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Bus and Motor Coach Library

Bus Wash Systems

Author – Ian Balfour (2005)

It has long been a fleet owner’s goal to keep maintenance costs down while still operating a safe and professional-looking operation. In order to maintain and increase ridership, the passenger must always feel that the bus is safe and well maintained. Every rider must be treated as an honored guest and take away a positive experience that will capture their return business. Having the newest buses, the most professional drivers and the safest vehicles can easily be overlooked if the appearance of the bus has been neglected. Apathy is not the message you want to send to riders you would like to see again.

Since the first buses were introduced it has been the solemn task of maintenance personnel everywhere to keep their fleets clean with bucket, mop and muscle. But with labor costs constantly rising, manual cleaning simply is out of the question for many fleets. Automated drive-through wash systems and other wash bus wash designs are able to clean the entire outside of a bus in 1 to 5 minutes, depending on the type of bus wash system, enabling even the largest fleets to be cleaned on a regular basis for a fraction of the cost of manual cleaning. With fleet sizes growing and the cost of running buses increasing every year, it is hard to ignore the financial benefits that automated wash systems can offer to today's modern fleets.
Today's bus washing systems can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to over $350,000 depending on the system. While this represents a significant cost to you, the owner, the money that you save over time often pays the original capital cost within a few short years.

Operating a fleet of 100 vehicles can cost you almost $20,000 a month to keep clean on a manual basis.  With two employees being paid $11.00 per hour, taking approximately 25 minutes to clean each bus and the added cost of water, cleaning supplies and other costs brings the total cost of each wash to $12.48. Multiply this by 1,600 bus washes a month and your total cost for a clean fleet is $19,972.01 per month!
That same fleet of 100 vehicles maintained by an automated washing system is estimated at approximately $5,222.27 per month. With minimum labor cost, the cost per wash can drop significantly. The only expenses incurred are for water, soap and electricity. This can represent a total monthly savings of $14,817.79.
"Currently a fleet of 300 buses can be cleaned thoroughly and economically in about 5 hours," says Gordon Risser, Sales Engineer Transit Division NS Wash Systems. "Operation costs have decreased and maintenance made simpler. It's getting easier for fleet managers to keep their vehicles looking good, well-maintained and appealing to current, new and future riders."

Even if your fleet is not as large, installing a wash system into your existing operation can save you a lot of money and time. These systems can also create an additional revenue stream by offering cleaning services to neighboring and visiting fleets.

With the availability of different styles and types of bus wash systems, there are some that will be better suited to your operation than others. Before settling on one system, the size and composition of your fleet, the amount of garage space you can commit to a wash system and the funds you have available for the purchase of one of these systems must all be carefully considered.  

The actual design and specifications of a wash system will depend on the manufacturer but for the most part there are four major types of bus wash systems available to the North American market.

Drive Through Wash Systems
These popular wash systems are designed to clean the bus while it moves under its own power through a series of rotating brushes and spray units. There are typically 2-6 rotating brushes that clean the bus as it is driven through the unit. A drive through wash system will usually have cleaning solution applied at the beginning and a rinse arch at the end.
A frictionless version of this system is also available. With no or very limited use of brush elements, high-pressure spray nozzles are used to blast away the dirt and grime. With no moving elements coming in contact with the surface of the vehicle, the risk of damage to the vehicle is significantly lower.
Both these systems are capable of efficiently and effectively cleaning your fleet. A common comparison between frictionless and brush washing systems  has been that brush systems clean 100% of what they touch, but typically only touch about 80% of the vehicle. While frictionless systems clean 100% of the vehicle, but only get it 80% clean depending on the system. Through their accelerated development and acceptance over the last 10 years in the car wash market, the cleaning efficiency and effectiveness of friction free washes has improved dramatically According to Tim Tobias, Large Vehicle Wash Specialist for Belanger, "recent advances in both touchless vehicle wash equipment and cleaning chemicals, driven by the demands of the fast growing touchless carwash market, have made dramatic improvements in the cleaning effectiveness of frictionless systems.

Roll-Over Gantry Wash Systems
In a roll-over gantry style wash system, the vehicle is driven to a predetermined spot and a robotic framework is then rolled down the length of the bus, cleaning as it goes. Using brushes, pressure nozzles or a combination of both, the cleaning apparatus attached to the framework moves down the length of the bus to a preprogrammed wash sequence.  One of the benefits of this system is that the cleaning process is preprogrammed and uniformly repeated. With the drive through system, the driver is in control of the wash process. The most common of these systems are the three brush roll-over gantry, developed in the 50's for fleet washing. In the past one of the major drawbacks to this system was the vehicles all had to be of the same shape and design or the wash system would have to be readjusted. With the advent of photo-eye sensors and other monitoring devices, it is now possible for wash systems to recognize the shape and specs of the vehicle and automatically adjust the washing cycle.

Over-Head Robotic Gantry
A new type of bus and truck wash system, originally pioneered by Belanger Inc., is the over-head robotic gantry system. Unlike older-style rollover gantries that run on floor-mounted rails, this system features an elevated carriage that travels on stainless steel rails over the top of the bus. This new design, the Belanger V-Max, was developed in order to minimize the negative effects of water, chemicals and grime that can affect traditional floor driven roll-over gantries.

Mobile Wash Systems
Another development in the bus wash arena for smaller fleet operations has been the introduction of mobile wash systems. While the vehicle is stationary, these wash units are wheeled around the bus exterior, either by hand or motorized chassis. Due to the spinning motion of the brushes and the balanced construction of this system, wheeling the unit around the vehicle can be accomplished with little effort. One technician can operate these units quickly and effectively. This is a great alternative for those companies that have limited space within their maintenance facilities or with limited numbers of vehicles at a given facility
Depending on the size and composition of your fleet and the space and personnel you have available, each of these wash systems has both benefits and drawbacks. Finding the right one for your operation requires that you ask the right questions and have all the information you need to make an informed and educated decision.

Many would-be large vehicle wash equipment suppliers on the market today are actually chemical suppliers that are looking for new contracts for chemical sales. As a chemical supplier, they may not be focused on providing you with the best, most reliable and efficient equipment available. In some of these companies, a conflict of interest has developed between dispensing chemicals and making an efficient and quality wash system.

One has to carefully determine whether a supplier is principally in the business of supplying chemicals and soaps, or in the business of wash equipment. If the wash equipment is too good, then their sales of chemicals, soaps and materials will be reduced. In the worst of these cases, a few of these companies have put together their own 'truck wash' systems consisting of a series of fixed arches that start out spraying soap as the truck enters and then rinsing off the soap as the vehicle leaves. In order to get any cleaning results at all from these systems, these suppliers must rely on extremely aggressive and hazardous chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid.

The best advice when considering the purchase of a bus wash system, or any new equipment for that matter, is to get to know the manufacturer and their service provider in your area. Ask questions and get references! The purchase of wash equipment is very much a long-term investment.  Therefore it is important to ensure that the supplier/manufacturer has very good track record, and that they will stand by their product over the long term.  If at all possible one should make it a point to visit current users, to see the equipment in action, and to really make sure that the manufacturer does stand by their product and have a service plan that works.

Quality manufacturers should have service providers within a reasonable driving distance of your facility to ensure a reliable and timely method of servicing and supporting your bus wash equipment.