Case Studies

Jonathan Thomas – Autobell Car Wash

Keeping cars clean with technology and innovation

If you take your vehicle through a conveyor car wash, you’ll likely notice the process looks and feels much like it did 10 or 20 years ago: the streams of soapy water; the large cloth mittens bathing your car much like a zookeeper washes an elephant; and the high-velocity air dryers at tunnel’s end.

But behind those familiar settings are new technologies that are saving electricity and water.

“Sure, cars and trucks still use gas like the last 100-plus years, but at least in the car wash business we’re innovating and improving services for our customers,” says Jonathan Thomas, director of construction for Autobell Car Wash.

Jonathan Thomas - Autobell Carwash

The Autobell Car Wash experience

The Autobell Car Wash home office remains in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the company was founded in 1969. It currently has 87 conveyor car wash locations in North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. Autobell’s services include vacuuming, underbody wash, hand drying, and now an interior disinfectant service that applies an EPA-registered, hospital-grade disinfectant at the beginning and end of any wash that includes interior work.

Thomas says Autobell had to put some construction projects on hold in 2020, including some new builds, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to be financially conservative during an unstable economic period.

“It’s smart to play the long game, especially in this business,” he notes. “We’ll get things up and running as our sales and finances allow.”

As of February, there were three projects underway, including the relocation of a car wash in Charlotte to a property with better placement, as well as new construction in Northern Virginia and Summerville, South Carolina, near Charleston.

Jonathan Thomas - Autobell Carwash

Under normal weather conditions, it takes about six months to complete a new car wash, he says, and if there are delays, it’s typically due to COVID-19. Getting plans approved and inspections completed has been a challenge for the past year and led to a decrease in efficiency.

“We have a variety of general contractors and subcontractors that do our builds, so we haven’t noticed any real impact with labor,” Thomas says. “But prices for materials shared with residential construction, like lumber, drywall, concrete and masonry have increased.”

New ways to clean cars

As part of Autobell’s new process, being introduced at select locations, customers getting their vehicle washed remain inside it. While that limits exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus, Thomas says it’s also more convenient and was in the works before the pandemic.

From choosing their preferred wash method to moving through the tunnel via conveyor, customers also experience a no-contact transaction with almost no waiting when using the new Autobell mobile app. If customers want vacuuming or an interior wipe down, they get out after the car has been washed.

Jonathan Thomas - Autobell Carwash

For the future, Thomas and his team are planning a new two-tunnel system that would include a standard wash tunnel and a second tunnel with a conveyor that would move the vehicle more slowly, allowing for a more time-regulated process. With the second tunnel, customers would wait in a climate-controlled lobby, watching the process through floor to ceiling windows—once pandemic-related restrictions ease, of course.

“You’ll see the whole process,” he adds.

The car wash of the future

What remains unknown to most consumers, however, are advancements in the solutions used to clean cars that have made car washes more environmentally friendly.

At new locations, for instance, the company uses an Aqua Bio biological reclamation system that uses 10,000- and 20,000-gallon underground and above ground tanks. The tanks separate sediment, and naturally occurring enzymes eat the hydrocarbons and surfactants in the water, similar to a sewage treatment plant.

“You end up with clean water that is potable,” Thomas says. “It’s expensive, but water is everything in our business and we need to be an industry leader in that area.”

Jonathan Thomas - Autobell Carwash

The other big thing on the horizon is Autobell’s first modular-based car wash, he says. Being assembled by Genesis Modular Carwash Building Systems in a factory over 16 weeks, the structure contains four modules with connected walls and roof sections. Once it’s on-site in Summerville, it should facilitate a more efficient construction process that gets the car wash open faster, he explains.

Thomas became Autobell’s director of construction in June 2019—he’s worked for the company for 15 years. He was a construction manager from 2014 to 2019 and has managed several Autobell locations, as well.

Since starting his first stint with Autobell, wiping down cars in 1998, he has seen firsthand the changes the company has made to stay ahead in the car wash industry.

“If you’re not getting more creative, more efficient and more environmentally sound, you can’t compete in our business,” Thomas sums up.

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