For decades full-serve car washes have enjoyed the benefits of central vacuum systems — powerful suction, very low maintenance costs, minimal downtime, and extreme durability. Recent developments in equipment and technology have made central vacuum systems possible — and profitable — for self-serve car washes.
With a properly equipped central vacuum, self-serve operators can offer energy-efficient vacuum “stations” anywhere on their property, even inside their wash bays. Greater flexibility allows you the freedom to design a vacuum model that’s customized to your car wash.
The In-Bay Option
If you opt to relocate vacuum services to wash bays, your customers will use existing payment options, then choose “vacuum” on the selector dial when they are ready to vacuum. Suction is allocated to a vacuum hose in the bay, and the customer may begin vacuuming.
Moving vacuums inside your wash bays can potentially double your price per minute for vacuums. According to the Auto Laundry News Self-Service Survey (May 2007), the average price per minute for wash bays is 42 cents. In striking contrast, vacuums averaged just 21.5 cents per minute. That’s a huge gap in price point, especially when you consider the high cost of energy. In fact, the same survey reports that electricity is the second highest expense facing self-serve car washes (as a percentage of total monthly revenue). In effect, car wash operators are paying top energy dollars for relatively low-grossing equipment. A properly equipped central vacuum addresses this inequity — it reduces energy consumption while offering a platform on which to raise vacuum rates.
If you prefer to maintain a separate vacuum island for your customers, but are looking to cut energy and maintenance costs, centralized vacuum stations may be the answer. Energy-efficient upright stations can be installed at existing vacuum islands, and deliver powerful dependable suction at a fraction of the operating costs associated with stand- alone vacuum canisters.
SELF SERVE CENTRAL VAC ANATOMY
Two key factors make central self-serve vacuums possible. First, the relatively recent addition of Variable Frequency Drives (VFDs) — a control that adjusts a motor’s revolutions per minute to meet demand. Second, the development of metered vacuum “stations.” This combination allows one central vacuum producer to serve many pay- per-use vacuum hoses.
At the heart of a successful central system is a reliable centrifugal vacuum producer. Size and horsepower are determined by the total number of simultaneous users and other factors, including the distance between your equipment room and the farthest vacuum hose.
A properly engineered piping system carries suction from the vacuum producer to the vacuum stations inside the wash bay or at the vacuum island. Piping can run underground or overhead, and vary in size and material depending on the overall system and your car wash layout. Air passes through a separator that removes debris from the airflow; only clean dry air passes through the vacuum producer.
Each vacuum station serves as a junction point between the piping system and the end user. The metering devices at each station ensure that suction is only provided to the appropriate hose for a designated period of time.
The control center for the system is a properly programmed Variable Frequency Drive (VFD). A VFD is a motor control that manages your vacuum’s motor, adjusting the revolutions per minute to match demand. The VFD works in conjunction with the metered vacuum stations and ensures that the system operates at peak efficiency. The result is a smooth-running, highly efficient system that provides powerful suction to customers with minimal energy consumption.
Shop wisely; not all VFDs are created equal. In order to reap the benefits of a central self-serve vacuum system, a properly programmed VFD is a necessity. The VFD must work dynamically with the vacuum’s motor to ensure the system always performs at peak efficiency.
A VFD without the proper programming may simply act as a soft-starter. While the soft-start process does reduce wear and tear and prevent costly power spikes at start-up, there is no benefit while the system is in use — the motor simply runs at full speed. Some VFDs may even offer several operating speeds, but these fixed speeds will not yield anywhere near the savings offered by a truly dynamic drive.
An effective VFD will power up your vacuum in soft-start mode and then control the rpm as demand rises and falls. As more customers begin vacuuming, the VFD recognizes the increased load and ramps up production to match demand. The system produces just the right amount of suction at any given time, and returns to idle or off when demand slows. Your operating costs match operating levels, and your system only runs when needed.
Your vacuum supplier should be able to explain the system in greater detail and provide you with a cost savings projection.
With the addition of a properly programmed VFD, today’s central vacuum systems are tremendously energy efficient. Unlike individual canister-type vacuums, there are no costly power spikes when the motor starts up. The VFD powers up the central vacuum in soft-start mode and then constantly manages energy consumption throughout the motor’s entire cycle. It’s a win for the environment and a win for then the car wash owner.
Because of the dramatic energy savings made possible by VFDs, many utility companies across the country are offering rebates to business owners just for installing approved VFD products.
Capture More Business
In-bay vacuums are very attractive in areas that experience extreme weather (think freezing temperatures or desert heat). Rather than trying to attract customers to a separate vacuum station outside the bay, customers can simply stay where they are and buy more time.
Create New Profit Centers
Moving vacuums to wash bays can free up valuable space on your property for new profit centers. Some car wash owners are replacing vacuum canisters with fuel pumps. What could you do with the extra real estate?
Simplified Maintenance and Extended Equipment Life
Maintenance costs for central vacuums are generally much lower than traditional canister-type vacuums. Centrifugal motors found in central systems are engineered and designed to operate continuously, day in, day out for years on end. With a VFD, equipment life is even longer.
The central vacuums now available to the self-serve market allow coin boxes to automatically empty themselves and deposit money into a secure, vaulted area. The system can be programmed to turn on at designated times and literally suck money from collection boxes at the vacuum stations, and deposit them into a secure location in the equipment room. This minimizes the potential for theft and vandalism. It also cuts labor costs associated with manually emptying cash boxes.
Quiet and Comfortable
Central vacuums provide a very comfortable customer experience; there are no loud vacuum motors in the customer areas. The more comfortable the customers are, the more likely they are to stay longer and buy your services.
Changing to central self-serve vacuums is more than just changing equipment. It represents a shift in thinking — a shift away from the “immediate” fixes toward long-term solutions. It’s a step away from the conventional model of individual vacuums that require frequent repair and replacement. It’s a step toward long-lasting systems that require a little more planning, but yield long-term benefits for the car wash owner, and the environment. Not everyone is ready for this step. Work with your vacuum supplier to see if you and your wash will benefit from a change.
IN A NUTSHELL
• Self-serve operators can now move vacuuming in-bay, and charge double the going vacuum price per minute. The current vacuum price per minute averages 21.5 cents — about half the going rate per minute charged in wash bays. By moving vacuums inside wash bays, customers don’t have to move their cars and you can charge your going wash-bay rate.
• Centralized vacuum stations run off efficient central vacuum systems that are electronically controlled to match production to demand, so electrical costs are minimized. With central systems, maintenance costs and downtime are minimal.
• With the right equipment and technology, car wash owners stand to cut operating and maintenance costs while boosting vacuum profits.
THE REPORT CARD ON SELF-SERVE VACUUMS
Many car wash operators use the Self-Service Survey published in Auto Laundry News (May 2007) as a benchmarking tool — a standard to measure their wash against others throughout the country. Each statistic is interesting in its own right, and with a little interpreting the survey paints a picture of the self-serve industry. As for self-serve vacuums, the picture is clear — there is definitely room for improvement.
• 100 percent of survey respondents have vacuums — that’s the only piece of equipment they all have in common.
• The average monthly gross income per vacuum sits at just $264, that’s even less than vending.
• The vacuum price per minute is just 21.5 cents (whereas the price per minute for wash bays is almost double that — 42 cents).
• Electricity accounts for the second highest expense facing self-serve car washes (as a percentage of total monthly revenue), second only to attendant labor.
Everyone has vacuums; everyone is paying top dollar for the electricity to run the vacuums, yet no one seems to be maximizing their revenue potential.
The good news: there is room for improvement. There are new products available that can cut energy consumption and costs while boosting vacuum profits.
Steve Tucker Jr. is president of AutoVac Industrial Vacuum Systems, a manufacturer of vacuums, parts, and accessories headquartered in San Diego, CA. Tucker has more than 16 years of experience in the car wash industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org using facebook:
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