A Chemical Conversation

By Carter Hammett

Like all professional sectors, the car care industry is constantly evolving. Knowledge develops to reflect customer demand and societal values. As sites continue to change and grow, advances in essentials like technology and chemistry grow and advance too. It’s natural then for carwash pros to share knowledge, leads, experiences and opinions on matters like this. Carwash chemicals are designed to clean vehicles with efficiency, safety, environmental integrity and thoroughness in mind. Chemicals are devised to rinse easily from all kinds of vehicles in both tunnels and bays.

But while many owners are savvy enough to understand that the proper cleaning formulations can produce dazzling results, there’s dialogue in some Internet chat rooms lately about the virtues and challenges associated with some carwash owner-operators wanting to save money by either mixing their own chemicals or using cheaper products while attempting to duplicate the results of brand chemicals. What are the pros and cons of this? The ethics? The potential risks of damage to the environment or reputation?

To probe these and other questions, we assembled a panel of some industry pundits with nearly a century of combined experience brought to the table. As you can imagine, they had some very strong opinions on these issues.

So, without further ado, let’s introduce our panel: Chad Palmer from Olathe KS with 25 years in the carwash industry. Michael Gordon 59, is a carwash consultant from Denver Colorado and has performed vehicle cleaning services in various capacities since 1994. Kevin Brin, 60, Vehicle Care Specialist for ZEP living in south Florida near Boca Raton is a 15-year veteran of the carwash and chemical industry.

Convenience & Carwash Canada (C&CC):

There seems to be a big reliance on the part of some carwash owner/operators to depend on outside chemical specialists—especially from the major chemical players– to mix the solutions that ultimately wind up cleaning the cars. But I’m told that there’s an opportunity to have chemicals mixed using a lesser chemical so clients can save money? Is that accurate? Further money might be saved if operators learn to do it themselves and still yield the same results? What are the pros of this? The cons?

Chad Palmer:

An individual operator is much more capable of using a local supplier, or even mixing their own chemicals. As a company gets bigger, this means it becomes less and less viable due to production constraints, supply chain logistics, and purely from a liability standpoint. There is sometimes a lack of consistency from batch-to-batch with these bathtub blenders.

Michael Gordon:

Carwash operators for the most part are not chemical engineers. Much like not every person who can make a nice dinner is a chef. The complexity of the products we use in the industry can seriously damage a vehicle when ingredients that are designed to clean are not matched with proper buffers and surfactants. These items are designed to protect and hold containments that have been lifted from the surfaces of the vehicle. As such, in most cases many operators simply choose to hand over their chemistry needs. In particular, new operators will rely on the recommendations made by their chemical supplier. Operators in many cases simply follow these recommendations without evaluating other potential cost effective solutions. As for an ability to save money, I suspect there is a little of this. While it may appear as potential cost savings, risk factors far outweigh the savings.

Kevin Brin:

Let’s start off by saying yes, any operator who has been in the business long enough knows what to do to make his own blend. So if that’s the case, then typically the quality batch-to-batch will never be the same.

Another potential problem is a liability factor with owner-operators mixing their own chemicals and someone having an injury to themselves or another. Chemicals are usually mixed in small batches on an as-needed basis. Imagine if the material safety data sheet (MSDS) that must accompany all chemical shipments is not attached. Say, you’re mixing a batch of chemicals, and it gets in your eyes, there’s a huge liability to whoever’s doing the mixing. Safety procedures need to be in place.

C&CC:

One of you said interestingly, that the cost of chemicals is one of the top three operating costs an owner/operator has to bear. That struck me as quite interesting. How much money could potentially be saved by owners taking the lead on this?

Chad Palmer:

I’m not really qualified to answer this without a whole lot of data I am not privy to. A good guess would be 25 per cent or more. If someone is big enough, a better alternative is to buy at a distributor discount from a big company. Anecdotally, I was with a company that saved 40 per cent off list price from a major company by buying $8,000 or more at a time.

Michael Gordon:

This is correct when you set aside the cost of the facility (building, land, taxes, etc.). The main costs associated with washing a vehicle can be found in the costs of electricity, water usage, and chemicals. Some wash operators know their overall monthly or yearly cost of chemicals but do not truly understand the cost of each chemical applied per vehicle in the wash process. Other operators use sophisticated volumetric analysis to establish a base line of the cost of each solution per application. This baseline is used to create an operating cost per service and to compare one company’s cleaning solution cost and usage against another. Over the life of a particular product purchased many things can occur that will change these costs and volumes consumed. Items such as temperature, water purity, dwell time of the solution, equipment failures, equipment used for the application, and even the process performed by humans will affect the costs of not only the chemistry being applied but the water and electricity needed to do the work. It is for this reason, when choosing chemistry, the operator needs to pay special attention to balancing the entire wash process. It is imperative that they make sure the chemical solutions used throughout the process not only complement one another but are economical to use. Balancing carwash chemistry is a continuous process that needs to be reviewed regularly. As conditions change, operators need to react to maintain the results they are all looking for: a clean, shiny, dry vehicle.

Kevin Brin:

It really depends on carwash volume and the type of wash being put out. With an in-bay, you might have to only apply two or three chemicals, so the wash is short and quick. With a tunnel, there’s a whole series of steps: stripping, cleaning, conditioning, spot-free rinse, etc. The carwash company may have a clientele that doesn’t demand a perfect wash. The owner-operator can dial back name brands and still get a good wash. You can save a little money in the short term, but you’ll also sacrifice things like marketing support. I’ve seen the statistics. Brands matter. If you wash 10,000 cars per month, you’re saving money

C&CC:

Are there also specific chemicals that you would recommend or suggest that owner/operators consider? Or are there alternative people you could consult to save money?
Advantages to this? Disadvantages?

Chad Palmer:

There is a specific chemical I would recommend against, very firmly: Hydroflouric acid, known in the industry as HF. It is cheap, cleans well, and was very prevalent 25 years ago. A lot of operators are still willing to use it because of the low cost. It can kill and maim people, and it has in this industry. It should be completely removed from the carwash industry immediately.

Michael Gordon:

In today’s competitive environment, operators need to look at how to differentiate their wash. Partnering with a company that offers a wide variety of dilution, colors and fragrances can be a game changer for carwashes. Putting on the right show is required in today’s environment. Find a chemical partner that offers customized solutions. Most large chemical companies offer only off-the-shelf solutions that everyone else is using. From an insurance claim standpoint, make sure your chemical partner only uses non-staining dyes. As all operators know, especially in today’s very expensive vehicle market, customers are very sensitive about their vehicles. For self-serve operators, this can also be even more important in the event the chemical dyes get on a customer’s clothing or skin.

Kevin Brin:

Every location has a different chemical need. Why? It has to do with what you’re trying to clean. Is it dirt? Sand? Salt? Two carwashes 100 miles apart will have different needs. On top of that, every location has different water use, including hard or soft, or water with too many minerals. That’s why you need a partner to help you figure it out.

C&CC:

I was sitting in on some discussions amongst carwash owner/operators recently and was struck by how ethical the whole thing seemed to be. By taking on the wrong chemicals, I can only imagine the risk of damage that might occur, not only to the vehicle but also your reputation. It’s a fickle business and return business is critical for success. Customers are also quite concerned about the environmental impact of the chemicals being used to clean their vehicles. Care to comment on these two dimensions?

Chad Palmer:

I think some operators are concerned with the environmental impact. Anecdotally, it’s probably less than the average citizen. When they are, it is more often a cost analysis than an ethical analysis, at least here in the States. That being said, I know individuals that have focused on that as a part of their business model.

Michael Gordon:

Regarding environmental impacts, car washing can pose threats to the environment. Water discharge and high-water usage are the primary problems associated with a carwash. Reclaim systems have become mandatory in many areas to reduce water consumption and municipalities continue to increase water and sewer rates. Many carwash chemicals contain ingredients that may be difficult to treat and is compounded when the soapy water is mixed with the road films, dirt, grease, and soils that are removed from vehicles. On a positive note, containing this within the carwash reclaim systems and pits and via sewage treatment system is better than not washing the vehicles as these soils when removed by rainfall can have more serious impact on the environment as they are directly discharged into the streets and end up directly into the ground, water, or into storm water systems.

Kevin Brin:

Customers truly feel we’re partners. All of us on the road always try to change the game. The industry changes fast and we share those ideas with owner-operators. We need to listen to them. Most owner-operators are very knowledgeable. It’s a professional business and has been for several years.

Regarding the environment, larger operators always strive for perfection and are looking at more eco-friendly products. And, larger chemical manufacturers who have the resources are working to reduce the environmental impact some chemicals may have.

C&CC:

Gentlemen, this has been a most enlightening discussion. It’s truly a pity we don’t have more space to elaborate, but I really appreciate your insights! Any final thoughts before we go?

Chad Palmer:

Overall, I think using an established brand with a good reputation is the way to go. For some smaller operators, this may not be cost effective up front, which makes it hard to convince them they should go name brand, until there is property damage or bodily harm from a mistake.

Michael Gordon:

Operators should consult with their chemical supplier or reach out to consultants that understand the limitations one product may have versus another. Carwash cleaning solutions should be customized to meet the operator’s business development and financial plans, not the business plan of a manufacturer or distributor.

Kevin Brin:

I strongly believe in brands. They’re a major force to back you up. This is a fluid, exciting, dynamic industry.

There you have it. It’s pretty obvious that the complexities of such a topic can’t be captured in one conversation, but it’s fairly clear where these gentlemen stand. They all stand for quality and an outstanding product that can only be delivered by owner-operators who have an in-depth understanding of their business and customer requirements. Their commitment to customer care and ethics is commendable too. Thank you, gentlemen, for sharing your insights with us.

Carter Hammett is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor