Mobile blind cleaning units have long been promoted as a great business opportunity by several vendors of ultrasonic blind cleaning equipment. While this may be true, it is good to look at the bigger picture before investing.
The obvious advantages of a mobile operation inherently lies in the ability to bring the workshop to the driveway of the customer. It removes the need to transport blinds to another location for cleaning; therefore, delivering the service more efficiently with a significant savings in time, travel and handling. Disadvantages that could be sited may be issues related to having sufficient space and resources in the vehicle to attend to the needs of some clients or climate/weather conditions that may not make it practical to deliver services in months where the local weather is extremely hot or extremely cold. While there are other decisions that must be made in choosing the type of business model that best fits what you may want to accomplish in your blind cleaning operation, this article will examine some of the considerations to be made when going mobile with your services has been already been determined.
This first consideration obviously is what type of budget you have available to commit to this venture. Blind cleaning units can range from a simple water tank on a trailer with a power washer kit to box trucks with LED signage scrolling along the sides and diamond plated interiors with a large ultrasonic tank inside. While we know of folks who have spent over $130K on a custom truck set up or $65K on a fully equipped, ready made trailer; one may set up a mobile shop for far less if you decide to do it yourself. We have blind cleaners in our network with mobile units that vary from large vans with raised ceilings, to old bread trucks to custom built box trucks or trailers.
While trailers are lighter, lower to the ground and maneuverable, they also require a towing vehicle. However, that towing vehicle also gives you the option of doing pick-up and deliveries; also when vehicle repairs or replacement is needed you don't have to re-do your mobile shop at the same time. A truck on the other hand offers a compact one- vehicle set up that, depending upon the type of vehicle chosen, may offer reasonable gas mileage and maneuverability. Whether a truck or a trailer, space considerations must be seriously considered.
One needs enough room to work effectively and carry the necessary equipment. Those interviewed for this article all mentioned they preferred at least an 11-12 foot long work area with higher ceilings (8 ft for average length blinds and draperies) ceilings preferred. Though some worked with lower clearances, or shorter spaces, they presented problems in handling longer blinds or treatments inside the vehicle. Ideally a length of at least 14-16 ft was preferred, expecially if one was carrying the additional chemicals and PBIII to also do On-Site cleaning or had an 8 ft. ultrasonic tank on board. One needs to map out a plan to utilize the available space for all the operations that may be performed inside the vehicle as well as sufficient storage and stowage of acccessories and supplies that will be needed on a daily basis. While in some climates on nice days portable drying racks may be set up outside the vehicle, this may not be practical in many cases.
Before one gets too far along in planning a mobile unit, weight and balance considerations should be at least mentioned for any design. Not only does the ultrasonic machine have some weight, it will sit along one side. Tongue weights in a trailer or spring and suspension issues for a truck as well as braking capabilities should be evaluated. If one is planning on carrying water in the ultrasonic tanks between jobs or having bulk water tanks on board, not to mention other equipment, these all affect the balance, performance and ultimately safety of the vehicle.
Supplying power to the unit is another design consideration. While all of those interviewed carried a generator to supply their power needs if necessary, many of them regularly used an extension cord to tap into the customer’s electricity. How much power one would need depends upon the lighting, equipment used and other accessories. While one might run everything off a standard outlet and extension cord if the power demands are just the ultrasonics and a few flourescent lights, that wouldn't be true if on demand electric water heaters, an air conditioner or other high energy accessories also had to be powered. Use of propane (tankless) hot water heaters or heaters of the work area (for colder weather operation) was recommended multiple times by those interviewed.
The materials used for the walls and flooring of the shop space impact your budget significantly. While you need a work area that is easy to maintain and keep clean, it also should be resistant to water. Whether the walls were fancy stainless steel plating or practical FRP board glued over a layer of insulation, it is important to pay attention to the details so that water isn't going to be causing problems with rust or rotting. Having at least one "scrub wall" and other durable surfaces that can take a beating yet are easy to clean along with a floor that is not going to be dangerously slick when wet is important not only for safety, but also for one's professional appearance. Customers will want to see what is going on inside your shop. Better they see gleaming surfaces like a professional kitchen which instill confidence in sanitation and efficiency than something that looks like a fishing shanty from decades past.
Basic on board equipment varied, however, everyone had a way of heating their water. While some used bucket heaters or heaters in their ultrasonic tanks, most often a tankless (on demand) water heater provided warm water for cleaning. A method for ensuring that one had conditioned soft water for cleaning also was a given. While some used storage tanks to transport water, most often this feature wasn't used on a regular basis due to gas mileage and driving weight considerations. A hose to connect to the clients water supply allows the blind cleaner to start each job with fresh water. While some used tank lids to allow them to travel to other locations and work without having to refill their ultrasonic machines, the reality was that most jobs were large enough that emptying at leat the dirty wash water (if not the rinse) after each job was both necessary and practical. A water softner (or DI unit perhaps) was also carried on board as a cheaper alternative to using chemical water softeners. Draining of the used water was accomplished via hoses or piping systems either through the floor or out the back of the vehicle, with larger diameter lines (2 inches or more) preferred due to the time saved. While a 6 ft ultrasonic blind cleaner worked and was more portable (for inside a building if necessary), an 8 ft machine was preferred as it could handle patio door length Luminettes, larger treatments and wider mini blinds without "double dipping". Rounding out the required equipment list was a shop vac for use as a blow/vacuum, and a few storage cabintes or racks for holding chemicals and supplies as well as a work surface for repairing blinds. Having a repair bench cabinet with a counter at the same height as the surface of the tank was mentioned several times as ideal for both cleaning and repairing - especially if there was a counter hinged to swing down or to slide over the tank to expand the work area when needed. Trays or bins to use as drainage recepticles for newly cleaned blinds as well as areas to hang blinds using racks off the ceiling or walls varied from conduit rods or blind clips to cord loops along ceiling bars to portable racks set up outside or off the outside walls of the vehicle.
As space is at a premium, having ones work area designed to be flexible for multiple uses was important. As the area would be used for cleaning, repairs or transportation of equipment to and from jobs. Not only does one need to think through where they will put blinds before, during and after cleaning, but where the supplies and other equipment is going to be secured at any given time. Cabinets to hold repair parts, cleaning chemicals and other tools also were important as were their location to maximize the use of space. In considering work flow and layouts, don't neglect to explore the options and impact various door and ramp options may fit into your plans. Ease and safety (wet ramps?) entering and leaving the vehicle is very important.
Climate considerations were also discussed in some detail with some of those who worked in hotter or colder environments. Ceiling mounted RV style AC/Heating units were used along with fans or other ventilation and even the use of overlapping plastic flaps over doorway when working to provide a more confortable working atmosphere. If one plans on working on days when the temperature will be over 100 degrees or below freezing, it will take some preparation and adjustments to your set up.
Having a space for ladders, other equipment like PBIII's for doing valances or draperies (along with the chemicals and the accessories to support that type of work) also need to be considered. What about a small microwave for heating up lunch when the nearest restaurant may be miles away? Hopefully, we have provided enought to get your started along your journey.
A special thanks to those who took the time to respond to our request for an interview specifically for this article (Margaret Applegate, Robert Crawford, Jim Thomas and Frank Severn) as well as the countless others over the years who have shared information, comments and their expertise with us regarding this topic. Your "ten minutes" of conversation, cumulatively, will now be of benefit to hundreds of others, and could perhaps save them thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. We have network members willing to help others lay out or design their own moblie units or one can purchase custom made units from a number of vendors mentioned on our website.