In-Bay Automatic - August 2009

21st Century Wash —
It Isn't Simply Soap and Water Anymore
By Karen Ott

An in-bay automatic car wash can be an attractive addition to a community.

In the 60-plus years since the first in-bay automatic car wash appeared on the scene, advances were slow but steady. In the last few years, however, technology has caused changes to occur at lightning speed. This has generated an enormous amount of options from which to choose. Soap and water — it seems straight forward enough, but the thousands of ways they can be applied in a car wash is dizzying. Which is better, touch-free or friction? Do you want overhead or gantry? High pressure or combination? How many bells do you want and how many whistles? Add to that the personal bias when it comes to advice on choosing a type of IBA and one might be tempted to resort to flipping a coin in order to make a final decision.

The good news is that technological innovations have made the fundamental choices more equal if not easier. The playing field has been leveled when it comes to touch-free vs. friction. Most of the “knocks” against one or the other system just don’t apply anymore thanks to advances made in the last few years. It really comes down to the customers’ personal preferences.


Belt-drive technology.

Take the touch-free for example: today one size does fit all — all size vehicles, that is. Accommodating the wide variety of vehicle types and still providing the optimal cleaning has been a challenge. Keeping the spray arch at the proper distance is now regulated by vehicle sizing systems that measure each vehicle. This enables the touch-free to perform well whether it is washing smart cars or dual-wheel trucks. If the arch does encounter a situation that is beyond its limits, such as oversize mirrors or perhaps large bike racks, software is now available on some machines that compensates for the obstruction and, if necessary, reads arch deflection and then resets the wash without operator intervention. This becomes an enormous advantage for sites that are not manned on a 24/7 basis. Speaking of not being on site, many wash systems now allow owners to tap into the wash control through a PC or laptop. Owners are able to view remotely whatever they would normally see with the on-site control. In some cases they are also able to turn on and off functions, view wash counts, issue washes, etc. all with the click of a mouse.

For those who would like to find an alternative to tires and inner tubes, belt drive technology provides the answer. New composite materials that form the belt shed water, unlike the old Kevlar type that tended to absorb moisture. Coupled with a plated steel core, the resulting belt needs almost no adjustments beyond the initial one. A further advancement includes the use of cable carriers, which eliminate festoons. These plastic carriers can withstand the harsh conditions found in a typical wash while they protect cables and hoses from abrasion and entanglement, which results in prolonged equipment life. As an added benefit, a bay without festoons has greater customer appeal.


If you are considering a friction machine, they have made a comeback thanks to technology. Many customers who said, “don’t touch,” now view the new incarnations of the friction system as “soft touch,” thanks to the dramatic changes in the wash media and measuring systems used. Closed-cell foam and soft cloth have replaced the older, less gentle bristle brush, while the new materials conform better to the contours of a vehicle. Certain wash systems also allow for the operator to decide when the wash media will contact the vehicle. The operator is able to program those passes that will include touch with the various applications, thereby customizing the wash to fit the conditions. As with the touch-free, many units include a vehicle-sizing system to insure proper coverage of products and complete cleaning of each vehicle. The latest systems also offer the off-site monitoring and access to the wash control through the Internet.


Another example of an attractive car wash facility.

Sensitivity to environmental issues has prompted changes to IBAs as well. There have been recent advancements in the way solutions and water are delivered the touch-free arena. A radial motion to the arch provides a smooth and precise application of product and water, reducing waste. Reclaiming RO reject water is another aspect of water conservation that is gaining increased popularity with the new automatic wash systems. The reclaim process involves the use of water that is normally discarded when the RO or spot-free water is produced. This stored “reject water,” which is softened clean water that has a higher concentration of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), may not be suitable for product application but can be used for undercarriage or high-pressure rinse passes. Utilization of the RO reject water can potentially save up to 15 percent of normal fresh water usage, a great savings to the environment and an owner’s bottom line. This can be accomplished whether or not a reclaim system is currently in use.


What about the high-tech bells and whistles? How about a car wash that keeps track of you? Some systems will send e-mail or text message alerts to the owner’s PDA or cell phone anywhere in the world. The owner can then interact with the wash control, performing the same functions as if he were standing in front of the control panel itself. In addition, that car wash control can also provide many more functions remotely that are usually only available on site. Security inputs within the control can monitor cleaning product levels, report the current air pressure and the ambient temperature in the wash bay or equipment room, and monitor the status of change or vending machines. And for those who maintain a cold climate wash, if visions of pretty tri-colored icicles keep you awake at night, heat and weep systems are now available for colored foam applications without the extensive use of water and electricity as was the case in previously equipped units.


Despite the rapid advancements made in automatic car wash systems, there is one constant — good customer service. In other words, we need a “back to basics” approach in being responsive to customer needs. The good news is that the new technology makes this easier. It is important to offer your customers wash packages that are customized to your specific area. As mentioned previously, adjustments to your wash packages can be made from anywhere but they need to be based on your current wash needs and weather conditions. Being able to make the necessary changes instantaneously is an immense advantage in attracting and retaining customers. Seasonal conditions can be accommodated with multi-pass systems, which allow you to provide bug-removal applications in the summer and ice/snow removal with high-velocity rinse in the winter.


With the merits of each type of automatic wash being relatively equal, how then does one make a decision? Realistically it comes down to customer base, competition, and support. Perhaps the best scenario is a side-by-side offering; give your customers an immediate choice. Get them on the lot and they won’t have to drive elsewhere to find their preferred wash type. If you need to choose, look at the competition and give your customers an option they can’t find elsewhere. One of the most important aspects of your decision is to determine what kind of support network is available for the equipment you choose. Potentially the biggest advantage of some of the latest wash system software is the ability for technical support to remotely access a particular system and diagnose problems in real time. Having that kind of trouble shooting available 24/7 is invaluable. In the final analysis, when the latest technology makes both options able to provide a quality, dependable wash the choice becomes not “the right wash” but the wash that is right for you.

Karen Ott is the product marketing manager for Washworld, Inc. in DePere, WI. You can contact Karen via e-mail at or visit the company on the web at

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