When it comes to running a car wash in the Noughties, it’s all about image.

Whether it’s having a recognised brand name, shouting about your business’s green credentials or getting the best quality equipment and service you can offer - you can’t afford to rest on your laurels.

That’s the message from the experts in the industry, who are all too aware of the fact that 2008 has not been an easy ride for those running legitimate car wash operations.

Dawn Frazer, marketing manager at Washtec UK, says: "It has been without doubt another tough year for the vehicle washing industry; the weather has not been kind with high levels of rain once again recorded."

Poor weather combined with competition from unregulated hand car washes, as well as the recession, all mean it’s more important than ever to raise your game. One of the key areas where car washes can differentiate themselves is the environment. Industry experts seem to agree that going green is the way forward.

Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, says: "I believe that the environmental agenda will play a bigger and bigger part within our businesses in future. Changes to legislation, changes in consumer attitudes, changes in the environment and the relentless escalation in utility costs will mean that the retailer who promotes the greenest image will be the most successful in the future. Green takes a far greater focus today because of media coverage and obvious signs like weather changes, temperature fluctuations, increased flooding etc. As a result, consumer awareness is rising and more purchase decisions are being made with words like ethical, sustainability and environment in mind."

According to Pay, the legal framework and rising utility costs, including water, are also having a significant impact on the industry. Meanwhile, there are other manifestations of legal change such as Pollution Prevention Guidelines 13. This has been extended to cover automatic washes and hand wash operations in addition to high pressure washers and steam cleaners. Pay says it is well worth finding a copy and ensuring you are compliant. More information is available at [http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk].

Pay adds: "We can see a far stricter and more legislative Water Framework Directive being used in Scotland to prevent trade effluent - it is likely that we will see the same regulations in England as well before too long. The key findings are that all surface water should be discharged back into the environment as close to where it fell as possible: this means significant issues for building regulations and design going forward."

The issue of trade effluent is something the Car Wash Association (CWA) has been working on. The group wants to see the government implement General Binding Rules (GBR) which would make it an offence to discharge trade effluent into surface drainage. The group has been working with the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which was in contact with MP Phil Woolas while he was Minister for the Environment. Woolas stated in a letter that he recognised the damage that washing cars could do to the water quality and promised a consultation on GBRs by the end of this year. The ACS says GBRs will also make it easier for the Environment Agency to take action against illegal operations - it currently has to prove an act has led to a specific incidence of pollution. However, Woolas was made Immigration Minister in Gordon Brown’s October reshuffle, prompting the ACS to write to his replacement, MP Jane Kennedy.

The ACS has now begun co-ordinating another letter-writing campaign where retailers contact their local MP and ask them to pass their concerns to Ms Kennedy.

Meanwhile, the ACS has also been working with water company representatives to create guidance for use during water shortages. This will include information about the water used in hand and automatic car washing while advising water authorities to phase in any restrictions such as exempting machines which use recycled water or restricting what sort of cycles car washes can offer. It hopes this will allow some consistency between different water authorities.

Back to those unregulated car washes, and most operators agree they need a level playing field, and are working to make their voices heard.Pay says: "A number of these operators won’t deal with vehicle pollutants properly and won’t be paying a premium for their trade effluent. In many cases they work to a different set of rules and are taking business away from us so it’s in our interests to prevent them from operating in this manner. That’s why Wilcomatic became involved in the Car Wash Association (CWA) as it provides a voice for responsible car wash businesses and aims to promote high environmental and safety standards and ensure operations not meeting required standards are properly targeted by regulation and enforcement."

CWA chairman David Charman feels passionately about the car wash business. The CWA, previously the Car Wash Campaign Group, was set up to focus on two main issues seen as the biggest threats to the legitimate car wash industry: unregulated hand car washes and drought orders. The group is now looking to grow - Charman understands some oil companies and supermarkets are looking to become members - and add extra benefits. Regarding GBRs, he says: "This has definitely been brought forward on the agenda now - from not even being on the agenda in the first place, and the changes should be imminent. This isn’t a panacea for everything, but it’s definitely going to give us a firmer basis to move forward." He adds that retailers need to look at their car wash and consider it more for investment - using water recycling etc. Only then will they really reap the rewards.

WashTec’s Frazer says the CWA is making huge strides in closing down unregulated car washing sites and more are underway, and any companies currently flouting the law need to comply or face being closed down. She recommends that any retailer who has a hand car wash site near them, and is not sure if it complies with current regulations, should go to the CWA website at [http://www.carwashassociation.co.uk] and download the pre-written letters in the Take Action section. These should be sent off with any additional information, such as photos.

Frazer advises: "If the site complies then you will be told, and if it doesn’t then they will be told to comply or they will be shut down. It is the responsibility of each site to send these letters off and remember that the more companies that join the CWA then the louder its voice and the quicker the laws can be strengthened."

Another important issue is water. Pay says: "The costs are rising - only recently rises of up to 20% were announced whereas previous years have seen increases curtailed to 5-6% per annum. We also hear that rainfall will halve in the south east within our lifetimes."

One option is water reclaims. "It is possible to reclaim or recycle up to 95% of water used without damaging the quality of the car wash results," says Pay. "The systems come in all shapes and sizes to fit different spaces and budgets and can be used during a drought when other sites may be forced to shut down. The system will continue to operate well into the future, meaning that an installation made now will keep paying dividends."

The second example is rainwater harvesting. The water itself is free - all you need is a way of capturing it and a large enough tank to store it: these can be above or below the ground. Pay adds: "The supermarkets are using environmental processes and systems such as rainwater harvesting more and more to enhance their environmental credentials, which is becoming increasingly important in their battle for differentiation and their desire to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of the consumer." He says the government offers tax incentives for installing equipment to enhance the sustainable use of water. Visit [http://www.eca-water.gov.uk] or [http://www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk] for more details.

Another source of water is from below your site through a borehole. By drilling down to the water table you can create your own spring - after digging the hole the water is effectively free, even during a drought. This is something David Charman has done at his car wash in Kent. However, Pay warns that some local authorities set limits on how much can be drawn and not all sites are suitable.

One company with almost a decade of experience in water recycling is Bywater Services. The Leicestershire-based firm designs, manufactures and maintains car wash water recycling systems. Company director Nick Bywater says: "Water recycling is having a bit of a resurgence at the moment - I think it’s the shape of things to come. Companies can reduce their carbon footprint and save money at the same time."

Bywater’s equipment can be attached to existing car washes or fitted when a new wash is installed. According to Bywater, the company’s Oasis range can recycle between 50% and 95% of the water used, depending on the system. In addition, such equipment can be advantageous for sites which have limited or no drainage. He adds: "Payback depends on how many car washes a site does but is anything after about 12 months." The tanks sit above or below the ground but need "less space than a water tank". Basic systems start at £2,500 excluding installation. Bywater says some local authorities now make water recycling a planning permission condition.

He adds: "Our systems are on the ’water technologies list’ which qualifies them for ’Enhanced Capital Allowance’, so the buyer can claim 100% tax relief on the cost of the equipment and installation in the year of purchase. We’re also finding rainwater harvesting systems are becoming very popular as, after an initial outlay, the water is free and clean."

Over at HTEC, the main focus is also on going green, and primarily on trying to cut the company’s carbon footprint. This involves anything from improving energy efficiency through design to the re-using of packaging and recycling of equipment at the end of a product’s life. The Bedford-based company, which has been manufacturing forecourt equipment for 30 years, says this is being done in the following ways:

? Efficient water heaters - it has developed immediate water heaters that get rid of the need for continual hot water heating and storage which it says can save as much as £600 a year in electricity costs and reduces the carbon footprint of valeting equipment by up to 2.58 tonnes of CO2 a year.

? Hyper chemicals - these are used where possible and are up to 20 times more concentrated compared to traditional chemicals in the industry.

? Environmentally-friendly chemicals.

? Quiet running - valeting equipment can therefore be used close to residential areas. Its car wash and valeting services subsidiary Jetset has developed extremely quiet compressors and vacuum units with sound levels of only 48dbA at 1m - similar to the noise made by an office laser printer.

? Using less water - Jetset’s products have been designed to use less water during the chemical application cycles.

? Packaging re-use - Jetset manufactures and installs its own valeting equipment, allowing the company to re-use packaging.

? Recycling old equipment - all end-of-life valeting equipment that Jetset replaces is stripped and recycled.

Meanwhile, Jetset is running a Profit Share Scheme for retailers who don’t want to make an initial outlay for its services. Experts analyse the revenue potential of the site and make recommendations for jet wash, air, water and vacuum equipment. The only investment for the retailer is to ensure the appropriate utilities are in place. Jetset says it will install all equipment and provide the retailer with all the chemicals and service maintenance.

On the equipment side, Wilcomatic recently launched two new car wash models into its Christ range. The top end system is the Christ Quantus, which Wilcomatic’s Pay says is very fast - the cycle takes 2.5 minutes, including wash and dry, so reducing queuing times. Using the latest technologies, the Quantus can be installed in any standard hall, starting at hall lengths of 9.3 metres. It has four side cylinder brushes and one roof cylinder brush, and should a high-pressure pre-wash and a wheel wash be selected, these run simultaneously. The drying device has six blowers.

The Christ Centus is a roll-over wash unit which Wilcomatic says is a low investment with low operational costs. It also has maintenance-free technology and a long machine life. The company says the Centus uses innovative wash and drying technology, is newly designed with smart, smooth plastic panelling, has new safety features and comes with an extensive range of accessory equipment. Prices for the car wash, which is designed to be taller to accommodate bigger vehicles such as vans, start at about £30,000. Both Wilcomatic models were launched at the Automechanika trade show in Germany in September.

Ryko recently launched its Supra car wash. The company describes it as reliable, fast and stylish and its most technologically-advanced product. The major difference is that the main frame is also available in aluminium, cutting the machine’s carbon footprint while guaranteeing no corrosion issues - which Ryko says is a European first. The aluminium means a longer lifespan providing greater return on capital and less weight than a traditional steel machine, reducing the carbon footprint due to reduction in energy costs.

This year Ryko also launched its Bug Buster and RainShield car wash upgrades which have already been adopted by Tesco.

Bug Buster takes care of summer bugs on windscreens and the front of cars by applying an environmentally-friendly chemical that breaks up organic matter. RainShield provides a protective covering for the whole car and produces a showroom shine.

On the jet wash side, AIR-serv has brought out a new heating system which it says dramatically cuts energy costs. AIR-serv sales and marketing director, Peter Heaton, says: "The Eco-Green heating system was launched in October and can save more than 50% on energy costs. It is an option for our two existing jet wash ranges: the Millennium and Ultrawash. The heating system can be fitted into any of these jet washes and there’s a huge incentive there because it’s green and it saves the retailer money. In the current economic climate we’re expecting most to be taken through share revenue options or rental."

Karcher UK has spent the past six months getting to grips with its recent acquisition of Atlantis International. Changes include Karcher opening its new Academy next to its Banbury headquarters which offers staff and customer training.

Peter Spencer, managing director of Karcher Vehicle Wash - which is a UK subsidiary of Karcher - says the company plans to launch a high-pressure car wash and water recycling system for its CB range, with customers able to use the Academy for product training.

On the equipment side, Karcher launched the latest concept in its CB line of roll-over machines this summer. Spencer says the CB Flex is designed to make things easier and cheaper, adding: "The CB Flex philosophy is based upon the use of a common manufacturing platform to keep production costs down and the number of different components to a minimum. The machine has been designed for low maintenance so the service and maintenance costs of the CB Flex are the lowest in the industry, with all inclusive service contracts starting from £1,600 per annum."

Spencer adds: "Over the years as car wash machines have become unnecessarily complicated, unreliability can result. What Karcher has achieved with the CB Flex is a very simple machine with low maintenance to match. In no way have we compromised on wash quality. The CB provides a suite of wash programmes designed to offer something for everyone. Whether your requirement is for a quick-service wash or a full-on high-pressure wash with a polish programme, the CB delivers with the minimum of fuss."

To coincide with the launch of the CB Flex, Karcher has introduced a software tool to let customers tailor machines to their exact requirements. Known as the CB Configurator, Spencer says this tool takes the hassle out of choosing a car wash. He explains: "Similar to a number of motor manufacturers’ websites, where you can choose and change the specification of the car of your dreams, with the CB Configurator you can do the same for your car wash equipment. Quotes can be compiled very quickly in front of the customer and issued there and then, in minutes rather than days or weeks."

In addition, Karcher has developed a new finance programme. Spencer says the Asset Rental scheme provides all the benefits of car wash and jet wash ownership without the usual up-front investment.

Based upon a ’pence per wash’ principle, the wash, service and chemicals are paid for on a fixed price basis per wash (with a minimum number of monthly washes).

Spencer explains: "An operator can budget very accurately for the duration of the agreement, whether that be for three, five or seven years. Because it includes full service cover and chemicals, the operator doesn’t need to worry about any of the usual headaches. At the end of the term, the equipment is simply retained, returned or renewed.

"Over the past few months we have seen some projects being delayed or postponed due to the tightening up or curtailment of credit lines. It made us realise that if we could offer different forms of funding, then customers may still be able to continue to invest albeit on a different basis. Rather than go down the traditional leasing route, we have designed a product which includes not only the funding for the machine, but also the service and chemicals for the duration of the contract.

"This means investors only need to provide water and power to the machine - no more worries about what will happen if the machine breaks down or where they get their chemicals from. In fact, we will shortly be offering a chemical top-up service, so they don’t even need to worry about this."


=== Chemicals and the law ===

The laws are changing regarding the use of chemicals. The Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, or REACH, legislation is being phased in, replacing a number of European Directives and Regulations with one system.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), REACH involves manufacturers or importers of substances registering them with a central European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

Wilcomatic’s managing director, Kevin Pay, says: "The regulations cover ingredients and formulations, and manufacturers have to produce certificates as to how the chemicals are made up.

"The dead fish logo will be carried by non-approved chemicals, with phosphates and hydrocarbons etc in their mix."

Wilcomatic, through its exclusive partnership with Autoglym, has devised the Pure range of valeting chemicals which it says meets the new legislation. Made of bio-renewable resourced materials, they are bio-degradable and made from natural ingredients such as coconut and potato. They are also more concentrated than previous products.

Pay says: "The products comply with the REACH legislation and they carry the Nordic White Swan accreditation: if they are approved in Scandinavia, they will have passed some pretty stringent environmental and performance tests."


=== The importance of branding ===

Turtle Wax has started targeting independent retailers in a bid to get them to put its branding on their car washes.

The move is part of the car care company’s strategy to expand distribution of its professional range of products which are aimed at businesses operating car washes.

In addition, it has appointed a new sales and product development team to lead the operation.

The company says site owners have shown a lot of enthusiasm at the idea of offering the Turtle Wax brand in their washes. Forecourts can choose either to use just the Turtle Wax branding or jointly brand it with their own name.

Andrew Freeman, Turtle Wax’s European marketing director, says: "We’ve had a low profile in the professional car care sector for too long. With our new team members we now have the capability to turn this around."

Freeman says that the products have been formulated exclusively for the UK and European markets to give "premium performance in every field of application while having as little negative influence on the environment as possible".

And although the introduction of REACH has placed tight controls on formulations he says that "Turtle Wax’s innovative skills has kept them ahead of the field".

Freeman says there have been successful negotiations with major petrol companies and other car wash operators including some BP sites, resulting in exclusive Turtle Wax branding or joint branding with the local site operator.

Meanwhile, retailer David Charman has come up with his own branding for his Kent-based business Parkfoot Garage group.

He and John Ryeland of the Dover-based George Hammond Group, have registered Aquatec as a trademark, and are using the name on their car washes. They are also looking into franchising it for the future.

David, who has two car wash operations, says: "I wanted my car washes to stand out and be different. We’ve done this at the same time as we’ve increased our prices, and we’ve done it without any problems."


=== Case Study: Circle Service Station, Birmingham ===

Independent retailer John Nathwani recently had to make a big decision about his car wash business. With hand wash operators nearby taking more and more of his sales, it was time to give up - or go on the attack.

John decided on the latter option and in August took delivery of a Wilcomatic high-end Christ Genius car wash. He then set about launching a high-visibility marketing campaign. With the help of Texaco, he organised colour leaflets to be delivered to 100,000 homes in the area advertising the fact that he now offered a "brand new state-of-the-art car wash" using Turtle Wax products. There was also a voucher for 10p per litre off fuel when buying a top wash - priced at £9.99 - a Turtle car air freshener with every wash, and entry into a draw to win a tank of petrol.

On the leaflets he also advertised all the other services the site offers, such as a free cash machine, lottery, jet wash and products for sale like tobacco and greeting cards. John has seen a "significant increase in wash sales" as a result of the campaign, with lots of repeat business - despite charging a premium car wash rate.


=== How to run a profitable car wash ===

According to WashTec’s marketing manager, Dawn Frazer, a profitable car wash business doesn’t just happen - it can be likened to a puzzle, when all the pieces are put together you can see the full picture and reap the rewards. The pieces required for the car wash puzzle are:The best equipment: Don’t stint on the equipment you use, go for the very best on offer and your customers will recognise that you have invested in quality equipment and it will give them a reason to use you. And don’t forget it’s not just the wash equipment that you need to think about - site lighting, especially in these dark winter months, can make the difference between a busy car wash and a very quiet site.

Using a quality chemical is something else that you need to think about - there are inexpensive versions on the market which are quality products. Think about using a concentrate such as the A1 range from WashTec. The dose that you need per wash is very small, 5ml as an average, and yet the finish that it gives is one that will be appreciated by your customers.

Excellent housekeeping: WashTec offers free staff training for all customers, both on site and in its purpose-built conference suite at its Great Dunmow site.

Staff training: Make sure every member of your staff understands the importance of your investment.

Frazer adds: "When you have the best equipment, knowledgeable staff and excellent housekeeping standards, make sure your customers know what you can offer them through clear and concise marketing."