Starting a Car Wash

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur trying to figure out what kind of business you want to establish, you may want to consider opening a car wash. According to a report by Grand View Research, in 2020 the global car wash industry had a market size value of $27.8 billion and a revenue forecast of $37.6 billion by 2028. The same report highlights that the industry is expected to grow at a rate of 3.8% from 2021 to 2028, with the North American region having the largest market share globally.

This industry growth makes starting a car wash an enticing option for those looking to open a new business. There are 16,976 car wash establishments in the United States, with 9,048 of them owned and operated by small business owners instead of corporate conglomerates. In 2019, the Country Business Patterns program found that car washes with paid employees increased by 6.8%, adding a total of 1,074 car washes to the market.

There is also an increased demand for car washes, as the number of consumers who prefer to wash their vehicles at home has decreased. In 1996, more than half of consumers preferred to clean their vehicles at home. In 2019, 77% of consumers preferred a professional car wash over home options.

With large market growth, increased demand and the industry’s friendliness to small businesses, you might be interested in learning more about how you can start a car wash.

Types of Car Washes

If you’re serious about opening a car wash, the first step toward realizing your dream is to figure out which type of business your market will support and which type you’ll be comfortable owning and operating. Not including mobile car wash businesses, in which a business owner goes to an automobile’s location to detail the car using a vehicle outfitted for this purpose, there are four types of professional car washes operating throughout the United States:

 

  • Full-service car washes: A full-service car wash will have staff clean a vehicle’s exterior and interior by hand. Some of these car washes also offer detailing services at a higher cost than their baseline cleaning and vacuuming services.
  • Self-serve car washes: A self-serve car wash refers to a car wash where vehicle owners use a wand or other tool to wash the outside of their automobiles themselves. Many facilities have coin-operated machines that people can use to vacuum the inside of their cars, as well.
  • Exterior conveyor car washes: When you go to an exterior conveyor car wash or tunnel car wash, you’ll stay in your automobile while your car is pulled along an automated conveyor through a tunnel. In this tunnel, washing and drying systems clean your vehicle’s exterior. On average, tunnel car washes use 14 to 60 gallons of water to wash each car.
  • In-bay automatic car washes: You can typically find in-bay automatic car washes at a convenience store or gas station because they generally require less space and labor than other car wash formats. When you use this type of car wash, you drive your vehicle into a bay and wait in your vehicle as the exterior of it is cleaned with automatic equipment. These car washes are usually more environmentally friendly than tunnel car washes, as they use 10 to 50 gallons of water per car on average.

Costs, Pricing and Profitability for Different Types of Car Washes

The four main types of car washes have differences in their costs, pricing and profitability. If you’re trying to choose the kind of car wash you want to open, take a moment to learn more about the capital they involve below:

Costs for Different Car Washes

The type of car wash you choose to open will impact the amount of money you’ll need to start your business, how much it will cost you to operate and how much you will charge per wash. If your operation is going to involve washing automobiles by hand, your start up costs will be lower than they would be for an automated car wash, but your ongoing labor costs will usually be higher.

In contrast, if you’re going to open an automated car wash, you’ll be able to wash more cars per hour without having to have many people on your payroll. However, you’ll normally have to replace your equipment every 10 years, or more often if it’s not maintained properly.

What Are the Average Prices for Services Set by Car Washes?

 

As you determine what sort of car wash business you want to own, factor in the amount of money you can charge for services. While prices change based on a car wash’s location and other factors, each type of car wash has a relative price point.

Since self-serve car washes have the customer doing the cleaning themselves, they have the lowest pricing of the four. They tend to charge customers in 15-minute increments for the use of washing equipment or vacuums. Basic hand car washes tend to be fairly inexpensive as well. In-bay automatic car washes and exterior conveyor washes tend to have higher prices than self-serve or basic hand washing options. A full-service car wash with car detailing is often priced the highest.

Besides looking at the general pricing for car washes, you can review the pricing of other car washes near your business. By reviewing your competitors’ pricing, you can get an idea of the prices you’ll want to set for your customers.

 

How Profitable Is a Car Wash?

On average, all the main types of car washes can net you a profit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. car washes had average sales totaling $593,600 in 2017. The District of Columbia was the top earner that year, with average sales totaling $879,000, and California was close behind, with average sales of $813,700. Based on these average sales numbers, many car washes turn a profit every year, making owning a car wash a good investment for business owners.

The U.S. Census Bureau also highlights what auto cleaning services make up the most in sales. As you consider opening a car wash, review the sales numbers of various auto cleaning services in 2017:

 

  • Self-service vacuuming services generated $100 million in sales.
  • Self-service washing and waxing generated $480 million in sales.
  • Handwashing, with or without waxing services, generated $780 million in sales.
  • Detailing services generated $1.87 billion in sales.
  • Automatic washing and waxing services generated $4.96 billion in sales.

How Much Does a Car Wash Cost to Open?

Once you have an idea of the kind of car wash you want to open, you’re probably going to ask yourself, “How much does it cost to start a car wash?” While certain startup costs may be the same or nearly the same from one location to another, many factors that affect the amount you’ll have to pay to start your business are largely dependent on where you’re going to open your car wash.

 

If you’re not going to buy an existing car wash, you’ll want to know some of the primary costs of starting a car wash. For example, land acquisition, construction and equipment expenses are all costs you’ll need to expect. Since the rates for these costs change based on location and other factors, it’s important for you to thoroughly research the going rates in your area to accurately estimate your capital needs.

Consider some of the primary expenses associated with opening car washes below:

Land Acquisition

Before you start building a car wash, you’ll want to purchase land. Ideally, the land you acquire will not have any preexisting structures on it. If it does, you’ll need to factor the expenses involved with tearing them down and removing the debris into your acquisition costs. You should seek out viable lots that are near frequently traveled areas close to other businesses and active, densely populated neighborhoods.

Your location will need to be big enough to support the type of car wash you intend to open and have enough space for vehicles to line up even after your physical business is constructed on the lot. It should also be large enough for you to expand your operation as your business grows.

If you’re going to own and operate an in-bay automatic car wash, you’ll need approximately 7,000 square feet of land for one bay. If you’re going to open a full-service car wash, you’ll need to have enough land to create a waiting area for your clients. The need to create a waiting area means you may also need enough space for a retail area so they can shop while your staff works on their automobiles.

If you’re going to combine an in-bay automatic car wash with self-service bays, you’ll need about 18,000 square feet for two automatic car washes and two self-serve bays. You’ll also need about 22,500 square feet if you’re going to have the same number of in-bay automated car washes and four self-serve bays.

Where you establish your business is an essential factor that will cause your car wash to either succeed or fail, so it’s critical for you to choose the right location. If possible, buy a lot on a roadway that has a speed limit of 40 mph or less. By placing your business in a location with a lower speed limit, you’ll give drivers the chance to see your business sign, potentially inspiring them to make a planned or impulse decision to have their vehicles cleaned at your establishment.

Paperwork

Before you purchase a piece of property for your business, you need to make sure it’s zoned for what you’re going to use it for. If it’s not, you may have to initiate the re-zoning process or apply for a special use permit. You’ll also need to check the local utility usage codes and sanitary sewers to make sure they are adequate to support a car wash.

Besides zoning and permit costs, you’ll need to pay for a business license, business insurance and property tax, as well. You may want to register the name of your business with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to ensure no one else can use it, too. Additional soft fees you’ll incur may involve architecture, engineering, impact and traffic studies and construction permits.

 

Site Work

Some site work will need to be completed before construction on the building you’re going to use for your business can begin. Site work includes earthwork and laying asphalt for your parking lot. It can also include prepping your external work areas depending on how you’re going to set up and laying the foundation for your building.

Construction

Like the cost of land, the cost of construction varies widely from one location to another. Your construction costs will include the electrical and plumbing work your business is going to need, as well as the expenses involved with paying to have your location tap into public utilities, including sewer and water. Building expenses tend to run higher for automated car washes than self-serve or purely handwashing businesses.

While a typical car wash measures about 1,700 square feet, it’s important that you think ahead when you’re planning your business so that your initial construction will be able to accommodate your car wash’s future growth. If you construct a building that’s bigger than you need when you start your car wash, you’ll have the opportunity to add new services and expand your operation as your business prospers in later months and years.

If your structure ends up being too small, it can have costly consequences. It can give a competitor the chance to offer the services you simply don’t have room to offer, for instance, and prolong the time it takes for you to recover the initial investment you made in your venture.

Equipment

Car wash equipment prices change based on the sort of car wash you open, the brand of equipment you choose to buy and your location. Equipment for a self-serve car wash tends to cost much less than equipment for automated car washes, as automated equipment tends to be more complex.

No matter what kind of car wash you establish, it’s likely you will need the following equipment, at a minimum:

 

  • Washing systems, such as a conveyor tunnel or self-service wands
  • Chemicals, such as cleaning and spot-free solutions
  • Dryers
  • Blowers
  • Vacuums
  • Brushes
  • Towels
  • Water system
  • Payment processing system

 

Signage

Your car wash’s sign is one of the most valuable marketing tools you have to promote your business. It needs to be readily visible from the road and able to be read quickly by passers-by. Don’t clutter your sign with too much artwork or verbiage, or use a color scheme that makes it difficult to read when illuminated.

The cost of signage varies based on a number of factors, including the size and the complexity of your logo. You’ll likely want to turn to a professional signage company to help you produce your signs. As you determine your signage costs, it’s a good idea to get free quotes from a few different sign providers to ensure you get the best deal.

Costs of Owning a Car Wash

With the costs of construction, signage, and other things, it’s obvious that the cost of owning a car wash will begin to grow even before you open your doors to the public for the first time. Additional expenses you’ll need to cover before you’re ready to welcome clients at your facility include labor and marketing costs.

While you won’t need to hire employees until your car wash is relatively close to opening for business, you will need to hire people prior to opening your doors so they can be trained to operate your business’ equipment and handle customers appropriately. The number of people you’ll need to hire is directly related to the kind of car wash you decide to own and operate.

If you have a full-service car wash, where you need staff to wash a vehicle’s interior and exterior manually, you’ll likely require more employees than the national average of 3.5 employees per car wash and auto detailing establishment. In contrast, in-bay automated car washes can run unmanned around the clock, leading to a reduced need for hiring employees.

Keep in mind that even if you run a mostly automated car wash, you’ll still need to employ someone to maintain your equipment regularly to avoid unnecessary or premature repair and replacement expenses.

Car Wash Marketing Ideas

When you own a car wash and want to make up the costs of owning it, you need to start cleaning some cars. One of the best ways to bring in new customers is to come up with a marketing strategy. Regardless of how big or small your marketing budget is, you have many ways to tap into your target market before and after your operation is up and running.

As you develop an effective advertising strategy, review some of the top marketing ideas:

1. Hang Posters

If it’s permissible, hang posters on telephone poles and other places that see a lot of foot or vehicle traffic. Depending on the relationships you have with other business owners, you may even be allowed to hang a poster in their storefront, especially if you reciprocate by giving their clients a discount on their first car wash at your facility or offering another attractive incentive.

2. Send Postcards

If it’s affordable, you can also market your business by sending postcards to your neighbors who live in the vicinity of your car wash. You can include a coupon on your postcard or use it to invite people to attend a grand opening celebration. In general, it’s ill-advised to host a grand opening until you’ve been open long enough to work out any kinks that might be present in your operation. If you’re going to have a grand opening, consider scheduling it for a month after you’ve been open to the public.

3. Visit Radio Stations

You don’t necessarily have to pay for air time on the radio to promote your business. Instead, you can schedule a time to visit with a popular, local radio personality to discuss your new car wash with them in an interview setting. You can describe the benefits your business will bring to the area, such as new job opportunities, and mention any charity drives your business will support in the future.

You can also ask a radio station to broadcast one of its popular shows from your car wash’s location during your grand opening or another high-profile event.

4. Use Social Media

Using social media is one of the most cost-effective ways for you to market your business. After an initial investment to have a website created for your business, you generally only have to invest time in social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter to promote your business and offer specials that are available only to your social media followers.

Of course, you also have the option to purchase advertising that will specifically target people who live and access the internet close to your business location, as well.

5. Set up a Loyalty Program

Even before you open to the public, you should set up a loyalty program. This type of program will encourage people to return to your car wash beginning with the first time they use your services.

6. Implement a Texting Program

As you collect contact information for your clients, you’ll be able to implement a texting program. Depending on the ages included in your target demographic, your clients may be more apt to use a mobile or digital coupon instead of one they have to clip or print. You can use text messaging to affordably notify your customers about current or upcoming deals and events.

For instance, you can offer them a discount that will automatically be applied to their account if they respond to your text message with a certain word or sequence of numbers. Be sure to limit the number of texts you send to about one per month to avoid irritating your clients with nonstop pings that could be embarrassing if they’re in a business meeting or occupied with a sensitive personal matter.

Tips for Car Wash Ownership

As it is in any industry, the highest potential cost of owning a car wash is failure. Fortunately, many resources are available that can help you succeed in the short-term and long-term regardless of the type of car wash you ultimately decide to own, including people who are already in the business.

Many small business owners like to help other entrepreneurs succeed, often because someone helped them when they were starting out. With this in mind, visit other car washes and talk to their owners. If you have questions, ask them. If you need advice, ask for it. Learn from their experiences and apply what you learn to your business.

Learn everything you can about the car wash industry by reading relevant print and online materials, and continue educating yourself throughout your career as a business owner. Stay abreast of the latest industry innovations by joining organizations such as the International Car Wash Association and attending seminars and workshops.

While the costs and labor involved with starting a car wash may seem overwhelming, the rewards of being an entrepreneur can be immeasurable. Respected industry authority Fred Grauer claimed to have been “seduced, mesmerized and captured” by the car wash business shortly after he started working at his uncle’s car washes back in the 1950s. What was supposed to be a temporary job turned into a lifelong passion and career for Grauer.

Costs for Car Wash Care and Maintenance

If you own a car wash, you’re no doubt intimately familiar with the common car wash repairs and costs that take place on a daily basis around the business. You know that no matter how well business is going, there are still likely to be plenty of repairs and the like going on behind the scenes that the customers would never guess.

But have you ever stopped to think about all the factors that contribute to the final dollar value you spend on maintenance and repair? If you already have a firm grasp on these figures, you might think you know all there is to know about these types of expenses. We’re willing to bet that there is more to learn, however. If you feel you don’t know much at all about common car wash maintenance costs, we hope you’ll learn a bit about them today.

To help you out, we’ve put together this guide to walk you through all the ways you can help make the most of your maintenance and repair budget. By the time you’re finished reading here, you’ll be ready to tackle and understand any expenses of these types with no trouble at all.

Different Types of Maintenance Expenses

When it comes to car wash maintenance and the costs thereof, it’s important to realize that these can fall into one of two different categories. While these two classifications have a lot in common, they’re distinct and perform unique functions within the context of your business operation. Let’s break these two categories down and see how they compare and contrast with one another:

1. Preventive Maintenance

Preventive maintenance is the category of maintenance and related expenses completed before anything has been broken or damaged. While it might seem silly or unimportant to perform maintenance when everything is operating in a perfectly normal manner, the exact opposite is true. By keeping your equipment functioning and healthy, you’re helping to increase the odds that it ever breaks down and needs true repairs done in the first place.

You might compare this type of maintenance to a twice-yearly dentist’s appointment. Even if your teeth are perfectly healthy, experts still recommend that you visit your dentist on a regular basis. Why? Because the dentist can provide a more thorough cleaning than you normally get, and this helps decrease your chances of developing a more serious problem down the road. Furthermore, your dentist will take this opportunity to check for any problems that may be developing that you would not notice at home.

In the same way, preventive maintenance performs these same functions for your car wash and equipment. It helps prevent future problems that could potentially put a halt to your operations or cost you a lot of money. Preventive maintenance also gives you the opportunity to check for the beginnings of serious, underlying problems you might otherwise miss until they become major issues and it is too late to do anything but replace the item in question.

2. Reactive Maintenance

Reactive maintenance is the opposite of preventive maintenance. As its name suggests, reactive maintenance consists of your reacting to damage that has been done. This type of maintenance occurs after the equipment has already been broken. Maintenance of this variety seeks to repair this damage or replace the broken part so that your car wash can resume operations, just as good as new.

To continue with our dentist analogy, if preventive maintenance can be compared to your regular checkups, then reactive maintenance could be compared to trips to get a cavity filled or your wisdom teeth pulled. In other words, something has gone wrong, and you need reactive maintenance to fix the problem or problems and restore things to their normal working status quo.

While preventive maintenance serves the dual purpose of preventing new damage and catching the start of damage before it gets worse, reactive maintenance serves a single purpose — to fix existing damage. The two types of maintenance are related, however, in that a lack of preventive maintenance will almost surely lead to an increase in reactive maintenance. And because reactive maintenance usually involves fixing an actual problem instead of just routine maintenance, this type of work typically costs more.

The Value of Maintenance

There is no question that maintaining your facilities and equipment will cost money. Even basic preventive maintenance inevitably detracts from your profits to some extent. However, consider what could happen if you stopped performing preventive maintenance.

With nothing to prevent your tools and facilities from becoming damaged, things could begin breaking down. And while preventive maintenance costs money to perform, reactive maintenance is usually much more expensive. If the equipment breaks so badly that it needs to be replaced, you’ll have to spend even more money. In addition to these expenses, you’ll also have to deal with the cost of business potentially coming to a halt because your facilities are being repaired. By comparison to this kind of disaster, we can see that preventive maintenance is very affordable.

 

If you’re struggling with the idea of spending money on preventive maintenance, it might help to think about it as just another cost of running a business. In your calculations, simply include it with business costs such as keeping the electricity on and paying your employees.

Another way to think about your maintenance work is as an investment. By keeping your facilities and equipment in good working order, you’re investing in the future of your business. You’re investing your time, money and personnel toward ensuring your business will remain functional and healthy for the foreseeable future.

 

How to Save Money on Maintenance

It may sound counterintuitive, but the truth is that the more attention, time and detail you dedicate to preventive maintenance, the more money you’ll save overall on car wash repair costs. These savings are often due to preventive maintenance catching larger problems while they’re still in their infancy.

If you’re looking to cut down on your reactive maintenance costs, the simplest way to do it is by bulking up your preventive maintenance. As you settle into your routine of maintenance and cleaning in your car wash, check out a few additional tips to help you make the most out of your repair costs:

1. Create a Maintenance Checklist

Based on these definitions of the different types of maintenance, we can conclude that while reactive maintenance only occurs on an as-needed basis, preventive maintenance must be performed regularly. But how do you know how often you need to do this? We recommend creating a checklist of tasks that you perform regularly.

To determine how often these tasks need to be performed, follow these steps:

 

  • Follow the recommendations: Most tools and equipment will come with recommended cleaning schedules dictated by the manufacturer. If none are available, contact the manufacturer and ask. Start getting a feel for how often you should perform maintenance and routine cleaning for various items by simply following their directions. Even if you choose to never advance your routine beyond this point, this is a good idea. If you do choose to continue developing your schedule, manufacturer recommendations are an excellent starting point.
  • Work in your environment-specific concerns: Working from the manufacturer’s recommendations, begin adding in any concerns that are specific to your car wash. For example, if you notice a tool isn’t used very often, you can clean it less often. You might also have an area that is often exposed to heavy amounts of chemicals, meaning you’ll have to take extra care handling anything in this area. While the manufacturer’s recommendations are a great starting point, your concerns are specific to you and will need to be implemented well.
  • Think about seasonal needs: Your car wash may have specific needs based on the time of year. Things may need to be cleaned more during your busy season or more during the winter when road salt is being tracked in and is covering everything. By considering all three of these factors, you’ll create a cleaning and maintenance schedule perfect for your car wash and its unique situation.

 

2. Know Where the Problem Areas Are

As the owner or operator of a car wash, you should try to develop a keen awareness of where the problem spots in your facilities are. By this, we mean you should know where things are most likely to break or be damaged. Depending on your operations, areas can become problematic for any number of reasons. It could be that they see the most traffic, are the most delicate, are the hardest to maintain or any combination of these reasons.

No matter why certain spots in your operation are problematic, it’s your job to figure out where these places are and keep a close eye on them. Pay extra attention to them when cleaning and performing preventive maintenance. Give them a quick glance whenever you have a spare minute. By doing these things, you are more likely to be able to prevent damage in these spots before it occurs.

3. Set a Good Example

Ideally, you want your car wash to be a place where everyone respects both the equipment and the facility as a whole. You want it to be a place where things are kept clean and tidy and where tools are treated with care. One of the first ways to create this impression is by practicing what you preach.

Keep the spaces neat. Set dress codes dictating that employees need to be dressed in clean clothing. Don’t allow dirt and grunge to build up anywhere in your facilities. Create a work environment that sets up punctuality, precision and cleanliness as high standards that need to be upheld. When you set a good example and have clear standards, your employees will follow suit, and customers will also be less likely to create messes as they pass through.

4. Get to Know Your Equipment and Chemicals

To truly notice when your equipment is becoming worn out or damaged, you’ll need to develop a level of deep familiarity with it. After all, you’ll rarely notice a problem if you never step out of the office and interact with the equipment yourself.

Don’t be afraid to become familiar with your equipment. See how the tools work. Learn how they’re supposed to move and operate. Get a feel for each piece of equipment individually.

By becoming acquainted with your facilities when they’re functioning correctly, you’ll be more likely to notice when something is off. You’ll notice that one brush is becoming loose, or a hose isn’t working quite like it ordinarily does. Because you’re familiar with the equipment, you’ll spot these slight irregularities that would otherwise go unnoticed.

5. Buy Cleaning Chemicals and Equipment That Makes Maintenance Easy

One of the best ways you can help yourself out when it comes to maintenance is by buying high-quality equipment in the first place. If you simply buy the cheapest option, odds are good it will break before too long regardless of the maintenance you perform on it.

Instead, buy quality equipment that will last. It will cost more upfront, but it will save you money in both maintenance and lost business if you have to shut down due to equipment failure. When buying new equipment, you should also take care to buy equipment that will be easy to maintain. No matter how many fancy bells and whistles a piece of equipment might have, be wary of buying it unless it looks as though it will be easy to maintain.

Outfit Your Car Wash With High-Quality Chemical Supplies Today

One of the best ways to maximize your maintenance and repair budget is to get your car wash outfitted with high-quality chemical supplies and products. To do that, you need to find a chemical supplier in your area you can rely on. If you’re looking for such a partner, we hope you’ll consider us here at JBS Industries.

We’re a leading supplier and manufacturer of car wash chemical supplies with over 40 years of experience. Car wash owners just like you from across the country trust us to supply products they need, including soaps, detergents, cleaners and detailing supplies. Our products are second to none, and we think you’ll agree once you give them a try.

Our products are at the very top of the line, and we also are known for our exceptional customer service. We respect all our customers as valued individuals who want nothing but the very best for their business, and we pride ourselves on providing that.

If you’re ready to get started with JBS Industries, there’s no time like the present. Browse our full selection of chemical products today, and please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have.

 

 

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