Wash Format - November 2008

In-Bay Nip and Tuck
By Stefan Budricks

It was one year ago that we looked at how the in-bay automatic wash format was measuring up against the express-exterior phenomenon in the struggle for market share. We found that some operators were being proactive in adjusting their operations to meet the changing market challenges. In particular, the role of the in-bay automatic was being recast as a supportive one rather than a starring one.

At wash locations that featured two in-bay automatics, the decision to convert one to a conveyorized express-exterior wash operation seemed a relatively easy one. Operators who had gone this route expressed satisfaction with the results.

Since that discussion, circumstances have arisen that renders the conversion decision critical, yet more difficult to bring to fruition. The performance of many wash sites would normally get a substantial boost following a conversion. The troubled economy and its accompanying credit freeze is, however, putting the brakes on business expansion in general. Operators who are able to fund conversions are skittish — understandably so, as they witness consumers, battered by high gas prices and the housing market fallout, curtail their spending on car appearance services.

PERFECT STORM

Shell Spivey of Happy Bays Car Wash, based in Bentonville, AR, has seen the effect of changing consumer spending in his own operations. Spivey converted one of two in-bay automatics at one of his locations to an express exterior a year ago. While the performance of the tunnel wash is satisfactory — volume is increasing month by month — the car wash business in Spivey’s market is simply not good.

“We have been badly affected by the high price of gasoline,” Spivey says. He is getting similar feedback from other operators he talks to and, he adds, he is at a loss to understand why the industry associations aren’t doing anything in this regard. “If you go to the ICA’s website, you’d never know that there was any kind of problem in the car wash industry.”

Compounding the problem is the weather, which provided the motivation for the Happy Bays express exterior conversion. Spivey felt that he needed the higher throughput capabilities of a conveyor to take full advantage of the available wash days, which in the then prevailing weather pattern were becoming few and far between. Mother Nature has not been kind in the past year. “We’ve had close to 60 inches of rain since the first of the year — an all time record for Arkansas,” Spivey shares. In his estimation, his market is facing the perfect storm: energy, weather, the economy —everything that could have a negative effect has had a negative effect. Like most operators he knows, Spivey has put expansion plans on hold. Further conversions to express exterior will have to wait until the economy improves.

Johnny Jones of Nashville, TN-based National Car Wash (NCW) does not have the Arkansas weather problems to contend with. Though in a neighboring state, Jones’s market has been experiencing a drought. However, the economy and gas prices reach over all state lines, and NCW operations have not been exempt from their effect. “We are down several percent from last year,” Jones acknowledges. He is surprised, though, at how well his washes are holding up despite the tough times.

Jones is also not allowing the setback to crimp his plans. He intends to add four in-bay-to-express-exterior conversions to the three that he has completed. In addition, he is making several inexpensive cosmetic improvements at his existing washes. To fund these improvements NCW is selling a few stores. “I first sold off the stores that were the furthest away from me,” Jones explains. “Then I sold the stores that were self-serve only. What I’m trying to do is milk fewer cows and get more milk.”

HALF ‘N’ HALF

Doug Long of USA Auto Wash in Port Richey, FL converted one of two side-by-side freestanding in-bay automatics to a conveyorized express exterior mainly to remedy potential customers driving off because of wait time. “What I learned was that conveyors are great, but they come with a lot of maintenance needs and a lot of expense,” he says. Long’s solution was to take elements of both the in-bay automatic and conveyor wash and meld them into a single new wash format, which he calls “express on rails.”

Long is building these washes — some for his own account, some for investors — at Murphy Oil gas stations, which are located either on or across the street from Wal-Mart sites. The first, in Kissimmee, FL, is expected to be completed as this issue goes to press. Long plans on building four more in North Carolina this year. Operating in five states, his goal for 2009 is 20 sites.

“The way to look at this program is you have your basic in-bay automatic that can do 10 to 12 cars an hour,” Long explains. “Then you have your conveyorized tunnel that can do 50 to 100 cars a hour. Now we take a friction in-bay automatic, and put a set of CTAs at the beginning of the bay, so we really address the wheels — some automatics now have high pressure and brush wheel scrubbers. Next comes the in-bay automatic, which does the soaping and washing. Then the customer exits through a couple of arches — either a surface protectant or sealer wax, and spot-free rinse — followed by an off-board dryer. We can get 25-plus cars an hour through it.”

CONSTRUCTION

Long’s express on rails fits into a bay ranging in length from 49 feet to 63 feet. There is no need for a conveyor in the ground. “This is something that is way more reliable, way less expensive, and we can still get the throughput that we need,” says Long. To top it off, the wash is housed in a glass building.

At Happy Bays, Spivey extended the bay from 50 feet to 90 feet to fit the express exterior. He opted for an over-and-under conveyor. “Of all the things you’ll do to get the job done, putting in the conveyor is the most time consuming. Just getting that pit in, will take three weeks or maybe four,” he advises. “We kept the wash open during the construction. We kind of isolated that one bay which was on the end of the wash anyway. It didn’t affect us much.”

It’s taking longer to convert to express tunnels at NCW than Jones anticipated. “One of the things I didn’t think about is that there is a tremendous amount of electrical work that needs to be done. You need to upgrade the electrical system to accommodate the needs of all the different functions of the express tunnel. We can put in an in-bay automatic in about three days. It takes about six to seven weeks to do a tunnel.” Jones warns that this is part of some costs that are not immediately apparent. Comparing tunnel equipment at say $150,000 with an in-bay automatic at $120,000 might lead you to believe it’s pretty close. Once you add in the cost of all that electrical work and the expense of tearing up the floor to install the conveyor, the picture might look a little different.

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