When temperatures drop, car wash profits should go up. "Winter means washing up to three times more cars than on any given summer Saturday," said vice president Brent McCurdy of Blendco Systems, a manufacturer of detergents and car care products based in Bristol, Pa. "So you can't afford not to be ready."
At Atlanta-based Zep Inc., makers of automotive and industrial cleaning products, marketing director Dave Hart agrees. "Winter is the busy season. And that means fall is the time to get equipment tuned up and decide if you want to make any changes in the services and products you offer," he said.
Being unprepared can have disastrous consequences for the bottom line. "Car wash operators must think a season ahead," advised Mark Miller, vice president of marketing for Ecolab Vehicle Care in St. Paul, Minn. "By the fall you should have a clear plan of what you’re going to do in the winter. Despite the different conditions, your customers expect you to deliver a car that comes out just as clean as it did during the summer."
Jack Bonow, a regional sales manager for Cleaning Systems Inc. (CSI) in De Pere, Wis., likewise advises operators to watch the calendar. "Be prepared for winter by Nov. 1," he noted, "and then start the transition back to spring by making the necessary adjustments on April 1."
In markets where winter snow can be expected, car washes must be prepared to clean off whatever substance local transportation officials use to clear the roads. Not every substance is
cleaned the same way. "For example," said Bonow, "if your car wash is in a market that extensively uses salt on the roads, consider using high-pressure water for the first pass on the car to knock off as much as possible."
In some markets, wintertime car cleaning can actually be easier because, as Bonow explained, "Salt helps to take some soil away from the surface." But in other markets, additives in road salts can create challenges. "Elements like magnesium and calcium chloride can create heavy film," he said.
Knowing the appropriate seasonal formulation for car wash chemicals takes an expert. Whether a car wash operator is serviced directly by the manufacturer or through a distributor, Bonow said, "Be sure the technician is qualified to make chemical and equipment recommendations."
While the technician is there, Bonow added, "Preventive maintenance is so important. If volume goes up in the winter, then equipment can be under greater stress. So check that the car wash doors are working correctly, that there aren't any leaks and that the pumps are in working condition. Every day you lose to downtime is a day you can’t get back."
As a wintertime upsell opportunity, "You might use an underbody flush in your higher-priced car wash package," Bonow said. And regardless of the season but uniquely in winter, the appeal of a car wash is enhanced by offering a rust inhibitor—such as Rust-Ban, the solution offered by CSI's Lustra® care care product line.
"Customers tend to realize the need for rust protection in the winter because they see the salt," CSI marketing director Mark Brock said. "If you can clearly market their rust
protection choices in wintertime, then that encourages consumers to purchase upgraded wash packages and to wash their cars more often." Car wash operators can likewise alert customers to the benefits of sealants, including CSI's LustraShield™, that by protect a vehicle's surface and restore a smooth finish that cleans easier.
Beyond the Obvious
Because car washes are an increasingly important revenue stream for many fuel retailers, Blendco's Brent McCurdy said operators must be ready to handle wintertime volume in ways that aren't always obvious.
"You might have extra chemical on hand and get a spare pump, nozzles, and spares of other parts that can take a lot of wear and tear during the winter season," McCurdy pointed out. "And you should make sure that your bills are paid up with your distributor so that you’ll get serviced right away—because if your service provider is owed $4,000 then you’ll be the last call they’ll answer on a Saturday morning."
To minimize heating costs, operators should ensure their car wash doors are down as much as possible. But then, McCurdy said, "You've got to train your customers to know that, even though the doors are down, your car wash is still is open."
Though hard-to-remove road salts are winter cleaning concerns for northern climates, southern states also have seasonal cleaning challenges. "In the autumn," McCurdy said, "heavy soil from leaves and debris can create a need for stronger chemicals," and in southern climates those autumnal conditions can extend into the winter season. Thus in many cases, McCurdy said, "It's not that a detergent has stopped working. It's that the films are heavier or different than those in a past season. Every manufacturer has numerous formulations of presoaks. Some of those presoaks can be varied onsite for optimal results by taking into account what will work in a given cleaning situation."
In addition, McCurdy stressed that adjustments must be made for applying the right amount of chemicals or how they are applied. Improper two-step cleaning is a common mistake. "You're putting on a low pH followed by a high pH," he explained, "and eventually, increasing one or the other too much will bring you to the point of diminishing returns."
McCurdy agrees that car wash operators should consult only qualified technicians. "They'll help you make the right changes for the season, as well as help you find out what's new on the market in chemistries," he said. "Even if you need to invest more money in chemicals, it's worth it to have fewer unsatisfied customers. On the other hand, every cutback you make in quality will be noticed by at least some of your clientele. Is that worth it?"
Mark Miller of Ecolab said, "Many car wash operators are focusing right now on reducing chemical costs—but the better approach is to look for ways of reducing costs and maintaining performance." How much does water need to be heated? How long is the gate time? How many dryers do you really need? "And is it better to turn your blowers off at the end of every wash," he added, "or should you let them run at a lower rate constantly rather than firing
them up 400 times a day?" These and other practices can be reevaluated without compromising quality and performance.
Because temperatures can reach extreme lows in some markets, it is critical to be sure chemicals are kept in proper storage. "You should know the freezing point of each cleaning product to ensure optimal performance, especially in self-service sites when the chemistry is exposed," said Miller. "Your distributor or manufacturer can explain how chemistries respond to temperature swings, which can save you a few years of trial-and-error to get the proper settings."
In the end, according to Miller, "There are so many variables in getting a vehicle clean. Don't take anything for granted—but neither be afraid that you'll sound unprofessional if you ask questions. If you go ahead and ask questions, then you can leverage the collective knowledge of all your suppliers. And if you're more informed, you'll give your customers cleaner vehicles."
Zep's Dave Hart agrees that getting the facts can dramatically affect results. "Maybe this year your township changes the product they use to winterize the roads," he said, "and so the car wash products that worked last year won't be effective anymore. Or maybe there's a factory in the area that puts excessive iron into the air. Even the type of water you have can dictate whether you need a higher alkaline or an acidic cleaning product."
Interaction with manufacturers is critical to getting the right combination. "If you buy chemicals from a catalog," Hart warned, "then you won't get a technician who visits your sites, sees what's happening and can find out why cars aren't getting clean."
Not only might seasonal weather changes "demand a complete product change," Hart
said, "but you've got to make sure you have products that don't freeze. Trying to solve the freezing problem by putting antifreeze in car wash products is dangerous because the antifreeze is flammable." Product can be kept warm by keeping it stored in a back room with radiant heating or even by elevating the drums to keep them off the concrete floor.
Along with all the variables that winter brings—temperatures, road salts, cleaning product formulations and more—car wash operators must also keep abreast of changes in the vehicles themselves and in their customers. "In the past," Hart explained, "consumers felt like they needed underbody cleaning and rust protection. But now that car companies are doing a better job in those two areas, consumers are more interested in upgraded car wash services design to protect the body and paint."
As an industry veteran, Hart has observed that most car wash operators take wintertime preparations seriously. "But since the economy has been tight and the car wash business has been down," he said, "will operators prepare for this winter as diligently as they've prepared in the past? Regardless of the economy, however, being prepared is the right thing to do for you and for your customers."