Rogue car wash sites have been a plague on legitimate operators for a number of years. Because they operate outside the regulations, ignoring minimum wage rules, environmental requirements, and paying little or no tax and rates, they have been able to undercut the legal trade. Despite intense lobbying by industry groups this illegality never appeared to be a priority for the authorities, and the response was patchy at best.

However, the emergence of the issue of slavery and the realisation that these sites can be a base for a range of other organised crimes has produced a step change in the authorities’ response, and tackling these sites now appears to be a high priority nationally. Every week there are reports of raids by the police and immigration enforcement teams on rogue sites. Their main priority is the welfare of the staff and checking on their immigration status, but their investigations are not stopping there. Belatedly the authorities are checking on all the other regulations that should be adhered to and using all the powers at their disposal to shut down criminal enterprises.

But while this action is helping to wipe out the illicit trade, forecourts are still facing intense competition for their car wash business. David Charman, chairman of the Car Wash Association, says that some consumers have changed the way they expect to have their cars cleaned, and are looking for a more expensive overall service that will clean both the outside and inside of their cars. He adds: "In some areas, where people have got out of the habit of using a car wash, there are some great legal sites around the country that have grown at the expense of the rollover."

Nevertheless, Charman says forecourt operators who are willing to invest in their car wash equipment are still doing well. The former Forecourt Trader of the Year owns the Spar Parkfoot forecourt, in West Malling, Kent, and three years ago he installed two new WashTec rollover washes and two jet washes and says the jet wash part of the business is doing particularly well.

He adds: "Across the country jet wash has never been stronger."

In Wales, a new jet wash set-up is boosting shop and fuel sales in addition to the cash it is taking. Robert Davies, proprietor of Llechryd Service Station in Cardigan, first saw the Ehrle car wash when he was on holiday in Majorca. His became the sixth installation in the UK when he took the decision to buy a four-bay wash, at a cost of £100,000.

"The coin-operated system is already serving over 250 washes a week and also boosting shop and forecourt trade," he confirms. "It has been a good investment, it’s visually impressive, popular with motorists and our customers appreciate its environmental efficiencies. It utilises less space than many conventional jet washes and the finish is first class. I am confident of payback within three years."

Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, says his forecourt customers that have automatic vehicle wash systems have seen real growth over the past year, with some ahead by between 7% and 12% year-on-year. He explains: "In part this is due to improved availability through faster response times from maintenance engineers and more proactive maintenance regimes, but there also appears to be a real renaissance in automatic washing, as it fights back against hand washing.

"The market still sees two distinct categories of operator. Those that wish to sweat the asset irrespective of age, quality of wash or reliability, and those that choose to invest in high-quality, added-value systems to compete head-on with the hand car wash competition. Our experience shows the addition of soft brushes, an alloy wheel cleaner, gloss polish and high-quality drying, results in a high proportion of vehicle owners willing to trade up to the top wash programme, typically priced around £8 to £9."

To make the most of this trend, manufacturers are looking to improve what they offer the market. In Wilcomatic’s case, its principal manufacturer, Otto Christ, has launched a series of innovations aimed at driving better quality and enhancing the ’theatre’ of its premium range of rollover washes.

These include: Wheel Master, designed to automatically detect and clean the larger-than-average alloy wheels found on modern 4x4s; Foam Splash, a foam curtain illuminated by portal mounted LED lights; Turbo Dry, which uses enhanced motors to determine the exact power required for the perfect dry quality; and Flexi-Brush, which cleans steep raking rear windscreens that standard rollovers can miss.

Pay says: "All these innovations are focused on improving the quality of the wash, which in turn drives both volume and revenue."

He adds: "We have also seen a trend towards customers buying wider machines, with wash widths of up to 2.7m, to accommodate bigger, luxury 4x4s. Not only do customers feel more comfortable parking their vehicles in the wash, the wider passage width greatly reduces the potential for damage."

WashTec is piloting a scheme that it says has the potential to significantly increase operators’ income from their car wash. It has set up a subscription service where customers can have as many washes as they want for a monthly payment by direct debit. Customers subscribe online using an app that is downloaded and they simply have to specify the wash site and the number of the vehicle. An automatic numberplate recognition system (ANPR) identifies the car when it arrives at the car wash and the driver does not even have to get out.

WashTec UK sales manager, Ben Hogan, draws a parallel with other services that have transferred online such as Netflix, where customers have moved away from renting videos and instead pay one fee a month and watch as much as they like. He says: "The service focuses on top-quality washes, so the customer feels they are getting something special, and on convenience, because customers can go when they want. The benefit for the site is the regular income all year round."

He says a pilot of the service at two sites has been very successful and it will be rolled out at the Forecourt Show at the NEC, on April 24-26 next year.

Another development that will be rolled out at the show is a remote monitoring and telemetry system that has been introduced by Top 50 Indie Park Garage Group. It monitors car washes, jet washes, vacuums and air towers and flags up any issues. The group can see details of all their sites on computers at head office, but can also be alerted by text or digitally if there is an issue. Early detection and scheduling of a call by engineers can then reduce down time and any losses that may cause (for more about Park Garage Group see page 27).

Also at the Forecourt Show, the company will be showing off features that can add theatre to the wash. Foam Sensation provides a wall of foam to cover the car and it can be illuminated with different coloured lighting. StarTrack is an illuminated guide rail, which can use coloured LED lighting and strobe effects to liven up washes.

Istobal UK also has a number of new features that it will be introducing early in 2017. Chief among these will be its latest car wash, the M’NEX32, which key account manager, Frank McLaughlin, says will be faster than its predecessor and offer customers more programmes. It will also be launching the multi-disk wheel-wash system to ensure different wheel sizes and designs can all be thoroughly cleaned. McLaughlin says: "This new wheel wash will get into every nook and cranny of any alloy wheel."

Like WashTec and Wilcomatic, Istobal has a new coloured foam feature, the Infinite Mousse Arch, which can be fitted on the new M’NEX32. McLaughlin explains: "It uses chemical, water and compressed air to produce thick foam. The foam is white but LED lighting changes the colour of the foam. Customers like to see the car being covered in foam and it emphasises the value for money so they will come back to that service station to use the wash again and again. Theatre is what it is all about and getting customers talking about it."

Istobal has maintenance and supply deals with a number of Top 50 Indies including the top two, MRH and MFG, and was also the supplier of equipment to the Penny Petroleum site at Seamer Road in Scarborough, which won the best valeting facilities category in this year’s Forecourt Trader Awards.

Istobal is able to customise equipment with a company’s colouring and branding, as was demonstrated by the green livery and branding on the two car washes, two vacuums and three jet washes on the Penny site.

Developments are also in the pipeline in car wash control systems. PSD-Codax, now owned by ICS of Pennsylvania, is launching a range of ICS interactive wash entry systems into Europe. Included in this range is the Petro terminal, which is designed for self-service in-bay automatic car wash installations.

Petro terminals can be connected to the ICS Wash Connect servers where sales reports, sales statistics and customer profiles can be remotely accessed and managed. The Petro units can handle acceptance of wash codes from the shop and pay-at-pump services; bankcard payment (including contactless, Android Pay and Apple Pay) at the wash entrance; and coupon acceptance to allow promotion and discount structures.

An RFID tag system for automatic vehicle identification ICS Wash Passport also enables operators to set up wash clubs and account users. The interactive touch screen and video information system built into the Petro can carry site-specific imaging and graphics and provide cross-marketing offers and promotions.

PSD-Codax sales director Graham Round says: "These new interactive and connected user interface terminals are serious about helping car wash operators take control of the service offered and improve revenue streams from the vehicle wash service."

Active Carwash Supplies (Active CWS) believes that a combination of its chemicals and its refresh programme can boost the profitability of any car wash or jet wash. In a bid to simplify sourcing of car wash chemicals for forecourts, Active CWS, which is a distributor for both Ma Fra and Kenotek chemicals as well as its Active chemical brand, has joined up with the two biggest forecourt consumable wholesalers, RS Sales and Tate Business Group, to enable forecourt operators to order what they need for their car and jet wash machines alongside their normal forecourt consumables.

CWS director Tony Davies says: "Gone are the days of minimum order quantities to get free delivery leading to large stock of moribund but expensive car wash chemicals gathering dust in stockrooms. Just order exactly what you need and no more. Moreover it will probably be cheaper for comparable chemicals than forecourt operators are paying at the moment. Indeed with their low dosage levels compared to existing suppliers, Active CWS-supplied chemicals are even more economical in use. This is crucial in the more modern machines using Nanotechnology either in the polishing or rinsing programme, where high dosages can lead to significantly reduced profitability. We feel that operators should be looking for the minimum amount of chemical, both in the machine and in stock, to get the best results, at the lowest possible price. If that can be delivered in volumes as small as one individual barrel, delivered from your existing consumable supplier alongside your normal order, it’s a winning combination."

He adds: "Do you know how good your car wash is? As a simple part of their service, Tate and RS can book their customers a free Active car wash health check which will enable operators to find out just how well and profitably their machine is running. Simply ask your RS or Tate representative. A simple change or tweak could save hundreds, if not thousands. And just in case the operator is unsure if what we say is true, we offer the Active CWS Performance Guarantee. If you are not satisfied that the quality of your wash is improved we will credit you with the cost of the chemical."

When it comes to the machinery, Active CWS can also provide a reimaging service to repair and revive older equipment. Davies says refreshing the look of a machine and the signage around it often makes customers think it’s new, and it can revive interest.

Maintaining peak performance

In order to keep rollover car wash machines and jet washes operating at peak performance, and looking their best, Wilcomatic recommends that owners ensure regular maintenance is carried out. It offers a range of services for its own and third party wash equipment, which includes full maintenance contracts, repairs, bay cleaning and a chemical top-up service.
Ray McMullan, Wilcomatic’s general manager service operations, says: "Engineer visits to customer sites are always about more than just doing the job on the ticket. They are also about promoting partnership with the forecourt staff and heading off future trouble. Our people are trained to look around the bays and equipment, deal with any problems they can handle on the spot and flag up other things that need attention.
He says Wilcomatic is constantly improving its maintenance offer through innovations such as the use of a dedicated team to manage repairs and maintenance of the smaller forecourt equipment such as air/water towers and vacuums, which frees up engineers to concentrate on car washes. McMullan says this decreases response times and improves the quality of the small equipment repairs.
Increased use of technology is also driving improvements in maintenance. All engineers now carry a computer tablet, which gives greater access to technical information, improves scheduling and reduces paperwork.