Achieving Optimal Efficiency and Cleanliness in Car Wash Operations: A Guide for Retail and Dealerships

Closing the Deal

A drive-thru car wash system is designed to meet the unique needs of automobile dealers, as well as other businesses that employ vehicle fleets.

Drive-thru car washes should be a first-choice technology option for fleet-wash operators.

Successful car wash operations — whether in the retail realm or at a dealership’s service center — must maintain a reliably symbiotic relationship between two principal metrics: throughput rate and vehicle cleanliness. A wash that rushes vehicles through the bay but sees them exit with a less-than-ideal level of cleanliness is of no use to anyone. On the other hand, a wash that takes excessive amounts of time can see vehicles stacked in line, waiting their turn.

In either case, the highest levels of efficiency are not being reached, which will dampen the effectiveness of the entire car wash operation. The trick for wash manufacturers, then, is to identify and hit that sweet spot that allows the wash cycle to be reasonably quick but also effective enough to produce a clean vehicle every time.

In the retail world, whether the system used is a conveyorized tunnel or in-bay automatic, the math of a top-performing car wash is pretty simple: a quick, effective wash allows the operator to wash more cars per hour and charge a premium rate, especially if the wash system can accommodate ancillary value-added services. That equates to a higher return to the operator’s bottom line.

On the automobile dealer’s service lot, however, a little more mathematical finesse is required. Many dealers still either use on-site employees or contract with a third-party provider to wash the vehicles on their lots. In either case, the dealer incurs hourly service charges in order for the vehicles to get washed. So, it’s surprising how many dealers are still choosing to have their vehicles washed by hand.

Another option is to install an actual car wash in the service lot. In this case, rollover washes that see the vehicle positioned in a bay with the wash equipment moving around it during the wash process have been the most popular. But even then, there are ancillary costs to consider, such as the need for an employee to load and unload the vehicles in the bay, which can take time.

Wash manufacturers have hit on a better solution: the drive-thru car wash that can successfully clean up to 60 cars an hour. The following chart compares the labor costs for hand washes, rollover washes and a drive-thru wash:

• Labor Cost of Washing 50 Vehicles Per Day*
• Hand Washing @ $4.32/vehicle = $216/day
• Rollover Wash @ $1.72/vehicle = $86/day
• Drive-Thru Wash @ $0.29/vehicle = $14/day

*Assumes employee at $15/hr. + $500/mo. in benefits = $3,800 per mo. in labor cost.

• For labor cost per vehicle, divide labor cost by 22 working days/month, then 10 hours/day, then vehicles/hour.

• Hand washing = 4 vehicles/hour; Rollover = 10 vehicles/hour; Drive-Thru = 60 vehicles/hour.

As you can see, deploying a drive-thru wash can bring significant savings.

This illustrates there is a direct correlation between the throughput of each washing method and its associated labor expense. When using hand washing, an average dealer would pay more than 12 hours of wages to wash the same 50 cars. That means the dealer would need more than one employee devoted to car washing — which also means paying benefits for multiple car washing employees. Two employees hand washing side-by-side, however, may still not be enough to meet demand because waiting six hours for vehicles to be washed is not ideal in any circumstance.

The bottom-line advantage of the drive-thru wash is that it can wash 60 cars per hour. That means the dealer can pay less than one hour of employee wages to wash 50 cars. When extrapolating those daily savings over an entire year, the dealer can reasonably expect to save between $19,000 and $53,000 in labor expenses.

How’d They Do It?

Recognizing the need for a more efficient car wash system, the manufacturers of car washes developed a solution: a severe-duty, drive-thru car wash system designed to meet the unique needs of automobile dealers, as well as other businesses that employ vehicle fleets. The drive-thru system meets the physical demands of high-volume fleet washing by featuring a framework constructed of heavy-duty, aircraft-grade aluminum with minimal moving parts.

Unlike rollover systems that require the entire wash unit to sweep over each vehicle, the drive-thru framework remains in place, allowing it to achieve and maintain the highest level of structural integrity. When motion is required, the system actuates the wash process through the use of automotive-rated bearings and lube-free pivot points that are built for reliable, maintenance-free operation and long service life.

The drive-thru system also offers an all-electric drive that features sealed epoxy-coated motors with integrated gearboxes that are rated for use in wet environments. This all-electric design eliminates the use of a hydraulic system that requires regular inspection and the maintenance of fluid levels, while the hydraulic lines can be prone to developing leaks that will affect the system’s overall performance.

What truly separates this innovative drive-thru technology is its proven ability to deliver a reliably clean vehicle in 60 seconds or less. This not only gets the vehicle back on the lot or delivery route quicker. It also means that less water and electricity are needed to facilitate the wash process. Energy is also saved because the system doesn’t have to move over the vehicle, meaning it can require as little as 4 horsepower of electrical power per wash. In terms of water consumption, since the system is designed to clean in a single pass, as little as 36 gallons of water — and only 18 gallons of fresh water — are needed per wash, especially if the wash is outfitted with a water-recovery system. Drive-thru systems have been built for the long haul while being capable of effectively washing vehicles in a fraction of the time. The optimized wash capabilities delivered by drive-thru wash systems should make it a first-choice technology for automobile dealers with a lot full of vehicles or any other business that deploys a fleet.

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