Selecting the Right Car Wash Operating Model

February 18, 2021

When deciding to dive into the car wash industry, there are many business models you could adopt, ranging from the all-hands-on-deck full-serve to the unstaffed self-serve. The most common models include in-bay automatic, express exterior, full-service and flex-serve. While the goal of all these models is to clean vehicles, they are vastly different. To make the best decision for your business, you must understand these differences.

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Express Exterior (EE)wraps washing a burgundy suv going through an express exterior wash

An EE, also known as a tunnel wash or a conveyorized wash, is where your car is pushed by a conveyor or belt through a tunnel as different pieces of equipment complete the wash process. They often stand alone, but some are part of a larger business that includes a quick lube, self-serve bays and/or in-bay automatics (IBA).

Key Characteristics:

  • High volume – An IBA can only wash one car at a time. Since each wash takes an average of three to eight minutes depending on the wash chosen, the typical IBA can only wash around 10 cars an hour. At an EE, multiple cars can be in the tunnel at the same time, allowing an express exterior tunnel to wash up to 200 cars an hour.
  • Faster service – Their ability to wash cars faster results in significantly shorter wait times for customers.
  • Attended – While an EE doesn’t typically require a huge staff, you will need someone to help guide vehicles into the tunnel. Some EEs also choose to man their pay stations to help sell unlimited wash plans.

Whereas unlimited wash plans can be a nice competitive advantage for IBAs, they are nearly mandatory for EEs. Most EEs also offer free use of vacuums, especially for their unlimited wash plan members.

While EEs typically require a bigger lot, advanced car wash tunnel equipment can now effectively wash cars with a tunnel as short as 35 feet. Therefore, we’re seeing “mini-tunnels” being built, and some operators are even converting their existing IBAs to these smaller conveyorized tunnels.

vehicle covered in soap inside an in-bay automatic car wash bayIn-Bay Automatic (IBA)

An (IBA) is the type of wash where you pull inside the “bay” and the equipment moves around your vehicle to wash it. You’ll often find these washes as part of a gas station and/or a convenience store, or they may be attached to several self-serve bays.

Key Characteristics:

  • Small footprint – IBAs are typically only 40-60 feet, making them the perfect choice for small lots or as an additional revenue stream for a gas station/convenience store.
  • Low initial investment – The smaller lot size often translates to lower real estate costs. Also, since IBAs are smaller and less complex, it costs half as much to equip them as it does a full length tunnel.
  • Unattended – Drivers don’t need help getting into an IBA wash as they do with a tunnel conveyor, so these washes can be unstaffed. This results in lower labor costs and less owner interaction. This also means they can be open and generating revenue 24/7/365.

With an IBA, perception is everything. IBAs are sometimes just seen as “that building out back,” so you need to make yours stand out to help it compete with the “flashier” express exteriors. Make sure you have a clean, attractive and well-maintained site. Maintaining quality and uptime is critical. If your wash isn’t consistently up, running and delivering a high-quality wash, customers will find a wash they can count on.

One way to successfully compete against a nearby express exterior is to establish an unlimited wash plan. In the past, the traditional RFID technology car washes use to identify plan members hasn’t been a workable solution for unattended IBAs because someone needs to be on site to affix the RFID tags to new members’ cars. Mobile apps are now making this more feasible by allowing customers to redeem washes by scanning a code from their phone instead.

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As the name indicates, employees in a full-service car wash complete the entire cleaning process without any action needed by the customer. It also means the “full” vehicle is being washed – interior and exterior, down to the vacuuming. While most of the work is manual, more and more full-service washes send vehicles through a tunnel for the initial exterior wash rather than hand washing.

Obviously, this model is going to be more labor-intensive than the exterior-only options. As labor costs rise and consumer needs change, the popularity of full-serve washes has declined. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated this decline as many existing full-serve washes converted to express exteriors. However, full-service car washes can still be profitable in areas with lower volume and/or a wealthier clientele with high-end vehicles.


The flex-serve wash is a hybrid option, combining aspects of the express exterior and the full-service wash. In this model, customers typically drive their vehicle through a tunnel, but unlike an express exterior wash, they have the option to select additional, hand-applied interior and exterior services.

This hybrid approach allows you to reduce labor costs and increase volume while still offering the additional services some customers want. However, it will still require more labor than an express exterior to provide those hand-applied services.

Weigh Your Options

There are many ways to wash a car, and that’s good news for you because you can find a business model that meets your needs and those of the customers in the area. Selecting the right one will help you achieve the best ROI and customer satisfaction.


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