By Bill Donahue, Editor
Last summer, as a cameraman was setting up his tripod at a car wash/convenience store in the Las Vegas area, Jon Athey knew it probably wasn’t a positive development. There, an associate producer for Dan Rather’s CBS news program helped Athey understand why a major news network would want to shoot B-roll at one of his convenience store locations.
Apparently, Rather’s team had sent a news crew out to the site to catch the reaction of grief-stricken car wash owners following the announcement that Las Vegas car wash operators would have to shutter their bays due to severe drought conditions.
But Athey, director of operations for the City Stop chain of convenience stores and car washes, breathed a sigh of relief after realizing the news crew had simply gotten its wires crossed. True, the city had put a moratorium on car washes, but it had placed the ban on consumers washing their cars at home—not commercial car wash operations.
Once Athey informed the associate producer of the error, the news team collected its gear and raced off in search of that elusive hard-luck story.
The incident is indicative of the recent effects of drought throughout the state of Nevada. The lack of measurable precipitation in 2004 spurred the Southern Nevada Water Authority to create a program called Water Smart as a way to reduce excess water usage. The program promotes businesses that willingly reclaim and recycle their water by getting consumers to support them. City Stop, says Athey, is a proud member of Water Smart.
"All our washes are hooked up to the city sewer system, and whatever virgin water we draw from the city’s supply we pay for," he says. "We have a reclaim system for all our washes that allows us to use less virgin water. But we haven’t changed the ‘backside'; we reuse the water from prior washes in the first stage—the wetdown process. We put on soaps and detergents and rinse it off with reused water. The reused water is then cleaned and returned to the sewer and put back into Lake Mead."
Raw water is pulled from the lake, treated and delivered to homes and businesses. Car wash operators reclaim their water and return it to the sanitary sewer, which in turn feeds the wastewater to a treatment plant. There, the water is treated to EPA standards and returned to the Colorado River. The Southern Nevada Water Authority receives credit for every gallon that returns to the environment.
Doug Bennett, conservation manager for the SNWA, says the Water Smart program is just one of the organization’s efforts to conserve water. It’s also working with swimming pools, landscapers, construction companies and other business sectors that consume large quantities of H2O. Nearly 30 car wash locations are involved in the Water Smart program so far, with additional washes coming aboard in the near future.
"We’re trying to enlarge the potential market by luring people who wash their cars at home to the car wash," he says. "The industry gets concerned when they hear us say the word ‘drought'; they assume there’s going to be a restriction, which could harm their business. But that’s not at all what this program is about. We’re trying to promote efficiency, not get them to not use water."
There’s plenty of room for efficiency, too. Washing a car at home in the driveway can use as many as 100 gallons of water—none of which is recovered, and much of which enters the sewer system laden with detergents, chemicals and other debris that has the potential to harm the ecosystem. Commercial car washes equipped with effective reclaim systems, on the other hand, use a small fraction of that amount of virgin water, most of which gets recycled.
Sacrificing virgin water
Chuck Delaney, owner of the high-volume Allston Car Wash on the outskirts of Boston, started reclaiming water for his car wash in December 2001. He dug a well for the site in the mid-1980s and was taking about half of his water from there. He decided to install a Filtermatic reclaim system from SoBrite Technologies basically because he thought it was "the right thing to do." But Delaney says other operators may soon not have a choice. With drought-like conditions plaguing so many states these days, he believes it’s just a matter of time before reclaim systems become mandatory.
"Whether it’s the next five years, 10 years or 15 years, as car wash operators we’re going to have to have reclaim systems as part of our operations as a cost of doing business," he says. "But why wouldn’t you want to reclaim? Anybody who’s putting in a new wash and isn’t adding a reclaim system is crazy.
"Here in New England, water is not all that an expensive commodity," he continues. "I used to spend $23,000 or $24,000 in water bills, which isn’t bad compared to a $65,000 electric bill, but I’ve saved 75% to 80% of my water costs [using reclaim]. And despite the upfront expense, you’re generally looking at a four-to fiveyear payback."
Delaney got into the business in 1976 when he and a partner, armed with their MBAs but no experience in the retail or car wash industries, purchased what was then a rundown car wash facility that had a plum location working in its favor. In the early days, they were lucky to wash 100 cars a day.
Since then, the place has taken on quite a different look, as it now offers Mobil gasoline and a convenience store, among other improvements. Delaney recently changed out an old conveyor that had been in operation for 27 years. Investing in the 26,000 sq. ft. site has been worthwhile; the wash has received "Best Car Wash & Best Car Detailing" honors from Boston Magazine four times. Even better, the facility now washes an average of 130 cars per hour.
"We’re a full-service car wash, which is different than what some operators have gone back to recently," says Delaney, who has since parted ways with his former business partner. "Our wash has two lines—one for exterior only and one for full-service. We wash a lot of cars here."
A lot of cars washed means a lot of water used, so maintaining a reclaim system to capture and process that water becomes critical. And he adds the caveat that there are some maintenance issues to consider.
"The maintenance can be significant and expensive because you have to get the tanks cleaned out," he says. "The other issue is the odor, and that’s more of an issue for me since all of my customers get out of their cars because we’re full service."
As for installation, he says the system was installed over the course of several nights and rainy days so as not to disrupt the wash’s operation. Ideally, Delaney says, retailers should put reclaim systems underground, but since his site was built in 1960, putting his system beneath the soil just wasn’t an option. The system now takes up a corner of the building that he used to devote to storage. Even though he’s lacking storage space and the system requires some maintenance, he considers the investment worthwhile.
"The first month we had the reclaim system, we had a guy [from the water department] come out to check the meter to see if I was screwing around with it," he says. "The difference in the amount of fresh water we used was that significant."
While Delaney’s car wash used to need about 24 gallons of fresh water per car using the well, and more than 30 prior to that, now the wash requires only about six gallons of fresh water per car. That kind of savings strikes a chord with a public becoming increasingly more sensitive of the need to conserve natural resources.
"Kids today are more concerned with the environment than my generation probably is," he adds. "Part of it is to educate people to choose not to wash their cars themselves because it uses anywhere from two to four times as much water. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually I think reclaim systems will be standard [at commercial car washes]."
But retailers need to be careful with how they promote themselves as being water-efficient, Delaney warns.
"If you call it a reclaim system to the general public, they think you’re using dirty water," he says. "I call ours a filtering system. It still keeps some of the soaps in the water, so another benefit may be that the cars are actually getting cleaner [than they would without a reclaim system]."
‘Everything we can…’
In Las Vegas, each of City Stop’s four Belanger conveyor washes can accept a new car every 30 seconds, and it takes about three minutes to wash a car, enabling each wash to handle six cars at a time. Jon Athey says his four car wash facilities average 125 washed cars per day, which is about half the total capacity.
"It takes about 45 gallonsof water to wash a car, and we can reclaim about 15 of those gallons," he says. "We built the [underground] reclaims into all of our washes. The only downside really is that reclaimed water can smell bad, and you have to tune it very carefully so you don’t diminish the quality of the wash.
"We’re saving money on the cost of water by using a reclaim system, but of course we’re still paying for the virgin water we use," he continues. "But we’re doing everything we can to minimize water costs and be good neighbors."
Being a good neighbor has its advantages. Doug Bennett of the SNWA says residents in Las Vegas understand the need to conserve and believe in supporting Water Smart businesses. For the month of January— the first month of the Water Smart car wash program—the SNWA Web site had 2,200 hits, and the Water Smart portion of the site was the No. 2 most visited page.
"We have the option to pull out of the program at any time," Athey says. "But we need to be on the [SNWA] Web site. If any of my competitors are on the Web site and I’m not there, I feel we’re at a disadvantage."
In addition to receiving the cyberpublicity, all Water Smart washes are designated as such by special on-site banners and other signage. Also, all patrons of Water Smart washes receive a promotional in-car deodorizer to dangle from the rearview mirror. It’s shaped, quite fittingly, like a drop of water.
City Stop is confident the Water Smart program will help boost car wash sales and support its reputation as being a good corporate citizen. But Murphy’s Law still applies. Athey had a tough time gauging the effects of the program in its early going thanks to Mother Nature and her mysterious ways. Ironically, a year and a half’s worth of rain has fallen on the Greater Las Vegas area since the turn of the calendar year.
"The program didn’t really kick off till mid-January, and car wash sales are traditionally weak in January," Athey says. "If it wasn’t raining one day it was supposed to rain the next. And people generally shy away from getting their cars washed if they know a storm is on the way."
The Best Little Car Wash in Tequesta
He may be a businessman, but Stefan Levine goes out of his way to let people know he has a sense of humor. He considers his funny bone a competitive advantage and has used it to endear himself—and his South Florida-based car wash—to customers.
Early into 2005, Levine opened his "Best Little Car Wash in Tequesta" on an existing convenience store lot that he re-branded to CITGO from Chevron. The wash’s tongue-incheek name gives a nod to the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton film with a similar, slightly more risqu name. (Reynolds hails from the nearby town of Jupiter.)
Having been baptized into the convenience store business after cutting his teeth as a business developer in New York, Levine purchased the property in the small Florida town primarily for its car wash potential. He figured he’d start bringing in revenue by selling gas and c-store essentials while refurbishing the wash facility with new touchless equipment from Autec.
"So far I am exceeding projections on gas sales and hitting my numbers with my car wash projections—I’m pleased but not satisfied," he says. "I want to improve the business; I’m not looking for ways to get on the golf course. You have a never-ending stack of paper to manage in this business, but you don’t grow by sacrificing face time with customers at the ‘front of the house.’"
In addition to "shaking hands and kissing babies," Levine has done some newspaper advertising to spread the word in the tight-knit community rife with older residents. One tactic he has not utilized to gain customers: discounting. As soon as a retailer discounts a car wash, he says, it’s nearly impossible to get back to a full-margin price without turning away key customers.
"I need to keep my labor costs as low as possible, which is why we have an automatic wash, so I wanted to ‘train’ customers to not expect eight guys falling all over their cars," he says. "But I also like to tell them that they’ll get a nice, spot-free wash."
Of course, Levine competes for dollars with a number of other washes. There’s a full-service tunnel wash within a quarter of a mile of his store, as well as a Mobil station with a touch-free wash not far away. He’s not trying to compete with the full-service washes that offer a ton of extra services, like interior detailing. He offers three washes: "After the Beach" ($6); "Night on the Town" ($8); and "One Great-Lookin’ Ride" ($10). The names, he thinks, resonate with customers.
"It’s important to take yourself seriously but not too seriously," he says. "Having fun with what you do makes customers comfortable but it also keeps the work interesting for me."