As recent as 10 years ago, Car Wash Owners didn’t have to worry about their vacuums as much as today. The vacs weren’t as expensive and didn’t hold a lot of coins so the biggest worries were usually vandalism, cut or stolen hoses and nozzles and the occasional vagrant that would pry open the clean-out doors looking for money and valuables. As a result, the manufacturers primarily focused on coin box security and the owners would, at most, position a surveillance camera to oversee the vac islands from a distance.

Since then vacuums have grown much larger, with multiple profit centers with sophisticated control systems and displays with a variety of ways to collect and store funds. Start-up prices have also escalated steadily to match the increased power and features available to the customer, and as a result these machines can generate and hold many times the revenue they once did. Consequently, vacuum island security has become much more important.

Security Cameras

Security cameras have always been a front line defense and deterrent for every area of the car wash environment, but as vacuum islands became bigger revenue producers and the equipment investment has risen to a substantial part of the overall cost, surveillance camera placement has changed as well.

“One wide-angle camera covering a whole row of vacuums just isn’t adequate anymore”, says Jennifer Spears, a Design Engineer with The investment sitting on that island and the larger revenues generated, demand better safeguards and closer scrutiny than was common in the past. For existing facilities just now adding cameras we still recommend long range cameras and lenses hung from the main structure for the ease of installation, but a single camera now targets no more than two, and preferably one vac island at a time, depending on the layout. This still works well, especially if the vehicle must back out toward the camera when they leave. However, when we work with new facilities that are in the planning stage, we recommend they install extra conduit to nearby light poles and canopy structures to accommodate additional camera angles for even better coverage. In fact, we also recommend they add additional conduit to each vac island as well. While the additional conduit may or may not be used for cameras, as more and more services are added to vac islands, it is safe to say that a separate low voltage conduit line will be needed in the future. An extra conduit line may also be needed as a spare for the main line or even to pull additional high voltage wires if more high amperage services are added in the future.

Vacuum Security

Vacuum Manufacturers have steadily increased the security features on their equipment in the last few years as well.

Steve Osborn, Vice President of Marketing for Fragramatics, says that while some features such as hidden installation bolts and thicker steel have been around for some time, they have traditionally used lower security locks on the main door of their combo vacuums since there was no money kept in the main compartment. Those locks were designed to shear before major damage occurred to the door or cabinet. However, when bill acceptors were added and cash was now being stored in the main compartment, it called for a complete redesign of the security features.

“Our newest combo units now have a whole host of security features included as standard equipment”, says Osborn. The new Keyless Door utilizes a single Medeco plug lock that pulls out so the operator can insert a T-handle that turns to release 7 vault-style pins down the entire door length, and is backed up by a stronger double hinge assembly on the other side as well. Since the main door may need to be opened by maintenance personnel as well, there is now a lock on the bill validator so that the stored cash can only be accessed by authorized personnel.

A new Keyless Alarm is also standard feature on units that have the bill acceptors and is activated by a key fob that can be set to one of 1 million codes. The alarm also has a battery back-up in case of lost or cut power, and sounds a piercing 118 decibel alarm if tampering or vandalism is detected. The key fob has a short distance range of only a couple of feet, so that you can arm or disarm only one unit at a time. A red LED light that pulses when the alarm is activated not only lets the operator know that he has activated the alarm successfully, but also cautions any would-be thieves that the unit is being protected.

Ted Finch, Sales & Marketing Manager for J.E. Adams Industries says that their new Ultra Series Vacuums can also feature an internal Alarm System with sirens in the upper and lower cabinets, are battery backed, and utilize wireless magnetic sensors for the control door, LED timer assembly and a shock sensor that is activated when the shock from hitting, shaking or vibrating rises above the sensitivity threshold.

Other options available for most J.E. Adams vacuums include a Dual Service Door Security Cover that encloses the door latches and is secured with a Medeco lock, and a security kit for service doors that allow the operator to lock shut individual doors with various types of padlocks. Finch also says that there is now a new Security Cover for coin boxes to add an extra layer of security. A stainless steel lock bar runs through the exterior of the canister, then through the interior of the security cover and out the other side. The cover and lock bar are held secure by a discus style lock which is enclosed in a shroud on the side of the cover.


Taking cash out of the equation whenever possible can eliminate a lot of the problems encountered at vac islands, and is becoming more widespread. Many operators have switched to tokens to help cut down on theft attempts at both vacuums and at the changer and vending areas. Even Express Exterior facilities, many of which offer free vacuums, are now utilizing tokens vended at the pay stations for vacuum use, which also solves the problem of letting non-customers use their free services.

Another popular option is credit or debit card acceptance, not only at vac islands, but at every cash point at the facility.

“Card acceptance systems lower your exposure to the criminal element, reduce theft, vandalism and robbery attempts, but are also more readily accepted by car wash customers that don’t care for tokens”, says Dave Wilcox of WashGear, a manufacturer of card acceptance systems. Taking cards instead of cash not only means that there is less cash being stored onsite to tempt criminals, but also increases spending by an average of 40{26f0a7a72b13002dfc0db7b5a8ffdfc5973b58c93ea4d94fceb370af83af206b} over coins. Add in many other benefits such as fewer trips to restock your changers, less labor spent counting and transporting coins, and the ability to utilize fleet cards for corporate or municipal accounts, and it is easy to see why car wash owners are installing card acceptance systems at their existing and new locations. In fact, cashless transactions are becoming the norm at many car washes across the country.


The key to protecting your investment and your cash at the vac islands is by combining most or all of the features and safeguards mentioned here. You can’t be too careful when it comes to deterring theft and vandalism. If you don’t have an adequate camera system or alarms you are leaving yourself wide open for an event that is guaranteed to be costly. Not only in stolen funds and equipment damage, but also the revenue lost in downtime while you are replacing or repairing the equipment. Be proactive. Don’t rely solely on the safeguards that are built into the equipment. Most importantly, do something. Doing nothing is simply waiting to be hit, because in this day and age it is just a matter of time.

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With more than 25 years in the car wash business, Allen Spears currently owns car washes in Texas. He is also the Chief Engineer at (a division of Rugged CCTV) and has designed surveillance systems for thousands of car washes during his career.