On the Wash Front - November 2009

When Lightning Strikes —
Assess, Wash, Recover, and Train
By Anthony Analetto

Stop, drop, and roll. Drilled into every child in the country, this simple, memorable plan of action during a fire has probably saved thousands of lives. During a crisis, it’s easy to lose your head, miscalculate priorities, and quickly lose valuable seconds or days on making a recovery. Last month I got a call from an operator on a Sunday morning. A lightning strike had taken out one of his two locations overnight. Distanced by several hundred miles and a good night’s sleep, it was relatively easy for me to view the situation objectively. If I were in his shoes, about to stare at a line of cars, I doubt I would have reacted with the same clarity. After the call and during the days that followed, I started to organize and outline the steps this location took to minimize the impact of the crisis. Everything settled into four categories; assess, wash, recover, and train. The fact is, during any crisis, it’s easy for even the most seasoned veteran to get distracted with one task and lose site of the big picture. Although I’m basing this article on what to do after a lightning strike, the same process can easily serve as a guideline for dealing with many catastrophes at a car wash. I hope you find some useful insights in this article to apply at your business.


Computers and electronics are sophisticated but delicate. Nothing highlights how vital these technologically advanced controls are to today’s car wash operator than having a lightning strike wipe everything out. Installing appropriate industrial-rated surge protectors and UPS-battery backup systems goes without saying and can deliver some protection, but if your location suffers a direct lightning strike, there is little you can do to prevent serious damage. It’s become so common to walk in, turn a switch, and start to run your car wash, that having it all burn up can be devastating if you’re not prepared. Imagine no credit card clearing, no Internet, and not being able to power up your equipment. Now get started.

The first step in any crisis that threatens your business is to assess how you can most quickly satisfy your customers. Ideally this is simply restoring your ability to wash cars, and I’ll go through a step-by-step process to achieve that goal efficiently. However, if a quick recovery just isn’t possible, divert all your energy into making sure your customers leave as satisfied as possible. Get someone out front to greet them and explain the situation. If you keep a supply of pre-printed business cards or coupons that are good for a free car wash, hand them out. Alternatively send one of your employees to an office supply store to print a flyer. Depending on the day of the week and how busy you are, you may offer a hand wash or a detailing service. Offer something until you’re confident that you’ve satisfied your customers the best you can and move on.


1. Call the power company immediately. Even if it appears you have power to the building, you can’t trust that it is stable until the electric company tests everything — so you will want to schedule them as soon as possible.

2. Determine whether or not there is 3-phase power to the building. Try to start the conveyor. If it comes online, breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise, go to the main breaker for your motor control center and do a reset. Next, try to override each component from the on/off switch. If you can’t override, then there is a problem with your 3-phase power supply and you’ll have to wait for the power company to resolve it.

3. Once you’ve established that 3-phase power is available, test the conveyor start/stop button again. If the conveyor won’t start, reset your 110-volt circuitry and begin testing. Check your conveyor-enable circuit. If your horn sounds but the conveyor doesn’t move, check your timers and relays. If they’re bad, replace them. If you don’t have spares, borrow from other components. This may require contacting your panel builder or electrician to temporarily bypass or rewire the panel to get the conveyor running.

4. Now that your conveyor is running, go to the override switches on your relay station and test every function from the beginning to the end of your tunnel. Document all failures and develop a repair plan for each. For example, if you have no 24-volt functions, go to your motor-control center and test the power in and out of your transformer. Check all fuses and circuit breakers. If a whole relay station or board has failed, contact the manufacturer or service technician and start the troubleshooting process. Look for opportunities to steal parts from less critical components to get more vital parts of the wash working.


1. The second you have enough functions working to wash a car, put someone outside to take cash only and start washing cars. Slow the conveyor speed, add prep labor, do whatever you have to, but reopen your business as soon as your equipment is functioning adequately, if not optimally.

2. Next, look at your electronics. This can be complicated. You may have to replace a motherboard, for example, just to be able to diagnose other component failures. With multiple automated attendants and workstations, there are often opportunities to steal parts from one component to get another working. Order everything you think you may need, and send back what you don’t use. Look for creative solutions. At this location, the owner had an idea to use the cellular connection on his laptop to process credit cards, which worked brilliantly.


Are you covered? I wish I could say that I’ve experienced every catastrophe, knowing the answer to that question, but I can’t. Most operators I know can’t. What I can do is recommend that you get with your insurance agent immediately and schedule a meeting at least once a year. I can also share several interesting insights that arose from this incident.

First, many policies handle power surges differently than lightning strikes, often providing less coverage for the former and more for the latter. That means that you must prove quickly that it was an actual lightning strike. In this case, the insurance company was able to look up the information that confirmed it from the electric company, but that may not apply everywhere, and it’s a good idea to establish it immediately after the strike.

Also, office computers are covered differently than the computers that control your car wash equipment. Don’t get the two confused when talking to your insurance company. Making sure that the computers that run the car wash are properly classified as car wash equipment on your claim can help ensure you’re correctly compensated on your settlement.


Murphy’s Law would suggest that all lightning strikes and other crisis situations are more likely to occur on the first day you’ve decided to take a long overdue vacation. Make sure your employees know what to do. On rainy days, teach them how to operate the wash in manual mode. Turn off the auto-cashiers and POS systems and let them learn how to activate the wash using the keypad. Make a cash bank. Have a paper-based reconciliation procedure. You may still have to talk your managers through the steps to recover, but it will go a lot smoother if their first reaction isn’t to panic and close the business until you return.


All’s well that ends well. This location was able to wash cars by 10:30 that Sunday morning, and to take money by hand. With a second location just a few miles up the road, they cycled staff through both locations to experience first-hand how to operate the business manually. The owner took things a step further and had his managers rebuild the failed auto-cashiers that he had borrowed parts from with the new replacement parts when they arrived. It’s impossible to predict every complication that may arise during a catastrophe, but if you stick with the formula of assess, wash, recover, and train, with a little luck, each crisis will be merely a small blip on your road to success.

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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