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Business Operations

Getting your carwash approved

October 11, 2010
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In order to understand the magnitude of this topic and how difficult it is to obtain necessary approvals there needs to be a clear understanding that your future business — a carwash — is one of the least desirable businesses a community wants. In the pecking order of desirability, carwashes rank somewhere beneath used car lots, adult book stores, pet crematoriums, junkyards and land fills.

There used to be a joke about the certain desirability of businesses. “Do you know why [insert name of city here] has more hazardous waste dumps than carwashes? Because [insert name of city here] had first choice!”

A bad reputation
Over the years, we carwash operators have done a heck of a lot to change this perception, but the fact remains that there is a bad feeling about welcoming a carwash to a community. Historically and in some areas of the country, carwashes are not what most town fathers want to be remembered for. Its easy to understand why: look around the country and like old derelict vehicles, you’ll find a carwash that is in need of serious upgrading.

We are typically not glamorous and the town usually wants what it thinks are “respectable” businesses, like banks, lawyers, medical offices and insurance companies. It doesn’t help that there are two seemingly contradictory perceptions of the carwash industry. On one side is the image of the rundown site, on the other is the impeccable, well-run carwash business. Which comes to mind first? Mostly it is the derelict site.

Improving your chances
Knowing the challenge, and assuming you must go before public officials, how do you get from inception to operation with the least amount of brain damage? The answer is how and where you begin. Acknowledging that all communities are different and yet the same is important. What this means is you will have to present your carwash to a number of very influential people and or groups. Each one is equally important on the road to approval. Much of what you will do is very public (basically the same from community to community) and some is private (discussions with community leaders, block captains, neighbors).

Obtaining approval is as much of a PR campaign as it is meeting all the technical requirements for approval. Therefore you must think about all the potential negatives and how you will respond to them. Public perceptions won’t be discussed in great detail in the hallowed halls of bureaucracy, but you can bet when public participation occurs there will be items from left field that will leave you scratching your head as well as trying your patience.

The following is a partial list of the gates, doors, barriers, and mazes you will pass through on your path to a building permit and eventual washing of cars.

But before going over the list, there are a few obvious points you’ll want to make sure of.

The Basics
  1. Is carwashing a conditional or permitted use?
  2. Does your site require a zoning change?
  3. What is the useable square footage for operating efficiently and profitably?
  4. Does the site have all necessary utilities and have you planned your facilities keeping in mind the minimization of impact fees, and other hidden costs?
  5. Does your site have the necessary demographics to meet accepted standards of volume and forecasted profitability?
  6. Do you have representation by a knowledgeable, experienced carwash expert who understands the meaning of fiduciary responsibility?
Permitting is a multi-pronged task, therefore putting your “To Do” list together, you should:

1. Identify those individuals within the city that will play a major role in your approval. Generally, the most powerful individual is the city engineer. Having an interview, sharing your vision, asking questions, getting direction and understanding what (from the engineer’s view) is critical in the approval process is paramount. If you don’t win this individual over you are climbing Mt. Everest.

2. Identify the real issues that might limit your approval. They will fall into two general pots. The first are those that are objective and logical (mechanical, legal). The second are those that are emotional. Here are some typical questions or points of conflict:
  • Hours of operation; if you are a self serve they may want limited hours;
  • The fear of light spilling over to adjacent properties; you definitely want the site to be well-illuminated;
  • Noise, rowdy patronages, criminal activities; part of the reason for a & b;
  • Technical concerns from both public and officialdom will include water usage, safety, traffic, ingress and egress.
3. Identify and interview those professionals that have the best track record in obtaining permits. This group will include the architect, builder, and lawyer.

4. Put together the best scenario, a PR piece you can think of that includes illustrations of your site. Then get stories and photographs of top notch existing carwash operations (your vendor should be able to assist greatly in this). Trade publications are a tremendous resource, ask the publisher. Go to Websites and scan the archives.

Use your imagination, interview people and create your own list; develop responses that are logical and factual. Be prepared, role play with any in your team who might have to respond or answer questions, and do take an experienced carwash veteran with you. Often times this last recommendation will be ignored with costly results.

Most communities know little about the carwash business. Your job is to provide education. If you are going to build a tunnel, tell them about the number of employees, the investment, the vision. Whatever your segment of the carwash business you want to leave anyone you speak with that you are an asset to the community, a highly desirable land use, a valuable service business, and on top of it all (as a result of technology) a green business, one who understands and utilizes resource management, as a key to success.

Remember the ad “This isn’t your dad’s Oldsmobile”? Well today’s carwash is the difference between a “Tin Lizzie” and a hybrid.

Fred Grauer ( is a former owner and partner in Sherman Industries, Mark VII Equipment, and Whistle Clean Car Washes. Grauer has over 40 years of experience in carwash design, manufacturing and marketing. He is currently a carwash investment consultant.

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