On the Wash Front - March 2010

Where’s Oscar? — Balancing Labor Reduction
and Operating Flexibility
By Anthony Analetto

Cold, rain, or recession — take your pick. There is no shortage of inconsistent patterns wreaking havoc on the predictable hours to keep your doors open. It’s a catch 22 situation. If you close early or open late on questionable days, you risk alienating loyal customers who show up expecting to get a car wash. If you stay open during normal hours on questionable days, then you risk losing your shirt on excessive labor costs. To build yourself some breathing room, the answer is clear: Reduce labor in the wash process. Each reduction in the headcount required to open your doors results in greater flexibility to plan your business.

Although investing in equipment is the easy way out, you may not have the capital or access to financing to make that an option. So, what’s next? Go back to the basics. At its most fundamental, getting a clean, dry, shiny car is a balancing act between five functions: mechanical action, chemical concentration, water quality, temperature, and time. Increasing one function reduces demand for the other four, laying the foundation for reducing labor without necessarily adding equipment.

I’ll be addressing each function below, but first — where’s Oscar? This story, and lesson, comes from a full-serve operator who several years back upgraded his CTA, added a tire brush and set of wraps, and eliminated his prep labor. Cars were coming out cleaner and faster. Labor was reduced, but volume was dropping. Speaking with several customers, the manager quickly realized that loyal patrons didn’t notice the extra equipment. They only registered that Oscar, the man who had prepped their car from front to back for over a decade, was gone. When asked how they liked the wash, they replied with the question: “Where’s Oscar?”

The manager ran down to the local sign shop, ordered, and then put up a huge sign with the headline “Where’s Oscar?” The sign explained that the customers’ loyal patronage had allowed the wash to invest in new equipment to give them a cleaner car faster. It then asked them to say hi to Oscar at the exit end where he had been re-assigned to wiping down cars.

While looking to eliminate labor, don’t overlook that we’re not in the business of washing cars — we’re in the business of satisfying customers. Satisfaction comes from both the product we deliver and customer experience at our sites. Labor is a big part of that experience. Use caution. Cutting prep and slowing the conveyor on Wednesday and then adding back the labor and speeding up production on Saturday may be a recipe for disaster. Wednesday’s customer is unlikely to appreciate that the conveyor was slower and that their car was actually cleaned better. More than likely, they’ll ask themselves, “Where’s Oscar?” They’ll either come on Saturday or not at all. That said, let’s take a look at each function at the wash.


Increasing mechanical action, either from equipment or labor, will produce a cleaner car. Although adding, repairing, or upgrading equipment is often the first line of defense in reducing labor costs, there is a new trend you may consider — self prep.

Albeit somewhat ironic, many operators are reporting back with dramatic improvements in customer satisfaction by giving them the ability to prep their own vehicles. Go figure. It’s all in the presentation. Putting out a bucket of soapy water with a brush and a handwritten sign “Self-Wash” will most likely work against you. What’s worked well, however, is setting up distinct self-serve stations with professional signage and equipment to address excessive grime conditions that customers may not expect a standard automated wash to remove.

Bug-Removal stations are the most common, but if that isn’t relevant for your location try something creative. Possibilities include spot-removal, tar-removal, or some other hard to remove condition. Self-prep stations are most prevalent at express-exterior locations, but if you are a full-serve or flex-serve and have tried them as a way to combat labor expense, I’d love to hear from you.


Focusing on the goal of reducing labor while maintaining wash quality, evaluate detergent concentration from two directions. First, look at the type of detergents used. Second, ensure the consistent concentration of their application. No amount of mechanical action will deliver consistent results without the right chemistry reaching every surface with an appropriate dwell time. So, before immediately looking to substitute prep labor’s mechanical action with additional equipment, evaluate the proper application of detergents.

The cost of replacing nozzles or even updating your application manifold technology is far more affordable than adding equipment or labor. Once you’ve confirmed that detergents are applied in the proper concentration and consistency at each area of your wash, invite your detergent supplier in for an updated evaluation. Technology changes. Wouldn’t it be nice to discover that you can replace your prep labor with a newly designed application manifold and a few different detergents? It’s worth taking a few hours to evaluate.


Like detergent concentration, increasing the quality of water decreases the demand for the other functions of a wash including our target: mechanical action in the form of labor. Do you know the pH and hardness of the water entering your wash? You absolutely must if you want to maximize your profits in this business. Starting with pH, the assumption is that city water is neutral, or pH 7. Recommended detergent concentrations are commonly based on this value. Problems start when the pH of your water supply becomes higher or more alkaline; reactivity of most detergents or pre-soaks weaken. The truth is that many city water supplies are intentionally alkaline, often with a pH over 8. While this practice helps reduce corrosion in the water mains, it also reduces the effectiveness of your detergents. That means if you increase the concentration of your detergents to match the pH of your water supply you’ll get a cleaner car without adding mechanical action.

Hardness is the other aspect of water quality that must be addressed. Softer water makes detergents more reactive. Any water with a hardness of 1 Grain or 17.1 PPM is considered hard and should be addressed with a softener to improve wash performance. If your detergent concentration is set out of the box with the assumption that your water is softer than 1 Grain with a pH of 7 and that isn’t true, then you have an easy fix that could reduce your need of labor in the wash process.


Whether it’s a dishwasher, shower, or car wash, hot water helps detergents and pre-soaks become more active. When looking to eliminate prep-labor on a tight budget, don’t overlook the benefits of heating your detergents. Relatively inexpensive, both in equipment and utility consumption, this practice can deliver positive results, provided you don’t have any issues with detergent concentration or water quality.


Slower conveyor speeds produce cleaner, dryer, cars, regardless of your equipment package. At an exterior-only wash, it makes a lot of sense to set the conveyor speed to match the wash quality, service time, and cost of production you plan to deliver and forget about it. Full-serve, however, is different. Running the conveyor at a fast speed when volume is slow merely creates an unnecessary bottleneck in the wipe down area, assuming you’re running with a reduced crew. Learning how to develop a rhythm of balancing labor and adjusting conveyor speed to changing wash volume is an art form. Once you can reliably manage your conveyor speed to a point where it makes sense to be open on questionable days, you’ll be poised to take advantage when the sun decides to shine.


That’s it. Mastering the balancing act between mechanical action, chemical concentration, water quality, temperature, and time is the foundation of reducing your labor requirements. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Conditions change. Just because your water quality and chemical concentrations were correct the last time you checked, don’t assume they still are. Often the first reaction to problems in wash quality is to prep vehicles. Adding labor must always be the last thing to do after every other possibility has been exhausted. Removing labor must always be the highest priority to operate profitably and gain flexibility in scheduling. And, when changing anything, don’t forget to ask yourself: “Where’s Oscar?”

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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