Purchase Criteria — How To Make Good Decisions When Buying New or Upgrading Equipment
My in-bay automatics turned nine years old this past August. I know almost everything there is to know about the machines by now. I can see, hear, and sometimes sense when things aren’t working properly — and most repairs can be diagnosed and repaired within a few hours because I now have a robust spare-parts inventory. This makes the decision to upgrade my in-bay automatics even more difficult. But, because they are getting older, I need to start thinking about my various options, not so much based on my current equipment’s performance but more on how newer technology might enhance the customer experience.
I am a person who likes lists. Usually, when I have a large purchase of this sort coming up, I will brainstorm and write down what is important to me about the equipment, the manufacturer, and the distributor selling and servicing the equipment. My list for in-bay automatic (IBA) equipment would include:
- Cleaning ability
- Friction vs. touch free
- Inverted “L” vs. “roll-over” with tracks
- Speed of wash
- Chemical usage
- Water usage
- Customer “show”
- Maintenance and reliability
- Drying capability/wax application
One prerequisite for cleaning is a two-pass presoak that can be programmed for both a low- and high-pH pass. The inability for a wash to do this would eliminate the wash as a prospective choice. These two passes are the most important in removing various road films, clays, and other dirt at various times of the year. It also will be one of
the most important factors in a wash’s ability to clean, especially for the touch-free machines. The water impingement from the nozzles will also have a dramatic effect on the overall cleaning ability of a unit. Lastly, the contouring or ability for the spray tips to get near the car surface will have an effect on how well an IBA cleans.
Friction vs. Touch Free
I have two touch-free washes in my one location right now. I even branded my wash as a “touchless” wash. However, I would consider purchasing a “soft-touch” friction wash. The reason is that they will normally clean troubled vehicles better. If you spent years branding yourself as a touch-free wash it becomes a more difficult decision to install a friction wash. Also, friction washes will create an increase in damage claims. Many operators that I have talked to will normally explain that their equipment usually is not the culprit, but customers will blame the friction aspect of the wash for preexisting damage on their vehicles. Damage claims from a touch free are minimal. So there are some trade-offs between friction and non-friction washes.
Inverted “L” vs. “Roll-Over” with Tracks
My two washes have gantries that run down a track and “roll over” the vehicle. This creates some hardship for my customers in that they need to enter the wash between two rails so the vehicle is positioned correctly. It still amazes me how customers will ride up over the rails and get their vehicles (and my equipment) in odd predicaments. A style that is becoming more popular with owners is inverted “L” equipment that is suspended from the ceiling or supported by frame posts that allow the bay to have a more open style. Customers can enter the bay and position their vehicles almost anywhere they want and the equipment will use ultrasonics or other technology to size the vehicle, making for a better customer experience. It also makes cleaning the bays easier and has a cleaner look to it. Each style offers its own cleaning advantages, but it is a consideration to include in your buying decision.
Speed of Wash
Most newer wash technologies are going to allow at least minimal “recipe” programming to meet pricing and proper wash-package marketing. The ability to program your various wash packages and the speed at which the equipment can wash a vehicle can be important to an operator’s bottom line. If you have a wash that is always busy, your ability to get good throughput will be more important. No one wants to wait in long lines. This becomes even more critical if you are in a climate that has snow and salt-spreading on the days when vehicles are lined up around your building. Unlike full-serve or flex-serve washes, the IBA market has somewhat limited throughput, and on these very busy days your ability to wash more vehicles will have a positive impact on your bottom line. Some wash manufacturers tout their ability to perform a top wash package in less than four minutes, but owners must weigh the speed advantages to the cleaning results they are able to get from the shorter wash cycles.
This has some relationship to the speed of the machine. Some manufacturers have the ability to quickly cover a vehicle with presoaks, triple foams, and other chemicals or will use tips that allow better metering for more economical chemical use. Newer pump stations are also eliminating the need for large mixing tanks and hydrominders, and are moving to an injected-chemical design that saves on chemical as well as equipment-room space. While these newer designs have some limitations, I would thoroughly explore them as viable options over the more traditional mixing tanks.
Newer washes are using new tip designs, and this, coupled with the faster speeds, will give you savings on what will probably be your highest utility expense — water. While there is some gray area on calculating water usage, I would want to know how many gallons I could expect to use in my top wash package. This is also one area that a friction wash will have some advantages over a touch-free wash.
My personal opinion is that this should be ranked very high on your list. I recently had the opportunity to sit through a newly designed wash that really did an excellent job at cleaning and had a bunch of great features. I would never buy this wash based on the “show” — or rather lack of “show” — even though it cleaned well. When customers see the bright, foaming triple-foam colors and perceive the great scents, it improves their experience and keeps them coming back. Newer foamers are also becoming more prevalent for providing a good show. If new equipment cleans well, but lacks the “show” aspect, it will be harder for customers to remember their experience. The show is also a reason for kids to ask their parents to go to your car wash.
Maintenance and Reliability
In researching a new IBA purchase, I would be very thorough in determining the overall reliability and maintenance a machine is experiencing by talking to as many current owners of the machine as I could. Some manufacturers are developing machines that have much less downtime and are much more reliable than their predecessors. I would also research what I could expect in terms of routine maintenance, including how, and how often, bearings need to be greased, wheels and bearings need to be changed, how hard the procedures are, and the costs of parts and labor.
Drying Capability/Wax Application
One of the most common complaints I get from my current customers is the ability of my in-bay automatics to thoroughly dry their vehicles. You will need to make choices as to what form of dryer you will want to purchase — mainly on-board vs. standalone dryers. Each offers its own advantages. Your ability to apply waxes or drying agents will also determine your ability to dry a vehicle. The “sheeting” of water when these agents are applied will allow your blowers/dryers to do a better job. Wax applications and the appropriate auto cashier will allow you to also increase revenue by up-selling customers with an upgraded wax-like application.
After you are in this business for a while, you will discover that many equipment manufacturers started out in their own garages as car wash owner’s who developed their own automatic machines and had their companies grow from there. Sometimes the engineering is lacking in their design. Bolts or hoses are in places that are nearly impossible to reach for repair. Routine maintenance issues are made difficult because of poorly designed machines. For my next purchase, I will review the overall engineering of the machine and will probably do additional research on how many and what type of engineers the manufacturer employs.
RESEARCHING THE MANUFACTURER
Your IBA purchase will most likely be the most expensive investment you make in your wash. Knowing as much as possible about the manufacturer of the equipment you are purchasing is important. Here is a list of what I would want to know about the manufacturer of my equipment:
- Years in business
- Financial strength
- Leadership experience and vision
- Engineering emphasis
- Distributor longevity
- New product launches
Years in Business
While self explanatory, recent years have shown some imports coming into the marketplace. I would want to know that my manufacturer has had a long track record of machine sales in the United States, especially considering the fall-out of manufacturers in the recent bad economy.
While this information might be hard to ascertain because most manufacturers are closely held corporations, you can make some assumptions from a visit to the manufacturer’s facilities. I would not rule out making a trip of this sort for a purchase of this magnitude. Even then, learning the financial strength of a closely held company can be difficult, but asking questions is easy. Do your best in evaluating the answers you receive.
Leadership Experience and Vision
Learn as much as you can about the leadership and vision of the management of the manufacturers. My experience has shown that some manufacturers’ management are more prone to keeping the status quo, while
others are working towards making their equipment more reliable and profitable for car wash owners. You can learn a lot about this from reviewing older equipment and noting revisions that have been made over the years.
While I have not done any formal research on this, my guess is that only a handful of manufacturers will employ full-time engineers. This old-school approach to the business is becoming a competitive disadvantage when it comes to utilizing newer robotic innovations that more progressive manufacturers are using. Try to get a sense of where the manufacturers are in their engineering expertise and deployment.
A number of what I would consider large car wash equipment manufacturers have changed distributors over the past nine years in my market area, which would be a concern for me if I bought their equipment. The ability to stock parts and train service technicians can be a daunting task for a new distributor. If manufacturers are not stable in this area it would weigh against them in my final decision process.
New Product Launches
If you are upgrading current equipment, try to learn from your manufacturer what plans they have for any new product launches. While new is not always better, I would want to know what features a new product has that
the older product might not have. If the features are upgrades of an already reliable product then it might be worthwhile holding off until the new product becomes available.
There is a plethora of considerations when making an equipment purchase of this type. Much of the information requires weighing the advantages and disadvantages of what each piece of equipment offers and trying to make the best decision possible.
Buzz Glover is the author of “Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash Start-Up Guide” available on amazon.com. There is also a downloadable version at www.carwashbusiness101.com. Buzz Glover is also available for consulting for new car wash start-ups.