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Vehicle Wash Systems: Keeping Fleets Clean & Green

Posted on April 2, 2009 by Thi Dao, Assistant Editor

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Alternative Materials

Plastic has been a popular material for brush construction, and although it does a thorough job of cleaning, it was considered damaging to vehicle paints and finishes. This led to the development of the touchless wash system — where high water pressure is used to loosen dirt. The touchless system is still in use, but its disadvantages lie in its excessive use of water and chemicals.

New brush materials claim to be less harmful for vehicle finish than plastic. NS Wash Systems, based in Inglewood, Calif., started using what it calls “lammscloth,” a synthetic lamb’s wool that is a softer fiber to prevent damage to the vehicle. Others use a combination of materials to get the best result; ACC uses polyethylene and foam in its brushes, the ratio of each depending on the type of vehicle to be washed, and Bitimec uses a brill brush that is a combination of bristles and foam.

Ross, however, stresses that brush material isn’t the only factor in keeping a clean exterior. “It does have some effect on it, but it’s more a function of applying detergent and water to the interface of the brush,” he says. “It’s also a function of the speed of the brush and the amount of air pressure that may be applied to a brush.” The right factors will result in no damage to vehicle finish, despite brush material, he says.

Biodegradable chemicals are now standard to the industry. Ross & White carries enzyme-based wash agents instead of the usual alkaline-based agent.

 Reduce and Reuse

With the pressure of being green becoming more intense in recent years, vehicle wash manufacturers are coming up with better technology, with the goal of using fewer resources.

When wash systems were first developed, the idea was to pump a lot of water and soap on the car, says NS Wash Systems CEO Thomas Ennis. This resulted in waste of both chemicals and water, as only a percentage of what is blasted on adheres to the vehicle. Ennis’ company has developed the 5M series systems, which reduce the amount of resources used.

Many systems require a pump to increase the amount of water pressure for the wash. The 5M series uses just city water pressure and 20 gallons of water per minute, an estimated 75 percent decrease from what is used in normal wash systems. “By applying just enough to coat the vehicle, we get very little run-off,” Ennis says. Less water use results in a proportionate decrease in chemical use, and, Ennis adds, “We’re not even using a pump, so we’re cutting down on electricity as well as another maintenance issue.”

ACC’s brush is estimated to use only 3 to 5 gallons of water per minute, and because the brush does the scrubbing, fewer chemicals need to be used. Bitimec’s 626 uses 25 gallons per wash and Westmatic’s Compact wash system uses 80 gallons.

Reducing energy is another factor. NS Wash Systems has developed more energy efficient systems that use two- horsepower motors instead of five. Ennis estimates at least a 50 percent savings.

Westmatic’s green efforts, according to Evans, include high efficiency motors that use less electricity. In addition, using a HydroMinder to pre-mix chemical and water results in less waste, and an overlapping brush design for the front and rear of the vehicle, which tend to be the dirtiest, reduces water and chemical use.

Most systems are sold with water reclamation systems or are available as a separate option. The end result is an 80 to 90 percent water savings, which is reused in the first stages of the wash cycle. Installed systems with water reclamation range from more than one-half to nearly all, according to manufacturer estimates.

New green projects are also under way. “We’re starting to see some projects come through with rainwater capture for rinsing the buses as either pre-rinse or even final rinse,” Ross & White’s Ross says. The final rinse usually only utilizes clean, un-reclaimed water.

Things to Consider

Although unseen, the undercarriage could be trapping a considerable amount of dirt. Bike racks or wheels may also require special attention. Manufacturers often sell undercarriage and wheel cleaners in addition to their wash systems. Westmatic’s six-brush system is specifically designed for bike racks. “Brush numbers 3 and 4 are split-brush designs, so it’s able to wash the bike rack and thoroughly wash the front of the vehicle,” says Evans.

 In addition to production speed and fleet size, budget is an important consideration in buying a system. ACC’s single-brush system costs range from $13,000 to $19,000. Bitimec’s autonomous 626 system ranges from $25,000 to $28,500. NS Wash’s 5M Bus Wash System costs between $55,000 and $155,000, depending on how the system is built. Ross & White’s hybrid, its top-of-the-line system, costs between $150,000 and $200,000, delivered and installed. The Westmatic Compact’s price ranges from $100,000 to $350,000. Its Twin Line system for rails starts at $350,000.

The life cycle of the system is another consideration, although most are built for extended use. Estimates range from 10 years to 30 years, however, actual life cycle depends on the system’s usage.

Before deciding on a system, many manufacturers recommend that companies speak with previous clients. “Salespeople always give you the best possible story, that’s what they’re hired for,” says ACC’s Van Tol. “Customers don’t care. They tell you what they like or what they don’t like.” He also recommends asking about after-sale service in case customers have questions or problems with their system down the line.

NS Wash Systems’ Ennis agrees, saying “I think word-of-mouth is the best thing going right now.” Customers can ask for a list of previous clients as well as contact numbers to get feedback on the company and products.              

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