Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Self-serve token talk

October 11, 2010

When I bought my first carwash in 1988, the coin acceptors were not as sophisticated as they are now, nor were the tokens for that matter.

The acceptors could only work with one token or coin at a time, so if a customer wanted to use tokens as well as quarters the coin box had to have one slot for each.

However, technology has changed quite a bit since then and self-serve owners now have a variety of options.

Previous pursuits
The previous owner had tried to stay up with the very latest technology (tokens) and had installed coin boxes with two coin slots and two acceptors.

The tokens were brass, slightly smaller than a quarter and the outer edge was thinner than the rest. The token slots had a metal sizer installed, which allowed the token through but not other shapes of coins, which helped the acceptor reject counterfeits.

These tokens worked fine for a few years until we bought and built other carwashes with updated acceptors that could distinguish both the quarter and token, so we only needed one coin slot.

We wanted all the tokens to be accepted at all of our washes but wanted to know which tokens came from which wash.

Therefore, we purchased the same kind of token with one side having one insignia and the other side having a different insignia for each wash.

When separating we had to turn over at least 50 percent of the tokens to see which wash it came from. Not a very smart or efficient decision on our part, but it worked.

Percentage lost?
This brings me to the purpose of this narrative. I read somewhere over the years that the loss on tokens is about 10 percent a year.

I wanted to know just how accurate that information was so I kept track of the tokens I bought from September 1996 through August 2000.

The carwash, in Evansville/Casper WY, now has 12 self-serve only bays. At the time of the token tracking it had six bays.

Date of purchase Number of tokens purchased
September 1996 5,000
October 1996 2,000
December 1996 2,000
June 1997 6,000
December 1998 6,000
January 2000 3,400
August 2000 5,000
Total purchased 29,4000

In November 2001, we built the new six-bay carwash beside the existing carwash. We had very few tokens left in stock so we had to buy more of the same or update to a different token.

We elected to update to a token that is optically encoded specifically for our carwash. This token costs more but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to counterfeit and the new acceptor eliminates cross play.

We had our new acceptors (they are programmable for up to six different coins) take the old tokens until January 2002, making the time frame for those tokens about five years.

We also exchanged a few tokens over the last four years for good customers, but have had very few tokens come in in the last couple of years. We now have 13,700 of the old tokens in the safe.

Lost and gone
In those five years we sold 15,700 tokens for $1.25 each, which we'll never get back. For those 15,700 tokens that are not coming back we ve received $19,625.00, less the cost for the 29,400 tokens, approximately $3,250.00, which leaves us with a profit of $16,375.00 on lost tokens. That's $3,275.00 a year for five years.

Now back to the original question. Is the 10 percent loss every year correct? Yes.

We lost 15,700 tokens while buying 29,400 over five years. That is 53.4 percent loss over five years or 10.7 percent a year.

At the end of 2001, we bought 25,000 of the new optically encoded tokens and just three years later we had to buy another 25,000.

That appears to be consistent with the 10 percent loss or 2,500 a year, equaling 7,500 in three years leaving about 17,500 left in the system when we bought the second 25,000 at the end of 2004. We now have $17,500.00 in our bank that we ll have to supply services for and $7,500.00 that we won't.

Essentially, I think that the 10 percent figure will work for the number of tokens lost each year, not 10 percent of the value of the tokens.

We now put a wash value of $1 on each token, so even if we lose the same percent of tokens each year the loss profit will be down by 20 percent. We did not consider that when setting the sell price of the tokens. Two dollar tokens anyone?

Token suggestions

  • If you can afford it, buy the new encoded tokens with your carwash name on it.
  • If you buy regular tokens take the time to research the other tokens in your area to ensure that the arcade down the street is not selling ones like yours.
  • Have the same insignia on both sides.
  • Put no cash value  on one side and the wash value on the other.
  • For the wash value I would recommend even dollars, $1 or even $2 (See above but think of how you're going to sell tokens for $5).
  • Don't put a wash value of 25 cents on the token or you'll have to pick up three times as many.
  • Use the tokens as a selling tool. We give a free token when they pay cash for 10 tokens out of the bill changer or we give them 10 percent free when they put $100 worth on their charge account (not on a credit card).

Dennis Ryan has been in the carwash business since 1988 and the construction business for 40 years. At one time he owned and operated five self-service carwashes. Currently he owns and operates American Pride Carwash in Casper/Evansville, WY. He can be contacted at