Some fleets get creative when it comes to keeping vehicles clean.

Some fleets get creative when it comes to keeping vehicles clean.

Photo via Pixabay

Public safety and other government agencies can spend thousands of dollars per year keeping vehicles clean, but these agencies can use different strategies to help reduce costs and promote individual responsibility.

Presenting a Clean Image

Maintaining clean vehicles also helps promote a positive image among community residents, in turn, enhancing the confidence residents have in public agencies.

"I certainly hope the value of having clean vehicles is positively perceived throughout the community," said John Pompey, director of fleet vehicles for Leon County, Fla. "We found if our employees receive nice vehicles to use, it induces them to exhibit pride of ownership that will encourage them to keep it clean."

Some public agencies, counties, and states prefer to manage cleaning fleet vehicles in-house. Four years ago, the State of Vermont instituted a streamlined, centralized fleet management program designed to create a safer and more accountable department that stressed cost certainty and environmentally friendly strategies.

"In essence, Vermont developed a business service model for how to handle its vehicle fleets from purchasing to maintenance to cleaning," said Ed Von Turkovich, director of Vermont’s information centers and fleet management services.

"It was determined we needed to provide a motor pool of clean vehicles comparable to what you would get from a rental car agency," Von Turkovich said.

Vermont set up an internal system in which vehicles are cleaned throughout the week by fleet staffers. The cleaning includes detailing on the weekend by part-time employees hired at around $10 per hour. "To ensure this process is handled correctly, the State invested in high-quality equipment for such cleanings," Von Turkovich said.

In addition, the state’s two maintenance facilities — staffed weekdays, but generally idle on Saturday and Sunday — are used by these part-time employees to clean vehicles on the weekends. That arrangement is particularly beneficial during the cold winter months since the facilities are heated.

"We feel we are managing this ability to keep our vehicles clean about as cheaply as we can," said Von Turkovich, who estimated the state spent $25,000 in 2007 on such work, including equipment, cleaning supplies, and salaries.

Outsourcing Cleaning Work

Some agencies prefer to outsource the work to local car washes or more comprehensive cleaning companies. Ecolab Vehicle Care, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., offers a full line of cleaning solutions to keep fleet vehicles clean, protected, and a positive reflection of a business or agency. Fleet washing conditions vary from location to location, so Ecolab starts with a top-down interior and exterior vehicle analysis. The company works with customers to ensure the right combination of Blue Coral detergents, conditioners, and polishes are used to cut dirt and enhance water conditions, bringing out the shine on fleet vehicles.

The value of keeping fleet vehicles clean is obvious for businesses, but Ecolab does serve public agency customers as well, said Douglas Baker, Jr., Ecolab’s chairman, president, and CEO.

"Having clean vehicles can help cement the reputation of an agency and increase the confidence of local residents in their public safety departments," Baker said. "Each driver should be responsible to maintain the look of his or her vehicle as part of their everyday roles."

Some municipalities and law enforcement agencies choose to pay for one thorough cleaning at a specific time period (e.g. monthly) at a local car wash or gas station drive-through car wash. Such arrangements can come with a discount, said Jason Budyak, franchise owner of a Turtle Wax Car Wash & Auto Center in suburban Chicago. That type of arrangement can be profitable for the car wash, and often, public agencies ask to use the facilities during early morning or late evening hours when the business is not open. Contracts may be paid in monthly or annual flat fees or via a discounted per-vehicle rate.

Vermont does encourage its employees to use car washes as needed to keep vehicles in good condition, particularly after driving in mud and dirt or on sand or salt-covered roads during icy and snowy winter days, Von Turkovich said. In that case, employees pay for the cleaning on a credit card and turn it in as part of their expense reports.

Leon County uses local car washes. The County was searching for one or more new vendors to contract with for exterior cleaning, according to Pompey. Vehicles, such as graders and dump trucks, require frequent exterior cleaning, even though the public perception is that those vehicles will normally be dirty because of their functioning.

"We want to make sure any [car washes] we use are priced competitively, and those that give us a discount and do quality work are always going to be considered first," Pompey said.

For an extra fee, car washes will also provide scheduled internal detailing, but most public agencies are responsible for vehicle interiors in-house, Budyak said, because of the higher cost charged by his and other similar businesses.

Inmates Keep Vehicles Clean

During certain times of the year, officers and administrative staff at Oakland County, Mich., Sheriff’s Department take their vehicles to the county jail. There, trustee prisoners close to release or in for minor crimes can wash, wax, and detail multiple vehicles over a few hours. In most cases, these prisoners volunteer for such jobs, said Christina Russell, communications supervisor for the county.

One of the inmates’ responsibilities is interior detailing of county vehicles. In many ways, it is easy to convince prisoners to help in this capacity because it allows extra "outdoor" time, according to county officials.

"There is a high expectation for how the vehicles are supposed to look, and we make (the inmates) adhere to those standards," Pompey said. "It is a good strategy because there’s no extra cost to us."

Vehicle Upkeep Can Be the Driver’s Responsibility

In the State of Washington, officers who drive law enforcement vehicles are individually responsible for keeping their vehicles clean. An October 2007 Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Police Vehicle Operator’s Handbook states that at the conclusion of a trip or shift, officers should remove trash and personal items and fill the fuel tank if less than three-quarters full.

In addition, Washington State Police perform a before-operations inspection and report vehicle faults to a supervisor, or appropriate WSDOT staffers are required to perform an equipment maintenance review as outlined in its Vehicle & Equipment Preventive Maintenance Manual. Any deficiencies that affect safe mechanical operation must be reported to maintenance and be repaired before the equipment is used.

The Washington State Vehicle Operator’s Handbook also indicates officers should take reasonable measures to protect the vehicle and its cargo from damage or theft. Unattended vehicles must always be locked and theft of items from an unlocked vehicle may be the responsibility of the vehicle operator.

"The state assumes the responsibility of keeping department-owned vehicles in good running order and making repairs resulting from normal wear," stated Washington State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond in the report. "However, charges for vehicle service calls caused by the actions of the vehicle driver may be the responsibility of the driver. Examples include service charges for the deliveries of fuel, retrieval of keys from locked vehicles, jump-starting vehicles when the lights have been left on, and more."

In Vermont, the state’s Fleet Management Services (FMS) Policies and Procedures Handbook indicates the department assigned a vehicle is responsible for maintaining a clean vehicle. Specifically, the officer assigned a personal vehicle is charged with keeping it clean.

In most cases, departments have a vehicle cleaned weekly at an authorized vendor. The state’s FMS department picks up some of the cleaning cost if a specific state fleet service express card is accepted by the vendor. Various FMS locations throughout the state also clean vehicles over the weekend if department personnel are willing to drop off and pick up the vehicles.

Individual departments are charged if vehicles require major interior cleaning. The interior remains the responsibility of the department or law enforcement official assigned the vehicle.

For internal cleaning, keeping a little jug of Armor-All or other internal cleaner, a roll of paper towels, and some window cleaner can encourage individuals to clean their own vehicles on a regular basis, Pompey said. A can of tire spray can also be beneficial to help sidewalls look new.

As part of his or her job, each professional who drives a county vehicle should take a few minutes each day to wipe down the interior of that vehicle, he added. "For many of our staffers, their car really is their office."

That attention to small details encourages Leon County personnel to treat vehicles as if they owned them individually, Pompey said. With more than 300 licensed and 620 motorized fleet vehicles in the county alone, some responsibility for maintaining clean vehicles will always fall on drivers.

"We don’t require them to do anything specific, but we expect the vehicles to positively represent the county and our employees," Pompey said. "If you treat your (colleagues) as the adults they are, we find they generally treat the vehicles with care and respect."

Vehicles are checked weekly by fleet maintenance staff for performance or other operational issues that reflect poorly on the vehicle’s condition, such as a minor dent, scratch, or a messy interior, Von Turkovich said. Maintaining clean vehicles not only provides "image" benefits, but can also help improve long-term vehicle performance.

"The little things add up, and if you keep a vehicle clean, you will get a higher-quality vehicle to last a longer period of time as part of your fleet," Von Turkovich said. "Many of our employees keep their (state-owned) vehicles cleaner than their own cars and trucks."

About the author
Mike Scott

Mike Scott


Mike Scott is a Michigan-based freelance writer and marketing consultant who has contributed to more than 100 national and local magazines, websites and newspapers. He also produces copy for a wide range of businesses and works full-time as a marketing communications director for a global market research firm.

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