a group of 50-plus people, only two hands in total were raised (and they were standing next to each other) in answer to the wrap question. Why were there only two hands? What would happen to your business if you disregarded those issues? You’re an operator; you know better than anybody.

Then consider these questions: Are any of your free or pay vacuum stations out of order now? Do you have any vacs that are running, but have poor suction? On average, over the last year, how many of your vacuums would you say are out of order on any given Saturday?

Given your answers above about the wash bay, how are your vac services any different than your wash equipment? Vacuums, especially free vacs, are so commonplace today that it has become a customer expectation. Just as with a clean, shiny, dry exterior, customers expect to leave with a clean, presentable, pampered interior. If your vacuums aren’t working or don’t get the interior clean, or there’s a wait for a space to open up because your remaining operating vacs are backed up, customers will go somewhere else to get what they expect. If you take only one lesson from contemporary marketing thinking, let it be this: Marketing success is dictated by how well you meet or exceed customer expectations.


Whether you use individual vacuum motor canisters or central turbine vacuum systems, we’ve all heard and swapped stories of what we find plugging the filtration devices. And changing vacuum motors and maintaining filters, vacuum lines, and turbines could be a cost center of its own in some washes. Vacuum maintenance is tedious and dirty work worthy of a Mike Rowe episode on the Discovery channel’s “Dirty Jobs.”

On paper, it’s not that difficult; vacuum systems aren’t that complicated. They suck dirt up a hose with a vacuum motor and filter the dirt out of the air. That’s it. Address the clogging of the filtration device and increase the vacuum motor life, and things get easier — way easier. But how do you do that? That is what you should take away from this article: the answer to the question, “How do you do that?”

Vacuum maintenance is tedious and dirty work.

There are four key, actionable principles you can look for and implement to drastically increase your maintenance intervals and reduce labor and parts costs. These apply whether you are specifying and choosing a new vacuum system or refurbishing and retrofitting an existing one: filtration, exhaust contamination, motor design, and motor capacity. The implications are a little different, but these principles work on individual vacuum canisters as well as a central vacuum systems. Again, all you have to address is filtration clogging and vacuum motor (or turbine) life.


The first issue we’ll address is protecting your filtration device. Let’s apply the “Pareto Principle” — the 80/20 rule. Roughly 20 percent of the items sucked up from car interiors by your vacuums probably cause 80 percent of the clogging. We all know them. Human and pet hair, carpet fiber, sand and gravel, soil, grass, cereal, food crumbs, French fries, and candy (and sometimes some other really gross stuff) all have two important attributes in common. First, in terms of filtration devices, these items are all quite large in particle diameter. Second, they tend to stick to filters. When they are caught, they clog the filter by accumulating on the surface of the filter and form a mat of material.

Throw in a little (or a lot) of moisture from floor mats soaked with winter snow melt, mixed with the hair fiber and the starch of the French fries and the sugar in the candy, and you’ve got something resembling industrial felt totally coating the surface of your filtration device. Then comes the labor; separating the dirt from the filter has to be done frequently, somehow. Getting that disgusting surface layer off is tedious, difficult, and dirty work. Nobody wants to do it, so it gets delayed, making the task even worse when it finally gets done. Labor goes up, costs go up, employee morale goes down and customer service declines. What’s wrong with that picture? Everything is going in the wrong direction.

Delaying filter cleaning makes the task even worse
when it finally gets done.

It’s not that there are no fine particles caught by the filter. Dirt from the organic things mentioned above that have been left in the car too long will decompose, plus dried salt from winter snow and a little bit of environmental dirt do build up over time. But those fine particles penetrate and distribute themselves in the bulk filter media, and they account for a very small percentage of the mass collected. It takes a while for that to build up into a problem. This requires you to wash the filter eventually, but only after several months.

So how do you fix this surface clogging? The approach is straightforward; keep the surface of your filter clean. Here are a few concrete suggestions. They are not exclusive; combine these principles as appropriate to your vacuum installation for better results:
• Install a pre-filter, like a furnace pre-filter that is easily cleaned or disposable. The crude pre-filter catches the bulk of the trash and does the heavy work, leaving the rest of your entire system to catch the fine particulate and serve your customers reliably.
• Use a filter membrane cover with a non-stick surface; if nothing sticks to the filter, it can’t clog. Gravity will clean it off when the vacuum is off. They are commercially available.
• Paper filters catch everything on the surface — the big stuff and the fine dust. They work fine at filtering, but they clog quickly, and they are difficult to clean, especially without damaging the filter. Avoid them. Use a glass, metal, or plastic/polymer fiber filter instead.
• Look for filter housing designs that make the entire filtration surface easily accessible or easily removable (and re-installable). It doesn’t extend the filter life, but it makes it easier and faster to maintain. Combine this principle with any of the previous three.

Exhaust Contamination

In hindsight, it always seems more obvious — sometimes painfully obvious. Look at the design of your new or existing equipment and the placement/location of the equipment. Make sure that the exhaust of your system is not sucked into the intake of the vacuum source’s cooling air. Don’t underestimate the amount of heat transferred into your vacuum air on a hot summer day when the sun is shining on every square inch of surface and the turbine or vac motors are working full time. Also, don’t underestimate the amount of fine particulate dirt in the exhaust air of your system. The dynamics of fine particles give them an amazing ability to penetrate, stick, and grind up metal, and when they stick, they insulate. Hot, dirty motors wear out. Cleaner, cooler motors last longer. It‘s that simple, short and sweet.

Motor Design

“You get what you pay for.” That’s a well-known saying. But we all have a tendency to apply that only to the things we are passionate about, where we have invested ourselves, where we have accumulated some knowledge and understanding, and ignore it otherwise. We believe this about our cars, athletes believe this about their sports equipment, hunters about their guns, musicians about their instruments, chefs about their cookware and utensils. You’re an expert at car cleaning. Don’t ignore that saying and advice when you buy vacuum motors and turbines.

If you keep your vacuum motors clean and cool, the only other significant causes of failure are the bearings and “brushes” — the carbon bars that conduct electricity from the electric wires attached to the stationary motor frame to the rotating armature of the motor. Look for motors that are designed and built for durability and extended operational life. They will be a little more stocky, taking more space that may require some modest modifications to your equipment, they may not be readily available, and you may have to change suppliers. The effort will be worth it. These aren’t the cheap motors. They are the more expensive, longer-living, higher-powered motors with high quality brushes, commutators, and bearings.

Motor Capacity

This last principle only applies to individual canisters, not central vac systems. If you use canisters, look for double capacity motors. There are respected, well-established, reputable companies out there with a lot of brand equity invested in using dual motors, with some reasonable arguing points supporting their design. But consider this alternative:

You’re trying to reduce maintenance, right? So why do you want two motors in each canister? That’s two motors to maintain, and two motors to fail. If one of them goes down, you’ve lost more than half — read that as “all” — of your vacuum motor performance. Utilize a single high-capacity motor. It’s not rocket science. Use fewer motors and do less maintenance. You don’t shop for a car with two engines, do you?


There is no silver bullet to eliminate vacuum maintenance. Vacs are machines, and they will require maintenance. But what if you could take major cleaning of your vacuum filter from a daily hassle to a weekly chore — or to once every six weeks or six months? What if you cut the motor replacements on your lot from once a month to twice a year? Those are dramatic “outlier” results, but they are real life experiences. You may or may not realize a gain that dramatic, but suppose that all that happened for you was that you cut your maintenance in half? That’s pretty hard to ignore.

You’re a car wash operator, a businessperson, an entrepreneur. Employ these tips to keep your vacuums running so you can invest your time and effort in what you do best: taking care of your customers.

Bob Schaefer handles distributor sales and tech support for AVW Equipment Co. Inc. and is also involved in commercial development. With a background spanning engineering and equipment distribution, he is keenly aware of the effects of facility maintenance and equipment performance on the customer experience and retention. Bob believes that the availability of vacuums has evolved into an integral part of the car wash expectation and service.