Drivers visiting the Shell forecourts in Hinchley Wood, London and Virginia Water, Surrey, can give their cars a treat a touchless wash. Machines supplied and maintained by two key UK suppliers, WashTec and Wilcomatic, have been installed and the results and customer feedback will be carefully monitored.

The Wilcomatic team removed Wheatsheaf Service Station in Surrey’s traditional rollover wash and replaced it with the latest Christ C166 Aquatus touchless machine, which achieves a quality wash through the use of high-pressure water jets and chemicals, rather than through the action of brushes.

And WashTec is no stranger to the touchless market, having successfully installed touchless wash equipment extensively in the United States and more recently in several European countries.

Commenting on the trials, Shell’s UK car wash manager, Paul Arnold says: "It is important for Shell to re-establish itself as the leading provider of washing services and this is the right time to venture into touchless washing.

"We have watched hand car washes take large slices of the car wash market over the past few years and decided it was time to fight back.

"The research we carried out showed that despite everything the experts tell them, many people still believe brushes scratch their paintwork, which is why they wash their own cars or opt for hand car washes. We considered putting in a combination machine, offering the option of brush or brushless, but again our research showed that customers would read this as showing a lack of confidence in touchless washing."

Valeting area

These Shell sites now offer a complete car valeting area, rather than just a car wash, so that means vacuums, air and water towers, a wipes dispenser and even music piped throughout the forecourt.

Wilcomatic’s Aquatus machine uses a scrolling LED display to give a welcome message and promote the equipment’s various features during the wash. These include a hot chemical pre-wash, triple foam and a chemical wheel cleaner with twin high-pressure rinsing jets. Turbo-jet, high-pressure rinsing nozzles clean the sides and roof, while a swivelling roof bar is used for high-pressure water and hot chemical application. To ensure quality of cleaning to lower sills and bumper areas, special chemical application nozzles are used, and a swivelling dryer completes the operation.

The Wheatsheaf site is running three programmes: Touchless Basic, Touchless Better and Touchless Best priced at £3.99, £6.99 and £9.99 respectively.

Says Wilcomatic managing director, Kevin Pay: "I am really pleased to have been chosen to take part in this new venture with Shell. The site upgrades look fantastic, clean, modern and professional, especially when coupled with our futuristic touchless machine. We are convinced the concept will be an overwhelming success.

"Touchless washing undoubtedly answers the critics and the doubters of brushes. The combination of hot chemical application, the correct amount of dwell time and turbo high-pressure jets gives outstanding results which stand up to any brush or hand car wash performance."

Pay adds that his firm has now installed three touchless units and the results have been excellent in terms of wash and dry quality, with a definite shine to the vehicle after washing.

"While this may seem a slow start, I expect that the take-up will increase now that oil companies are becoming interested. However, it is unlikely touchless washing will become the norm on service stations, but it can provide the answer for the discerning operator who still believes in automatic washing and is looking for a point of difference from hand car wash operators, and also the motorist looking for a quality wash, but who’s uncertain about using brushes. Because there are no brushes, they will help dispel the myth that automatic machines scratch cars, offering the perfect answer to hand car washes, with no gritty sponges."

He reckons that touchless can help increase the average price of a wash by approximately 30% as it is perceived as a premium product that customers will therefore pay a premium price for.

"Wash programmes take a little longer, due to the various wash stages, but this serves to emphasise the enhanced value," says Pay.

For those forecourt operators who are not convinced about touchless, Pay says the new generation of machines is very different from its predecessors. "The new machines use heated chemicals, predetermined dwell times and follow the vehicle’s contours closely. All this means the results are far superior to the machines that became popular in the late ’90s. Enhanced chemical application ensures perfect wheel cleaning, even for difficult alloy wheels, and new turbo jets are highly efficient at removing dirt and road film from the roof to the wheels."

But touchless washing is not just about cleaning performance: "They also provide a tremendous sense of theatre, which helps sell the wash to the next customer, particularly when our super thick triple foam is used," says Pay.

However, not every forecourt operator has the funds to invest in the latest high-tech equipment.

Michael Harris, managing director at WashTec, says making a big investment is not always necessary indeed many of his customers have taken steps to improve the aesthetic qualities of their car wash by adding value to their existing equipment. "This has included wheel-wash upgrades that lavish additional cleaning efforts onto wheel hubs; new lighting packages that better illuminate the wash bay equipment; improved signage and marketing material that capture attention and, the big one this year adding WashTec’s ShineTecs polish package onto existing machines. "We’ve converted around 100 sites to ShineTecs, which has given retailers an immediate opportunity to uplift the top wash price by as much as 50%."

Meanwhile, Wilcomatic has unveiled improvements to its Otto Christ range of rollover equipment and introduced new DIY ranges to improve forecourt customer service and retailer profit.

The latest version of the Primus Vitesse features a foam pre-wash, high-pressure pre-wash, washing in two cycles and the drying of the vehicle surfaces in the forward and return cycle in just four-and-a-half minutes. This allows higher throughput of customers in peak periods and increased turnover.

It also features a new direct-drive system for the roof and side brushes, which improves efficiency and reduces power consumption for those drives by 10-30%, an important issue with electricity prices continuing to rise.

Other improvements to the rollover range include a new twin high-pressure wheel wash, with two 85-bar, high-pressure jets integrated into the wheel wash brush on both sides, to tackle wheels, sills and the lower side of the vehicle. New colour-changing and blinking LEDs are available to enhance the visibility of the guide rails and safely direct vehicles into the car wash.

DIY offerings included the powerful Mercur vacuum range and the Mosmatic dryer unit for use with jet washes.

The Mercur Auto Vac 3000 vacuum cleaner comes as a single or twin option. Both offer efficient car cleaning, a choice of a single-phase twin motor system or a powerful three-phase/single phase turbine motor and token, coin, Codax or push-button operation.

The Mosmatic dryer unit allows the jet wash customer to quickly dry every part of the vehicle, eliminating water spots and guaranteeing a polished, and spotless result.

Trading conditions

Wilcomatic’s Pay describes this year as "a good one" for rollover and jet washes on forecourts. "Both volumes and revenues are up, with more people using the equipment than for the past three years. Typically most of our customers are reporting sales increases of around 15% year-on-year," he says, adding that this is largely due to favourable weather providing ideal washing conditions.

WashTec’s Harris agrees with the upturn in the market: "There is now compelling evidence from our customers that for the first time in several years automatic car wash operators are seeing real growth either from increased wash counts or boosted revenues from higher wash prices."

Istobal too reports a ’superb year’ with growth in all areas of the business. Sales director, Dave Lindon, says: "The Mnex and Mstart ranges have been widely accepted by a multitude of customers who are still committed to making money out of car washing. Morrisons recently awarded a three-year contract to Istobal for the Mstart machine and MRH Retail continues to invest in our Mnex22 with good returns.

"In addition, the reaction to our DIY range for NjoyWash, vacuums and air/water units is showing incredible growth.

Lindon adds that the company has seen a tremendous increase in customers using its rental scheme: "This is a five-year deal which usually includes all maintenance and chemicals for a fixed monthly fee. This makes budgeting easier and, at the end of the term, the equipment ownership can be transferred to the customer for just one extra month’s payment. This together with the superb tax benefits makes this a ’no brainer’ for customers wanting new equipment."

Although Pay previously mentioned the weather, he explains that it’s not the weather itself, but the change in conditions that boosts the car wash market. "Cars get filthy during snowy or wet weather, but as long as the foul weather continues, no-one bothers to clean their vehicles, as they will be dirty again within minutes. You need a period of bad weather to get the cars dirty, followed by nice settled weather to inspire people to clean them.

"However, we cannot rely on changeable weather for our economic prosperity and there are still a large group of people who either have reservations about rollovers or who own vehicles that do not fit the average machine.

"These are the people who use hand car washes, or wash their own cars on their drives or in the road.

"In my view, the best way to attract these customers is the multi-bay; a trend that has swept the Continent and is now becoming popular here.

"Each bay can contain a jet wash lance with multiple options, snow foam lance, foam brush, a dryer, an air and water tower and a vehicle vacuum.

"Jet wash dryers are a new innovation, but where they have been installed, retailers have seen a 15-20% uplift in income, and snow foam is a separate lance to cover the car in extra thick foam.

"For enterprising retailers, these also offer a major opportunity for vending car care products for use in the bays, such as soft cloths, upholstery cleaners, dashboard wipes and so on. It also gives customers an incentive and opportunity to browse other retail offerings.

"Some entrepreneurial site owners in Europe also provide their customers with an optional attended valeting service as part of their multi-bay offer, charging the equivalent of up to £50 per vehicle.

"These strikingly designed multi-bays are highly visible from the road, providing their own marketing and turning the site into a car wash destination."

Finally, Washtec’s Harris firmly believes significant gains can still be made from running a quality car wash service as the operational costs are low and the incremental margins from each additional wash sold are substantial. This means that successfully targeting customers and leading them towards the car wash is more important than ever. To this end, the firm has introduced a new business intelligence tool that identifies links between fuel, shop and car wash customers and can signal sales opportunities. Harris says: "All it takes then is trained operators to respond to the signals and cash in on the sales opportunities."

Kinder to paintwork

Extensive testing by the Paint Research Association has found that using an IMO automated car wash with its Mitter technology is kindest to a vehicle’s paintwork, causing no measurable abrasion. Carried out over 15 months, the study saw non-IMO employees run four new and identical Ford Fiestas, maintaining similar usage and mileage to ensure a fair test. Each of the Fiestas were treated differently throughout the test: one was commercially hand-washed; the second washed using standard nylon-bristle technology found at a mechanical car wash; and the third vehicle was washed using IMO’s Mitter technology. The fourth was not washed at all for the duration of the project, and served as a test control sample. In total, each of the three Fiestas was cleaned 27 times over the 15-month period.
The tests concluded that IMO’s Mitter technology offered the kindest wash of all, thanks to its ability to remove dirt from the vehicle’s paint work without any measurable abrasion. Commercial hand washing proved the most abrasive with the highest scratch count of any other method.

making car washing easy

The product development team at PSD Codax has been busy creating gadgets and gizmos to make it even easier for customers to access and pay for car wash services.
For example, the company is launching a new ’select and pay’ terminal with a touch screen. "Touch screens are always an issue in open sunlight," says PSD Codax managing director Graham Round, "but careful mounting of the screen shields it from direct sunlight to avoid glare."
The new terminals can accept PIN-free bank transactions just like contactless payments in shops which means motorists don’t have to key in a PIN number or queue in the shop to pay. And for those who use multi-wash smartcards but run out of wash credits, they can top it up at a PSD Codax terminal with their bank card, day or night.
Many motorists already pay for their petrol at the pump and Graham argues that providers of automated car-wash services need to offer a similar service to attract and retain customers. "It suits our busy lifestyles to be able to drive straight into the wash bay. If a driver enters a site and sees the car wash is empty, he or she can access it straight away without having to queue in the store."
Round says accepting card payments is crucial as people paying with a credit card will typically go for the top wash programme because they’re not having to find the money there and then in their pockets. He also says there’s an opportunity for upselling: "In Norway, terminals ask if drivers would like extra pre-wash, for example. They have harsher weather than us, and dirtier roads but, after some of our more recent winters, there could be demand for this here."
Codax is also introducing voice instructions on its ’select & pay’ and ’pay at wash’ terminals to make them easier for customers to use. "It’s all about making the process as simple as possible so our new voice terminal talks to customers," explains Round. These latest innovations follow the introduction of barcode technology in wash bay terminals and the launch of a Go-Wash app, which allows users to buy wash services from a mobile phone.

Retailer view

Alister McFarquhar, Jet Forestford, Mildenhall, Suffolk:
"We’ve had a rollover here since 1991. Our last unit was a Christ 110, which was 14-years-old and had done over 100,000 washes. The reason why we were able to continue operating the machine for so many years was due to the help and support we received from Elite Engineering of Staplehurst. They provided lots of technical assistance and supplied used and reconditioned parts, wherever possible, to keep the cost of repairs down. Without their interest it would have been very difficult to keep it going.
"Our business case for a new machine was weak as car wash revenue had fallen by 25-30% in the past five years plus we had increasing costs. However, working very closely with Elite Engineering, we found a used car wash on a decommissioned site in Bolton. It was a Genius model and had had very little use. It was a massive undertaking to transport it from Lancashire to Suffolk and it was a big job to install it. It did work out more expensive than I’d anticipated, but it was still a much smaller investment than buying a new machine and I anticipate payback within 12 months."

Top tips

If you want tips on improving both your revenue and your customers’ experience, look no further than The website, run by Washwell, currently includes a Tip of the Month section as well as a car wash forum.
Recent tips have included getting ready for the colder winter weather by lagging exposed pipework to prevent freezing. While the car wash forum includes discussions about chemicals.
Coming soon will be Car Wash College a technical page to help car wash operators service their own equipment.