Auto Laundry News - October 2013

Cost of Clean — Improving Wash Quality Without Increasing Chemical Costs

By Ron Holub

Rising gas prices, adverse weather, a sluggish economy — they all mean the same thing for car wash owners: lower volumes, less profit, and hard times. Compound these wash problems by factoring in high unemployment rates, an uncertain economic future, and increases in other daily living expenses like utilities and groceries and you’re facing some pretty steep hurdles to be successful in the car wash industry today.

For operators, this means revising their game plan for the rest of 2013 and beyond. Some have gone to increased pricing; some have upgraded their facility to attract business. Others have increased or improved marketing efforts to attract more business. Many are taking a hard look at their operating costs, including labor, maintenance, water, sewer, power, and chemicals to find more wiggle room.

Before you reduce the amount of chemical or change the products or product mix you are using, make sure you are not also sacrificing quality and potentially losing business, reducing revenues, and setting yourself up for failure. You need to understand how the chemicals you are using work to find the correct methods to increase your bottom line without jeopardizing wash quality. Improving your wash performance may be more a matter of selecting the best product mix and making sure your equipment is in peak operating condition for your wash rather than increasing cost or changing suppliers.


The basic factors that affect cleaning in any wash are especially critical in any wash process whether it is touchless, friction, or hybrid. Type of equipment, chemistry, water temperature, dwell time, and water quality are important variables affecting your overall wash quality. These factors have been discussed in many articles in the trade magazines. This article will focus mainly on the application issues and the chemical aspect of this equation, but the other factors cannot be ignored.

It is essential that the products you are using are being properly applied. One of the most important factors for maximum benefit from your chemicals is to make sure your nozzle configuration is providing good coverage for your chemical applications. You should check the spray pattern and flow capacity to make sure that you are covering the vehicle’s surface completely with the correct dilution ratio. You can maximize your chemical usage with proper nozzling without compromising quality.

How much do you know about titration? Even if you do not want to learn how to titrate your chemicals, you should have a working knowledge of how it is done and what it means to your costs. Titration is an excellent way to get a “snapshot” of how much chemical is actually going on the vehicle and is a good way to start troubleshooting on any cleaning or drying issues you may be experiencing.

Your ability to produce a clean, dry vehicle depends on the proper interaction of several factors. If you do not produce a clean vehicle you seriously affect your ability to dry it. If you change one process or product, it may require adjustments in one or several other processes or products to create the proper balance. Here, for instance, are some possible consequences:

  • Reducing the temperature of your pre-soaks may require additional chemical or dwell time to maintain cleaning.
  • In a touch-free wash, reducing your dwell time to increase throughput will mean you will have to increase the strength of your cleaning solutions.
  • Maintaining your water softener properly can save you chemical costs while failure to do so will not only increase costs but also have a negative effect on cleaning ability,
  • While changing nozzle sizes, reducing the number of nozzles, or reducing pressure may save water you may also need to adjust your chemicals to maintain wash performance.
  • Balancing your production chemicals (basically those in the cleaning process) is important for better cleaning as well as improved drying ability.
  • Selecting the right tri-foams and sealants may keep those costs in line without sacrificing quality, and enhance drying.
  • Changing the speed of the wash process either by increasing conveyor speed or the speed or amount of passes in an automatic without adjusting chemicals may not only affect the performance of the process but also increase the cost.

The right chemical set-up involves creating the proper balance among pre-soaks and shampoos, triple foams, sealant/protectants or super sealants, and drying agents. Any changes made in the product mix could adversely affect cleaning and/or drying. The most popular pre-soak set-up even in a friction wash is the two-step process of a low-pH (acidic) application followed by high-pH (alkaline) application. Some reverse that order, while still others use two high-pH applications.

Regardless of what approach you prefer, it is essential that you maintain the proper chemical balance. Make sure your chemicals are compatible with each other and work together in the cleaning process. Normally you will have no compatibility problems if the products are from the same manufacturer. If you are using two different suppliers for your pre-soaks or other detergents, be sure to check with them on compatibility issues. Some of the possible compatibility issues you may experience include decreased show (foaming), creation of solid residue particles on the vehicle’s surface due to the reaction of the chemicals to each other, poor drying, clogged lines or nozzles, and/or problems in the pit or reclaim system.


The two most commonly used triple foams are foaming detergents/conditioners or foaming polishes. You should make sure you know which you are using. Some manufacturers may call a detergent/conditioner a polish while most distinguish between the two. If you are unsure, one way to tell is that there is usually a significant price difference between the two. A foaming detergent/conditioner is basically a colored soap with a fragrance. While they may have a good show and be cheaper than a polish, it may not rinse well, will not add any protection or shine to the vehicle, and may inhibit drying. A true polish should have a good show with a fragrance and will add to the protection and shine as well as rinse well and enhance drying ability. A true polish usually costs as much as 20 percent to 25 percent more than a foaming detergent/conditioner. A good alternative is a low-pH conditioner, which costs less than a polish and will enhance drying but not add to the shine or protection of a vehicle.

In addition to the traditional sealants/clear-coat protectants, most chemical companies offer a super sealant. The new super sealants offer better shine and protection as well as drying because they contain water soluble polymers that work in a similar fashion (to a lesser degree) as a paint sealant application. These are usually premium priced products that operators can charge more for than a traditional sealant/clear-coat protectant. I have seen situations where adding a very slight amount to the final rinse not only enhances drying but also decreases the time for hand drying where that is offered. While this might increase cost slightly it may also add to the final appearance of the vehicle and increase customer satisfaction.

In most cases a super sealant not only improves the overall wash quality but also adds profitability to a wash. With an older wash it may also require the addition of an application arch or an additional function, which may or may not be an option with your equipment. If you do not have this option, you may choose to use the drying agent application for the super sealant and use your sealant/protectant as your drying agent. This may slightly increase the cost of your basic package but the offset of offering the super sealant in your top package should make it worth your while
to do so.


Other than doing the best possible job cleaning, shining, and protecting the vehicle, you want to get the best possible results drying. Drying is normally more difficult with the wash packages that do not include triple foams, sealants, or super sealants. The usage of the proper sealant/tri-foam combination can increase drying capabilities. However, when tri-foams are not applied, one must be sure they are doing all they can in the wash process to create the best drying conditions.

The drying ability of protectants or super sealants is greatly improved if the surface pH is either neutral or acidic. Ideally, if you are using both an acid and alkaline presoak the resulting surface pH should be close to neutral or slightly acidic. If you are using two applications of an alkaline pre-soak it is essential that the vehicle be thoroughly rinsed before the protectant/sealant is applied to reduce the concentration of your surface alkalinity or, in the case of a friction wash, the use of a low-pH or neutral shampoo is important.


In addition to balancing your chemicals one must also balance the cost. There are some very good products available that are produced locally by distributors or available on a direct basis from some companies, but unless they are applied properly the money that may be saved is lost in poor performance. If you are not comfortable with tweaking the chemical application yourself, a good chemical rep should be cost competitive while at the same time be able to use his skill to produce the best possible results from your equipment.

In either case, make sure that you are getting the best bang for your buck. For the most accurate measurement of your cost, you should become familiar with the concept of cost per car as opposed to cost per gallon. While some products may appear to cost less per gallon, the actual use cost may be more than the products that cost more per gallon but use less per application. The process of calculating cost per car by measuring each application is not as complicated as it may seem. There are sources like on-line discussion-group sites that will help you learn the process, or a competent chemical rep should be able to teach you about the procedure. If you choose not to do this, an alternative but not as precise a method involves keeping an accurate inventory of the amount of products you consume in a month and dividing that cost by the number of vehicles washed. This method should at least give you a good ballpark figure. While not as accurate as the formal cost-per-car method, it can be valuable in controlling chemical costs.

Sometimes operators forget that what they are really selling is a clean, dry vehicle and concentrate more on the cost of doing so rather than the entire process itself. Improving the quality of your wash while controlling chemical costs is an absolute necessity in today’s competitive car wash market but at the same time making sure you are not sacrificing quality or wash performance as a factor. This is one of the key elements of successful management along with controlling labor costs, effective water and utility usage, proper maintenance of equipment, and a well-conceived marketing effort. At the heart of that success is producing a clean, dry vehicle at the best cost. Knowing the chemical basics, how chemicals and equipment interact, and the importance of balancing your chemicals will help you make better decisions when choosing wash chemicals. It’s not rocket science, but it does take an effort to make the most of your equipment and chemicals.

Ron Holub has been involved in the car wash industry for 35 years working as an executive for several national car wash chemical companies, owning a car wash and detail supply company, and serving as a general manager for a national car wash chain. He currently works with Hydro-Spray and does consulting. He can be reached at

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