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Business Operations

The carwash building process

October 11, 2010
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No business is easy and carwashing is certainly not an exception. Construction will begin as soon as your permit application has been approved, and there are a lot of things you'll want to know to ensure a smooth project.

Even with the most trusted GC, you will need to constantly make sure things are going according to plan. What is on your construction calendar should happen when it is supposed to. It is imperative to stay abreast of all bank drafts.

Inspect that items the GC has requested money for are completed satisfactorily and that drafts are made in a timely fashion. Also, try to be present at all inspections by the building department. You need to know what, if any, issues must be rectified.

That said; don't forget that you're not alone. Every operator you've seen with a successful business that has inspired you to enter the industry, faced most of the same issues you're about to. Many people in the carwash industry are ready and willing to share experience and help others become successful. Be active in the regional and national associations, online forums, and other resources and you'll likely discover help at every turn.

Step 1: Develop a Concept

Your building and surroundings need to scream out to cars passing by at 40 mph that you deliver exceptionally clean cars, quickly, at a tremendous value. Start looking at buildings closely and compile a list of features you see that communicate those qualities. Look at as many successful carwashes as you can. Look at car dealers, gas stations, and any successful business you can find. Talk to other operators. Analyze what architectural features on buildings attract your attention and have strong curb appeal. The clearer the picture of what would be a successful wash - the easier it will be to work with your architect.

Step 2: Select a General Contractor (GC)

Selecting a General Contractor (GC) is similar in process to finding a good doctor. References are important. There are two basic ways to select a contractor. The first method is by Negotiated Contract. In this method the contractor is selected at the design level and becomes a true member of the project team. The contractor's fee may be based on a percent cost of construction, cost plus not to exceed, a lump sum, or as a construction management fee. The second method is by a Lump Sum sealed bid. In this method contractors are invited to bid on your construction contract. You will normally limit it to three bidders so that better contractors (approved by your architect) in the market will be more interested in submitting bids.

Step 3: Select an Architect

Look for Architects with strong referrals who have built carwashes or buildings that you have seen and like. Some GCs are design-build, which means they will provide both the architect and building drawings. Using a design-build GC with an in-house architect will often provide a clearer cost of your building as you go forward - each step of the way. If you use a separate architect, realize that architecture is an art form. Make sure you clearly communicate your objectives and budget so that they do not design a building you cannot afford to build.

Step 4: Select a Civil Engineer

An independent Civil Engineer (with strong referrals) who can review site engineering and layout of the property can be an invaluable asset. They will make sure the property lines are set and staked and that all retention issues are addressed. Additionally, they will test the boring of the soil to make sure it can support a carwash. You may find problems that force you to move the building rather than hit costly solutions to rectify an unstable soil problem where you were planning to put your building. The civil engineer gives you a system of checks and balances to make sure you fix problems before going too far.

Step 5: Begin the Permitting Process

Upon closing your loans and signing a contract, your GC will give you a precise bid for the entire project. This will include site work, grading, underground utilities, pavement, curbing, the building, and landscaping. Your GC will schedule meetings with the building department, fire department, department of transportation, water, and sewer department. From the information gathered he can modify and prepare a complete set of plans for the initial permit application. It is common to wait 45-60 days for the municipality to review plans. The greater the town's involvement prior to submitting the application, the quicker this process will go. Address any changes and comments from the municipality and re-submit as needed.

Step 6: Finalize Your Equipment Package

At this point you should have finalized your equipment package and budgeted for all associated costs, including tax, shipping, installation, and training. Your equipment manufacturer or distributor will supply the GC with all necessary files to be incorporated into the final architectural plans. Send a copy of your final approved construction prints to your equipment supplier for review. They, or the installer, will schedule a concrete trench inspection with your GC.

Step 7: Schedule a Preconstruction Meeting

Once your GC has organized all subcontractors and provided you with a construction calendar, immediately schedule a pre-construction meeting. At this meeting you and your equipment supplier will meet with the GC and all subcontractors. The division of duties between the electrical, plumbing, and heating subcontractors, along with the installer, should be clearly outlined, agreed upon, and documented. This meeting is critical to avoid confusion and eliminate any miscommunication.

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

I've always loved the saying; plan your work and work your plan. At times during construction it will seem that things should be happening faster than they are. If a project falls behind schedule, you absolutely need to get things back on track as quickly as possible. At the same time, be careful when trying to push a project already on or ahead of schedule to a faster completion. Sometimes it works out, but more often it causes unexpected problems to occur that can devour your time, energy, and money. If you do find yourself with extra time managing the construction of your wash below is my list of other things to prepare. Good luck and good washing.

Things to Prepare During Construction

  1. Pick the name for your business.
  2. Establish your business and open your bank accounts.
  3. Design the color theme, logo, and signage for your wash.
  4. Prepare your menus, offerings, and promotional materials.
  5. Join your local association as well as the ICA.
  6. Subscribe to all trade journals.
  7. Research detergent suppliers and establish relationships with at least two.
  8. Schedule training for yourself and management.
  9. Plan your grand opening to happen several weeks after you are up and running.
  10. Outline your marketing plan and community involvement strategy.
  11. Plan to be present during your equipment installation.
  12. Plan to be present during your computer installation.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the carwash business and is the President of SONNY'S The Carwash Factory's Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY'S Anthony was the Director of Operations for a 74-location national carwash chain. Anthony can be reached at 800-327-8723 x 104 or at

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