By Diane M. Calabrese / Published May 2022
Many a car doesn’t get washed because it’s not that dirty. But for personal vehicles used in ride sharing, clean is the only option.
Has ride sharing been a boon to car washes? In some parts of the country, yes. Drivers get rated by the passengers they ferry. Some offer snacks to boost positives. All keep their cars clean.
In the 21st century, the investment that buyers make in a car is huge. In most cases, only homes cost more than vehicles. Protecting the exterior of a car becomes as essential to its longevity as routine mechanical maintenance.
Using 2019 data, the U.S. Census Bureau put the largest number of car wash facilities in the United States in California (2,025 washes) with Texas second (1,465 washes). Florida came in third (1,289).
The number of car washes in a state generally follow the population size. The initial surprise may be the Golden State is at the top despite wastewater and energy-use regulations. Yet regulations contribute to the opportunities for car-wash owners because many jurisdictions ban washing with a hose or even a bucket with a sponge and chamois.
Based on the 2017 numbers, the Census Bureau’s analysis of car wash revenue is positive. In California, sales per employee averaged $813,700, which came in second to the District of Columbia where they averaged $879,000.
Many car washes include conveyors and bays for washing other vehicles, such as heavy trucks and buses. The more vehicles destined for a car wash, the more opportunities for selling to car washes.
In addition, the variety in car wash types—conveyor (car moves), in-bay automatic (stationary vehicle, machinery moves around it), or self-service (customer uses wand to wash)—provides opportunities for distributors to sell to at least some of them. For example, selling chemicals and parts to self-serve washes may be a good way to enter the sector.
Owning a car wash can be a good business, and selling to the car wash industry can be good for business.
The owners of car washes encounter an array of challenges—water use, wastewater disposal and recycling, and customer volume highs and lows. A distributor that can assist the owners in multiple ways will find a good niche.
To get some sense of the opportunities and the constraints in selling to the car wash industry, we query Cliff Reed, president of Hydro-Spray in Clearfield, PA.
Reed: The supply chain issues continue and prove to be one of our biggest challenges both on the industry supplier side as well on the car wash operator side of the business. More so now than ever, customers are seeking out professional car washes to wash their car, and fewer are washing at home; so on one hand it’s an exciting time, but on the other hand, filling orders and meeting customer expectations is a struggle.
Also, employment continues to be a challenge right now, and even when you hire, there’s a lack of loyalty and/or commitment. Employees have proven they will move on for a dollar and seem not to value working their way up and becoming “someone” in a small business and becoming someone responsible for growth, etc. Employees seem to want very clear-cut job roles and are not very receptive to working across the lines within an organization.
Reed: Yes, we offer a product line manufactured by New Wave Industries called PurClean Reclaim System for wash water collection, filtration, and re-use of the car wash gray water. [It comes in various models and maintenance is relatively low.] That said, all reclaim systems require a small amount of daily attention, and most have a predetermined number of parts and costs required annually to keep the equipment working as designed.
Reed: We find that car wash businesses/operators that do not work exclusively with their equipment distributor with some form of maintenance program fail to keep up with the required maintenance their equipment needs. They find themselves two and three years into ownership with problems that easily could have been prevented and costs that could have been spread across the life of the equipment rather than met in one lump sum.
Some equipment distributors will fail their customers because they don’t offer an organized service plan or fail to keep up with it. And the other is true, that we have car wash operators that fail to buy into the distributor service plan because they think they can save money…Service after the sale can be as important as the type of equipment being purchased.
Reed: We have figured out that foaming chemicals onto the vehicle surface is the most efficient and cost-effective method in chemical application. Low pressure, low volume applications with air assist reduce both chemical and water consumption by as much as 70 percent when compared to old and traditional methods of applying chemicals through the high-pressure pump at higher volumes and pressure, which requires a considerable amount more in chemical concentrate. Plus, you’re using more water at the same time.
Low pressure/low volume with air assist has also proven to clean, shine, and seal better—i.e., a better wash. Yes, some form of high pressure or friction is required to do the heavy lifting, but after the heavy soils and debris are removed, good chemical applications and spot-free rinses are very effective.
Reed: Yes, and likely more efficient. For example, automated car wash systems offer “controlled” delivery systems and are not at the mercy of an individual’s discretion. Anytime you can automate chemical delivery, you often get the controlled aspect of the delivery.
In manual commercial wash bays, we often see a fluctuation in chemical and water usage. The same is somewhat true in a self-serve coin-operated wash bay, but here you do have more control over the dilution, and the pump stand is going to deliver the same way each time an option is selected; the variable here would be the consumer and size of vehicle.
Reed: Yes, we build mobile wash systems for the end user as well as corporations investing in their own equipment, that will then employ people to operate the equipment. For the most part our mobile wash trailers are either being built for the entrepreneur who is out selling house washing, commercial building washing, or much more. But besides this customer type, most often we are dealing with mining companies, gas and oil companies, logging companies, farmers, and excavating companies, most of which are dealing with heavy dirt and mud removal and grease.
Probably more about what is going on in our country and our government and how it’s affecting small businesses. Our current government is for big government and corporate America, trying to snuff out small businesses. [CT: This is a perspective we hear repeatedly.]
Reed: As a manufacturer, [our company was] talking with a [good size pressure washer distributor in a major city] today who was recently acquired. The parent company has car washes and oil lube
customers on their books. The distributor came to us about selling and representing our equipment line in their market because they now have some car wash operators to service.
It made me realize that we need to be reaching out to other notable pressure washer distributors in markets where we need representation because it’s a natural fit and growth opportunity for them that really makes sense. A pressure washer company looking to sell into the car wash market/industry needs to go out and find a reputable car wash equipment manufacturer to partner with on a distributor level.
And I would go as far as suggesting their first step should be focused on the “self-serve car wash model” because there are a lot of similarities between a self-serve car wash bay and a pressure washer/high pressure wash bay. That means they are already familiar with a lot that is going on in a self-serve car wash operation; they just need a little guidance on the electrical and mechanical end.
[CT: Reed emphasizes that the model he envisions for manufacturers pairing with distributors who already have a niche serving the car-wash industry is the nugget that needs exploration from both sides: Distributors can do the same in reverse. Moreover, the concept applies beyond the car wash industry.]