Unregulated operators have long been sapping the lifeblood out of the traditional forecourt car wash business. Workers sporting sponges and buckets have taken up residence in the ruins of former forecourt sites. Trolley washes have become commonplace in supermarket car parks.

But now, at last, the industry is fighting back. A new campaign by the Car Wash Association aims to educate drivers and local authorities about the truth behind low-cost hand car washing.

Washtec managing director and spokesman for the CWA, Michael Harris, says: "At last the message is being heard that low-cost hand washing is usually an indicator of illegal practices somewhere in the system. Running a legitimate, quality car washing business cannot be done on the cheap.

"Many of these businesses operate at the grey end of the market and rely upon cheap labour people prepared to work for rates below the minimum wage. But hand wash sites seem to have reached a saturation point and there is no evidence that the number of sites is still increasing at the substantial rates of the past."

This does not mean the tide of the battle is turning there is still much work to be done by forecourt operators to arrest the negative influence of the hand wash sector on their business, stresses Harris.

"This battle is being fought on two fronts: reaching and advising the consumer about the pitfalls of using an unregulated car wash provider; and encouraging forecourt operators to raise their game in order to recapture the confidence of the consumer. If all forecourt car wash operators joined this battle, the industry could see some quick gains."

Kevin Pay, managing director of Wilcomatic, is keen to spur on retailers to make their car washing facilities as appealing as possible amid intense competition. "The automatic rollover car wash sector is right to draw the attention of regulators, enforcement agencies and the public to the unregulated behaviour of many hand car wash operations, but it is not enough to just do this and hope someone else will do something about it. Car wash operators must continue to compete on price, quality, service and above all convenience if they are to compete within this market."

According to Wilcomatic, automatic car washes are still by far the best profit centre on any forecourt with a 75-80% margin. With a throughput of just 11 vehicles a day on average, an income of £20,000 a year is easily attainable. But as Marc Ford, Wilcomatic’s senior business development manager, says, to compete with hand washers, operators of rollover machines have to offer a service and quality that is as good or better.

"Rollover units have a number of natural advantages: they don’t require extra staff; they are safer for vehicles despite what some may think; and they are generally far more environmentally sound," he says. "People just have to get used to using them again, and operators need to get better at marketing the advantages of their operations.

"Some of our customers are pretty creative in this department and we encourage operators to network with each other and share good ideas."

Kumar Sharma, who runs Bush Service Station in Birmingham, has installed a high-spec rollover machine and has become one of Wilcomatic’s beacon retailers. He is commanding a price of £14.99 for a top wash by offering 12ppl off fuel for those who buy the car wash.

All systems go

Car wash manufacturers are continuing to develop their rollover car wash offers to help retailers make the most of this high-margin sector. Wilcomatic, for example, has introduced three Christ rollover units Primus, Varius Takt and Sirius. The entire range of car washes has been re-engineered to provide the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective machines available.

Through the redesign of the water system, water consumption has been reduced by up to a third; chemical use by 10%; and electricity by nearly 17%. The blower fans now have increased air flow capacity to improve the drying quality, and the fan impellers are now lighter, require less electricity and are quieter, reducing decibel ratings by 5%.

The new collection is led by the top-of-the-range Primus, which showcases Christ’s unique and patented contour-following side-drying system through the introduction of Christ’s Opti-Air intelligent vehicle scanning for optimum drying performance. A host of options is available to enhance the performance of the Primus such as jointed-side brushes, high-pressure pre-washing, triple-coloured foam soak and energy-efficient LED customer promotional signage. Prices for the new Primus start from £40,000.

The new Varius Takt is aimed at high-volume sites where speed of throughput is important. The design uses two separate arches, one for washing and one for drying, to achieve a vehicle throughput of up to 20 cars per hour. The synchronised use of both the wash arch and drying arch allows two vehicles to be washed and dried at the same time. Further enhancements to the drying arch are possible, such as the inclusion of a polishing station. Prices for the Varius Takt start from around £45,000.

The economical Sirius is the entry-level machine. A variety of options and machine enhancements can be added to increase added-value wash programme options. Prices start at under £30,000. In addition to the new models the established Centus has been brought up-to-date with improved cladding, controls and programming. The cost of the Centus starts from £35,000.

Istobal has been busy developing its MNEX range of rollover car washes with the new M22 and M25 as its flagship machines. New developments include a lift-and-lower mechanism to speed up travel and flexibility of travel over the vehicle; MNEX programming that allows each wash programme to be created from scratch on site; high pressure capability without pre-scanning to make the machines faster; a side brush tilting system for greater wash accuracy; a new dryer nozzle design to maximise performance and minimise consumption; along with touchless and brush programmes on the same machine.

Karcher, meanwhile, is promoting its new CB Line range of rollover car wash machines. Available either as a specific model (CB 1 and 2) or built in accordance with a customer’s specific requirements (CB Flex).

The CB Flex is designed to be built from the frame up with the most basic features to the most complex. Prices start from £25,000 plus installation for the basic model to £50,000-plus for the highest spec machines.

According to Karcher, the CB range uses common parts and spares, meaning that service prices are extremely competitive and spares are readily available. The machines can be bought outright, rented, leased, contract hired or on operated on a shared-revenue basis.

Finally, Washtec this year launched the EasyWash low-cost entry-level machine with essential wash functions (foam brushes, high-pressure pre-wash, optimised drying etc) and an eye-catching design.

Alternative washing

Car Wash UK has developed a semi-automated hand car wash system as an alternative for forecourt operators to compete with the hand wash operators. Colin Russell, sales director at Car Wash UK, says: "We have had increasing interest in our hand wash conveyor systems by many forecourt operators. Most see the hand wash operators as serious competition but have had concerns regarding the amount of labour required to make the operation work. Some forecourt operators are offered substantial rental for car wash bays from hand wash operators but they have doubts about the image that this would portray on site.

"With our system, which can be mounted on top of the existing wash bay floor with little or no civil works, we are able to offer a quality product to enhance the wash operation," adds Russell. "With our handy wash it is possible to wash over 20 cars per hour with as little as two people. So it still gives a hand wash at the high-vend pricing but without the high labour cost usually associated with other hand washes. The benefits to the operator are straightforward attracting a new customer base as well as the existing clients, higher wash-volume potential, and higher-vend pricing."

Touchless automatic car washing appears to finally be making progress in the UK market, and both European Wash Systems (EWS) and Washtec have scored some high-profile installations in recent months. EWS has installed its first DaergOne touchless car wash at Top 50 Indie Simon Smith Group’s forecourt in Monmouth.

According to Tim Munt, business development manager at EWS, DaergOne can be fitted into a bay much smaller than that of a standard car wash, and all the pumps, brains, chemical application etc are housed within a remote plant room, which can be an existing building or a purpose-built plant.

Using a unique application system and chemical, the machine makes a ’scanning pass’ of the vehicle and maps the profile image into the off-board brain. The wash cycle then begins by applying the first of two hot pre-wash chemicals. The first is for mineral contamination such as oil, road film and salt; the second targets organic matter such as flies and bugs. After the pre-treatment is complete there is an option of multi-colour foam, which can cover the car in whichever colour scheme the operator wants. Stripes or basic logos can also be drawn onto the vehicle in coloured foam for extra effect. All-round high pressure is then applied reaching right down the lower sill area and the wheels. The wash cycle is then completed with a reverse osmosis pure-water spot-free final rinse.

"I have long believed that touchless washing is a way to not only secure a greater wash volume but also charge a premium price and therefore increase profits for site operators and owners alike," says Munt. "So far, the machine has proved to be 100% reliable and is a hit with forecourt customers."

Munt says he was very encouraged by early wash volumes and reliability.

"The machine is well built and reliable and wash numbers far exceeded my original expectations. We are talking to a good number of high-profile operators and groups, the next installations are not far away. Due to the UK having weaker legislation regarding vehicle washing at home, mainland Europe is way ahead of us with its attitude to car washing.

The DaergOne is the very first ’from the drawing-board design’. There are now over 400 installations around Europe with the UK fast catching up with a strong belief that touchless washing is at last an attractive option that can deliver a strong performance and profits to match.

"Running costs are also in line with less revolutionary equipment, with service costs being held at a particularly low level," adds Munt. "Despite being a ground-breaking design costing several million euros to develop, it is available to the operator in the same price bracket as high-speed gantries. That said, with the ability to command a higher price on the forecourt, pay-back can be shorter than that of standard rollover equipment."

Washtec, meanwhile, has installed its AquaJet touchless machine at Yorkshire-based Innerspace Stations’ Hull Road forecourt. In an official launch of the facility, owner Graham Kennedy attracted the attention of BBC regional news programme Look North and revealed that in the first nine months of operation, car wash revenue has doubled compared to his old four-brush rollover machine.

Jet washing and valeting

Wilcomatic has launched the Tempest high-quality, low-cost jet wash, vacuum and air-water range. The Tempest jet-wash injects air into the chemical system to deliver a thick foam for single or triple-coloured foams through the brush, and hot shampoo and wheel cleaner from the lance. An on-demand heating system significantly reduces electricity costs through the use of 3kw or 6kw heating elements, and reduced flow ensures capacity keeps up with demand. The low -maintenance unit is fully drought-compliant and has both sound and heat insulation as standard.

The Tempest range is completed with complementary, cabinet-designed, vacuum and air/water tower units.

The entire range is available through a variety of finance options including purchase, lease and profit share.

Kärcher is seeing continued success with its SB-Wash jet wash. Asda now has around 50 buy-time units installed across the UK, with plans for even more installations in 2011, and a further 10 are already operational on independent forecourts. Peter Spencer, managing director at Karcher, says: "SB-Wash is different to any other jet wash available today as it has a unique feature in its ’combi-lance’ system. This means that instead of having a separate lance and brush, it has a combination of both on one hose. This makes it easier for the customer to use and reduces the amount of damage caused to the lance."

SB-Wash can also operate down to -20°C. Prices start at £4,000 plus delivery and installation. It is available either as painted or stainless steel. Karcher has also introduced a web-based reporting system for the SB Wash that allows the machine to report daily on revenue, chemical levels, ambient temperature, safe removal and faults.

Karcher has also installed more than 25 of its SBV1 Eco vacuum cleaners on forecourts, and it is now joined by a new air and water tower. "Independent forecourts can now benefit from a full suite of robust, effective, stylish and visually complementary equipment," says Spencer. "Simple, yet effective describes the SBV1 Eco forecourt static vacuum cleaner. Customers like it because of its simplicity and robustness."

Boosting sales

Making sure your equipment is functioning well is paramount to a successful car washing business so regular maintenance and servicing is just as important as effective marketing.

Car Wash UK’s Colin Russell says: "Regular maintenance is vital to ensure continued performance because unreliable equipment drives customers away. Car washing is a habit so through unreliable equipment you can make your customer change their habit and use an alternative location not only losing the wash revenue but possibly fuel and shop income as well.

"Ensure the wash is always presented at its best clean, tidy and welcoming; signage clear and in good condition. There are many ways of promoting the car wash through cross-merchandising, promotions and special offers."

Air-Serv’s Clive Steel adds: "To achieve continuous sales and uptime we recommend that dealers have a seven-day-a-week maintenance agreement because only too often things go wrong at 5pm on Friday."

What’s clear is that forecourt retailers cannot afford to lose their focus when it comes to car washing. As Washtec’s Michael Harris says: "It is likely that automated car washing has reached a tipping point in the UK. Motorists have opened the box and tasted the forbidden fruit of hand washing and they seem to like it. Common sense decrees that hand washing must be a costlier service to offer than automated washing and if the CWA wins its argument with the authorities, handwashing should return to a price-point that allows for fair competition. But forecourt operators cannot risk complacency; winning back and holding onto customers will demand a focus on exceeding expectations."

Marketing tips

Washtec offers these simple steps to increasing a site’s car wash revenue:

1.Keep the wash bay and surrounding area clean

2.Make sure it’s working a non-functioning wash will drive away customers

3.Perform a test wash every morning and don’t forget to inspect the results

4.Communicate with your customers either with posters, promotions or in conversations at the till

5.Don’t assume customers will ask for a wash you have to encourage them

Revenue Sharing

Clive Steel, sales and marketing director at Air-Serv, says that revenue share schemes are becoming more popular. "We are currently seeing major players tie into revenue share agreements as a preference and we have just completed new agreements with Morrisons, Snax 24, Malthurst and will have completed a major air machine rollout schedule for Shell by the end of January 2011.

"For the independent market we see the larger retailers wanting to tie into fully inclusive jet wash maintenance contracts to include chemicals, which is important for these washes as inferior chemicals can cause expensive call-outs and repairs. We are seeing a slight decline in capital purchasing of jet washes in favour of contracted deals such as revenue share and rental.

"Revenue share is also the market-preferred option for air water units and vacuums and Air-Serv can accommodate any petrol filling station within the UK with its offering," adds Steel. "The benefits of having a revenue share agreement with Air-Serv in all cases alleviates the need for capital investment and longer term service costs, in the case of jet washes, revenue share or rental can include chemical costs."

Air-Serv claims its most popular revenue share equipment is air machines with ’digital buy-time’. "Buy-time units across the board are the most popular with proven sales increases of between 17% to 26% when measured against token and Codax," says Steel. "The buy-time offer allows the customer flexibility to choose the type of service they wish to purchase and for as long as they desire."

Remote control

Ryko continues to innovate in terms of remote monitoring technology with the continued development of an online system that allows the retailer to view car wash sales in realtime along with fault codes, breakdowns etc. Data can be viewed in graphical form and compared to previous hours, weeks, months and years. Information is stored on a secure server. The system has been adopted by Tesco and is being rolled out across the supermarket’s 186-strong car wash network.

Craig Nugent, managing director at Ryko, says: "Remote monitoring is especially useful for multi-site operators. It allows you to monitor sales, promotional activity, availability etc in realtime, and the the system can be used to monitor CCTV using a broadband connection."

Brush strokes

Brush technology has developed from the original bristle brush through to the very latest ’Gran’ wash brush technology, claims Car Wash UK’s managing director Colin Russell. "Gran wash uses a combination of Carlite and a ’velvet’ touch material bonded to the ends of the brush strands," he says. "This material offers a soft and smooth wash with a polishing effect on all paint surfaces."

Istobal has also introduced a new brush designed to save customers money. Dave Lindon, business development manager at Istobal, says: "When it comes to re-brushing, companies are being charged between £1,500 and £4,000 depending on material type. A lot of this cost is because the whole brush mat needs to be replaced and this can be a long job. With Istobal’s ’Link-It’ system all you change is the material. It is delivered flat-packed to site, saving costs, and brushes are replaced a lot quicker. There is 50% less waste material when the brushes are changed. This is part of Istobal’s ’Maximum Respect for the Environment’ Policy."

Conveyor washing

With car wash volumes squeezed through increased competition, conveyor car wash systems have become less appealing to forecourt operators, but Craig Nugent, managing director at Ryko UK, says they are a good option for high-volume sites with enough space to accommodate the system. "Conveyor tunnel washes are not as popular as in the rest of the world, mainly due to higher UK land and labour costs, but correctly run and in the right location returns can be exceptional," says Nugent.

"Space permitting, you can wash up to 160 cars per hour depending on the length of the conveyor. A typical 21m conveyor would allow you to wash 60 to 80 cars per hour. A typical rollover car wash would allow you to wash six to eight cars per hour depending on programme length. Also, due to the nature of the wash, customers can expect a better finish to their car and are normally prepared to pay more for this.

"The downside is the equipment is more expensive and requires more land. Also there are normally labour costs associated directly with running a conveyor wash so running costs are higher than a rollover car wash."

Ryko has launched a low-cost conveyor tunnel wash called the Highlight.

"There is little information available at this stage but it has been designed to emulate the success of the Ryko Vista range of conveyors at a more cost-effective price point."

One to watch

Belanger launched the world’s first automatic tyre shiner for in-bay wash applications at NACS in Atlanta, USA in October this year. The DuraShiner CF (conveyor free) machine is said to overcome even extreme vehicle orientation issues with ’floating head technology’, which auto-aligns the applicator rollers with each wheel, bringing shine to the tyre every time.

In case of a serious navigational error, the DuraShiner floats out of harm’s way, then comes back into position. Built-in vertical stops limit damage to the machine in the event of a drive-over, while heavy-gauge covers support the vehicle’s weight. To provide a smooth, drag-free experience, the DuraShiner glides over tyres with just the right pressure then auto-retracts, ready for the next cycle.