Maximizing Revenue with Different Types of Car Washes

Post-pandemic, consumers are dumping the bucket of hot water, soap and sponge and letting one of the more than 60,000 car washes in the U.S. scrub the family car. For car wash entrepreneurs, that translates into a reliable stream of customers itching to have their vehicles gleaming again – the core component of steady cash flow and healthy profit margins. 

But building a successful car wash business takes more than tapping into available demand. It’s choosing the perfect location, identifying your target market, understanding your competition and knowing what resources are available. 

Success also relies on choosing the right car wash operating model. Does your target demographic prefer to sit in their vehicle while the car wash does all the work? Or would they rather have more control over the process? Maybe somewhere in between? 

In this article, we’ll review each car wash type, the location where it might work best and speculate on how much it will cost to operate each type. 

5 Most Common Car Wash Types

As the car wash industry grows, so do car wash operating models. While both the tunnel and in-bay models remain the most common car wash types in the industry, full-service and flex-serve are can be viable alternatives in some situations. While the goal of all these models is to clean vehicles, they are vastly different. To make the best decision for your business, explore the pros and cons of each, and determine which best meets the goals of your business. 

1. Tunnel Car Washes

car going through car wash tunnel with focus on the back driver side wheel

Also known as an express exterior (EE) or conveyorized wash, this wash type uses a conveyor or belt to move vehicles through a tunnel while specialized equipment completes the wash process. They often are the only service offered at one location, but you can find some connected to larger service areas that include a quick lube, self-serve bays or in-bay car washes. 

Key Characteristics and considerations: 

  • High volume  – Tunnel models can wash multiple cars at the same time, allowing an express exterior tunnel to wash up to 200 cars an hour.
  • Faster service  – The ability to wash multiple cars faster results in significantly shorter wait time, boosting a positive customer experience. 
  • Attended  – At least one employee will help guide vehicles into the tunnel. Some tunnel car washes also man pay stations to help sell unlimited wash plans. 
  • Perfect for plans  –  Unlimited wash plans are nearly mandatory for tunnel car wash. Most also offer free use of vacuums, especially for unlimited wash plan members. 
  • Location information  – Tunnel models work well in almost any location, including city, suburban, rural and commercial areas. For this reason, knowing your audience becomes an important component of your overall business plan. 

While tunnel car washes typically require a bigger lot, advanced car wash tunnel equipment can now effectively wash cars with a tunnel as short as 35 feet. The average length of most tunnel car washes is about 120 feet. This makes a “mini-tunnel” car wash a viable option for some investors. Some operators are even converting their existing in-bay car wash types to these smaller conveyorized tunnels. 

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2. In-Bay Car Washes

mini van in car wash pay with sun shining at exit

In this operating model, sometimes referred to as in-bay automatic car washes, the driver pulls their vehicle into a bay where wash technology moves around the car. Automated mechanisms, such as high-pressure water sprays, rotating brushes and air dryers, are employed to wash, scrub, rinse and dry the vehicle efficiently. 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 and considerations: 

  • Small footprint  – In-bay models are typically only 40- to 60-feet long, making them perfect for small lots or as an additional revenue stream for a gas station or convenience store.
  • Low initial investment  – The smaller lot size often translates to lower real estate costs. Also, since in-bay models are smaller and less complex, it could cost far less – almost half – to equip them, when compared to a full-length tunnel. 
  • Unattended  – Entering an in-bay automatic wash can be accomplished without assistance, so most are successfully operated without staff. This results in lower labor costs and less owner interaction. This also means they can generate revenue 24/7/365.
  • Perception means everything –  Sometimes viewed as “that building out back,” successful in-bay washes need to stand out if they want to compete with the bigger brand-name tunnel sites.  
  • Location information – Similar to tunnel models, in-bay car washes can find success in most locales. For this reason, knowing your audience becomes an important component of your overall car wash business plan.  

3. Self-Service Car Washes

someone using a brush in a self-serve car wash on a red car

Self-service car washes provide drivers with the equipment, like pressure washers, foam brushes and vacuum cleaners, and the space needed to clean their own vehicles. Most have multiple bays with self-pay stations that offer a variety of car wash services. With the freedom to control the cleaning process and spend as much time as needed, customers enjoy the satisfaction of taking care of their own vehicles. 

Key Characteristics and considerations:  

  • Convenience   Self-service is a good choice for investors with locations in densely populated cities or other high-population areas.  
  • Low initial investment –  With fewer automated components and far less equipment, this car wash model is a simple way for some investors to enter the industry.  
  • Location information  Self-service car washes do well in both city and rural areas, where vehicle owners are often more interested in taking a hands-on approach or find that the self-service option better fits their budget.

4. Full-Service Car Wash

gloved hands brushing out a car air vent at a full service car washSome car wash owners offer full-service car wash options, providing complete vehicle cleaning. Drivers turn their vehicles over to car wash staff who manage the thorough hand washing process. While washing is completed manually, more and more full-service car washes will run vehicles through a tunnel wash before completing the exterior work. Interiors receive a soft-cloth hand washing and vacuuming.  

Key Characteristics: 

  • Extensive washing services – Full-service car washes allow owners to expand the services they offer. Extra services, like interior detailing, allow owners to charge more, increasing overall revenue. 
  • Higher price Because full-service car washes are more labor intensive, the premium price associated with them could be a dealbreaker for potential customers. 
  • Location information – Like touch-free car washes, full-service washes do well in cities and high-end suburban areas. They are also a good option for commercial and industrial areas where workers who are shopping more for convenience and thoroughness can drop off their vehicle and pick it up later in the day.

5. Flex-Serve Car Wash 

The flex-serve wash is a hybrid option, combining aspects of the express exterior and the full-service wash. 

Key Characteristics: 

  • Additional options   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. 
  • Moderate labor costs – Labor costs are lower than the typical full-service car wash, but flex-serve washes still need more staff than an express exterior. 
  • Increased volume Handling the initial exterior wash with a tunnel allows operators to increase volume while still offering the additional services some customers want.  

Choose Carefully

Choosing the right car wash type for your business could determine how well you succeed in the market. Take time to consider every angle before you decide, and then align your car wash business model with your customers’ preferences. 

More questions? We have experts who can help. Contact us today.  

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