Wash not, want not at Calif. Honda store

Amid drought, cars drive out dirty

Amid drought, cars drive out dirty

“You’d think that people conditioned to have the cars washed every single time they came in the shop would push back, but they really haven’t.” — Charles Caruso, right, Capitol Honda general manager, with Jon Hagan, service manager

Service customers at Capitol Honda in San Jose, Calif., can get a free wash with every visit. They just can’t get it at Capitol Honda.

Facing a heavy maintenance bill on an antiquated car wash machine and pressure to conserve water amid a statewide drought, Capitol did away with the machine and the free service two years ago. In their place, it began offering customers a voucher to a nearby car wash group that uses only recycled water.

Now, with pressure to conserve intensifying under new state regulations, the dealership is offering customers an incentive to forgo the wash altogether: They can redeem the value of the car wash vouchers in the dealership’s service drive.

Free car washes are among the tools that dealers use to build customer satisfaction and repeat business. But dealership general manager Charles Caruso says customers these days seem to be OK driving away with a little dust on the door panels.

“You’d think that people conditioned to have the cars washed every single time they came in the shop would push back,” he said, “but they really haven’t.”

Many California businesses have had to make such adjustments as California’s drought has worsened. California Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order in April imposing statewide water use restrictions.

Capitol Honda, whose massive garage serves more than 200 service customers a day, has been ahead of the curve. The dealership replaced most of the grass surrounding its 14-acre property with cobblestones, Caruso said. A new sprinkler system was installed for a small grassy area that it kept to be more efficient.

To wash new and used cars in inventory, the dealership went to a low-flow, high-pressure wand car wash booth, which uses far less water than its old drive-through machine.

“We were already trying to streamline the process,” Caruso said. “The drought kind of just pushed us into a corner.”

Getting rid of its more than 20-year-old car washer — which Caruso dubbed “the flux capacitor” — has saved Capitol Honda lots of water, cash and hassle.

Mechanics were coming out every month to repair the monstrosity, which had become so inefficient that it was chugging around 2,000 gallons a day, said service manager Jon Hagan.

“It was getting to the point where things were so clogged that the water wasn’t soft and you’d have to do two passes,” Hagan said.

The washer’s water reclamation system needed a $20,000 overhaul. A modern drive-through car wash would have set the dealership back about $250,000, Hagan said.

Eliminating the in-house car wash, on the other hand, saved about $20,000 per month, Hagan said.

The cost of the vouchers, roughly $10 apiece, is more than offset by lower labor, insurance, maintenance and water costs.

More recently, Hagan said the dealership has begun to redeem the car wash vouchers with service department credit if customers bring back unused vouchers to the dealership within two weeks. Customers are told that it’s all part of the effort to save water and deal with the state’s water restrictions.

“Our customers have really jumped in with this,” Hagan said. “We’re a couple of years into this drought now so they understand.”

Going forward, Hagan is evaluating other options, including new waterless car washing systems. The dealership hasn’t decided whether to buy one, but the days of using thousands of gallons to wash cars are likely over at Capitol Honda.

“I still think that dumping 2,000 gallons of water into the sewer every day is an irresponsible thing to do,” Hagan said. “I want to continue to move toward green.”

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