As margins on fuel are driven further down, and the forecourt sector becomes increasingly competitive, operators are always looking for ways to cut costs - and maintenance is often the first casualty.

"The multiple grocers spend a lot of time making sure their image is right and that sites are tidy, and they attract customers as a result," says John Binnie, managing director of CSC Forecourt Services. "Other operators are slowly coming round to that way of thinking but cleaning a site is usually the first thing they stop doing when they need to save money."

CSC Forecourt Services specialises in cleaning forecourts and Binnie advises that canopies and forecourts are cleaned once a year, and car wash bays every three and six months.

Ignore maintenance at your peril, warns Dave Morgan, director at Forecourt Maintenance Services. "If I’m driving down the road and I see a nice, shiny forecourt near to a tatty and dirty one with accident damage, I wouldn’t be tempted to stop at that one," he reasons. "Some forecourt owners just think that people will stop because they sell petrol but the bigger players are realising that having a clean and tidy operation makes a difference."

Independents have to keep up to speed otherwise consumers won’t go back, agrees Andrew Tate, managing director at Tate Fuels. "It’s all about market competition - if there’s someone down the road making that extra effort you’ll want to beat them."

More emphasis is being put on car washes than a few years ago because margins on fuel have been driven down, so operators need a car wash to help them survive, reports Car Wash UK sales and marketing director, Colin Russell. "But it needs to look attractive and be well maintained," he says.

The company’s engineers now have hand-held PDAs which let them send and receive emails and get information about previous site visits. "It makes life so much easier," says Russell "and makes us more efficient." The company also does a one-stop shop service for operators who can task it with maintaining and repairing everything including the bay, doors and compressors. "Door companies usually give three to four days response time whereas we can respond in 24 hours," he says. "It’s not good for an operator if they have to shut down the car wash - if someone finds it shut once they might come back, but not after a second time."

It can also work on lights and top-up chemicals, which saves heavy lifting by staff and avoids health and safety issues by preventing spills and accidents. The issue of health and safety is certainly another reason for keeping things up to scratch. If you don’t clean petrol spillages for example, you’re not showing due diligence. Forecourts also have a duty of care under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to store and dispose of waste properly and to help them, Cleansing Service Group has a 24-hour emergency hotline service which operators call if they have oil or chemical spills, leaking tanks or water course contamination.

The company warns that drainage channels and underground interceptors can get blocked over time and that regulatory authorities recommend they are cleaned every six months, as local petroleum officers look for evidence of this when they’re carrying out inspections.

"Independent retailers need to keep up-to-date with risk assessments," advises Bob Edwards, retail sales manager at Carlton Fuels. His company works with local fire authorities and councils to make sure this gets done, and that retailers have their Petrol Storage Licence.

Health and safety has to be number one when it comes to pumps too. By repairing a pump that’s starting to wear you could prevent the need for a much more expensive repair at a later date. If a cracked trigger guard is left to deteriorate, for example, a consumer could damage their car and you can bet they won’t come back to your forecourt again, says Dresser Wayne Pignone’s service manager, Charlie Campbell.

The company supplies and maintains pumps, point of sale, and gauges. It used to have to bring in weights and measures officials to check out pumps but is now certified to do the work itself. "We try to ensure that when we attend a site, an engineer does a walk round the equipment - we would prefer to do it as a continual process although some customers have checks annually or twice a year - depending on the volume," he says.

A pumping unit that seizes with dirt can put extra wear on a motor which could burn out, says Campbell who adds that most repairs are on the most basic parts of a pump, such as the nozzle and hose which means you need to pay attention to the basic parts as well as the electrics.

Operators also need to make sure that leaks are identified and dealt with as soon as possible, and wetstock management company Edensure has come up with a way to make sure this happens around the clock. Its new Weekend Wetstock Analysis service enables analysts to assess data produced by the ES3 system each day, something traditionally carried out by forecourt managers. By assessing reports at the weekend, Edensure guarantees that leaks are identified and the necessary action taken.

"The results produced using ES3 are highly accurate but require analysis to identify disparities," says operations manager, Linda Cash. "We found that on weekends managers were often too busy to assess them."

"A leak that averages 6ltrs a day could go on for six months before ever failing a test which would mean thousands of pounds in clean-up costs," adds managing director, Martin McTague. "Which is why the sensitivity of wet-stock management is so important. Our system generally detects leaks at 1ltr a day and we can guarantee that we will identify a leak before it reaches total leakage of 150ltrs."

Wet-stock management is also the subject of legislation covering Stage II Vapour Recovery which takes effect at the end of 2009 and, according to Campbell at Dresser Wayne Pignone, the vast majority of forecourt dealers aren’t prepared. Thousands of sites need to be retrofitted or have new pumps to be legal. "I don’t think the dealers appreciate how critical it is," says Campbell, who points to a vapour recovery kit that can be fitted on pumps and says the company is training staff so that they are ready to carry out the work.

And although taking care of forecourt signs might not seem a health and safety issue, Xmo Strata says poorly maintained signage can be dangerous. Earlier this year, it had 180 emergency calls in one day because of canopy damage caused by the weather, and the company warns that serious injury could result if this is not repaired.

Problems can also be caused by using ill-equipped or poorly-trained workmen. EPOS Engineers, part of Indigo Retail, advises retailers to find out as much as they can about the engineers that will be maintaining their site. Key questions are ’how far away from my site is the nearest engineer based?’ and ’how long has the engineer been working in the industry?’ The company suggests that they also ask forecourt retailers nearby how they rate the service they receive, which can be a good benchmark. Retailers should also bear in mind that engineers’ technical skills can differ between systems.

Says Paresh Patel, service and customer care director at Indigo Retail: "We plan for every eventuality and stock spares for scanners and till drawers as well as pumps and gauges. We have access to all types of pumps - both new and refurbished."

Typical issues on a more comprehensive planned forecourt maintenance programme might include a detailed checklist and maintenance survey, says Xmo Strata. This should cover at least some of the following: the integrity, cleanliness, and operation of pole signs, canopy, secondary signs, spreaders, fascia, car wash and shop signs; signage on the pumps, directional and instructional signage (in some cases, a regulatory or safety-related issue), and wall projecting signs.

The company believes a good maintenance operation will be able to provide a guaranteed call-out within four hours. "You should also expect to have qualified in-house electricians in a credible maintenance organisation - you definitely shouldn’t be using unqualified electricians on a forecourt, and you should not accept sign engineers doing electrical work," says managing director, Steve Martin.

"Some problems are a result of work being done by companies with staff who aren’t properly qualified," he adds. Martin has even published a book on the subject and hopes it will encourage the industry to raise standards.

CSC Forecourt Services agrees that operators need to check that they’re getting an experienced cleaning company to do the job: "Six years ago there was no-one doing this but now everyone’s turning up to do it. But you have to ask if they’re experienced enough," says Binnie.

Plenty of companies offer maintenance contracts, although opinion is divided as to whether this is always a good idea.

Xmo Strata reckons that proactive and preventative maintenance over the longer term is significantly more cost-effective. It says planned maintenance visits can be done for a lower cost than an emergency call-out, although some customers baulk at the up-front commitment and usually pay more, in the long run, to solve problems on an ad hoc basis.

Meanwhile, Forecourt Maintenance Services’ work includes repairing canopies and spraying pump panels - much of it repairing canopy damage where lorries have hit them. However, Morgan doesn’t believe in maintenance contracts. "If we said ’give us £100 a month’ it might be that nothing needs doing for two or three years," he says. "We think paying for work as you need it is fairer."

But maintenance contract or no maintenance contract, remember that first impressions last, says Tate at Tate Fuels, who believes customers get a general impression of a site when they walk in. "If there’s rubbish around and a taped-up pump you might not want to buy a sandwich there, you’ll just buy petrol and leave."