Auto Laundry News - October 2013

Surveillance — Security and Beyond

By Allen Spears

Every year brings new and varied security challenges to express and full-service car washes. In the past, most facilities rarely changed product offerings or processes, but in today’s market environment change seems to be a necessary strategy for survival. As operators make changes in response to labor availability, competition, new services, new equipment, or revised layouts that crowd the available space, security and surveillance issues become more important and challenging.

In the old days most facilities thought of security and surveillance only as a nighttime issue. However, as times have changed and technology has evolved, managers and owners have adopted new uses for surveillance equipment that mainly revolve around their daytime operations. Safety and security is still the most important aspect of any surveillance system, but operators have discovered that a good surveillance system with well-placed camera locations can pay dividends in many other ways as well.


Safety and security will always be the most important job that a surveillance system can perform. There is simply no better way to monitor every aspect of your property and people than having an army of high-resolution eyes that never blink. Using those eyes to make your customers feel protected is another nice benefit, and if they perceive that their vehicle will be protected as well, they will be more apt to trust your facility.

New customers, especially, will notice and appreciate that you have taken steps to create a “safe zone” to ensure their safety when they exit the vehicle. They typically want cameras to be plainly visible and cover the area adequately. They want to see uniformed or easily identified employees present before they get out. They also assume that you will monitor their vehicle at every point as employees and machines interact with it. Believe me, the first question any attorney will ask you in the event of a serious event or incident is whether you have cameras recording the areas involved, and how many there are. They know that if you say no, they can press any claim that suits them, and there will probably not be any physical evidence to refute it.

There will always be claims that the vehicle was damaged or items were stolen from it while it was in your care. These issues can be dealt with and usually overcome. However, if customers feel unsafe personally, they won’t be back.
Having coverage at every position and operation is good protection and provides peace of mind for all parties involved.

Monitoring the entire customer trail is a sound practice, and can be done a little more discreetly than the easily noticed cameras at the greeting area. These discreet cameras are typically used by the owner to answer crucial customer-security questions: Did the customer trip on a step or slide on a wet spot when entering the lobby or waiting area? Can I see down every aisle and blind spot in my retail area to minimize losses? Did a misrepresentation, disagreement, or argument ensue at the checkout/register area? Did a stranger enter the waiting room from the exit side? Is there a suspicious person lurking in the vehicle delivery or release area?

These are all areas that demand to be watched because there will be issues and events that will arise from time to time that threaten to harm your bottom line, or worse, your reputation.


The two most common claims at a car wash are:

  • Someone stole something out of my vehicle.
  • You damaged my vehicle while it was in your care.

A high-quality surveillance system can help to resolve employee theft claims if you have good coverage in the right areas. When managers, and ultimately the customers, review the footage and can see the employee at all times, it helps to explain what may have happened and when. Having a couple of cameras down lower to see inside the vehicle at work areas may spot an employee lingering around the ashtray for an unusually long period, or stuffing something in their pockets when they get out. More often though, the cameras will clear that employee by showing that they simply did their job professionally and did not do anything suspicious. This usually leads the customer to look elsewhere for the misplaced item and creates doubt that your facility was to blame. Just the simple fact that you are diligently monitoring these areas says volumes to a customer that you are running a professional site and that your employees are held to high standards.

The second type of claim — vehicle damage — can be quickly proven or disproven by employing a vehicle-inspection system to search for pre-existing vehicle damage, while comparing the condition of each vehicle as it enters and leaves your tunnel. Good coverage at this stage can completely bypass screaming matches and angry tirades by quickly revealing what the circumstances were or what actually happened or didn’t happen while the vehicle was being prepped, washed, and dried.

When you employ a vehicle-inspection system, it is extremely important to place inspection cameras at the entrance and exit. Several years ago, when vehicle-inspection systems were first used and patented, some operators placed inspection-system cameras at the entrance, but not at the exit. They ended up having no way to prove damage that was not evident on the entrance camera footage, happened at the car wash or somewhere else, perhaps after leaving the wash. When the customer came back the next day claiming car wash damage, the manager knew that no machine in the tunnel could inflict the type of damage he saw on the vehicle, but he couldn’t prove that it didn’t happen in the tunnel. Having no exit camera comparison ultimately resulted in numerous paid claims during the first year.

It’s just as important to place “process-observation” cameras throughout the tunnel to discover problems such as equipment collisions or, as is usually the case, to show that no damage was inflicted during the wash process. A good vehicle-condition inspection system uses all three parts: entrance, exit, and observation cameras to effectively combat unfair and fraudulent damage claims.


There are literally hundreds of issues that arise when it comes to employees: monitoring compliance with safety rules and regulations, workflow and process variations, efficiency, breaks, ethics violations, unsafe practices, theft, freebies or unauthorized discounts to friends, fraudulent workmen’s comp claims — and the list just keeps growing and growing.

Clearly, monitoring employees will always be a necessity, so make sure that you have enough cameras to do the job, and that they are placed, aimed, and focused on the activities and areas that can detect dangerous or unsafe behaviour or illegal acts.


Protection of your property during the hours or days that the facility is closed is one of the original reasons for having security systems. Determining where your coverage is weak, sorting out what exactly happened, how it happened and when, and identifying the culprits and any vehicles that were involved, will be invaluable information to the police, your insurance company, and the owners and managers. In fact, if your perimeter cameras and warning signs are highly visible, many crimes can be effectively deterred. This fact is well known to the insurance companies and most will discount your rates by as much as 5 percent to 10 percent if you can demonstrate that you have an effective envelope of observation and monitoring with cameras and alarms.


As you can see, security systems have evolved into a valuable tool for combating losses from every angle. They can be used to increase revenue, elevate safety compliance, elevate customer concerns, increase efficiency, deter crimes, and to track revenue. Operating without these systems is literally like flying blind, because there is no way that you can have an army of people doing the security- and revenue-related jobs that video surveillance can do unfailingly and constantly. As times get tougher and competition more fierce, security and revenue confirmation become more important than ever. If you don’t currently have any type of security system, check into it because prices for good quality equipment have dropped dramatically in the past couple of years and price is no longer such a barrier to entry. Protection and security is finally affordable and this is the best time to arm yourself with these necessary tools.

With more than 20 years in the car wash business, Allen Spears currently owns four car washes in Texas. He is also the chief engineer at (a division of Rugged CCTV) and has designed surveillance systems for more than 4,000 car washes during his career.

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