As automated carwashing has become the norm for vehicle owners over the past few decades, it seems the concept of “all new, all the time” has driven wash location popularity. New technologies and equipment across the car care industry advanced the wash process, attracted market share and increased customer expectations. Even so, this march of technology moved faster in some carwash formats than others.

Comparing the development of in-bay automatic (IBA) locations and tunnel carwashes demonstrates some of these differences. IBA washes have traditionally been more utilitarian, and their popularity was often driven by c-store and gas station locations. Stand-alone carwash tunnel locations continued evolving, and now many are packed with flashing lights, foamers and a myriad of new services. Yet today, this trend is changing.

Older IBA equipment is being phased out by new systems offering an array of profit-boosting features and upgrades. The latest generation of IBAs increases efficiency and improves wash results, and many customers are now drawn to IBAs due to the format’s convenience and ease of use. Further, added bells and whistles also ensure that new IBA equipment will continue to attract new customers and create return business even in competitive carwash markets.

Today’s IBA trends

Drawing customers who are familiar with the lights, special services and add-ons common in tunnel washes to IBA washes is a definite concern for operators. Jim McClimond with Mr. Foamer Car Wash Equipment & Signs says that there has been a dramatic increase in operators considering add-on and extra services. These options include carnauba wax treatments, better triple-color treatment dispensing, LED lighting and more.

The trend of adding a service to an IBA has also helped add to many washes’ bottom lines. The ability to add a new dispenser in a bay means an owner can add a fourth package upgrade, according to McClimond. This offering can cost up to $4 more than the wash’s current top package. A carnauba wax option, for instance, not only puts out a shiny car, but it also gives the customers a sensory experience. “When they do not get it, they know and see the difference,” he says.

McClimond notes that another emerging trend is a grand entrance arch for IBA washes. For the customer entering the space, it gives the bay a more exciting look, but the arch can also help sell the wash’s top package. By adding an additional profit center and making the wash “a show,” operators can expect increased revenue.

“Customers are willing to spend more for more value,” McClimond continues. “For years, it has been ‘you get what you get’ with an in-bay — no one was looking at ways to increase revenues and push the experience.”

Wowing IBA customers

One of the ways IBA equipment aims to wow customers today is through the use of LED lighting. McClimond states that colored LED lighting puts on an incredible show in bays, but its use is affordable. New LED technology uses very little electricity, so the cost per application is a fraction, but the increase in revenue and customer satisfaction can be great.

“Consumers want to be wowed,” McClimond explains. “Why do you pay so much to go to Disney World? For a great experience.”

In fact, some in-bay washes now integrate LED lighting directly into the wash systems themselves. Marcus McLaughlin, marketing manager at Belanger Inc., notes that the inverted-L models with LED-illuminated wash arms amp up customer appeal and attract more customers from the street. The wash efficacy may be similar to other models, but the business outcomes in wash volume and profitability can be noticeably better.

“Savvy, experienced operators who have switched from unlighted to lighted-arm machines have realized business increases of 25 percent or more,” McLaughlin says.

Improved speed and safety

These lighted arms not only attract customers, but they can also improve the operation and safety of an IBA wash. McLaughlin explains that, as customers enter the wash bay, lighted-arm machines can help them load their vehicles easier and faster. This works via intuitive color-signaling that uses the wash arms.

Green signals a driver to pull forward, red means stop for washing and blue alerts a driver to back up. According to McLaughlin, this effect is especially noticeable with two-arm IBA machines. As the double-arm format doubles the appeal of the lighting, it also forms a glowing “field goal post” that helps customers center their vehicles for washing.

Here, one can’t overstate the impact of increased customer confidence. Throughput is improved because customers load and unload their vehicles faster, and this speeds the vehicle exchange rate, McLaughlin explains. Wash volume is improved because customers enjoy using the lighted-arm wash and are comfortable navigating the bay.

“As well, the lighted arms actively market the site 24/7, even when the bay is empty, acting as a ‘beacon’ to attract new and repeat customers,” McLaughlin notes.

LED-equipped dryers

Another IBA innovation that builds on the popularity of the lighted-arm touchless equipment is matching LED-illuminated dryers, according to McLaughlin. These dryers use translucent housings with multicolor “RGB” LED lights inside that synchronize light colors with the lighted-arm wash machines.

McLaughlin states that these dryers transform the normally drab exit of an IBA carwash into an “alluring beacon” that further maximizes the ability of a site to actively market itself 24/7. Also, taken together with the lighted-arm washes, the lighted dryers create the feeling of a cohesive washing and drying system. This can be an improvement over other systems where bits and pieces of equipment are installed separately in the bay.

Experience shows that carwash customers notice, appreciate and prefer this level of wash system integration, McLaughlin says. In turn, customers reward this type of wash with more loyal patronage.

Improved results and efficiencies

The car care industry’s movement to express tunnels changed the landscape considerably because that format could process more vehicles per hour and provide higher ticket averages. Even so, McClimond feels that people in the market are starting to realize the need for both upgraded tunnels and IBAs. New IBA systems can wash vehicles faster than older equipment, and with increased profit centers, IBAs can compete on a per-vehicle basis now more than ever.

This improvement is due to the fact that many companies are using better technology to provide a faster, cleaner and dryer vehicle. In friction washes, new wash materials are softer, and better pumping and nozzle technology is providing cleaner vehicles via touch-free washes, McClimond notes.

Further, the technology for chemical dispensing has come a long way, and an operator can now expect more efficient cleaning while stretching a location’s chemistry. By upgrading to better nozzle systems and high-pressure chemical delivery systems, an owner can cut costs while getting better results, McClimond says. Changing a wash’s existing foaming manifolds will not only put on a better show but save money as well.

Even with all the improvements, McClimond reminds operators that the basics of wash upkeep are still important. Customers still expect a clean environment with properly functioning equipment. “Make sure your customers experience what you would want if you were at your wash,” he says.

“When it comes to touchless in-bays, most new systems can produce acceptable cleaning results, given the right chemistry, water quality and operational parameters,” McLaughlin concludes. “Today, the most noteworthy qualities that distinguish one machine from another are customer appeal and built-in business advantages.”


Sam Albertson is a freelance contributor.