Two of the biggest decisions for a new car wash operator to make are the vacuum type and whether to offer free or paid vacuums. The vacuum type depends on the car wash type, marketing preference, what nearby competition offers, and the desire to provide additional amenities. Likewise, technological advances in

Free vacuum setup – central vacuum arches.
Free vacuum setup – set of single standalone vacuums.
Central vacuum system with cloth shaded stations.
Single standalone vacuums.
Combination units — shampoo/vac and fragrance/vac.
Air blast service being used to clean air vents.
Credit card acceptor on vacuum meter.

vacuums have improved performance, decreased electrical consumption, and enhanced aesthetic appearance of the site. Car wash operators must be informed of all the options in order to make the best suited decision for the site.


Most express tunnel washes market free vacuums as an added benefit. This technique has become a standard in the industry, enticing customers to purchase a wash to receive a service for free. Free vacuums create a higher perceived value for the wash. This type of service is usually achieved using central vacuum systems, but the operator can also install a large number of single standalonestandard vacuums.

Central vacuum systems offer a central control, reduced noise, and the ease of one waste collection point. However, single standalone vacuums allow units to keep operating when one goes out of service. Single vacuums can be offered for free with a push button or coin acceptor model. Tokens can be given at the entrance to the wash to decrease the number of people utilizing the free vacuum setup without a wash purchase, but an attendant or dispenser must be available at all operating times. In-bay automatic sites may choose to offer free vacuums with a wash purchase, which would be best achieved using tokens dispensed at the entrance controller of the wash. Single vacuums use less electricity because they will only be running while in use; they also employ smaller motors versus central vacuum systems, which are always on and utilize a more powerful motor.

Operators must clearly market to customers about free vacuums, usually broadcasted through menus, banners, and signage in the vacuum area.

Most in-bay automatic and self-serve sites market paid vacuums. Some tunnel sites require payment for vacuums, though it is not as common. Paid vacuums have a wide variety of options including coin-operated standard vacuums and combination units that offer a range of additional services. Combination units include vacuums with one or more of the following: carpet shampooer, fragrance, air for tire refill, and air blast. Paid vacuums require the use of more creative marketing. Traditional methods such as signage can be used in conjunction with other methods to be more successful.


Central vacuum systems operate with a central producer and collector. This powerful vacuum system allows ease of maintenance and cleaning with one central system to maintain. Central vacuum systems also create less noise. This system would run all day to grant easy access for all customers. Central vacuum systems have multiple drops (five to 10 drops) per producer and create an attractive design that appeals to customers. The size of the motor in the producer depends on the desired number of users and drops: 15 HP for five to six users, 20 HP for six to seven users, and 25 HP for eight to 10 users. Central vacuum systems require a three-phase electrical power (208-230-460 volts) and use more electricity than a set of single standard vacuums. Operators must take into consideration electricity consumption when choosing the best vacuum option for their site. Large express tunnels would make up the operational costs through higher sales and monthly wash programs.

Central vacuum systems have improved in recent years with upgraded stainless steel collectors and producers that provide a longer life, better performance, and take up less space. Mufflers for the exhaust pipe help decrease noise. Vacuum gauges installed on collectors measure performance. Attractive stainless steel arches improve the appearance of the vacuum area and keep it looking tidy. Cloth can be installed in between arches to provide shade for the customer and allow installation of lights for nighttime usage. Stainless steel trashcans are easily mountable to the arches to provide convenience to the customer and to help keep the property clean.


Single standard vacuums come in a variety of options including push button, token acceptor, and coin operated. These units utilize a multiple-filter-bag system that is easy to empty. These units offer much cheaper operational costs as well as much lower energy consumption when compared to central systems. Single vacuums utilize single-phase electrical power (120/220 volt) and have two 1.6-HP motors or a single motor. The single motor design is longer lasting, produces less noise, and requires less electricity.

New single standard vacuum styles allow mounting on a post with a stainless steel trashcan. Also, stainless steel booms can be installed with single vacuums as well as combination units. The booms help guide the hose making it easier for the customer to use and also improve appearance. The booms come in a 90?-swivel design or flexible stationary design. No longer will the operator need to rely on the customer or attendant to constantly put the hose away.


Operators looking to offer more self-serve services to the customer should consider combination units. Shampoo/vac units allow the customer to complete a deep cleaning of the interior of the car through shampooing mats, floors, and fabric seats. Fragrance/vac units provide the fresh clean smell to the inside of the vehicle to match the clean on the outside of the vehicle. Air/vac and air/water units are perfect for convenience stores that normally would offer tire fill-up stations. But any site can utilize this extra service with the right marketing techniques.

The latest combination unit is the air blast/vac. This revolutionary systems provides a better interior clean with the use of blasting air to remove dirt from the dashboard, air vents, glove box, compartments, mirrors, and even the engine. These combination units can utilize the new stainless steel booms as well to improve appearance and ease of use. Combination units are best suited for self-serve, in-bay automatic, and small express tunnel sites without detailing services. Full-service tunnels normally would not offer these self-serveservices in order to promote extra detailing services performed by the staff.


In recent years, vacuums have started to accept credit cards. Accepting credit cards can expand the customer base to include people who do not normally carry cash. This will increase sales and provide a modern, updated appearance. Some credit card acceptors even allow consolidation of credit card charges, which saves the operator money on fees. These types of systems feature remote online monitoring to allow the operator the ability to monitor earnings from anywhere at anytime. These systems also allow the use of fleet cards in order to offer free vacuums to wash club members or for promotional use.


Paid-vacuum as well as free-vacuum sites can benefit from using the latest in technology for marketing. Paid-vacuum sites can offer free vacuums with monthly wash club programs. Offering free vacuums to only monthly wash club members would entice customers to become a member to receive this added benefit.

Promoting vacuum services through social media, e-mail marketing, direct mail to nearby neighbors, and ads on retailer receipts can dramatically drive new business to your site. Word of mouth through social media and e-mail marketing can provide valuable discounts to a wash package exclusively for fans or followers while promoting paid vacuum services. New customers would want to try out your wash if offered a discount and would be inclined to purchase vacuum services while on the site.

Likewise, operators can utilize Every Door Direct Mail through the USPS to provide a discount for a free vacuum to customers nearby. The operator would have a detachable fleet wash card on the postcard allowing one-time use for a free vacuum. This would help drive traffic and allow new customers to try out your vacuums. Every Door Direct Mail program allows the operator to send out mail to specific zip codes removing the requirement of acquiring address lists. Cross promoting at nearby retail locations such as grocery store receipts or advertisements on carts can help market paid vacuum services — especially extra amenities not offered by competitors. All of these techniques can be used to market your vacuums as well as all wash services. Free vacuum sites can increase market share by promotingthe extra benefit that the site offers free vacuums to all customers. This can help a car wash site stand out from competition.


A number of factors go into choosing the best suited vacuum type for a car wash site. Operators must consider what nearby competitors offer in order to stay ahead of the crowd. Whether to offer free vacuums or additional services through paid vacuums, the operator must consider the type of site and marketing preferences. Space restraints, noise ordinances, and layout of the site are also contributing factors. When choosing a vacuum supplier, operators must consider experience, performance, and support offered. Do your research on industry standards or ask your sales representative for guidance on choosing the best vacuums for your car wash site.

Katie Richardson has been with Coleman Hanna Carwash Systems for the past five years as the senior graphic designer and marketing director. For several years before, she learned the ins and outs of car wash marketing as an intern throughout college. She has designed customer car wash graphics and signage helping car wash owners across the world promote and market their location. She can be reached at