Auto Laundry News - September 2013

The Future of Car Wash Control — When a Controller Isn’t Just a Controller

By Kevin Detrick

Arch sequence includes direct front and rear product application.

Targeted chemistry — car compared to truck.

Touchscreen: VFD interface.

An entrance management system speeds up the process.

Improve your competitive advantage through your car wash equipment controller. Bring automation to your car wash with a controller that does more than just switch outputs on and off. You can deliver a better car wash, achieve repeatable quality (without prep), and provide a better customer experience — with the added benefit of reducing utility, maintenance, and damage costs.


Targeted chemistry is the most important component of cleaning cars without prep. Through the use of an ultrasonic sensor, a profile of each vehicle is created to identify its size and shape, thus making it possible to apply the right amount of chemistry, only where it is needed.

Obviously, trucks’ and SUVs’ larger surface areas require more solution than cars. In these cases, the controller activates the oversize function, turning on additional manifolds. Additional strategically placed nozzles provide the added coverage needed.

An upper-side function from the chemical arch allows a targeted application of more chemistry and lubricity on the lower parts of the car where there is more wrap pressure or friction, and less chemistry on windows for easier rinsing. The nozzles along the chemical arch can be controlled, activating them only when the vehicle is present.

Notoriously, the fronts and backs of vehicles are the most difficult parts of the car to clean and require direct product application. If your controller can’t apply the right amount of chemistry, you will be required to prep cars. One of the new controller functions available is the front application that targets chemistry on the front and lower sides. At the back of the car, a new rear application, through the strategic placement of nozzles along the lower portion of the arch, provides the necessary coverage to clean the rear of the car. These areas can be carefully targeted and successfully covered with just the right amount of chemistry.

Front, rear, upper-side, and oversize functions are all new and get the product where it needs to, keeping excess product off the hood and trunk.


How can you improve cleaning with your car wash equipment? Consider adding an alkaline presoak to emulsify the dirt, oils, and films. Break the bond between the dirt and the vehicle’s surface. Next consider an acidic lubricating foam, applied at each point of friction, to neutralize the alkaline presoak and charge the surface for waxes and improved brightness. Finally, consider some reclaim water for use only on vertical surfaces (sides and wheels) completely eliminating the use of reclaim on all horizontal surfaces.

Conclusion: By targeting the application of chemistry, and not putting reclaim on the washers but using an acidic lubricating foam to lubricate the washers, water consumption at Sparkle Car Wash in Stroudsburg, PA has dropped down to 13.5 gallons per car because there is no need to rinse all that reclaim water off the horizontal surfaces of the car. Reclaim is only used on the vertical surfaces. With this process and the right controller, a car wash tunnel is capable of washing 110 cars per hour on a 100-foot conveyor with no prep — and the vehicles are cleaner and shinier.


Typically, there is not enough pressure at 800 psi for the wheel blasters to clean the wheels, but the optimal of 1,100 psi for wheels can potentially damage pinstripes and accents. Also, the 800 psi on the side of the vehicle is disturbing to customers because it sounds like a can opener on body panels and doors. The pump and motor are operating at capacity causing high electric costs and more maintenance. With the new combined use of the controller, variable frequency drives (VFDs), and pressure transducer, it is now possible to control the high-pressure pumps on the wheel blasters and the pressure on the side of cars. This makes a huge difference in improved cleaning, customer experience, and the added benefit of reducing cost. Cleaning is improved by boosting pressure to 1,100 psi on the wheels and then decreasing it to 500 psi on the body of the car. Thus, you’ve improved your ability to clean wheels and tires, improved customer experience through quieter cleaning on doors, and now you have little to no damage to pinstripes and accents. And you’re operating the pump and motor at only the rpm needed to clean, reducing maintenance and electric expenses. An added benefit to getting tires clean with the wheel blaster is that the tire washer can be eliminated.


The current state of flex-wrap technology makes it difficult to manage the wraps between large and small vehicles. They require higher chain speeds, making control difficult, and they demand that prep be used due to poor cleaning on the front and rear of vehicles. Wraps also create a negative customer perception by producing loud drum rolls and damage to mirrors and antennas. Typically, most damage in the tunnel is caused by either incorrect air pressure or incorrect washer rpm.

By incorporating hydraulic control through the controller, you can get the wraps to run at the correct rpm for optimum performance. Controlling the speed of the wraps, changing the rpm of the motor, and removing all the proportioning equipment, allows the oil to run cooler, reducing maintenance expense. The correct rpm will sound better on the vehicle and reduce damage. The enhanced customer experience is quieter and less stressful. And, in Sparkle Car Wash’s situation, electrical usage dropped by 30 percent.


Speed of service is a critical component to satisfying the customer, second only to repeatable quality. The Entrance Management System (EMS) is critical to improving speed of service because it presents consistent, clear, repeatable video instructions to assist customers onto the conveyor. The attendant can edit the stack, add retracts, or cancel the roller up without leaving his assigned position next to the sign by editing the stack right on the screen. It reduces the amount of equipment needed at the entrance of the tunnel. The EMS can automatically fire the roller so that the attendant needn’t press any buttons to wash a car. The attendant simply guides customers into the tunnel and directs them to observe the sign’s prompts (put car in neutral, no brakes, no steering) and the roller fires. Without relying on the attendant to press a button, cars process faster.


Improving the dryers or blowers at your wash is critical. Blown debris from a pickup bed or too much air blown onto a convertible soft top can be a very unpleasant experience for your customer. And, drying at full speed incurs a much higher than necessary utility cost. At one time, car washes had only the ability to either run blowers at full force or shut them off entirely. Adding VFD technology to your blowers provides great enhancements to performance. You no longer need to turn off the blower over pickup beds or convertibles. With VFDs, you can use a medium speed setting, not enough velocity to blow debris out of the pickup bed but still get the vehicle 70 percent dry. You needn’t turn blowers off for convertibles — run them at half speed to get some drying results without risking damage.

Setting an idle speed between cars with the VFDs eliminates inrush, a major component of your electric bill. You limit inrush to operating current.

The outcomes are many: repeatable quality with blowers providing only the drying power needed for each vehicle; better customer experience because no debris is blown onto cars and no excessive turbulence on cloth tops; and reduced costs by saving energy through reduced rpm, eliminating inrush, and less repairs from debris.


The improvements don’t end at the tunnel exit. Do not overlook the performance of central vacuums. It is common for vacuums to provide inconsistent suction due to employees not shaking out bags on a regular basis. Insufficient suction becomes a source of annoyance and dissatisfaction with customers. Not to mention, the cost of operating vacuums is typically the second most expensive wash component next to the blowers.

Installing a VFD with a vacuum transducer operates the turbine to produce 55 inches of lift (optimal suction for cleaning carpets), and the turbine gradually increases speed to offset lost suction due to dirty bags. The outcome, for the central vacuum system, is repeatable quality of suction consistently at 55 inches of lift. Customers always have optimal suction, providing the satisfaction of repeatable quality. The turbine operates below full speed, saving electricity. And finally, the inrush is reduced, saving on demand billing.


So, does the question remain: VFDs or motor starters? Current technology provides the answer. Motor starters work at high inrush and run motors and loads at full speed. VFDs limit operating rpm, saving usage as the rpm adjusts to specific parts of a vehicle. VFDs limit inrush to save on power.

Ethernet, not relays, control the VFDs. Modbus over Ethernet simplifies installation and reduces electrical installation costs. Modbus over Ethernet also provides control; diagnostics; and the ability to remotely connect to, monitor, and service your wash.


The future of car wash control is automation. With a controller governing VFDs you can:

  • Target solutions on every vehicle
  • Apply different volumes of product depending on vehicle size — car or oversize vehicle
  • Control the amount of pressure from wheel blasters
  • Control dryer speed
  • Control vacuum suction
  • Control washer rpm

The right controller is also capable of monitoring digital inputs so you can be alerted of events and developments that impair the operation of your wash, such as:

  • Reclaim shutdown, switched over to fresh water
  • Strainer basket needs service
  • Air compressor pressure is low — shut down wash


The automation of your car wash gives you a distinct competitive advantage in producing cleaner, shinier cars:

  • Targeted chemical and rinse applications
  • Correct washer speed
  • Variable high pressure on wheel blasters
  • Controlled drying for different vehicles
  • Consistent vacuum suction

Incorporating this technology will give you a huge edge over your competition. You will be able to “calibrate” your wash for optimum performance. You will have the means to “see” issues and fix them before they impede the quality of your wash. Return on investment is reasonably quick and the positive effect on your customers is invaluable. Achieve a better value proposition by delivering repeatable quality, improved customer experience (speed of service, choice, convenience, and emotional impact), and lower operating costs.

Kevin Detrick is founder and president of Wind Gap, PA-based Innovative Control Systems Inc. This article is based on a presentation given by Kevin at the International Carwash Association’s 2013 The Car Wash Show. You can visit the company’s website at

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