Dealing with a little dirt and grime is just part of the job when you are in the car wash business. But some washes get an unfair share of filthy, mud-covered vehicles and must find unique ways to process them effectively and efficiently.
John Dahlen owns Minnie H Express Car Wash in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota and has to contend with a host of environmental factors that contribute to filthy car after filthy car rolling into his drive.
The wash is situated in rural North Dakota, in a town with just 106 miles of paved roads and 962 miles of gravel mud-filled byways. Vehicles get covered in grime travelling down these roads, and it is not uncommon for a car or truck to pull into Minnie H with two inches of caked on mud in its wheel wells.
Although the wash is categorized as an express location, vehicles require an inordinate amount of pre-treatment before they are able to ride through the mini tunnel if they have any hope of coming out the other side clean and shiny.
All cars at Minnie H Express get pretreated with high volume, low pressure.
The first step of the Minnie H process relies on a high volume, low-pressure rinse designed to knock off most of the thick mud. Dahlen designed and built the system himself, which utilizes three underground holding tanks and a two-inch pump that can move up to 180 gallons of recycled water per minute. The reclaimed water is forced through an array of low-pressure nozzles that hit the car from the mirrors down, loosening up as much mud as possible.
“The system is something I just welded together,” Dahlen says. “It has four stands with very large nozzles on them and an aluminum ramp that allows us to spray from underneath as well. It really helps get the dirt loose which is very important with the belt conveyor. I don’t want all that dirt and mud dropping off onto the belt.”
Once vehicles travel through the automated rinse the pre-treatment continues with high-pressure wands manned by Minnie H staffers. At least one and up to three wash attendants are on hand to pre-treat vehicles. One worker can process around 23 filthy cars an hour, a second attendant ups the throughput to around 33 cars, and adding a third member to the crew allows the wash to handle up to 55 cars per hour.
The automated teller and fast pass entry.
Between the automated pre-rinse and the employee operated treatment an enormous amount of dirt and grime is removed from customers’ cars. In fact, Dahlen has to dig his pit out on a monthly basis, removing up to 10 yards of mud every few weeks. He is a licensed pit pumper and removes and disposes of the collected material on his own, a substantial savings considering the volume of dirt that must be pumped on a monthly basis.
In addition to the massive amounts of mud, Minnie’s employees also have to deal with a horrendous bug problem in the spring and summer, and extreme temperatures and lots of ice and snow in the winter.
“There is no one else that has to deal with the amount of mud and bugs that we do,” Dahlen says. “In the spring cars are pulling over because their headlights no longer shine on the road since they are completely covered in bugs. A lot of times you can’t even read or see the vehicle’s license plate before we begin our pre-treatment.
The bugs get so bad in Devil’s Lake in the spring oftentimes you can’t even see the license plate.
The cause of all of those bugs is the massive 175,000-acre Devil’s Lake that it the town’s namesake. In addition to the lake, the landscape is littered with thousands of sloughs, or shallow craters, that fill with rainwater and are breeding grounds for insects.
Removing the large amounts of bugs and mud present on nearly every car that pulls into the drive makes spring and summer operations difficult, but that is nothing compared to the challenges the winter brings.
“We have a true winter here,” Dahlen says. “We are driving on our lakes by the middle of December. We see snow in November and it doesn’t leave until April.”
Operating in a frigid climate brings a unique set of challenges and adds a level of complexity that most operators don’t have to deal with. “Our policy is we continue to wash cars until the temperature is 10 degrees below zero,” Dahlen says. “A lot of washes might stop around 20 degrees above zero, but if we closed at that temperature we would be closed for half the year.”
To help combat the bitter cold Minnie’s relies on its automated doors to keep the frigid air out, heated concrete pads at the entrance and exit to keep ice to a minimum, and two 1-million BTU heated blowers. The heaters’ primary function is to produce hot air for the dryers at the tunnel exit, but they have the added benefit of helping keep the tunnel above freezing.
The tunnel entrance.
While operating in rural North Dakota is certainly a year-round test Dahlen has three decades of experience at his back that helps the veteran washer meet any and all challenges head on.
Dahlen started in the car wash business in 1986 with a mobile wash enterprise that he operated for five years before purchasing his first fixed location in 1991. The site consisted of three self-serve bays and a coin laundry. Three year’s later he expanded his operation with a second location that featured two self-serve bays, a truck bay, a coin laundry, and a dry cleaning business. In 1995 he converted the truck bay to a touchless in-bay automatic. Around the same time a windstorm destroyed his first location, turning Minnie’s into the one-site, fixed location it is today.
The 11 pay vacuum stations.
Dahlen’s operating model is as unique as his environment. Minnie’s features the 92-foot express tunnel, a touchless bay, coin laundry, dry cleaner, retail store (leased to Verizon Wireless), a 17-spot RV court, and a tanning salon. Quite literally Dahlen owns the entire block. He and his wife Kim operate all of the disparate businesses as well as a thriving snow removal enterprise during the cold winter months.
Minnie’s Express features four menu options. Every car that comes through is treated to the high-volume, low-pressure pre-treatment, underbody cleaning, and a heated blow dry. The entry-level wash costs $8 and offers a basic clean, with an unlimited wash package available for $29.99. The $10 wash adds a two-step process to wheels and tires as well as a basic wax treatment; the unlimited package costs $32.99. For $15 customers receive a complete vehicle salt protection treatment and a higher quality wax; the unlimited package costs $39.99. And the top-of-the-line $18 wash features Carnauba wax and a third application on wheels and tires; the unlimited option costs $45.99 per mon
Although the wash’s bread and butter is mud-covered vehicles, high-end collectables come in from time to time.
“I am pretty happy with my pricing,” Dahlen says. “I have a lot of costs associated with my wash. I could never figure out how some operators offer a $3 wash. Once I visited a few I figured it out. The cars in those markets aren’t dirty.”
Dahlen certainly has to deal with his fair share of dirty cars and has designed and built a wash tailored to the unique challenges of his market. With over 30 years of experience in the car wash business Dahlen knows how to get cars clean in North Dakota and continues to thrive in one of the most extreme markets in the country.