Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Choosing a type of carwash

October 11, 2010
As a new investor in the carwash industry, there are a number of decisions you’ll need to make when planning your new business. The first of which is deciding what type of carwash you want to operate.

To identify the type of carwash (self-serve, in-bay automatic or conveyor) that is right for you, you’ll need to do a little homework. You’ll want to identify your financial goals, your market specifics, and also what factors are most important to your success and what needs, if fulfilled, will increase customer satisfaction. By defining your needs and those of your customer base, you can focus on the type of equipment and benefits that are most important to your unique wash business.

Below are a number of questions you’ll want to ask yourself.

How many vehicles need to be washed per hour, both on average and at peak times for me to reach my financial goals?
If peaks are intermittent perhaps a self-serve carwash with an in-bay automatic — or two — is the best choice. If consistent high-volume is needed, a greater financial investment in a conveyorized exterior express tunnel system might be best. In some situations, it may be a combination of equipment types.

You’ll want to do some research and talk with other wash operators as well as distributors to learn as much as possible regarding the equipment’s vehicle throughput. Throughput is the time or actual number of minutes it takes for the equipment to wash a vehicle. The throughput of a wash system will have a significant impact on your profitability. Make sure when discussing throughput that you’re comparing sites with similar characteristics and traffic patterns at your sites as they will greatly impact the performance of a location.

Another important financial consideration is your operating costs. When thinking about operating costs, the most obvious have to do with water, electricity and chemicals. But you must also consider the equipment maintenance costs over the life of the equipment. If a machine is not running at optimal conditions, or is constantly down for repairs, your profits can be dramatically reduced. Look for equipment that is well built, has high performance metrics and has a good reputation for being low maintenance.

How much space do I have available?
This should take into consideration both space for the wash equipment and available space for the queue of cars entering and leaving the wash.

During your planning you’ll need to know if a separate equipment room is required for the pump station and chemical dispensing unit or if they are housed on the machine or in the bay. You’ll need to know the length of the bay, so you can determine if the equipment will need to be modified from its standard size. Plus, bay size will also determine the type of drying system you’ll need — either free standing or on-board.

A number of manufactures offer traffic management systems which can ensure the flow of cars into the wash queue. A simple gate system allows multiple lanes of vehicles to systematically funnel into the wash at just the right time, avoiding customer confusion.

What are my customers looking for in a wash experience?
All wash operators need to consider the types of vehicles his or her customers will bring to be washed, and how customers would like their vehicles washed. For example, operators serving customers who drive dual-wheeled “dually” trucks should select equipment that has the ability to get this type of vehicle exceptionally clean.

Closely examine your market area and identify the options already available for customers. If there is an abundance of conveyor carwashes, for example, perhaps your customers would be best served by a self-serve carwash. After identifying carwashes based on type, also look into what options these carwashes offer the public. Do they offer automated entry systems, uniformed employees, a lobby or other multi-profit center?

Do the majority of customers in my market prefer touch-free or friction-type washing?
It goes without saying an automobile is a major investment. Today people are keeping their vehicles longer and want to keep them in showroom-like condition. Industry research has shown a significant consumer preference for touch-free over the past several years. At one point, touch-free equipment represented 90 percent of the marketplace. Today, there has been a slight swing in consumer preference in some regions towards friction to nearly 30 percent, so it is important to understand your customers.

You’ll also want to explore hybrid wash systems for both in-bay automatic and conveyor carwashes. Hybrid wash systems are continuing to gain in popularity and are considered by many experts the most effective method to clean and dry a vehicle. Hybrids are a combination of touch-free and friction cleaning technologies taking place at one time. The systems can deliver a more consistent wash quality than touch-free washing alone. This is due in part to the fact that the wash process is less likely to be affected by fluctuations in temperature and soil conditions, especially in those parts of the country where soils are challenging to clean. Hybrid wash systems can be the best of both worlds, customer acceptance of touch-free washing, coupled with customers who prefer the quality of friction wash.

How do I decide on an equipment manufacturer?
For the most part, carwash equipment manufacturers sell their equipment through a distribution channel, who sells the equipment to you. This is an advantage to you, since a local distributor will be able to provide maintenance and repair services for your wash equipment. Your distributor can also assist you with planning and zoning permits and give you great advice on how to run a successful wash business.

In addition to a strong distributor, you’ll want to look for a manufacturer that offers 24/7 technical support, and has on-line education tools and discussion forums.

Does the manufacturer offer comprehensive customized business solutions that address my wash business as a whole?
In addition, there are a number of other products and services that are be required to run a successful business; such as wash performance reporting, ability to set-up promotions, loyalty clubs and selling washes at multiple locations. A good manufacturer will be committed to helping you grow a profitable business. Look for a manufacturer that truly understands the wash business, not just sells wash equipment. In addition to helping with the initial purchase, a knowledgeable and committed manufacturing partner will continually develop new programs to help protect your investment.

As a new potential investor, selecting your equipment will be one on your most critical decisions. It pays to do your homework and don’t be rushed into a quick decision by a persuasive sales person. Take a look at the existing competition and the market opportunity in your area to determine what type of equipment is best for you. Then meet with your local wash equipment distributors to determine which brand of equipment and customized solutions are right for your unique wash location. The time and energy you invest now into selecting the right equipment — will be time well spent in delivering future profits for your wash operation.

Kelly Luberda is marketing program manager for PDQ Manufacturing. For more information, call 800-227-3373 or e-mail her at