A Different Way to Wash

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There was no place like Hollywood, California, in the 1940s. Considered Hollywood’s golden era, the decade gave rise to stars like Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart and films such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca” — classic films that helped shape American cinematography. But off screen in the same city, away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Boulevard, the carwash industry was changing, too. Prior to the 1940s, cars were manually pushed through the tunnel by brawny attendants and quickly hand washed by workers inside the tunnel. By 1946, Thomas Simpson had devised a way to eliminate most of the manual tunnel labor, and a few years later and a few states up the coast, the a family in Seattle, Washington, took it the rest of the way, giving birth to another American classic — the automatic carwash.

It’s progress the industry continues to build on. A carwash is now made up of several sophisticated parts. Thick soapy brushes spin, lathering cars with high-tech soaps and chemicals, while a mechanized track works below to propel a vehicle through the tunnel. Most utilize a chain and roller system, but in recent years, belt conveyor systems have risen in popularity as the industry evolves once again. If you’re thinking about adding a carwash to your existing operation or building a separate, stand-alone facility, putting in a dual belt conveyor system is something to consider.

Most customers are familiar with the chain-and-roller experience. A driver pulls up to the tracks, inches the car a little left or a little right before two steel guides funnel the tires into the center of a track, but that’s not the case with a belt conveyor system.

“With a dual conveyor, all a driver has to do is get the front tires on the belt,” said Mike Lemmen, corporate trainer for Tommy Carwash Systems. “Then, the driver puts it in neutral, and it pulls the vehicle on the rest of the way. The belt system, first and foremost, is about the customer experience. Loading onto the belt is easy. A customer isn’t trying to line up within a 13-inch trough. If they can drive into a garage, they can get onto the belts.”

The elimination of the trough coupled with the ease of operation can open the door for a potentially wider customer base.

“You can also accommodate larger vehicles such as a dual-wheel truck,” Lemmen said. “A lot of these larger pickups have extra wide tires that would not work on a traditional conveyor. Low-profile vehicles that are close to the ground can also go through the tunnel because there is no inside rail.”

Not only do belt conveyors cut down on damage claims and reduce owner/operator liability, they can help increase production.

“On a typical chain and roller conveyor, there is traditionally a 3-foot, 6-inch spacing between the rollers that carry the car through,” Lemmen said. “You can only get your cars roughly seven feet together. With a belt conveyor, it’s possible to put them [up to] three feet together.”

Add space conservation with the eliminated wait time of the chain and roller, and it can have a serious impact on throughput. According Lemmen, for an in-bay conversion, you could potentially be doubling your hourly capacity. With the aforementioned chain and roller system, a driver must wait for a roller to drop down, swing around and pop up out of a plate before connecting with a customer’s tire to move them through the tunnel.

“You have to sit around and wait for that,” Lemmen said. “But you have teeth [flights] on the conveyor that pop up every 18 inches. As soon as you pull on, you’re getting gently pulled through the conveyor. That’s what drives the productivity of a belt conveyor system. We can have the cars spaced closer together, but that also eliminates some construction costs because you can eliminate the 20 feet or so that is typically used for loading because it’s no longer needed.”

Though the belt width remains largely the same, when it comes to length, belt conveyor systems work well regardless of how much space you have.

“You can do a 40-foot or a 120-foot, depending on how much equipment you pack into the tunnel,” Lemmen said.

To put in a belt conveyor system, you’re looking at an estimated cost of around $10,000, but the system will pay dividends when it comes to maintenance and training time.

“With a belt conveyor, there are stainless steel glide plates underneath that the belt rides upon,” Lemmen said. “It’s so simplistic compared to chain and rollers. With a chain and roller, you have a drive sprocket, a drum, a drive motor, an automatic tensioner, an air cylinder, as well as roller forks and levelers. Belt conveyors have a motor, two driveshafts with sprockets on either side and two take-up drums”

In other words, when it comes to areas of maintenance, the ratio is about 6:1 in favor of a dual belt conveyor.

 “You need to learn how to take the belt apart for preventive maintenance, which is very simple,” Lemmen said. “You’d watch how the belt tension is based upon the drag underneath, normal bearing maintenance and replacing drive bearings and drive shaft. We do that all at one time. Training is minimal as opposed to chain and roller, which is about 100 different maintenance items.”

Upgrading or considering installation of a belt conveyor system for your carwash can be a worthy investment. It increases throughput, reduces maintenance hours and customer response appears positive.

“Quality Car Wash operates all on its own, but they are like our built-in test facilities, as well,” Lemmen said. “We just opened up a new location at our current retail market, and we have seen customers come out of the woodwork. The word has spread so fast that we can now accommodate some of these larger and low-profile vehicles. We have an unlimited club program, and we are selling 30 a day at the new site because of all the energy around this.”

The carwash industry, like the fast lube industry, hinges on the importance of customer service and, subsequently, the customer experience. If you’re considering a carwash, consider a belt conveyor system, and give your customers the wash experience they didn’t know they wanted.  

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