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SUPPLIER NEWS: Car wash owner striving for pit cleaning economy becomes niche market provider

Apr 29, 2016
When Gary Fisher bought his Oskaloosa, Iowa, car wash back in 2009, it had one operating cost in particular that bothered him: the annual price of cleaning the pits in of three manual bays and one automatic bay. “They told me they had been running about $6,000 dollars a year," he said. "Right away I thought, there’s got to be another way.”

Fisher researched buying his own pit cleaning equipment. 

“I can’t speak for everyone. Whether it makes sense financially to buy your own pit cleaning equipment will vary from operation to operation,” Fisher said. “But in my case, if I could save $6,000 a year on paying for my pits to be cleaned, I figured it wouldn’t take long for a machine to pay for itself.”

Vacuum trucks were out of the question. They were too big for most car wash bays, Fisher said. And even if they had fit, quality used rigs run anywhere from $100,000 to $600,000 depending on their make, model and year. 

Still, it’s not a simple decision. Other considerations figured into the equation, such as cost to run it and to pay for its upkeep and eventual repair, plus the time and labor spent doing his own work, and where to store it when it wasn’t in use. 

Fisher studied pull-behind units that a ½-ton or ¾-ton pickup could tow. The first unit he purchased, a Ring-O-Matic 1000T, operated on just a 5 ½ hp engine, so its fuel expense was low. Fisher quickly became expert at operating the level-controlled hydraulics of its articulated boom and clamshell bucket. “They’re very easy to use,” he said. “I got it down to a pretty fluid motion.”

The clamshell lowers down through his bays’ rectangular 2-foot-by-3-foot pit openings. “You don’t need a huge opening for the clamshell, but you do want to have enough access room to maneuver it around inside the pit,” he said.

Fisher would bring the closed clamshell full of solids vertically up out of the pit, swing it over the back of the 73-cubic-foot dump box and lower it down inside before opening it, minimizing splash. Start to finish, he could clean a pit in a little more than a half hour.  

Fisher was pleased with the clamshell-style 1000T until he ran into an interesting problem. “I eventually had some other car wash owners that wanted me to do their pits, too, but the 1000T wouldn’t work in some of theirs. For instance, one guy’s pits had round accesses too small for it.” 

To accommodate the different style of bay accesses, Fisher sold his 1000T two years after buying it and invested in a Ring-O-Matic 850 Deep Vac—the “other way” to clean a pit. 

Clamshell-style machines primarily haul up solids, leaving most of the water in the hole and minimizing disposal requirements. Vacuum-style machines, however, suck up all of the pit’s contents into a large storage tank on the trailer. 

The vacuum power of Fisher’s Ring-O-Matic 850 Deep Vac is supplied by a heavy-duty Masport rotary vane pump. Its 25-foot, 3-inch suction hose connects the tank to a suction tube. “It works just like a giant shop vac,” he said. 

Like the clamshell-style machine, the Deep Vac pulls easily behind a standard ¾-ton pickup truck on a balanced trailer with 12,000-pound axle capacity. He has no problem getting into any car wash’s bays: “It even fits in tunnel washes and automatics that don’t have high clearance.” 

As for disposal, Fisher said that can be handled a number of ways for either style of machine. “Car wash operations don’t involve any hazardous materials, so it’s just a matter of working within a given county or states ordinances.” Fisher takes his pit debris to the local landfill. “They charge by the pound, but you can cut cost by letting the contents dry out. Then you’re only paying for the weight of the dry solids.”

Fisher’s Deep Vac not only saves him money but is now paying for itself through his side company, Quality Pit Cleaning. “The number of companies we serve varies, but we have numerous clients.” 

The difficulty of cleaning a pit also varies, Fisher said. “There are so many different sizes and configurations. And a lot has to do with the consistency of the mud, how dry it is. But my unit is very capable of doing the job. It’s got a lot of vacuum.”  

It also came standard with a pneumatic load breaker and pressurized off-loading to handle tough waste.

Jim Zylstra, Fisher’s Ring-O-Matic sales rep, said, “We have some car wash owners who, like Gary, not only save by cleaning their pits themselves but have found work on the side for their pit cleaners – and not just at car washes. A couple of clients I know run portable outhouse services with theirs. The pull behind units also work great for Port-a-Johns or even septic pits in confined areas that are difficult for a full-sized vac truck.”

Zylstra said the 850 Deep Vac sucks up any kind of liquid to depths of 15 feet, making it a versatile machine: “It’ll clean a 100-cubic-foot pit in about an hour, any pit. For septic services, it can be pretty handy, too, since the cost of vac truck services has been steadily increasing over the years. The list of things our customers find for their equipment to do once they get it just doesn’t stop growing.” 

Although the vacuum-style pit cleaner offers increased versatility, the type of machine owners prefer varies from customer to customer. Fisher liked both: “They each have their own benefits. I was fine with the clamshell. It’s easier to operate, since you just work its levers, whereas with the vacuum unit you do have to physically direct the hose in the pit, shoving it here and there. But the Deep Vac does a nice job, too, and it’s not really that hard to use, either. My son uses it with me.”

Having his own equipment may give the expression “money pit” a brighter connotation for Fisher, but he has discovered other advantages in addition to its financial benefits. One of the biggest is convenience of scheduling.

Fisher has his own bays on a 12-week cleaning schedule, which he recommends. “It’s preventive maintenance, really. I recommend it for my customers. You really don’t want to wait until there’s a problem.”

Cleaning can be done when it doesn’t interfere with car wash traffic. “We mostly clean during the night, on days of the week when the bays aren’t that busy. That’s a huge benefit, cleaning when it fits the customer’s schedule, not someone else’s.”

Fisher said the cleaning routine isn’t rigid, however: “We have no problem going in off schedule if the bays get full sooner. And we’ve definitely done that. The main thing is, don’t get behind on cleaning the pits.”  

By Joseph Bradfield

A version of this article first appeared in the February issue of Kleen-Scene magazine.

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