Trouble ShootingTroubleshooting Wash Quality

A Question and Answer Session on Popular Wash Issues

The ability to make a profit in the carwash industry is closely dependent upon the performance and operation of the wash.  If a wash does not put out a good product, a clean car, the chance of repeat business is increasingly reduced.  Additionally, a wash has to be open and operating to create business.  The old adage of time being money runs through the veins of the carwash industry.  The more time that is lost, the less money is made.
Picture this: your wash is not performing the way it should.  Subsequently, you place a few calls to the chemical distributor and equipment representative in hopes of getting a service technician out to fix the wash and get it running again.  Unfortunately your chemical representative is an area with poor cell phone reception and it could be days before a service technician can offer any help.  What do you do?  Do you wait? Tear the machine apart?  Or better yet, begin to perform some simple troubleshooting techniques?
All too often a wash is closed because of simple issues that the owner or local distributor can fix; issues such as spotting, drying and cleaning.  In the following article we will explore some of these issues and a few easy techniques for tackling these problems yourself.

My wash is not cleaning, what do I do?
This is the most common question/problem in the carwash industry.  The initial response is to blame the cleaning on the chemical.  In actuality, the chemical is one of the steadiest parts of the carwash.  However, cleaning is not always linked to one central problem.  Below is a short checklist of key items to examine that could immediately restore wash quality.

Water

Water quality is the culprit of cleaning issues over 90% of the time.  Most carwash chemicals are reliant on the water being free or reduced of hard water minerals.  (These are the same hard water minerals that form the dreaded soap scum buildup on showers across America.)  Water softeners remove most of the hard water minerals and replace them with softer, more favorable minerals.  Chemicals, when mixed properly with soft water, will yield better performance, but when the water is hard that is when cleaning issues arise.  To check for hard water perform the following tests:

1. Check your softener.  Does it contain salt?
a. If there is no salt, be sure to fill the salt reservoir
b. If there is salt, proceed to number 2.
2. Is softener actually softening?
a. To test this, get to your local pool or hot tub store and ask for hard water testing strips.  These strips will aid in determining how soft or hard the water actually is.
b. If the test strips reveal hard water, your softener needs to be serviced or replaced.

Another water quality issue is that of reclaim water.  Many cities now require carwashes to install a water reclamation system to reduce the consumption of fresh water.  In efforts to make use of this system operators have used reclaim water to mix products.  This can create problems both in equipment bays and on the surface of vehicles.  The recommendation for reclaim water is to use it only for intermediate rinse cycles and to refrain from using it to mix products or final rinse cycles.

Equipment

A carwash bay is an extremely tough environment and can wreak havoc on equipment.  The carwash bay combines water, metal, electricity, constant humidity, moving parts and aggressive chemicals.  In most cases this would be a recipe for disaster, but equipment manufacturers have come up with innovative solutions to protect equipment.  On occasion equipment does malfunction and service is required, but some of these issues are minor and can be resolved without a technician.

Three of the most common areas that can be addressed are foot valves, injector tips and spray nozzles.  Rather than just guessing at the problem there are a couple of tests that can be of help.  The first test is to perform a titration.  This test is predominantly performed on presoaks, but sometimes it can be used for tire cleaners and waxes.  If a titration is coming up low, this would indicate a failure in a foot valve or a blockage at an injection tip or nozzle.  If a titration is coming up too strong it is an indication that a tip or nozzle is worn and needs replacement.

Titration Draw Test Action

Low Low Check foot valve, injector tip and nozzle tip
High High Check injector or nozzle tip

For those products that cannot be titrated a simple draw test is the next best thing.  To perform a draw test, obtain a graduated cylinder no smaller than 200mL and no larger than 1000mL.  Fill the cylinder with the suspected chemical making sure to leave enough room for the draw tube and foot valve.  Take note of the level of the liquid and run the wash through a full cycle.  Upon completion of the cycle determine the level of the liquid in the cylinder.  If too much product has been pulled an injection tip or nozzle has most likely failed.  If too little product has been pulled it could again be due to a foot valve failure or clogged injector tips or nozzles.

The easiest way to check lack of product is to start at the suspected drum.  Take a close look at the draw tube, specifically at the foot valve.  To test the foot valve simply remove the draw line from the chemical and keep an eye on the chemical within the draw tube.  If the chemical empties out of the line, it is time to replace the valve.  The foot valve is very important and performs 3 major functions.  First it acts as a filter to keep out major particles that could clog draw tube lines.  Second, it allows for constant suction to be kept on a draw line.  This will prevent air from filling the lines.  Finally, it prevents backflow of product through draw lines and into the drum of chemical.  This prevents any potential chemical contamination which could ultimately spoil an entire drum of chemical.  Replacing a foot valve is easy, cheap and very quick.

If the foot valve is in good working order and no chemical empties out of the draw tube it is time to move further down the system.  Many carwashes use injector tips or hydrominder tips.  The openings on these tips are extremely small and can be subject to clogging.  Carefully remove the tip and inspect the opening for any damage or clogging.  If needed, replace the tip and proceed with inspecting the remaining portion of the line.

The final stop on the inspection of the chemical line is the spray nozzles.  The purpose of the nozzles is not just to create direction and spray, but it is also to create pressure within the system.  This constant pressure will eventually ware down these nozzles which then results in a loss of pressure and could potentially reduce coverage.  Replacement of these tips is necessary when chemical coverage deteriorates.  It is also a good idea to check them periodically and follow your manufacturer’s recommendations for scheduled replacement.

Chemical

As mentioned earlier, chemicals are traditionally one of the steadiest of all the variables in a carwash.  However, there are times when various mechanical and manufacturer errors can occur.  Should a check valve fail it would allow diluted product and water to flow back unabated into the container of chemical.  This would not only create a mess, but it would ruin the entire batch of chemical.  Leaking equipment and spills can also create contamination amongst products.  This can hinder performance and ultimately destroy the drum of product.  Another good rule is to never mix products unless you are completely sure the two products are compatible or even identical.

Manufacturers are not immune from errors either.  Accidents can happen at any level in the distribution chain.  The process can be expedited with a few helpful things.  First off, if there is a suspect batch of chemical, do not wait contact your sales representative immediately!  Be ready to provide for them the following information; Product name, Product code, Lot or Batch number, Date of Purchase and the problem with the chemical.  With all of these details, the manufacturer can pinpoint what went wrong and move to fix or replace the current material.

Cars are coming out of the wash with spots?
Spotting is a fairly common issue that can be resolved with relative ease.  The first step in fixing the problem is to determine what the spots look like.  Are the spots Oily or Powdery?

Oily

Oily spots are usually a result of too much drying agent being applied to the vehicle.  Often times the amount of drying agent or clear coat will be increased if a wet car is witnessed coming out of the wash.  Chemical manufacturers will often recommend a dilution ratio or usage amount per car.  Major deviance from these recommendations can create oil droplets being left on the vehicle’s surface.  Performing a draw test or titration can confirm the actual usage per vehicle.  Just remember, the idea of “a little is good, but a lot is better” is not always true for drying agents.

If the drying agent is being used at recommended levels and cars are still coming out with oily spots, check the amount of the spot free water being used.  Too little spot free water will also result in an incomplete rinse and leave oil droplets behind.  Should the problem still exist after performing all of these tests, contact your local sales representative or service technician.

Powdery

Powdery spots are usually a result of one or two issues and sometimes a combination of both.  The first area to check is water quality.  As previously mentioned, water quality is a key component in carwash performance.  If a water softener is not functioning properly hard water minerals will remain in the water and once dried will leave behind white spots on the vehicle’s surface.  Performing a hardness test of your soft water will confirm if any issue exists.  If the reading indicates hard water, check to see if any salt is in the reservoir.  Refill the salt reservoir and allow the system to regenerate.  Retest the water for hardness, if hard water remains contact your local service technician.

If the water is plenty soft and free from hard water minerals the next item to check is the amount of soap being applied the vehicles.  Using plenty of soap is a good thing, but being able to rinse it another matter.  If too much soap remains on a vehicle when the drying agent is applied the two could react and form a powdery white residue.  This issue can be resolved in two ways.  First, reduce the amount of soap being applied to vehicle.  This will allow the rinse cycle enough water to fully remove all the soap from the vehicle.  The second option is to slow down the rinse cycle or to add another pass.  Most operators choose the first option as it decreases costs and will still provide a good clean vehicle.

My dryer is working, but the cars are still coming out very wet?

This is an indication that the drying agent and/or clear coat is not being used at the right level.  Conducting a draw test, or in some instances a titration, will help to determine the amount of product being used per vehicle.  Before performing any tests it is important to know what the recommended usage level is for your particular product.  This can be found on the product label or by consulting your sales representative.  Armed with this information you can proceed to performing a draw test.

Draw tests are beneficial in that they will give an exact amount of usage per car.  Too much product being used per car means a smaller tip should be used.  Likewise, if too little product is being used then a larger tip should be used.  Once a new tip has been established, it is important to remember to flush the system of the old dilution ratio.  After flushing the system it is key that additional draw tests be performed.  This will confirm usage and further help to narrow in on the recommended usage level.  Performance should continue to improve the as draw tests get closer to the manufacturers recommendation.  If performance does not improve, contact your sales representative for further troubleshooting advice.

Properly testing new products to eliminate contamination

It is very important to carefully test new products to avoid contamination and equipment damage, or worse yet, vehicle damage.  Before putting any new product online it is crucial to flush the system of the old material.  This can be done with clean soft water.  Once the system is flushed it is now set to run new products.  All too often it is assumed that the chemical make up of the two products is similar.   Unfortunately this is not always the case and in some instances the outcome can be costly.

Just recently there was a carwash owner who received a new set of triple foams.  He was not familiar with these products, but they were still red, yellow and blue and smelled like cherry.  So he hooked them up like he had done so many times before.  Initially there were no problems and the new triple foams looked great.  After a day he began getting complaints about the lack of triple foam on the vehicles.  Upon investigation he found that all his triple foam lines had been clogged and his drums of product had been contaminated.  Fortunately he was able to avoid having damaged any cars as a result of this accident.  This assumption cost him several drums of material, new lines, labor and lost revenue.  All of this could have been avoided had he just flushed the system.  Remember: when in doubt, flush the system.

Final Thoughts

It has been said that getting repeat business is tougher than getting new business.  This means there is a lot riding on the quality of a carwash.  A wash must not only clean, but it must remain open for business more often than the competition.  By using these few troubleshooting techniques the lost time that was once spent waiting for service can now be turned into profit.