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A car wash (also written as "carwash") or auto wash is a facility used to clean the exterior and, in some cases, the interior of motor vehicles. Car washes can be self-serve, fully automated, or full-service with attendants who wash the vehicle. It may also be an event where people pay to have their cars washed by volunteers as a method to raise money for some purpose.
With the modern convenience of automatic car washes, it may be difficult to remember that the industry was not always so high-tech. Though, other commercial car washes came before it, the first semi-automatic car wash in the United States made its debut in 1946, and from there, the industry has grown in both size and sophistication.
The start of the history of car washing dated back into 1914. People used manpower to push or move the cars through stages of the process. Eventually, manual car wash operations peaked at 32 drive-through facilities in the United States. Prior to this time, the evolution of car washing was just at the beginning, and that the automatic car washing was born. The first semi-automatic car wash was active for the first time in Detroit, Michigan using automatic pulley systems and manual brushing.
Many things had occurred within 1955 regarding car washing history. A businessman named Dan Hanna was encouraged by the car washers in Detroit, operated his own materials, then eventually made his own car wash called the Rub-a-Dub in Oregon. In 1957, he formed the Hanna Enterprises and eventually reached about 31 car washes in America. In 1959, Hanna operated his wash rack until he made the first mechanized car washing system. As the news spread throughout the city, so did his business.
By the mid 1960s Hanna Enterprises had established itself as the main source innovator and the manufacturer of car washing equipments and materials. Over time, Hanna had made several machines that will be the first to do the main requirements over car washing, this includes the Wrap-Around Brush, Roller-on-demand Conveyor belt, soft cloth friction washing, several ways to wash the tires, and a recirculating water system. With that said, Hanna Enterprises have become the largest vehicle washing equipment manufacturer.
In the 1970s it was a difficult time for the car washing industry, as the result of the gasoline prices increasing rapidly. Still, Hanna Enterprises made another two inventions during this time: the automatic wheel cleaner, and the polish'n'wax.
While there are many types of car washes, most fall into the following categories:
- Car wash lift, where cars are placed in a car wash lift where cars can then be washed by employees. 
- Hand car wash facilities, where the vehicle is washed by employees.
- Self-service facilities, which are generally coin-operated, where the customer does the washing, including pressurized "jet washing".
- In-bay automatics, consist of an automatic washing machine and dryer that rolls back and forth over a stationary vehicle - often seen at filling stations and stand-alone wash sites.
- Tunnel washes, which use a conveyor to move the vehicle through a series of fixed cleaning mechanisms.
- Chemical car wash, also known as waterless car wash, uses chemicals to wash and polish car surface. Claims to be an eco-friendly car wash method. Recommended only for cars with light dirt accumulation to avoid paint damage.
- Steam car washes use a jet of steam and micro fiber towels, some include detergent injection. Known to have originated from South Korea, steam car washes have been especially popular as a low-investment, eco-friendly car wash solution in Asia, Middle East, and Europe thanks to its sanitizing features and mobility.
- Mobile car washes, often also serving as mobile detailing systems, which carry plastic water tanks and use pressure washers. Sometimes these systems are mounted on trailers, on trucks, or in vans. Generally these operators also have a generator to run a shop vac., buffers, and other tools as well.
Mechanized car washes, especially those with brushes, were once avoided by some meticulous car owners because of the risk of damaging the finish. Paint finishes have improved as have car washing processes, and this perception of vehicle damage is much less prevalent today. However, this perception was the motive behind the rise of facilities utilizing "brushless" (cloth) and "touch-free" (high-pressure water) equipment, as well as modern "foam" washing wheels made of closed cell foam.
In today's modern car wash facilities, whether tunnel, in-bay automatic or self-serve, soaps and other cleaning solutions used are designed to loosen and eliminate dirt and grime. This is in contrast to earlier times, when hydrofluoric acid, a hazardous chemical, was commonly used as a cleaning agent in the industry by some operators. There has been a strong move in the industry to shift to safer cleaning solutions. Most car wash facilities are required by law to treat and/or reuse their water and may be required to maintain waste-water discharge permits, in contrast to unregulated facilities or even driveway washing (at one's home), where waste-water can end up in the storm drain and, eventually, in streams, rivers, and lakes.
Self-serve car wash
A simple and automated type of car wash that is typically coin-operated or token-operated self-service system. Newer self-service car washes offer the ability to pay with credit cards or loyalty cards. The vehicle is parked inside a large covered bay that is equipped with a trigger gun and wand (a high-pressure sprayer) and a scrub foam-brush. When customers insert coins or tokens into the controller, they can choose options such as soap, tire cleaner, wax or clear water rinse, all dispensed from the sprayer, or scrub the vehicle with the foam brush. The number of coins or tokens inserted determines the amount of time customers have to operate the equipment; in most instances, a minimum number of coins is necessary to start the equipment. These facilities are often equipped with separate vacuum stations that allow customers to clean the upholstery and rugs inside their cars. Some self-service car washes offer hand-held dryers, a somewhat new feature.
Automatic car wash
Conveyorized/Tunnel Car Wash
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The first conveyorized automatic car washes appeared in the late 1930s. Conveyorized automatic car washes consist of tunnel-like buildings into which customers (or attendants) drive.
Some car washes have their customers pay through a computerized POS, or point of sale unit, also known as an "automatic cashier", which may take the place of a human cashier. The mechanism inputs the wash PLU into a master computer or a tunnel controller automatically. When the sale is automated, after paying the car is put into a line-up called the stack or queue. The stack moves sequentially, so the wash knows what each car purchased. After pulling up to the tunnel entrance, an attendant usually guides the customer onto the conveyor. At some washes, the system will send the correct number of rollers automatically, based on tire sensors. The tire sensor lets the wash know where the wheels are and how far apart they are. On other systems the employee may guide the customer on and press a 'Send Car' button on the tunnel controller, to manually send the rollers which push the car through.
Prior to entering the automated section of the wash tunnel, attendants may prewash customers' cars. This process can consist of a wide range of manual cleaning procedures, including applying specialized bug removing cleaning agents to various parts of the car, performing a manual high pressure prewash (possibly focusing on areas which the tunnel cannot sufficiently clean), and using manual brushes to scrub down areas of the vehicle which are difficult for the equipment to clean. Manual prewashing may be more extensive if a vehicle has mud or if the customer purchases an upgrade.
When the customer is on the conveyor, the attendant (or signage) will instruct the customer to put the vehicle into neutral, release all brakes, and refrain from steering. Failure to do so can cause an accident on the conveyor. The rollers come up behind the tires, pushing the car through a photogate, which measures vehicle length, allowing the controller to tailor the wash to each individual vehicle. Some car washes may also use ultrasonic profiling systems to determine the height or width of a vehicle, or to detect open pick-up truck beds. The equipment frame, or arches, vary in number and type.
The car wash will typically start cleaning with chemicals called presoaks applied through special arches. These arches often use nozzles positioned to spray chemicals in a bi-directional pattern. In many cases, presoak arches are designed to foam the presoak prior to its application to the car. They may apply a higher pH (mild alkali) followed by a lower pH (mild acid), or the order may be reversed depending on the car wash operator's preference. Chemical formulas and concentrations may also vary based upon seasonal dirt and film on vehicles, as well as exterior temperature, and other factors. Chemical dilution and application works in combination with removal systems based on either high pressure water, friction, or a combination of both. Chemical substances, while they are industrial strength, are not used in harmful concentrations since car washes are designed not to harm a vehicle's components or finish. One or more sets CTAs, or "chemical tire applicators," are often found near the presoak arches. These will apply specialized formulations, which remove brake dust and build up from the surface of the wheels and tires. In many cases, CTAs will only activate if the customer has purchased a wheel cleaning upgrade. Special presoaks may be applied if the customer purchases an upgrade. Extra presoaks are typically applied via a "lava" or "sheet"-style foamer to provide more of a show for the customer.
After the presoak application, a car wash tunnel's layout can vary greatly. In some car washes, presoak application is followed by an empty space, or idle zone. This provides time for the presoak to loosen dirt on the car. In many cases, wheel cleaning equipment, such as sill brushes or high pressure wheel blasters, are placed in the idle zone. A sill brush (also known as a wheel brush or tire brush) consists of an 8-foot-long brush assembly which is pushed against the car's wheels and door sill area. Sill brushes are typically use flagged bristle, as dirt is usually most heavily concentrated on the lower parts of the car. The material on a sill brush may have alternating lengths or use material which is intentionally mounted off-center to allow wheel surfaces of various depths to be cleaned. Sill brushes rely on the rotation of a customer's car's wheels in order to achieve complete wheel contact. Similarly to the CTAs, wheel brushes often only activate when the customer buys a wheel cleaning upgrade. Some car washes use wheel-rim disc brushes in addition to or in place of sill brushes. These assemblies extend out towards the wheel and follow it at the same speed as the conveyor while rotating at high speeds to clean the wheels. These devices are popular in car washes that use belt conveyors, as a belt conveyor prevents the wheels of a customer's car from rotating and thus renders sill brushes useless for wheel cleaning. Some car washes feature multiple sets of wheel brushes and offer multiple levels of wheel cleaning. Tracking high pressure wheel blasters consist of assemblies with multiple nozzles that follow a car's wheel over a distance. While following a car's wheel, a wheel blaster directs high-pressure water at the wheel. The following motion may be achieved by having the nozzles pivot to face the wheel or by having the nozzles move alongside the car at the same speed as the conveyor. At the end of a car wash's presoak idle zone is often a high pressure arch. High pressure arches direct high pressure water at a vehicle's surface. This may be done "V-jet" nozzles, rotating "turbo" nozzles, spinning manifolds, and oscillating and/or pivoting manifolds. Some high pressure systems maintain a constant distance from the vehicle to provide more consistent results. Separate high pressure top, wheel, and/or side blasters may be present in place of or supplementary to a high pressure arch.
Following the idle zone and/or high pressure arch (if applicable) is the friction zone. In the friction zone, a variety of brushes are used to clean all of the vehicle's surfaces. Wrap-around brushes (wraps) clean the front, sides, and rear of a car. A set of wraps consists of two offset brushes which are attached to overhead arms which are generally mounted over the center of the tunnel. Some wrap-around brush designs use jointed side-mounted arms to increase the brush's front and rear contact time. Wraps typically rotate with the vehicle's direction of travel. Some wrap-around brushes are capable of switching direction while cleaning the front of a car to prevent customers' license plates from being bent. Wraps are supplemented by side brushes (ranging in size from 18 inches [45 cm] up to 63 inches [160 cm] tall or higher). Side brushes may be either top or bottom mounted. To conserve space, side brushes are often staggered in the space occupied by a set of wraps or placed under top surface cleaning components, such as top brushes or mitters. Side brushes rotate against the vehicle's direction of travel to increase cleaning power. Top brushes are rotating brush assemblies which clean the vehicle's top surfaces. A top brush can face either the entrance or exit of the tunnel to assist in cleaning the car's front or rear. Some specialized top brushes are designed to achieve more contact time with the front or rear of vehicles. To prevent damage, a top brush can be programmed to retract if an ultrasonic pick-up truck bed detection system detects a pick-up truck with an open bed. In many car washes, top brushes are either supplemented by or replaced with mitters. Mitters are ribbon-like components which suspend cloth strips or sheets over the tunnel while utilizing motion to increase friction against the car's surface. A mitter's motion can be front to back, side to side, rotational, circular, or diagonal. The friction zone may also include specialized front grill and rear brushes. Front grill brushes clean the front, and in many cases, the sides of vehicles. They often appear as side washers with an unusually long and bent arm. Instead of bent arms, some front grill brushes use jointed arms. Like standard side washers, a grill brush may be either top or bottom driven. Rear brushes appear as a specialized tall side washers with long arms that face the entrance of the tunnel. Once a car's mirror passes a rear brush, the brush makes contact with the vehicle's side, where it then continues to engage until the assembly cleans the rear of the car. Additional high pressure components may also be present in the main friction zone. Older automatic washes - a majority of which were built prior to 1980 - used to use brushes with soft nylon bristles, which tended to leave a nylon deposit in the shape of a bristle, called brush marks, on the vehicle's paint. Many newer washes use either soft cloth (which is not harmful to a car's finish, as long as it is flushed with plenty of water to remove the grit from previous washes) or a closed cell foam brush, which does not hold dirt or water, thus is far less likely to harm any painted finish. Closed cell foam brushes can, in fact, provide a gentle polishing effect that will shine the vehicle's surface during a wash.
After the main friction zone, some car washes have a dedicated care zone. Prior to entering the care zone, the car is rinsed with fresh water. This is immediately followed by a series of extra services. In many car washes, the first of these services is a polish wax. Polish waxes fill in microscopic imperfections in the vehicle's clear coat, thus improving shine. After the polish wax application is typically a retractable mitter or top brush and, in some cases, side brushes or wrap-around brushes. Next is a protectant, which creates a thin protective film over a vehicle's surface. Protectants generally repel water, which assists in drying the car and aiding in the driver's ability to see through their windshield during rain. A low-end wax or clear coat protectant follows the main protectant. A drying agent is typically applied at the end of the tunnel to assist in removing water from the vehicle's surface prior to forced air drying. After the drying agent, there may be a "spot free" rinse of soft water, that has been filtered of the salts normally present, and sent through semi-permeable membranes to produce highly purified water that will not leave spots.
Drying is done using dryers, and, in many cases, mitters, side brushes, top brushes, and/or wraps outfitted with specialized drying material. Dryers may be present in a variety of forms, such as stationary gantries with a contouring roof jet or as small circular assemblies with nozzles of various shapes and sizes mounted on arches. Similarly to the rest of the tunnel's layout, the configuration and type of dryers varies based on operator preference. Mitters, side brushes, top brushes, and/or wraps outfitted with chamois- or microfiber-based material may follow the dryers. In many cases, these additional drying components retract if a customer does not buy an upgrade. Below the dryers or textile drying elements are often tire shine applicators (also referred to as tire shiners). Tire shiners typically appear as box-like assemblies with a guide rail on their entrance sides and a brush or sponge pad on the side closest to the vehicle. When active, a tire shiner extends out towards the vehicle and applies a water or silicone-based tire shine product to its brush, which in turn applies the product to the tire. Tire shiners are generally activated only if the customer purchases an upgrade.
At "full-service" car washes, the exterior of the car is washed mechanically with conveyorized equipment, by hand, or using a combination of both, with attendants available to dry the car manually, and to clean the interior (normally consisting of cleaning the windows, wiping the front and side dashes, and vacuuming the carpet and upholstery). Many full service car washes also provide "detailing" services, which may include polishing and waxing the car's exterior by hand or machine, shampooing and steaming interiors, and other services to provide thorough cleaning and protection to the car.
In order to avoid marking paintwork, "touchless" (aka "touchfree" or "no-touch") car washes were developed as an alternative to automatic car washes using brushes. During the friction zone of a conveyorized/tunnel car wash, a touchless car wash forgoes brushes and uses high water pressure plus chemicals to clean the vehicle which minimizes the chance of surface damage to the vehicle. There are five primary factors to cleaning a vehicle successfully using a touchless system. These five factors are water quality, water temperature, chemistry, time, and water pressure generated by the equipment. If these factors are all set properly, vehicles will come out clean and shiny without the chance of vehicle damage caused by brushes.
Bikini car wash
Bikini car washes are typically a summer events which are fund raisers for a school, a sport association (such as roller derby or auto racing), or other youth organizations or charities. Typically, women in bikinis bring in donors by standing on a roadside with colorful cardboard signs or posters, and the cars are washed by their classmates in a nearby parking lot. Depending on the organization responsible, as well as the local laws, a variation of the bikini car wash sometimes occurs, in which the women will wash the car topless, usually for an extra fee. There are also commercial bikini car washes, where bikini-clad women actually wash the cars for a fee and the entertainment of the drivers. Hooters restaurants usually have bikini car washes in the summer to attract customers.
The primary environmental considerations for car washing are:
- Use of water and energy resources;
- Contamination of surface waters;
- Contamination of soil and groundwater.
Use of water supplies and energy are self-evident, since car washes are users of such resources. The professional car wash industry has made great strides in reducing its environmental footprint, a trend that will continue to accelerate due to regulation and consumer demand. Many car washes already use water reclamation systems to significantly reduce water usage and a variety of energy usage reduction technologies. These systems may be mandatory where water restrictions are in place. In Europe, Germany is leading the way and has very strict regulations making it illegal to wash your car on the street or in your driveway.
Contamination of surface waters may arise from the rinse discharging to storm drains, which eventually drain to rivers and lakes. Chief pollutants in such wash-water include phosphates; oil and grease; and lead. This is almost exclusively an issue for home/driveway washing, and parking lot style charity washes. Professional carwashing is a "non-point source" of discharge that has the ability to capture these contaminants, normally in interceptor drains, so the contaminants can be removed before the water enters sanitary systems. (Water and contaminants that enter storm water drains does not undergo treatment, and is released directly into rivers, lakes and streams.)
Soil contamination is sometimes related to such surface runoff, but more importantly is associated with soil contamination from underground fuel tanks or auto servicing operations which commonly are ancillary uses of car wash sites — but not an issue for car washing itself.
For these reasons, some state and local environmental groups (the most notable being the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) have begun campaigns to encourage consumers to use professional car washes as opposed to driveway washing, including moving charity car wash fund raisers from parking lots to professional car washes.
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