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Car Wash Veteran Introduces
New Technology, Designer Look

By Jim and Elaine Norland

The belt conveyor in action.

One of the most experienced car wash families in the country isn't bound by tradition. Instead, Tom Essenburg has introduced one of the most modern looks in car washing to western Michigan drivers, and is marketing that high functionality and designer look to the world.

Essenburg is chief operating officer of Quality Car Wash, headquartered in Holland, MI. His family has been in the car wash business since 1969, when his father and uncle launched a rollover wash, soon to be followed by an exterior-only tunnel wash.

The family's wash involvement has steadily grown, now to eight washes, most of them combining gas station, convenience store and exterior car wash in a highly efficient package that takes a minimum of staffing to achieve maximum volumes.

The most recent evolution has been such a triple-profit-center combination built for Orrie Vela in Muskegon, and a pairing of car wash and quick lube functions opened under a partnership with a veteran of the lube business in Grand Rapids.

What's most remarkable, and envied among peers in any of these businesses, is the way the Essenburg approach has minimized employee expense without sacrificing anything in style, function, and profitability.
Using a unique "flight deck" design, several of the combination centers operate nicely with a regular daytime staff of three - two employees and a manager - and an off-peak staff of just two persons. These centers are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed on Sundays, reflecting the conservative values of the western Michigan areas in which they operate.

Vacuum islands front the multi-profit-center site in Muskegon.

The Quality Car Wash design allows this minimal staff to ring up astounding gas gallonage at prices matched to the lowest in the market, and impressive volumes of milk sold at cost to further attract customers to not only convenience-store offerings, but the highly-visible car washes operating in the same structure.

Essenburg's Southtown location in Holland washes close to 200,000 cars a year, pumps 300,000 gallons of gas a month and sells well over 10,000 gallons of milk monthly. (Two other Quality Car Washes serve other sections of Holland.)

Orrie Vela's recently opened wash in Muskegon, built by Essenburg and his Tommy Car Wash Systems, shows off the newest look in high-end car washing with its sleek rounded corners, an arched polycarbonate translucent roof that admits abundant daylight and, at night, emits a glowing presence thanks to brilliant 400-watt interior tunnel lights. The tunnel is 30 feet wide, and with that long translucent roof, there's no chance of any claustrophobic feelings on the part of drivers.

The same look is embodied in the combination wash and quick lube opened in Grand Rapids, where the Essenburgs already have two car washes. While the washes are exterior only, they incorporate a designer look and feel that deliberately caters to drivers who appreciate a quality wash and high-end treatment while still paying a modest price.

Among other differences between Essenburg's approach and other exterior-only or converted washes, tunnels are longer, 140 to 150 feet, so that loading takes place entirely inside. More cars can be washed at one time, too - 160 to 170 cars can be washed in an hour at maximum speed.

Tommy Car Wash Systems equipment in repose.

Washes at the combination gas/c-store/wash sites are priced at $5, $7 and $9, but the new wash/lube facility has a one-price-only approach with an automated cashier that gives drivers a feature-packed wash at $8, advising motorists through signage that "You should get the best every time." Competitor washes in the area price their drive-through washes at $7, $8, and $10, Essenburg says, "We picked the middle price and eliminated the choice."

Such innovation is almost routine for Tom Essenburg, who admits to a passion for research and development. He has worked for years with Velimir Vidakovich at A.V.W. Equipment Co., which manufactures the Tommy Car Wash Systems units to Essenburg's specifications.

The new Grand Rapids wash incorporates a new type of conveyor, a continuous rubber and Kevlar belt that gently catches the driver's-side wheels. Flites are spaced every two feet on the belt to easily engage and carry the vehicle through the wash.

Both the Essenburg-owned washes and the newer installations embody an easy-entry philosophy with a gentle downhill slope that allows drivers to ride their brakes onto the conveyor, aided in some cases with either a big mirror (in the Muskegon store) or a TV monitor (at the Grand Rapids lube/wash) that lets them see their wheels matching up to the conveyor. The exit also has a gentle downhill slope.

Airlift polycarbonate doors and a Magnaglide cylinder are evident at the Grand Rapids location, opened with partner Mike Lemmen, as well as at Orrie Vela's wash in Muskegon. A PowerPoint presentation introduces the driver to the wash and an automated voice tells the driver to put his car in neutral and take his foot off the brake as entry proceeds.

The washes employ a hybrid system, combining soft-cloth with high pressure. No prep work is required, and drivers can simply pay for their wash at a drive-up window without ever leaving their vehicles. Even greater convenience (and less labor) is involved with the ICS auto cashier at the Grand Rapids wash/lube unit.

Essenburg relies on Ecolab chemicals throughout his wash operations.

As part of the technology he's developing, Essenburg is working with a textile mill to develop a new fabric for a longer-lasting mitter cloth. He's also fashioned a new wraparound core, not the customary 10-inch aluminum core, but a two-inch-thin, lighter-weight and disposable PVC core.

The newest installations are examples of the turnkey-type equipment and installation package that Tommy Car Wash Systems is marketing not only throughout the US, but also in other parts of the world. At the time of our interview, Essenburg said he had a couple of deals pending in The Netherlands.
While he says his equipment pricing might be a little higher, he believes the features incorporated in each Signature package, including a touch-screen computer system, make it an attractive value for car wash operators.

"Simplicity and an upscale look is our key," says Essenburg. He points to the integrated look of his newest installation in Muskegon, where the arched plastic roof complements the curved look of the equipment inside the spacious 30-by-140-foot tunnel. The light transmission of the roof - virtually a 30-by-140-foot skylight -serves not only to brighten the wash for daytime users, but functions as a lighted dome at night, beckoning more customers to the wash.

Aesthetics are an essential part of a profitable car wash or combination facility, Essenburg believes. Professional landscaping, attractive interiors, and cleanliness of the entire facility rank high on his priority list, as exemplified in the two-acre site at Muskegon.

He looks for locations which combine, to the best possible extent, "lots of rooftops, lots of traffic, reasonable traffic speed, and nearby retail." One can't always get the best of all those attributes but, "We come as close as we can."

Essenburg is also mindful of potential cost savings in the systems and installations he's marketing and building. At the Grand Rapids quick lube facility, he and partner Mike Lemmen are now using waste oil to heat the lube building interior instead of relying fully on natural gas, which is getting scarcer and more expensive.

He doesn't have water reclaim incorporated in his longer-established sites, nor in Orrie Vela's new center in Muskegon, because of the abundant and inexpensive water along the west coast of Michigan, "but we know water reclaim is important in many locations. Our new systems can incorporate it nicely, as seen in several of the new installations we're doing now where reclaim is required."

Essenburg is eager to show visitors and prospective owners how the new Tommy Car Wash Systems operate. Pre-arranged tours take a day or a weekend to see typical facilities such as the Muskegon gas/c-store/wash unit or the Grand Rapids wash/lube in action. As part of the visit, guests enjoy a meal with Essenburg and others to learn about the system in detail. Essenburg can be reached at (616) 494-0771

The system can also be seen on the web at good looks, efficient arrangements to minimize labor costs, and high-quality washing teamed with other profit centers works well at Quality Car Washes. With Tommy Car Wash Systems, Tom Essenburg hopes to share these principles globally.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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