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Unlike many retail businesses that require inventory management and supervision during operational hours, coin-operated car washes function a little bit differently, making them an appealing business venture for many entrepreneurs. Because customers do most of the washing in a coin-operated car wash, these facilities don’t require the staff that retail businesses need. If you’re talented in working with machinery and fixing things, opening a car wash might be a profitable business venture that you’ll enjoy. 

Business Overview

Car washes provide drivers with vehicle washing services that are both necessary and convenient. Regularly washing vehicles helps to protect their paint and can reduce the harmful effects of road salt during the winters. For drivers who live in apartments or other settings without the ability to wash their cars at home themselves, car washes are a must. Drivers who do live in settings where they have access to a hose and have the ability to wash their vehicles in their driveway may still use car washes because of the convenience and efficiency that they offer. 

Most car washes feature in-bay automatics which include a conveyor system that pulls a vehicle through the automated car wash. Self-serve coin-operated car washes require the driver to use a high-pressure hose to clean the vehicle. Some full-service car washes exist where attendants are present to wash the vehicles. 

For the purpose of this guide, we’ll focus on self-serve coin-operated car washes.  

Industry summary

The car wash industry has been enjoying increased profits and success lately. According to IBIS World, the industry experienced 3.9 percent annual growth from 2013 through 2018, and during that time the number of car washes increased to 67,382 businesses. Industry employment also grew to total 219,894, and in 2018 the car wash industry’s revenue totaled $12 billion. 

This industry growth correlates with the reduced unemployment rate in the country and the increase of disposable income. Drops in oil prices also caused more vehicle owners to use their vehicles more often, and with that increased use came an increased demand for car wash services. 

Industry trends

Because washing a car is seen as a discretionary service, the demand for car wash services is closely linked to the economy, the employment rate, and the amount of disposable income that drivers have. Rising gas prices also tend to reduce the amount of driving that people do, so even though the economy may be thriving, if gas prices increase they can drive down the use of car washes. 

Car washes use a significant amount of water, and 38 gallons of water are used to wash a single car, on average. Each day, 304,000,000 gallons of water are used to wash about 8 million vehicles all over the world. This high degree of water consumption, paired with the increased awareness of the importance of eco-friendly practices, means that there’s a demand for eco-friendly and water-saving car washes throughout the country.

Who is the target market for your car wash?

Most car washes target drivers and vehicle owners. In many cases, the target market for a car wash is local drivers who will tend to return to the car wash again and again. Loyalty programs and discounts for repeat customers can help to encourage this kind of loyalty. 

Skills, experience, and education useful in running a car wash

Starting a car wash doesn’t require a business degree, but certain skills and experience can make the process easier and increase your chances of success. 

Attention to detail. Monitoring the performance of equipment is a large aspect of owning a coin-operated car wash. When a car wash owner has excellent attention to detail, they are more likely to spot issues with equipment early on, which can help to avoid poor quality washes and potentially catch equipment issues early on before they become expensive repairs. 

Machine repair and maintenance skills. A car wash owner who can do at least some maintenance and repair of machinery can help to keep the car wash operational while cutting down on the cost of having a professional technician in every time a machine malfunctions. 

Customer service skills. While a coin-operated car wash is mostly operated by the customers, themselves, being able to appropriately respond to customer questions or complaints is an important trait for any car wash owner to have. 

Marketing skills. Marketing a car wash takes some skill, but an owner who can manage at least some marketing efforts, such as the establishment of a loyalty program and the management of social media pages, can help to reduce the overall marketing costs, making a budget go farther. 

Financial Overview

Unlike many other businesses, where you can rent or lease an existing property, car washes require you to purchase land and build the unique facility that they require. Because of this, the costs of starting a car wash can be significant. Expect to spend about $80,000 for the cost of land and constructing the car wash. Each bay of a self-serve car wash can cost between $8,000 and $10,000. 

Common startup costs for a car wash include: 

  • Land
  • Car wash bays and washing equipment
  • Vacuum units
  • Car wash soap
  • Signage

Working capital

A car wash needs working capital in order to operate. Working capital helps to fund expenses like utility bills and insurance. A car wash’s working capital may consist of the owner’s savings, but the payments that customers make for car washes also contributes to working capital. In other words, a car wash depends on regular, steady income to be able to stay in operation and pay bills. 

Insurance

Car washes require a number of different types of insurance in order to be fully protected. 

  • Commercial liability insurance covers expenses if a customer is ever injured while at the car wash, or if a customer’s car is damaged. 
  • Commercial property insurance covers the cost of car wash equipment that is damaged by a storm, fire, or other event.
  • Workers comp insurance is necessary if a car wash employs any staff, and covers lost wages or medical bills if an employee is ever injured while on the job. 

The costs of policies will vary according to deductibles, policy limits, and even the location and value of the car wash facility. To get a more accurate idea of insurance costs, contact a number of different companies and compare the policies closely to determine the best option for a car wash. 

Common operational expenses

In addition to the startup costs above, a car wash budget needs to include the common operational expenses outlined below. 

Employees

While customers do the actual washing at a coin-operated car wash, the car wash will still need staff to monitor the machines, make repairs or troubleshoot issues, and keep the facility itself clean. According to PayScale, car wash attendants make an average of $10.01 per hour.

In addition to salaries, other expenses that come with employing staff include paid time off, workers comp insurance, and unemployment contributions. 

Utility Bills

Be prepared for significant electrical and water bills. Plan to budget 38 gallons of water per car washed and electric costs of between $0.50 and $1.00 per car. Car washes that use natural gas to heat the water spend about $0.12 per car. Implementing a water reclaim system can help to minimize water usage and keep bills down, though the exact utility expenses will depend on utility costs in your area, as well as your specific usage amounts.

Marketing

Marketing is essential for a car wash, especially in the startup phase. Common marketing activities include print advertising, direct mail, online advertising, and more. Establishing a loyalty program can help to encourage return customers, and partnerships with local businesses in the community may also be an effective way of encouraging new customers to visit. Marketing costs will vary according to the specific marketing activity. 

Licenses & Permits 

A car wash business owner must obtain specific licenses and permits before opening the business. These licenses and permits can vary from state to state and even from county to county, so contact your town hall or local business administration office to determine which permits you will need. 

Your local government may have additional requirements regarding wastewater and facility specifications and locations, so look into all of these details ahead of time before you start building.

How much can you potentially make owning a car wash?

According to Focused Car Wash, wand- or coin-operated car washes average $1,489 in monthly revenue for each bay. An average two-bay operation brings in approximately $41,000 in annual revenue, and each bay is in use for about 10 percent of the time. With effective marketing and a great location, these profits could be higher. 

Things to consider before starting a car wash business

A large part of owning a car wash is identifying and fixing malfunctioning equipment. By investing money in quality equipment initially, you’ll be more likely to be able to use that equipment for years and years to come. It’s also important to get to know the equipment so that you can quickly identify issues. If you’re familiar with “trouble areas” that are likely to break, you can provide appropriate maintenance and monitoring to help avoid costly repairs. 

The startup costs of operating a car wash can be significant, but this type of business also offers many benefits. Car wash use is fairly stable throughout the year, and once a business develops a base of returning customers, profits and wash numbers can increase. The business is relatively low-maintenance when compared with the scheduling commitment required of a retail store, and car washes have only minimal inventory to track and manage. By strategically identifying a location in a community that needs a car wash and by getting creative with marketing efforts, you can increase the chances of your car wash being a success. 

 

Resources

International Carwash Association
Mid-Atlantic Carwash Association
Midwest Carwash Association
New England Car Wash Association
Southwest Car Wash Association
Western Carwash Association

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