BY NICK FORTUNA
A few years ago, Felix Taranto noticed workers showing up in sneakers on bitterly cold days, leading to miserable work shifts once they got wet feet. He recognized that entry-level workers might not be able to afford high-quality work boots, so Taranto, who operates three car wash and detailing locations in Massachusetts under his King Triton Car Care Centers brand, decided to do something about it. He wrote down his employees’ shoe sizes and gave each one a pair, just as the weather was beginning to turn.
“It felt like Christmas,” Taranto said. “They were so excited. It was saying, ‘This is from me to you. We’re going to stay warm, and we’re going to keep working.’ Now, every year, my guys know that they have a pair of nice-looking boots coming to them.”
Taranto said gestures like that can be meaningful to hardworking employees who now find themselves with a bevy of employers to choose from. In addition to boots, he gives workers a hooded, insulated Carhartt jacket featuring the car wash’s logo, a pair of work gloves and ready access to disposable hand- warming packs.
Employees working outside – greeting customers, prepping cars to be washed and drying them with towels – take turns standing in front of kerosene heaters on cold days. When his car washes are fully staffed, which is a rarity these days, workers rotate in and out, drying several cars and then stepping inside to warm up, like a hockey team making a line change.
—Felix Taranto, King Triton Car Care Centers”
Taranto said he often reminds employees to take a break inside and wrap their hands around a hot cup of coffee. Just inside the tunnel exit, a clothes dryer stays humming, giving damp towels a quick blast of heat so workers’ hands stay warm.
Taranto wants his employees to know that he cares about their comfort.
“It’s very difficult work to stay out there in the freezing cold and wind, drying off cars, so it’s important to show that you appreciate them,” Taranto said. “We used to be able rotate staff a lot more, but with labor so hard to come by these days, that’s going to be harder. Even if employees are well compensated, some of them will say, ‘It’s just too cold. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ So, it’s really about being out there with them and not just sitting in a warm office, watching them work through the window.”
Mandi Brower, Chief Operating Officer of Quality Car Wash, which has seven locations in Michigan, said her company also provides winter gear so employees can layer up. Workers get gift certificates to order company-branded vests, jackets and other warm garments from a uniform supplier.
Each location typically has a cashier working indoors and serving customers through a window, like a fast-food drive-through. There’s also an automated pay lane for members of the unlimited-wash club. As a result, workers rarely spend much time out in the cold unless they’re performing maintenance to vacuums, Brower said.
“We try to minimize the work that they have to do outside and then provide gear for when they do have to be outside,” she said. “Everyone has different preferences as to what they want to wear, so we try to give them a variety and a choice.”
David Blackman, Owner of Blue Wave Car Wash, with two locations in Rhode Island, said his company provides work boots and winter gloves to employees, but on especially cold days, some workers go all out to stay dry – they wear fishing waders. “You’re all sealed up from the chest down,” Blackman said. “You put a jacket over the top of your body and wear a hat, and you’re going to stay warm and dry.”
KEEPING THE EQUIPMENT WARM, TOO
Employees aren’t the only things at risk of freezing over in harsh winter weather. With all the moisture that accumulates in tunnels and bays, equipment can become encased in ice, temporarily shutting down operations.
That can be costly for car washes whose customers rely upon a good wash to remove snow, dirt and salt from their cars following a winter storm. And the risk of a shutdown isn’t strictly limited to car washes in colder climates, as evidenced by the freak winter storm that punished Texas last February.
In response, some operators are embracing structural changes to their car washes, enabling them to better withstand the elements. Last November, John Ketchen opened JQS Deluxe Car Wash alongside his John’s Qwik Stop gas station and convenience store in Vinton, Iowa. The car wash has four bays – two self-service, a rollover and a touchless – and has heated cement inside and around the facility.
Ketchen said his local plumbing contractor had extensive experience installing hydronic radiant heating systems in floors but had never done so before at a car wash. A boiler continuously pumps hot water through plastic tubes installed just beneath the concrete’s surface, so snow and ice can’t accumulate within 15 feet of the car wash.
“It prevents the bays from freezing up, for sure,” Ketchen said. “It certainly worked good last winter.”
Back in Massachusetts, Taranto said one of his King Triton Car Care Centers is situated on top of a hill, and a wind-tunnel effect would send a cold mist toward the tunnel exit. By the end of their shift, workers drying cars with towels would be soaked and shivering, so Taranto installed plastic wind doors at the exits of all three of his car washes, resulting in happier employees and lower heating bills.
The motion-activated, roll-up doors automatically raise and lower as cars exit the tunnel, and they have a “breakaway” feature, meaning that in the unlikely event that a car hits the doors, they will fold up and readily give way, preventing damage to the car, Taranto said.
“Even on those zero-degree days, I was able to stay open, whereas other times, I’d have to close down because the whole tunnel would turn to ice,” he said. “My guys weren’t getting drenched anymore, and that was huge. They were more excited about the wind door than I was. I was thinking of keeping the tunnel from freezing, but I quickly realized that it could also keep my guys from freezing, so it worked out really well.”
—Patrick Mosesso, Auto Bright Car Wash”
Ideas for protecting the equipment from the cold elements aren’t limited to what’s in direct contact with water. Roofing choices can make a difference too. Brower said Quality Car Wash’s locations have polycarbonate roofs that allow sunlight to enter the tunnel, providing some warmth.
Patrick Mosesso, President of the New England Carwash Association, said most members have some combination of gas heaters, forced-air heaters and radiant heaters to heat their tunnels and keep outside employees warm. Mosesso is the owner of Auto Bright Car Wash, which sits alongside his gas station, convenience store and express lube center in Framingham, Mass.
Mosesso said the highly competitive labor market is factoring into car washes’ ability to attract and retain employees, in addition to Mother Nature’s sometimes frigid snaps.
“We need people who like working outside, and that reduces the labor pool,” he said. “If you go to a restaurant or a retail store, you may see some fantastic employees, but you often can’t steal them because this is an outside job. I’ve tried employees in the past who’ve said they didn’t mind the weather, and then a few weeks later, they say they’ve found something else, and it’s typically an inside job.”
Although his car wash has two automated pay stations, Mosesso said he likes to have an employee out front to welcome customers, answer their questions and promote services such as the unlimited-wash club and express lube. Workers get boots, gloves and company-branded clothing such as jackets and sweatshirts. In addition to keeping workers warm, the customized clothing ensures that employees always look professional while promoting the car wash’s brand, he said.
When workers get cold, they can stand in front of a propane heater positioned in front of the tunnel entrance, Mosesso said.
“I still like to have a person out there to greet customers and provide that personal touch,” he said. “They have a radiant heater, and it throws off a good amount of heat, so someone standing there can keep warm while they walk around, taking care of customers.”