They say you should never judge a book by its cover but most people are still swayed by first impressions. When choosing a restaurant in an unfamiliar high street, for example, the outlet sporting a clean and bright exterior with smart and tidy furnishings inside is likely to win far more customers than a shabby-looking place next door.
Petrol stations are no exception and those forecourts that are clean, tidy and fully functioning will keep motorists returning time and time again. Steve Martin, managing director of Xmo Strata, says it’s no coincidence that well-maintained sites attract greater footfall and, consequently, greater revenues.
"Whether we are aware of it or not, as a customer, the aesthetics of a retail outlet will play a significant part in us deciding where we spend our hard-earned cash. The perceived safety of a forecourt site will also be a deciding factor if signs are coming loose, or water is dripping on-site due to blocked guttering for example, we may well be inclined to take our business elsewhere."
Martin admits that the economic climate may be preventing many forecourt operators from commissioning complete sign replacements. As a result, Xmo Strata is seeing an increase in maintenance programmes that focus on ’refreshing’ or ’re-imaging’.
The company is working with three major customers to complete pump re-sprays, site painting, new vinyls, canopy and structural repairs, site valeting and the application of Vicom, which is said to be a cost-effective method of sign refurbishment, restoring the sign back to its original colour.
When it comes to pump maintenance, Gilbarco Veeder-Root agrees that a proactive approach should lay at the heart of any maintenance programme. Matt Clayton, UK sales director of Gilbarco Veeder-Root, says: "We look to use any service visit or remote intervention to look beyond a specific repair issue and check key items such as hanging hardware, filter blockages, fault data on dispensers, mechanical condition or anything else that may cause downtime in the near future. Using data collected remotely, such as through our wet-stock management service, we can highlight issues such as low flow, which can be remedied before causing inconvenience to customers."
Clayton says that the sites with the most up-time are those where the operators are proactive in their maintenance regime with sites where maintenance is left to a later date generally suffering in the long run.
"Poorly maintained pumps lead to increased downtime. Capturing and retaining customers is vital for a successful forecourt. Excessive queues, slow dispensing and visually unwelcoming forecourts are all factors in lost fuel and shop sales to more convenient and appealing forecourts."
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, a maintenance programme should be focused entirely around the fuelling customer, adds Clayton. "Maintaining a clean and tidy forecourt is a key daily task and will also pick up small issues before they escalate. A remote management service provides 24 hours a day, 365 days a year early warning and resolution of many issues. A regular check of key wear and consumable items should be undertaken in conjunction with a competent and experienced service provider."
Phil Prow, sales and marketing director at Vianet Fuel Solutions (VFS), formerly known as Brulines, says forecourt maintenance is traditionally time consuming and complicated. "Finding the right contractor for each task, checking the legalities and, on the larger tasks, ensuring everyone works together efficiently all takes time that could be better spent on more profitable areas," he says. "However, maintenance must be done or profits start to slip and customers go elsewhere. That was one of the main motivations behind the building of VFS. We can fix almost any problem and tackle virtually all projects on the forecourt; planning them, carrying them out, organising sub-contractors and ensuring that customers always remain on the right side of the law."
Lorraine Binnie, director of CSC Forecourt Services, says pumps need to be cleaned daily and forecourt staff should be regularly walking around the site picking up litter. She says that the forecourt surface and shop front also need to be cleaned regularly, along with the pumps and forecourt surface pad around the pump islands. These surface areas should be professionally cleaned using chemicals that can remove the diesel spillages every few months.
"The standard of housekeeping varies massively from site to site, but we have found that bookings of annual forecourt cleaning have increased and retailers are placing more importance in having an annual deep clean, realising the role it plays in increasing customer flow," says Binnie. "Retailers need help with most areas of forecourt cleaning. They don’t have the equipment necessary to deal with canopy and forecourt surface cleaning or the safety equipment to carry this work out safely. Possibly some feel it’s not a necessity however, for a fairly low investment, the site can be transformed from grubby and uninviting to a brighter, cleaner place for people to buy fuel and shop confidently.
"An annual clean of all areas will help to maintain the appearance of the site and make the regular cleaning easier for the staff to keep on top of."
Meanwhile, Richard Mould, general manager at DBS Maintenance, says that, generally speaking, retailers do not do enough maintenance work. "Maintenance work is easily ignored. One reason people are put off is that you get a spell of dry weather and all leaks and problems etc vanish, but they will always return, usually worse than before."
Mould says that the most important areas to keep maintained are the canopy, shop, car wash, and store-room roofs. "The primary areas of the roofs to be maintained are the gutters. If these fill up with debris it won’t be long before the water will backfill and pour over the pumps, into the shops destroying stock, or worse, into electrical cupboards, which is a major health and safety issue. Gutters on all roofs should be maintained every six months, with a report on their ongoing condition carried out each time.
Protecting what’s underneath the forecourt is just as important as maintaining all the customer-facing fixtures and fittings.
Fuel maintenance is becoming more of an issue as ethanol and biofuels have become more widespread.
Duncan Amos, managing director at MDM Services, says: "Retailers will always have to be wary that tank maintenance such as water removal, pump filter cleaning and de-sludging are now essential forms of preventative maintenance, and will need to be addressed regularly to prevent expensive remediation following phase separation or problems associated with slow delivery resulting from clogging up."
Likewise, Eurotank Environmental has investigated a number of premature tank failures in the past year, which it says could have been prevented by routine housekeeping. In one example, a tank failed due to microbial contamination, but if the tank had been cleaned regularly, the microbial contamination would have been removed and tank failure prevented, says Edward Wheeler, managing director at Eurotank.
"Unfortunately, many retailers are choosing not to routinely clean their tanks because they haven’t experienced pump filter blockages. But recent investigations have shown that diesel tanks can be heavily infected with micro organisms, which are attacking the tank but not blocking the pumps filters."
While fuel polishing and fuel testing are often offered to prevent fuel contamination problems, Wheeler believes they are not effective ways of addressing the issue. "When companies carry out fuel polishing, what they are actually doing is partially cleaning the tank floor. The hoses used are pushed along the floor and stir up the rust and sludge into the fuel, which the ’fuel polisher’ removes.
"If you think about this in logical terms, you don’t clean your bath by polishing the bath water! Tank cleaning is the only way to really protect the fuel system from attack and down time. As bugs are living organisms, they will eventually grow back.
"We have also found regular testing for microbial contamination to be a less effective strategy due to the reactive nature of the approach. To find out early enough to prevent a problem, an endoscope is needed to find the ends of the tanks to sample from there.
"This adds more cost and disruption. We have concluded that the most cost-effective approach is to routinely clean the tanks and use the money spent on testing and sampling to pay for the cleaning."
Car wash control
Car wash facilities are a hefty investment and an asset that needs to be carefully looked after. According to Wilcomatic’s managing director, Kevin Pay, maintenance trumps repair. "The key to a successful maintenance policy is to be proactive rather than reactive. If you wait for a machine to break down before calling in someone to look at it, it will not only probably cost more than regular maintenance, it will also mean the machine is out of action for a potentially long period, leading to loss of income."
The nationwide Wilcomatic Service Division tackles the repair, maintenance, servicing and the routine tasks associated with the efficient running of car and jet washes and DIY forecourt equipment from most suppliers.
In addition, retailers can join the 250 sites already on Wilcomatic’s web-based remote diagnostics and reporting service, Web 300. Through this service, Wilcomatic constantly monitors the performance of every automatic vehicle wash that is logged in to the scheme from 8am to 6pm, seven days a week, 364 days per year. This allows live technicians to identify low chemicals and performance problems that may indicate a maintenance issue that can be headed off before it becomes a repair issue, therefore avoiding losses through down-time and repair costs.
Wilcomatic has also improved legionella prevention by matching biocide chemical dosing to water usage. Says Pay: "We regularly top up disinfectant and biocide systems as part of the service operation and check dosage levels are correct.
"We have also developed aeration techniques to reduce the risk of stagnant water the incubator of legionella forming. Our engineers monitor water temperature and water quality on a regular basis, and carry out reactive maintenance on sites where legionella has been detected."
Instant alert for car wash maintenance
New technology introduced by PSD Codax to monitor the operation and maintenance of jet wash equipment at Asda stores nationwide has resulted in an increase in customer usage and it’s now available to all retailers. The Codax Forecourt Monitor units were installed by Kärcher Vehicle Wash to monitor data and machine availability at a number of its branded wash installations. Forecourt Monitor has the capability to alert Kärcher maintenance staff instantly if there are problems with car wash equipment or unusual periods of inactivity so that issues can be remedied quickly and revenues restored. The system is being used to monitor maintenance and usage, including cash takings, machine faults, and shampoo and wax levels. David Austin, business development manager at Kärcher UK, says: "Following the successful installation of Codax Forecourt Monitor units in our Asda jet washes, we are including this feature in our new Kärcher-branded jet wash installations. It ensures that we can remotely monitor machine availability and revenue, and be informed of problems immediately. As a result, machine up-time, together with wash quality, is greatly improved and has resulted in a significant increase in revenue."
Austin adds that maintenance staff can be alerted by email or SMS text while head office can monitor performance data via a secure web application.