Selling to the Car Wash Industry

Selling to the Car Wash Industry

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published July 2017


Oil and water do not mix. In 2017, the twist is they do not mix and should not meet. The challenge is keeping oil and water separated when they come in contact during industrial and commercial processes, such as car washing. Given the many requirements environmental regulators set for the car wash industry, it might seem it would be a small sector. But that’s not so.


So large is the car wash industry it has its own NAICS code (811192). (NAICS is the acronym for North American Industry Classification System.) In 2015, the last year for which data are available as we write (data released April 20, 2017), the U.S. Census Bureau reported 15,902 car washes in the United States. The establishments directly employed 153,970 people.

Selling to the car wash industry may pose some challenges, but it also offers opportunity. And it’s a rewarding environment in which to help clients solve problems.

“We had one customer who needed a popular swivel they were selling to be slightly modified to last longer and move more freely,” says Tighe Greenhalgh, a member of the team at Midland Mfg. Co. in Kansas City, MO. “Our company has engineers at our manufacturing factories who were able to break down the part and redesign it to provide our customer with just what they were looking for.”

Being able to craft the parts that contribute to the whole of car wash facilities brings satisfaction. “Everyone at our company has a deep fascination with brass and stainless-steel fittings and valves,” says Greenhalgh. “It’s contagious around our facilities. The car wash industry uses such a wide range of fittings, swivels, nozzles, and valves that we really have a great time building product offerings for the industry.”

Manufacturers, distributors, and contractors in our industry can all find ways to sell to the car wash industry. And they can do so in any state. Vermont and the District of Columbia have the fewest car washes, with 30 and 10 respectively. California, Texas, and Florida have the most, with 1,936, 1,281, and 1,064 respectively.

Not all car washes are the same. They vary in structure and in ownership. There are conveyor washes (of many kinds), in-bay washes, and self-service washes. Stand-alone car washes come to mind first as places to find opportunities. There are also car wash facilities tied to dealerships and car-rental companies.

The International Carwash Association (www.carwash.org), which is headquartered in Chicago, IL, gives a profile of the industry that holds a light to genuine possibilities for making sales. According to ICA, two billion cars are washed in North America each year, and a preference for going to a car wash instead of a do-it-yourself cleaning increased from 47 percent in 1994 to 72 percent in 2014.

ICA also reports that the car wash industry in North America buys approximately $1 billion in chemicals annually. Purchase of equipment and parts across the industry is approximately $7 billion. (Figures supplied by ICA also include those for Europe and illustrate there is a strong market for selling to the car wash industry on that continent.)

Many ICA members have earned the organization’s WaterSavers® recognition. Members with the designation meet water quality and usage standards. See all criteria for the designation via www.carwash.org/watersavers/about/faq.


Car wash owners aim to clean cars with the least amount of water and the fewest and most environmentally-friendly chemicals. Proper disposal, or better recapture and recycling of water, is also a standard goal. To sell to members of the industry, help them  make optimal use of water, capture and reuse water more easily, and eliminate unnecessary chemicals.

Most car washes must meet the expectations and permitting requirements of the National Pollution Dis-charge Elimination System (NPDES), which is an outgrowth of the Clean Water Act of 1987. Permitting is a state or regional function. On first reading, it may seem as though a single bay, roll-in wash that discharges waste-water to a municipal sanitary sewer does not need a permit, but that’s the sort of thinking that can get a car wash in trouble. (And the EPA website is replete with accounts of car washes that made the wrong call.)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that determining what can and cannot flow into surface waters and what a source (point) of pollution is has been litigated non-stop for more than a quarter of a century. The safest course for a car wash is to use state-of-the-art technology for capturing wastewater and removing pollutants. Reuse reduces overall water consumption and constitutes a double plus for efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Car wash companies with the WaterSavers® designation meet permitting requirements for their locality, have backflow prevention for their portable water supply, inspect spray nozzles annually to ensure they operate at maximum efficiency, and much more. Just considering the short list here or visiting the FAQ link to the program cited in the previous section, manufacturers and distributors can quickly spot many opportunities for selling to car washes.

Among the opportunities: Offer more efficient nozzles. Offer longer-lasting nozzles. Help with the design of a wastewater collection or treatment method. And so on.

WaterSaver designees commit to using no more than 40 gallons of water on average to wash one car in conveyor or roll-over washes and no more than three gallons per minute in a self-serve facility. A manufacturer or distributor that can help car washes cut that usage will find a good path to a sale.

Effluent removal from wastewater is a pressing issue for car washes. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from vehicle fuels may get into wastewater because of leakage of fuel or as residues from combustion of fuel.

The EPA sets limits on concentration of VOCs, such as benzene and toluene, associated with wastewater from washes. Limits are also set by EPA for lead, chlorides, zinc, chromium, and other elements and compounds. A manufacturer or distributor should be able to demonstrate to a car wash facility how its wastewater treatment system will reduce effluents to EPA-acceptable levels.


For manufacturers and distributors not yet selling to the car wash industry, there are some good starting points for immersion. Members of the Cleaning Equipment Trade Association (CETA) may want to begin with their tradeshow partner, ISSA. (The CETA annual convention co-located with ISSA/Interclean takes place September 10–14, 2017, in Las Vegas, NV.)

In 2017, ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association, headquartered in Northbrook, IL, received a Safer Choice Partner of the Year Award from the EPA. Winners of the award demonstrated leadership in furthering the use of safer chemical products—many of which are biodegradable.

Manufacturers interested in helping car washes meet requirements for a wastewater discharge permit and/or license can review some of the detailed applications made by car washes available at the EPA (EPA.gov) website.

A Maine car wash applied for a NPDES permit for a wastewater treatment system to accommodate four manual wash bays (www3.epa.gov/region1/npdes/permits/2006/finalmeu508234permit.pdf). The essential components for this system for the Pine Tree State car wash were an oil-water separator, storage tank, septic tank, pump, bag filters, and monitoring port (for effluents). With more and more manufacturers and distributors in our industry providing wastewater collection and treatment solutions to contractors, it’s reasonable to expect that some who have not done so already can find ways to offer versions of the same to car washes.

There was a time when motor vehicle waste from body shops, including those with washes, could be shunted to a waste disposal well. Now, concern about groundwater contamination from seepage from such wells has led to bans on the wells in many states. More than ever, any facility that works on cars—if only washing them incidental to maintenance—requires a method for dealing with used oil, coolant, and brake fluid.

Manufacturers and distributors should consider (as a source of opportunities for sales) what EPA recommends to replace waste disposal wells: dry shops, holding tanks, sanitary sewer hookups, and conversion. Dry shops entail the use of absorbents and vacuums to pick up spills and drips, and then consolidation and containerization of collection materials for off-site storage management. Holding tanks are used for storage of waste-water until it can be pumped out for treatment or recycling.

Wastewater treatment becomes easier with filtering on the front side. The EPA recommends a filter-filter-filter approach to extract oil and solids to the fullest extent possible before storage for treatment. Filters (mesh, absorbent) are another entry on the list of products and solutions that manufacturers and distributors can offer car washes.

Selling to the car wash industry does not excluded contractors. The exteriors of washes require the same cleaning as any commercial building. And some enterprising power-washing contractors with portable tanks and wastewater collection and treatment systems might consider partnering with established car washes to offer mobile cleaning services to select customers—as a premium service and correspondingly priced.

The car wash industry is a vital economic sector, one well worth exploring for business opportunities. 

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