When Tim Thomas arrives in his '90 Dodge van to clean your car, he first pulls out a couple of useful panels.
They are solar panels that help eight heavy-duty 12-volt batteries power the water hose, vacuum and other equipment he uses to wash, wax and detail vehicles.
"They can really crank out some amps," says Tim of the box-shaped batteries he bridges together.
Tim's solar-powered mobile car wash started a couple years ago when he was cleaning cars for Williamsburg, Va., residents. He often spent half a day there, running his noisy generator in an otherwise relatively quiet neighborhood.
"The generator and power washer are loud like a lawn mower," he says.
One day, a woman emerged and politely asked him if there was any way he could tone down the noise because she had an elderly mother living with her.
"I was really touched by what she asked," he says. "I thought about my own mother, so I started looking for ways to work quieter."
At first, he operated with only an inverter that utilizes power from the van's battery. Everything he did was quieter but Tim knew there had to be a better way.
Next, he tried a solar panel that just maintained power in his batteries. Then, he tried two panels that actually rejuvenate his batteries -- even on a cloudy day. He still needs the inverter to change the electricity from DC (direct current used for fuel cells and batteries) to AC (alternating current used in homes and offices).
"The sun doesn't have to be out for the panels to work," he says. "You get the same UV rays."
Now he can work in peace and quiet -- even talk on the phone, if need be, because there's no noise to disrupt a conversation.
The solar panels have been blessings in other ways, too. During last year's sky-high gas prices, he spent nothing on gas for his power equipment.
"I drove by the gas stations smiling," he says. "I only needed to go there to put gas in my van."
Eventually, Tim wants to turn his van into a hybrid so he needs less gas, maybe none if he converts to all electric. He also wants to hire a couple people and outfit them with vans and equipment so he can expand -- maybe even franchise the business one day.
In addition to juicing his car-wash equipment, the solar panels give Tim and wife Shakeena romantic picnic-style lunches together.
"We meet for lunch, pull out a George Foreman grill and slow cooker and fix whatever we want -- chicken, burgers, steak," he says. "The sun is an endless power source and we need to learn how to use it," he says.
Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services