Auto Detailing - December 2008

At the Car Wash—
Part 6: Importance of Equipment
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the fifth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we discussed the selling of detailing services at a car wash. It was first pointed out that the car wash has a distinct advantage over detail shops; potential customers are driving up by the dozens each day for car wash services.

Many of the detailing customers at a car wash will simply come from the drive-up line, and this is where most of the selling effort should be concentrated. Make sure that your service advisors are intimately familiar with the detailing menu options, well trained on evaluating vehicle conditions, and versed in selling the appropriate options to the customers.

It was further stressed that the selling of express detailing is the primary responsibility of the service advisor, since this is a service that might be chosen on an impulse. On the other hand, the selling of full-service detailing starts with the marketing effort that makes the car wash customer aware of the service. Then the service advisor can suggest full-service detailing to those customers who have vehicles that do not qualify for express detailing.

The detail center manager also plays an important role in selling and explaining full-service detailing. The detail manager should be brought in for any customers who request or are best served by full-service options.

Thus far in this series, we have been exploring some of the more lofty concepts involved in detailing at a car wash. I thought it might be nice to start getting into more of the nuts and bolts of providing detailing services. So let’s start talking about the equipment needed for good detailing. This is a long discussion that will probably take three installments.

In this month’s column, I am going to start by making the case for the importance of having proper equipment. Then, in upcoming installments, I’ll provide a suggested list of equipment for both full-service and express detailing.


Most service-related industries are dependent upon a set of specialized equipment and tools to perform the service. Carpenters need hammers, nail guns, saws and the like to do their job. Landscape maintenance companies utilize lawnmowers, edgers, blowers, and other powered tools to perform their duties. Without their respective equipment, these professionals could not perform their jobs adequately, efficiently, and with excellent results. Similarly, the professional automotive detailing technician needs to have a set of standard equipment to properly clean and protect the vehicle in a reasonable amount of time.


If anyone should know the importance of proper equipment, it is the automatic car wash operator. Operators spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment to wash cars faster, better, and with less labor effort. Surprisingly, I have been to several car wash operations that had pitiful detailing equipment in the detail center. I’ve seen things like collections of broken extractors and polishers, polishing pads that should have been discarded years earlier, and shop vacuums that are held together by duct tape.

This is amazing to me, since, for less than 10 percent of the cost of a tunnel system, the car wash operator can have a state-of-the-art detail center that can create enough revenue to pay for itself in about 200 labor hours of operation. Nonetheless, some operators neglect their detail centers for whatever reason. So, I find it necessary to launch into a discussion about the importance of detailing equipment.

The main purpose of equipment is twofold: to make the job easier and faster; and to provide better results. In other words, equipment helps us perform a better job in a shorter period of time, when compared to performing the same job by hand. This has been true since the development of the first simple machines such as the wheel, lever, and wedge.

Professional equipment makes the job easier by utilizing technology to imitate motions and actions typically done by hand, but with much greater power, performance, and efficiency. The word efficiency refers to the time it takes to complete a task. In automotive detailing, efficiency is a critically important element to a successful and profitable operation. The efficiency of good equipment will allow the technician to perform tasks faster and with less waste. For example, using a random-orbit polisher to apply wax can cut the waxing time in half or more compared to applying wax by hand.

Additionally, professional equipment typically yields better results than manual efforts. That is, equipment increases your effectiveness, which is a measure of the quality of your results. The power and performance offered by equipment allows it to have a greater impact on the vehicle surface than manual techniques. For example, polishing the paint surface of a vehicle with a professional-grade polisher will clean and shine the surface much more thoroughly than polishing by hand.

More Benefits
Proper equipment also has two additional benefits. First, it makes the job easier for the technician. This helps to reduce fatigue, which can help the technician’s performance. This can lead to a higher per-day job completion rate for the detail center.

Second, most equipment will also require using less chemicals per application than when performed by hand. For example, using a random-orbital polisher to apply wax or sealant typically uses about 75 percent less product than when applied by hand.

Return on Investment
The purchase of equipment should be seen as an investment in the profitability of your business. Utilizing professional equipment allows you to do your job faster, which means that you can make more money per hour. The equipment also yields a better result, which means that your customers are more likely to be delighted with the final result, bolstering the reputation of your detailing center. Generally, a good reputation for providing great results allows you to charge more for your service.

And, good equipment use can increase the vehicle completion rate and reduce chemical costs. Thus, the investment in equipment is likely to pay for itself in increased future profits.


You notice that I keep using the term “professional” when referring to detailing equipment. This refers to the fact that it is important to choose equipment of a professional grade. Such equipment is designed to deliver the greatest power and performance for the detailing technician, thus providing the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. There is equipment designed for the consumer (i.e., vehicle owner) that works just fine for the occasional weekend detail. But for the professional results, consistency, and reliability needed for daily operation, the professional detailer will choose professional-grade equipment.

The carpenter would not choose the 99-cent hammer from the bargain bin at the local hardware store because he or she knows that this tool will fail the first time it is used. Instead, the professional carpenter invests in a high-quality, durable hammer that will likely end up lasting a lifetime.

This analogy applies to the automotive detailing equipment as well. A consumer-grade polisher may cost a lot less than its professional counterpart, but this model is likely to fall apart under industrial use. (I learned this the hard way in the first few months of my own operation. That $50 big wheel polisher was no match for a 30-foot motorhome.) Plus, the inexpensive model will not perform as well. Instead, a professional-grade polisher will last a lifetime and provide fantastic results, which should re-coup many times over the larger investment that good equipment requires.

Most professional detailers recognize that there is a definite list of required equipment to ensure that detailing is done efficiently and effectively. The car wash owner or manager may not be as familiar with the contents of such a list. Thus, in the coming columns, I will offer advice on what equipment to have in your full-service detailing center and express detailing center.


In summary, the importance of professional equipment cannot be overemphasized. With it, you will be able to clean faster and better, save time and money, perform more jobs per day, and better guarantee delighted customers by providing consistently excellent results. The expense of professional equipment should be viewed as an investment that will allow you to make more per hour, charge more, and save chemical costs.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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