On the wash Front - November 2007

Get in Control—Balancing Production and Conveyor Speed
By Anthony Analetto

There is wisdom in admitting we don’t always know what we don’t know. Visiting three different car washes last weekend, one of which I partially own, really highlighted this for me. Not knowing what you don’t know can wreak havoc on your operation’s profitability. Forget about the implications related to marketing and customer service; I’m talking about something more fundamental, setting your conveyor speed.

Do you know the optimal conveyor speed for your wash? Are you certain your conveyor is operating at that precise speed? Read on, you’ll be amazed at how much what you don’t know could be costing you.

STOP 1: 135-FOOT EXPRESS EXTERIOR

At the grand opening of this newly constructed wash, cars exiting the tunnel were perfect. Two months later there were spots. Designed with a state-of-the art equipment package, the tunnel was rated for a peak conveyor speed in excess of 150 cars per hour (CPH) to accommodate an anticipated peak hourly volume calculated five years into the future. Having just opened, volume was significantly less, and the conveyor speed was set at 125 CPH. The conveyor speed setting was based on the readout from a remote pulse switch.

The operator spent days analyzing water quality, reclaim filtration, detergent dilutions, high-pressure placement, and more. Unfortunately, he was working from a flawed base. Nobody, myself included, thought about the sensitivity of electronic components. Having gone through a particularly unlucky bout of severe weather that included lightning strikes, blown transformers, and more, the wash seemed fine. It turned out that the remote pulse switch was actually damaged. On a hunch, a car was timed going through the tunnel. In 15 seconds it traveled 13 feet 8 inches, indicating an actual speed of 164 CPH, 39 more than the pulse unit showed. Even worse, the conveyor was slowed to 125, from 140 the previous day, in an attempt to address the spotting issue. When the pulse switch indicated 140, the conveyor was really traveling at 184 CPH.

What a difference. With the conveyor speed set correctly, and application and brush speeds recalibrated, the spotting stopped. The operator was able to reduce the amount of detergent being applied with no decrease in wash quality. Best of all, at the correct chain speed, he turned off some high-pressure components on the base exterior package and still delivered an amazing wash while reducing his costs.

STOP 2: 60-FOOT IN-BAY/EXTERIOR TUNNEL CONVERSION

On the way to my final stop, I was in the neighborhood of a former in-bay automatic location that recently converted to a 60-foot express tunnel. It was a neat project in a southern climate. The owner was able to start the conveyor 10 feet before and extend 5 feet past the exit of the existing building to reduce construction costs. Running at a 50-car-per-hour chain speed, cars were immaculate. Customers were happy and volume was building, but there was one opportunity for improvement. The slow chain speed caused a delay at the end of the tunnel, forcing customers to sit motionless while waiting for the safety roller to push the car off the conveyor. Some customers drove away too early; others looked around nervously wondering what to do. Neither situation promotes a safe environment. The conveyor was then set at 75 CPH. Instantly, traffic flow became more fluid and wash quality did not deteriorate. Although the operator may need to slow conveyor speed during seasonal conditions that demand more detergent dwell time and brush contact, his optimal conveyor speed is 75 CPH.

STOP 3: 120-FOOT FULL-SERVE TUNNEL

My final destination was a 120-foot full-serve wash. I was here to evaluate the equipment package at the request of a colleague interested in purchasing the location. Chain speed was at 125 CPH, but there was insufficient equipment in place to wash cars at that speed. To compensate for the problem, attendants pre-washed cars prior to them entering the conveyor. This bottleneck was not only expensive, it also disrupted production. Although the conveyor shot cars through at 120 CPH, they didn’t enter at that speed; it was counterproductive to run that quickly. The owner was not available to test changes, but I estimated for my colleague that at an 80 CPH chain speed with proper detergent application, the equipment in place could produce a clean, dry, shiny car. Slowing conveyor speed and adjusting equipment is almost always preferable to adding labor to solve wash problems. There is little sense in running cars through a tunnel faster than a team of pre-wash attendants can process the car in the first place.

SUMMARY

There really is no perfect rule of thumb for how fast to run cars through your tunnel. Using the one-car-per-hour-per-foot-of-conveyor-length tool is useful for planning, but it does not account for the type, condition, and quantity of the equipment in the tunnel. It does not account for different climates and road grime variables. It ignores detergent type and amount, as well as operator skill in tuning equipment performance.

Conveyor speed sets the tempo of a car wash. Controlling it in relation to your wash format and environmental conditions will positively impact your bottom line. Balancing what you have, and finding your optimal settings, sets a rhythm that will improve the efficiency of your operation.

Don’t forget that things have a tendency to change over time, creating unknown unknowns. Daily changes in staff, training, equipment condition, and water quality all contribute to a gradual evolution in optimal conveyor speed. Some operators change conveyor speed daily. For those with a “set it and forget it” approach, schedule a periodic review of your optimal conveyor speed. The success of your wash may depend on it.

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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