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Car Wash Myths Exposed

Exposing Myths and Half-Truths of the an industry love

Car Wash Myths Expose

By Larry McCarty, Mark VII Vice President of Sales

Myths and half-truths – every industry has them, and the car wash industry is no exception. Whether the origin is based in facts that are no longer true or the myth is simply the product of one bad experience or a pure fabrication, these legends can linger. I’ve been in the car wash business for more than 30 years and I’ve heard them all. My goal in this (these?) post(s) is to expose some of the more persistent “truths” for what they are – myths.

Myths of the carwash operator

Myth: All car wash equipment is the same.

Reality: This is one of the most common and persistent myths, but a little research will reveal the truth. There are differences in quality and performance, and those can make a big difference in the success of a wash. I’m familiar with all the major carwash manufacturers, and while admittedly biased, am convinced that the engineering, materials used and commitment to innovation makes Mark VII stand out.

Here’s a concrete example. An operator in Texas had installed a machine sold as “just like a Mark VII.” The operator had a falling out with his supplier, so he purchased a Mark VII unit for another of his carwashes. He compared the washes head-to-head using his own vehicle. Our wash used 35 gallons of water for the top wash, while the competitor used 103. While our wash cost a little more initially, he was saving big on his utilities year after year. The customer eventually changed all of his machines to Mark VII. The best way for a carwash operator to see the difference is to actually go and wash his or her car.

Myth: All car wash chemicals are the same.

Reality: One of the biggest factors in the carwash experience – and one of the most highly price-competitive – is the chemicals. The temptation is always there to switch to a less expensive chemical program. The savings can be an illusion. For example, one operator I know switched to a cheaper chemical. Soon he noticed that the cars were not as clean as they once were and suspected the equipment.

We ran the volumetrics on his chemical to see how much he was using. While his original setup was only using 2 ounces of presoak, his new program used 10 and was delivering poorer results. With higher usage and dissatisfied customers, was he actually saving money or losing business? Quality chemicals are essential to produce a clean, shiny car. Your chemical program is essentially advertising for your wash. Don’t cut corners on your chemical program.

Myth: It is impossible for an existing wash to compete against an express tunnel wash.

Reality: The past several years have seen an explosion of new express tunnel construction. Many of these tunnels have been built near existing washes. Contrary to the thinking above, existing operators can compete, but they have to choose the correct course of action. The wrong move is to lower the cost of their wash in an attempt to hurt the new business. The only person hurt by that strategy is the existing operator. Everyone wants to try the latest and greatest, and lowering your price will only cause them to compare the cost, wonder why you’re so cheap, and notice all the flaws.

The successful operator says, “It’s time to upgrade.” They make the decision to deliver value to their current customers, and they will often undertake the upgrade before the competition open for business. Yes, business may drop for a time as the new tunnel floods the market with free introductory washes. But those who have upgraded their existing wash have weathered the storm and experienced steady business increases. Take pride in your wash and know your customers. They are looking for value and convenience and if you’re providing that, you’ll do just fine. There is room in the industry for both of you.

Myth: It is not worth converting a self-serve bay to an automatic bay.

Reality: This myth has its origin in the fact that a lot of self-serves either don’t have room for an in-bay automatic, or the unit that you can put in doesn’t offer enough features. So, the conversion usually involves construction, which can be a scary proposition.

Don’t be afraid to make the change. I’ve seen many self-serve operators build their business by adding an automatic. For example, one operator in a town with a population under 5,000 had a 4-bay self-serve wash. He took down two bays to install an in-bay automatic and equipment room. He has been consistently washing 1,600-1,700 cars a month in his automatic and his self-serve business hasn’t dropped off. His automatic is generating about 16 times what one self-serve bay was generating. The industry rule of thumb says an in-bay automatic should generate 5 to 7 times the revenue of a single self-serve bay, but I have more and more operators tell me that multiplier is 12 to 16 times.

Get together with an automatic carwash operator or supplier, do some traffic counts and demographic work, and see what the potential is to make that conversion.

Myth: I can lower my operating costs by not installing a water softener.

Reality: Operators can see the water softener as an easy place to cut both installation and operating costs. Those can be false savings. Water hardness does make a difference, both in the level of cleanliness and shine your wash delivers and your operating costs.

The calcium and magnesium in hard water can tie up your chemical ingredients, causing you to dial up your chemical usage to compensate. Also, these minerals will, over time, wear on your nozzles and plug your hoses, resulting in a gradual loss of wash pressure. And soft water simply provides a better rinse. You’ll notice a difference, and so will your customers.

Myth: As a C-Store operator with a car wash, I can get by with minimal marketing and promotion.

The bottom line is, no one is going to buy anything if they don’t know the price. Or, a customer will automatically choose the cheapest option because the operator doesn’t care enough to promote their wash.

At a minimum, have a pump topper or hose squawker with a menu of your wash options and prices. Have a counter mat with the same information in the store. If the wash is located behind the store, have directional signage pointing to the wash. The most successful stores train their staff members to actively promote their wash. It takes a little extra effort, but it increases customer interaction and staff members actually tend to enjoy their jobs more.

Myth: I should automatically raise my wash prices every two years.

Reality: Arbitrarily raising your prices after a certain period of time isn’t a good idea. As a rule of thumb, if your top wash makes up 45-50% or your sales, it’s time to raise your prices. People are seeing the value and will be willing to pay a little more. If you do feel a need to increase your price, provide something additional that delivers value to the customer and justifies the increase. For example, use a different wax or a soap with a new scent.

When you do make the decision to raise prices, plan it out. Have a professional menu sign made up so that everything changes at the same time. Make sure your customers are seeing a new image and can clearly understand what they are now receiving for the additional money.

Myths of the carwash customer

Myth: There’s no need to wash my car much in the summer because the rain will keep it clean.

Reality: There are many reasons why a car needs to be washed in the summer. First, rain pulls dust and pollution from the air and deposits it on your vehicle. Those fine particles can bond tightly to the finish of your car or truck. So, you should actually wash your vehicle after every weather event.

Second, every vehicle deposits oil on road surfaces. Every time it rains, the water loosens oil on the road, and that oil is splashed onto vehicles’ surfaces. Today’s synthetic oils in particular contain ingredients which can chemically adhere to the clearcoat layer of your finish.  Finally, there are the normal fine deposits of dirt and brake dust and that rain simply won’t remove. You need a professional wash to thoroughly remove deposits and protect your finish.

Myth: With today’s clearcoat finish on a vehicle, I do not have to wash my vehicle as often.

Reality: Clearcoat layers are designed to protect the finish of your vehicle. However, the clearcoat layer is about as thin as a sheet of paper, and under a microscope you can see that it is really a very jagged and porous finish. Those pores get filled in with all sorts of deposits that can actually break down that clearcoat. Tree sap and bird droppings, for example, are particularly rough on a finish.

Waxing a dirty car just seals in the dirt. A quality sealant applied at a carwash, on the other hand, will fill in those porous areas of the clearcoat, protect it from breakdown and deliver a cleaner, shinier finish.

Myth: Washing my vehicle at home is safer and cheaper.

Reality: My neighbor used to wash his car at home because he “…didn’t trust the automatic carwash. It will hurt my finish.” That may have been true with friction washes using heavy cloth-type brushes, but today’s closed foam brushes used in Mark VII washes will not retain dirt and are extremely gentle on finishes.

My neighbor would generally leave his hose running and was likely using 100 gallons or water or more to wash his car. That water was taking all the dirt and soap into his lawn or the sewer system, which does not treat the water. A professional wash will use far less water and is set up to handle and, in many cases, clean and re-use the water.

The temptation with a home wash is to use an inferior soap, like dish soap, which can actually attack the finish of the car. And the rags and chamois used to wash and dry the vehicle will retain grit which will scratch your finish. Finally, a professional wash uses high-pressure sprays that will reach dirt you can’t access with a home wash.

Myth: There is no difference in wash packages, so it is best to buy the cheapest wash.

Reality: Take a look at your car. Sometimes the cheapest wash is all you need. However, brake dust will build up on your rims, so it’s a good idea to upgrade every now and then to the wheel cleaning packages. And choosing a wash with a good sealant application will protect that finish. Specialized bug cleaning products will remove those tough deposits and also protect the finish of your car.

Special circumstances—bugs, sap, salt in the winter—require a better package. And it also never hurts to spend a few more dollars to protect your vehicle’s finish and deliver the ultimate clean car experience.

Myth: There is no sense upgrading to a wash with a dryer option because your car will dry as you drive.

Reality: It’s true that the water will eventually blow off as you drive. But as you drive that wet vehicle any dirt you encounter will adhere to the vehicle surface. Plus, using a dryer will remove water more quickly and reduce spotting. A dryer will remove the bulk of the water so the remainder will quickly evaporate or blow off.  

Myth: Only use a touch-free wash so you do not scratch your vehicle’s surface.

Reality: Right now, the most popular machines out there are those, like our ChoiceWash XT®, that will provide a combination of touch-free and friction. If the customer wants just touch-free or just friction, that machine will deliver that wash. But we’re seeing that the majority of customers upgrade to the top package, which combines both.

With the tendency of road film to adhere to vehicle surfaces, it’s challenging to get everything off with a high-quality touch-free wash. You need a little friction to remove that film. And, as I noted previously, today’s close-foam brush technology does not allow dirt and grit to adhere to the brushes and create the micro-scratches on the vehicle surface common with older brush materials. On the other hand, high-pressure water can get into nooks and crannies that brushes can’t reach. So, the trend in both in-bay automatics and express tunnels is to provide both friction and touch-free – the best of both worlds.

Myth: People drive by, see long lines at a car wash and feel operating a car wash is an easy business venture.

Reality: They may think, “That’s easy money. I should open a wash.” As all operators know, a successful carwash requires a significant investment of money, time and hard work. Carwash operators are some of the hardest workers in the business world. I’ve also discovered that they are some of the nicest and most generous people around as well.

For the operator, Murphy’s Law will often apply. A tunnel operator who has plans for the weekend will find they’re short staffed, or an automatic owner will have an equipment issue that crops up as they’re loading the car for vacation. I’ve also disco

Carwash management takes commitment, just as any other successful business. However, it’s a great business to be in with great rewards, and if you understand what’s involved and have a good location in mind, get together with a carwash owner and find out what it takes to succeed. Most will be glad to share that information with you.

Bottom line: Don’t just look at the lines – do the homework. We would love to work with you.

Enjoy learning about Carwash Myths? Read more stories here.