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The Evolution and Innovations of Carwash 1.0 Through Carwash 4.0

Ready for a drive down memory lane? From the emergence of the first carwash to today’s cutting edge technology, the history of the carwash industry is fascinating. Especially if you’re thinking about buying a car wash, read on for a tour of car wash facilities, from their roots to their gradual automation, right up to the exciting AI-powered opportunities of today. 

Carwash 1.0: The Beginning of a Journey

As you might expect, the roots of the car wash industry lie in manual labor and rudimentary techniques. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, widely seen as the first modern, internal combustion engine car, came off the production line in 1885. For the next thirty years, car wash facilities relied on basic tools like buckets, brushes, soap, and hoses – along with plenty of sweat – to hand-clean vehicles, a time-consuming process.

Early Automation Attempts

The first production line car wash opened in Detroit in 1914, but it was not quite an automatic car wash since it still involved quite a bit of manual labor. Car wash employees manually pushed cars through an assembly-line-like tunnel. Inside the tunnel, each worker performed a specific task, like hand-rinsing or drying the vehicle and polishing the brass components.

Car washes evolved in the following years. Professional car washes employed pulley systems that hooked under the front of the car to pull it through the bays where the manual cleaning took place. In the 1920s, the Chicago Auto Bowl introduced overhead sprinklers. 

In a comical innovation almost lost to history, Chicago Auto Bowl also installed an 80-foot wide, circular cleaning pool that customers drove through to remove tire and undercarriage mud. The concrete bowl was 16 inches deep at its deepest point and filled with water. An attendant took a fee of 25 cents and put a protective rubber cover on the radiator. Cars would then access the bowl via a ramp, drive in repeated circles, trying to slosh mud off the chassis and wheels. Gee, wonder why this “innovation” didn’t last!

Debates exist regarding the first automatic car wash, given that automation was progressively integrated over decades. By 1946, Thomas Simpson had designed and built a system that used an overhead sprinkler to wet down the vehicle but his update still relied on manual labor to handle the rest of the job. Automatic car washes with soap sprayers, automatic brushes, and a 50-horsepower blower for drying cars appeared in the western U.S. in the 1950s

Limited Services 

Owning a car wash during this early period was solely about washing cars. Convenience and personalization took a back seat to the efficiency of the cleaning process itself.

As the professional car wash business continued to evolve, so did customer expectations. The desire for enhanced customer experiences and more comprehensive services eventually paved the way for more advanced automated systems and a shift towards prioritizing convenience, customization, and a higher level of vehicle care.

Carwash 2.0: Mechanization to Automation

The car wash industry witnessed a significant turning point with the introduction of automated conveyor systems. These systems enabled vehicles to move through a predetermined sequence of cleaning stages propelled by automated mechanisms.

Fully mechanized conveyor car washes with non-woven cloth washing media were introduced by Belanger Inc., while fully mechanized conveyor car washes with polypropylene brush washing media were developed by Hanna Enterprises. MacNeil pioneered full mechanized conveyor car washes with closed cell foam washing media featuring top wheels. Systems like these began to eliminate the need for manual intervention. 

As the industry embraced this innovative carwash equipment, professional car wash services began to offer consistent and standardized cleaning procedures, transforming the customer experience. The era of manual labor was gradually replaced by automated convenience, and the introduction of conveyor systems heralded a new chapter in the car wash industry’s history.

Expansion of Service Offerings

The evolution of the car wash industry included new service offerings that reshaped the entire business model. Multi-tiered packages incorporating various cleaning options, interior treatments, and specialized services like waxing emerged.

Initial Customer-Focused Innovations

The 1960s brought with it the car wash facilities we’re used to seeing today. Much of the equipment from this era is still used. Innovations such as basic water reclamation and recirculation, the adoption of soft cloth friction cleaning in place of abrasive brushes, the introduction of conveyors and rollers, and the emergence of touchless automatic washes began to gain prominence during this period. For example:

  • Self-service car washes: Self-service car washes allowed customers to take control of the cleaning process. These facilities provided individuals with the tools and equipment needed to clean their own vehicles, empowering them with choice and convenience.
  • Coin-operated wash bays: Coin-operated wash bays allowed customers to pay for their car wash using coins. This mode of payment eliminated the need for manual payment processing and streamlined the customer’s payment experience.
  • Multiple wash options: Car wash businesses began offering multiple wash options, allowing customers to choose from a range of cleaning packages that varied in price and service inclusions. This gave customers the flexibility to select the level of service that best suited their needs and budget.
  • Vacuum stations: Car wash facilities started incorporating car wasg vacuum systems, enabling customers to thoroughly clean the interiors of their vehicles.
  • Membership and loyalty programs: Some car wash businesses introduced membership programs that offered regular customers discounted rates, priority service, and special offers. Customers earned points or discounts for each visit. Membership clubs with RFID tags were introduced by Innovative Conrol Systems (ICS), helping incentivize repeat business and reward loyal customers.

Carwash 3.0: Efficiency and Customer Experience

The pace of life did not slow down in the 1990s and 2000s. A major advancement was the rise of in-bay automatic carwashes, which allowed customers to drive into bays where automated systems took over the cleaning process. These car wash systems used sophisticated technologies to apply detergents and clean and rinse vehicles in less time. This fit into customers’ busy schedules and delivered high-quality results. Convenience stores in particular adopted the time-saving express wash model.

Eco-Friendly Practices

In recent decades, the industry has shifted toward eco-friendly practices in response to environmental concerns. For example, computerized controls and sensors optimized water usage, minimized chemical waste, and reduced energy consumption. Today, a car wash business plan cannot ignore opportunities to be eco-friendly.

Ultra concentrated chemicals in 1-gallon engineered containers were introduced by Cleaning Systems Inc (CSI). Replacing heavy drums, ultra concentrates were easier to transport and handle. Since they didn’t require 500-lb. chemical drums to be shipped, or forklifts to move, they reduced a business’s carbon footprint.

Commercial car wash equipment evolved and water reclamation systems were perfected, allowing car washes to significantly reduce the gallons of fresh water used per wash, mitigating their environmental impact. The adoption of biodegradable and environmentally friendly cleaning products further underscored the commitment to sustainable practices.

Carwash or Entertainment?

Whereas carwashes of the past were often poorly lit tunnels with no windows and little to no color or branding, Carwash 3.0 saw the transformation of the wash from service to entertainment. LED backlit foam curtains were introduced by PDQ Manufacturing. The Sign Studio (TSS) made menus dynamic with digital, remotely-controlled messaging. Lights, sounds, and multi-color foams entertained the kids and made the carwash a destination.

Embrace the Future With Carwash 4.0™

Industry 4.0 is a modern manufacturing methodology that revolutionizes how companies produce, improve, and deliver their goods. Manufacturers are incorporating technologies like connected systems, remote monitoring with sophisticated sensors, Internet of Things (IoT), advanced data analytics, AI and machine learning into production operations.

In the carwashing industry, this concept is called Carwash 4.0™. This revolutionary approach to vehicle cleaning brings together several advanced technological domains, including: 

  • Connectivity – Interconnected systems for real-time data collection and remote monitoring. Connection between your carwash equipment and the app on your phone.
  • Analytics and Intelligence – Harnessing the raw data generated by connectivity, turning it into actionable insights you can use to improve processes and anticipate maintenance.
  • Human-Machine Interface (HMI) – The ability of machines and humans to interact seamlessly. User-friendly dashboards for enhanced control and monitoring.
  • Advanced Automation – Use of robotics and AI to streamline processes, increase efficiency and consistency, and give you the convenience of an automated carwash

Carwash Operations in Your Pocket

Carwash 4.0™ technology makes car wash management much easier, monitoring and controlling many functions in your car wash, from chemical dosing and levels, product usage and cost to water temperature, soap concentration, brush pressure and vehicle size and type. The oversight is handled remotely through connected systems, sensors, data analytics and user-friendly interfaces such as the NCS Lens App. Compared to onsite, hands-on work, a connected carwash improves efficiency by orders of magnitude.

Carwash 4.0 also provides greater precision, complete reporting, and data-driven insights to ensure service quality across all locations. Data collected as part of the connected carwash model includes key performance indicators (KPIs), leading to better business decisions. 

Remote Monitoring and Maximum Uptime

Carwash 4.0 allows carwash owners to receive maintenance alerts ahead of failure, based on sensors that can detect and interpret changes in sound, vibration, noise, power usage, heat and other indicators. An alert is sent to the owner, who can schedule maintenance at the tap of a button. On the chosen day, the service person arrives and replaces the part. No hassle, no downtime in your car wash operation – a benefit worth its weight in gold, since uptime is a key factor in profitability.

Connected Systems

Another major benefit of a connected car wash is Connected Chemistry. This powerful system from NCS uses AccuDose technology to measure and adjust chemical usage in a completely hands-off process – no onsite visits or manual labor to change out meter tips. You can also adjust consumption on the app to dial in the perfect balance between wash quality and chemical usage. By efficiently managing resources, you can minimize costs and maximize profitability.

Connected Vacuum remote vacuum performance monitoring and Connected Water systems are also available from NCS, with more connected systems on the way.

Work With National Carwash Solutions

If you’re a carwash owner or investor – or just a newbie wondering how to buy a car wash – it’s good to know about Carwash 4.0. 

National Carwash Solutions is North America’s largest end-to-end provider of car wash solutions, car wash products, car wash chemicals, car wash parts, service and support. Over the last half century, brands now owned by NCS have introduced countless new innovations in technology, equipment and car wash services. With brands like Armor All Professional and Rain-X, along with Vacutech, Ryko, Macneil, and PurClean, the combined expertise and experience at NCS today is unparalleled in the industry.

We’re proud to be at the forefront of the Carwash 4.0™  transformation, leading the charge towards a future where commercial car wash equipment innovation and technology drive the carwash industry to new heights. Want to know more? Read the NCS Carwash 4.0 white paper to see why it makes sense to “Go 4.0”

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