Auto Laundry News - February 2013

In-Bay Conversion — The Quest for Increased Throughput

By Stefan Budricks

It inevitably happens to every business. The product selection no longer appeals to consumers; the plant cannot keep up with demand; equipment has become outdated or just worn out; or existing facilities can no longer accommodate all the clamoring customers. Businesses respond by tweaking their operations. They might introduce new product lines, expand, refurbish, or move to larger premises.

Car wash operators will find this scenario familiar. With the continuing introduction of innovative equipment and new wash formats and business models, car washers are hard pressed to maintain an edge in competitive markets.

Operators of self-serve washes, in particular, have felt the need to adjust their operations to align with changing consumer tastes or to respond to competitor pressure. For many years, operators upgraded their businesses by converting a wand wash bay to an in-bay automatic (IBA) — first a touch-free, then a friction, then a hybrid. Now, many are giving serious consideration to converting that IBA to something capable of handling greater volume. Similar thoughts are crossing the minds of c-store and gas station owners who run IBAs on their properties.


Operators have two choices. They can convert the IBA to a conveyorized mini tunnel, or they can opt for an IBA supplemented with off-board elements in tunnel-like fashion, but which the customer drives through — no conveyor.

The former is a traditional tunnel wash, albeit compacted. Some wash packages fit into as little as 35 feet, though the conveyor extends some beyond that length. These systems are known by several different names, depending on the manufacturer. Sonny’s, for example, calls its version the Xtreme Xpress, while at MacNeil it is known as the In-Bay Express.

The second choice consists of a conventional IBA preceded by, for example, a CTA, a presoak arch, and a triple foam arch. The IBA is followed by post-wash functions, which might include a spot-free-rinse arch, a wax arch, and the dryer. Depending on how many pre- and post-wash functions the operator selects for his wash, the system can be accommodated in as little as 42 feet, though 60 to 65 feet is closer to the ideal. These systems, too, go by various names. For example, Istobal labels its setup Express on Rails. Autec uses the term Inbay Express.

For the purposes of this article, and to avoid any confusion — particularly in cases where the same terminology is used to identify both a conveyorized mini tunnel and a supplemented IBA — we will refer to these systems in generic terms: mini tunnel and IBA-plus.


There is little argument that the advent of the express-exterior wash format, and its rapid expansion across the country, has had an impact, particularly on self-serve/IBA washes. Kevin Collette, president of Istobal USA, sees this competition as a prime mover behind operators’ decision to convert their IBAs. “Typically within the competitive circle of that new express exterior there are one, two, or even three existing car washes. It takes a significant piece of business from those operators,” he says. “To compete, they have to be fast and inexpensive.”

For Ryan Essenburg, president of Tommy Car Wash Systems, the number one reason for conversion is to increase throughput. “These are people who are doing well, who are successful, but who cannot wash enough cars. It’s taking a good business and making it great,” he explains. “The second reason may be to reinvent or rejuvenate a facility to draw business back.”

“Return on investment.” That, in a nutshell, is why operators decide to convert, says Joey Stilley, national sales manager for Autec Car Wash Systems. “A touch-free IBA wash takes six minutes,“ he says. “If you can only run eight or 10 cars an hour, you’re not really getting the maximum return on your investment.” He adds that the negatives with the IBA are that all the passes are being done on board. By taking certain functions off-board, a lesser number of gantry passes are required.


A conversion is not as simple as removing one set of equipment and replacing it with another. Whether opting for a mini tunnel or an IBA-plus, some construction work is usually called for.

A mini tunnel may well fit within a 35-foot bay, but a trench to accommodate the conveyor will still need to be dug — and in all probability the foundation wall will have to be breached. Operating a chain conveyor with rear-wheel-push mode will require approximately 20 feet of loading space, considerably less for front-wheel-pull.

A belt conveyor can make do with a 3-foot space for loading, but 5 feet would be better. Essenburg explains that this allows conversion from footing to footing, as most IBA bays measure between 38 and 42 feet. “You don’t need to extend out the entrance, so loading can be in a heated environment,” he adds.

Accommodating the preferred IBA-plus arrangement requires a bay of approximately 65 foot in length. This usually means extending the existing bay, a task that can be accomplished with reasonable ease. Using modular components, additions can be bolted onto the front and/or rear of the bay. Pour additional concrete to correspond, and you’re done.


“I can operate 24/7, and don’t need an attendant,” says Stilley of the IBA-plus systems. While some on the industry maintain the same is possible with a mini tunnel, many consider it ill advised. “We want our work to make it easier on the customer to load themselves and to reduce the potential for mistakes,” says Essenburg. While he believes a belt conveyor is less challenging for customers to use than a chain conveyor, he still prefers having somebody on site during car wash hours, even if just a gas station attendant or c-store clerk. Collette defines the divide: “For every operator you find that says you can [operate a mini tunnel unattended 24/7], you’ll also find one that says you can’t. That’s an individual opinion. It’s the operator’s decision.”

The staged drive-through process of the IBA-plus could be seen as a challenge. David Dougherty, senior product manager at PDQ Manufacturing Inc., points out that this system leaves one of the critical parts of the wash process up to the driver — applying chemical effectively and efficiently over the entire vehicle. “You don’t want them to drive through too fast; it could effect the quality,” he says. Collette counters that there are lots of automatic car washes with standalone dryers at the end of the bay, so consumers are already familiar with the concept.


While throughput claims vary, there is wide agreement that an IBA-plus can handle greater volumes than a conventional IBA, and that a mini tunnel can handle greater volumes, still, than an IBA-plus.

“We have machines capable of producing up to 20 cars an hour,” says Dougherty of conventional IBAs. According to Stilley, an IBA-plus is “able to do 25 to 30 cars an hour without an attendant.” Mini tunnels are variously credited with 40-, 45-, even 50-cars-an-hour capability.

Collette cautions that one should look at what the governing factor is. “It’s not the machines; it’s the drivers,” he says. “Do they enter the money as fast as space on the conveyor is available or as fast as the space opens up in the IBA-plus concept?” he asks, explaining that, regardless of the model, it really depends on how efficiently drivers use the entry system: Do they have the correct credit card ready; do they insert it correctly, etc?


Making a choice between an IBA-plus and a mini tunnel will require not only careful number crunching, but also some soul-searching. Operators should ask whether they want to compete directly with that new express exterior or whether they want to offer something different, Collette advises. In the case of the former they would install a mini tunnel and free vacuums. “The one thing an express exterior cannot offer is touch-free,” he says. An IBA-plus can.

Maybe the answer is neither. Dougherty offers this conclusion: “We have operators who have looked very closely at the conveyorized mini tunnel and have made that jump to meet the demand for more throughput, while others have just added a second IBA.”

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