The Untold Stories and the Unsung Heros:
How Bowling Centers Keep Equipment in Top Shape

Bowling. The word conjures up memories of lazy afternoons or energetic evenings spent amid the roar of the alley, surrounded by friends and family who cheer on the strikes and groan at the gutter balls.  Bowling is the top-ranked participatory sport in the United States, attracting nearly 70 million bowlers in 2009, according to the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America.  Bowling is also big business: its revenues contribute nearly $10 billion annually to the country’s economy.
While bowlers enjoy the sport’s camaraderie, they also expect the game to run smoothly, which means that the pin setter and ball return machines have to do their job flawlessly.  There is an untold “behind the scenes” story of contemporary bowling centers, with unsung heroes who keep games rolling, patrons happy and revenues flowing.
Rob Plenge, manager of Oakwood Lanes in Washington, N.J., credited his team of mechanics, the men and women who service the complex bowling equipment his lanes need to stay active.  Oakwood Lanes was founded in 1959 and is family owned; the center started with 16 lanes and expanded to 26 lanes in 1975.  In the 52 years since its founding, the center has only had three head mechanics.  “We have good mechanics to begin with, and it’s great that they stay so long.  It’s a real win-win for us,” Plange said.
Michael Brinson, general manager of Golden Isles Strike Zone in Brunswick, Ga., agreed.  He credited the success of his 28-lane center, which opened in July 2004, to his AMF-certified mechanic, Curtis Kelly, who has 25 years of experience.  “He’s the key to our success in maintenance,” Brinson says.  In addition to Curtis, Strike Zone employs one other full-time mechanic and three part-time assistants.  Curtis leads the team.  “He maps out everything on a schedule of preventative maintenance.”
This maintenance involves cleaning the machines – pin setters, ball returns and lane sweeps – daily, often focusing on a different item each day, through a system of regular machinery wipe-downs, sweeping, mopping and system-checking.  In addition, Curtis and his crew constantly check approaches to the lanes and clean up spills on the lanes.
Cleanliness is the overriding tenet of bowling center equipment maintenance.  Jack Willson, a retired farmer who owns and operates Jack’s Bar and Lanes in Fort Benton, Mont., noted, “You’ve got to keep your machines clean and oiled.  That keeps everything working.”  Willson, whose six-lane center is located in a tiny farming community that serves league and youth play, handles all maintenance on his own.
Cleaning is linked directly to profits in bowling.  Brinson, whose lanes use Kegel equipment, estimates that he saves 20 to 40 percent annually on machine parts because of the cleaning schedule his mechanic enforces.  “The more money you spend on cleaning, the less you spend on parts,” he noted.  Tim Moll, assistant manager of both Spare Time Bristol Lanes in Bristol, Conn., and Bradley Bowl in Windsor Lockes, Conn., has a checklist to which his mechanics refer when doing preventative maintenance.  “Our mechanics regularly clean gutters, check for graffiti, as well as use their common sense when looking at equipment.”  A key to their maintenance plan is that each problem is written down so that it is not forgotten.
In addition to a regular schedule of basic maintenance, center managers recommend regular oiling of the lanes via the lane sweep, which cleans and then distributes a coat of oil onto the lanes.  The oil protects both wood and synthetic lane surfaces from dirt and grit, brought in by customers from the outside on shoes and clothes, which can scratch and damage lanes.  “If you don’t oil regularly,” Brinson explains, “the oil pattern on the lanes gets shifted around a lot and you get dry spots where sand and dust get into the lanes.  Sand is bad wear and tear on the lanes.”
Moll’s top tip for keeping the lanes in great shape is to strip and oil the lanes every day, and keep pinsetters and lanes clean.  He also said that one of the challenges to keeping the lanes clean involves the development, since the first bowling center equipment was designed in the 1950s, of heavier and stronger bowling balls.  The new bowling balls actually soak up oil in the lanes.  The older machines were not designed to handle the amount of oil that is used today.  Older bowling balls cause problems, too, because they become coated with oil and the belt in the ball return is not able to grasp the ball.  As a result, belts on the ball return must be cleaned.  In addition, if there is too much oil in the lane, the pins will slide around, making it difficult or impossible for the pin setter to re-set them.
Other challenges in more urban areas involve vandalism or a general lack of respect shown by customers to lane equipment.  “People disregard the equipment,” Michael Brinson explained.  “Sometimes people try to beat the lane sweep and wind up throwing two or three balls down the lane and hitting the equipment.  Sweeps can cost up to $600 to replace.”  For Brinson, an alert front desk staff is key.  “You have to be sure your front desk staff are watching people.”  Oakwood Lanes’ Plange, agreed.  “People are coming into bowling centers today with less knowledge about bowling in general.  They don’t respect or understand the equipment.  Damage may not be extremely large, but it does mean the need to make a lot of adjustments in the machines.”  Tim Moll’s bowling centers address the issue of customer surveillance through a series of 16 cameras set up throughout their centers.  The cameras spot customers from every angle.  “We also walk through the building regularly, in addition to checking the cameras,” he said.  “The cameras also help dispel law suits against the centers.”
Good communication between the front desk staff and mechanics is crucial, too, although these two types of bowling center employees inhabit different worlds.  The front desk staff is in the thick of the action, interacting with customers, answering questions and fielding phone calls.  They also need to keep a watchful eye on the bowlers.  The mechanics—or “down back” guys and gals, as the head mechanic from Westside Lanes in Olympia, Wash., calls them, lead often solitary workdays, spending hours behind the pin setters and responding only to crisis calls or pleas for help when games are at a stand-still. At Westside, the mechanics are “Jacks and Jills of all trades” who keep spare parts on hand for emergencies and use down time, when the lanes are closed or when use is light, to do preventative maintenance, general cleaning or rebuilding assemblies or motors in the machine shop.
Whether a center’s equipment is a series of old workhorse pin setters, lane sweeps and ball return units from the 1950s or a newer, highly complex computerized system, managers rely on experienced, dependable and observant mechanics who have pre-determined and routine cleaning schedules that help with preventative maintenance.  Checklists work well for this purpose, and manufacturers often provide lists that can be customized for a specific center.  Mechanics should oil lanes daily, and periodically clean pins and bowling balls.  Good communication and observant front desk staff and mechanics who notice poor behavior of customers or clean up spills on the lanes, also play a role in helping centers retain their investment in bowling center equipment.  The investment in good personnel, daily cleaning and open lines of communication among staff pays off.  As Tim Moll pointed out, “Equipment is expensive to buy.  The barrier to entry is high.  But when taken care of, the equipment does last.” –

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