We are privileged to live in the “Golden Age” of the car wash industry. This era began back in 2001, the year that the highly innovative Benny’s Car Wash first opened its doors for business in Baton Rouge, LA.
Touted as the first real “express” wash, this exceptional facility combined for the first time all of the elements that we are familiar with today: modern fully-automatic equipment, functional POS stations, entry gates, a ride-through wash tunnel, and plenty of free-vacuums for customers to use.
Benny’s brought car washing up to a new level, delivering speed, quality, and convenience. Customers loved it, and wash operators took notice. But its incredible success did not happen overnight. It was some 87 years in the making and the result of decades of hard work and much trial and error by many industry pioneers. But once the concept proved successful, it provided an excellent roadmap to where the car wash industry was headed. It was the catalyst for the spectacular growth we have all witnessed over the last 23 years of this new millennium.
Two Decades of Design
By pure coincidence, 2001 is exactly when I designed my first car wash. Clients have asked me many times over the years how I got into the business, and while all of us in the industry have our “origin story” of how exactly it happened, mine was more of a case of good timing than anything else. It started right after New Year’s in 2001 when an old client of mine, David Daszkal, contacted me and asked if I knew anything about car washes. Replying that I did not, he said he was thinking about opening one and would like to talk more about it when I got back home.
At that time, I was still in the US Naval Reserve on active duty in Stuttgart, Germany. I was there to work on serious post-war issues in the last major European conflict before Ukraine, the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had been directly involved in this terrible conflict before, stationed in Brindisi, Italy, in 1995 and Vicenza, Italy, in 1996-97. On this last tour, I had to spend extended periods in war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, a dangerous place to live and work, even in the post-war period. When this very difficult tour ended in late February 2001, I finally decided to retire from the Navy for good. That ended my six-year-long sabbatical from my architectural career.
When I returned to my old architecture office in Boca Raton, FL, the first project on my desk was designing this car wash. Of course, I knew nothing about it, and the internet was still in its infancy with little information that could help me, so the owner and I went to look at other recently built car washes in the South Florida area to get ideas.
Although new, these were all old-school, full-service type washes with the same basic layout established in the 1950s. I recognized the layout since I had used these types of washes many times before, all rectangular-shaped buildings lacking any style or customer appeal and typically dirty in appearance. Not knowing any better, I thought this was the only way to design a car wash. Then David introduced me to a few senior guys at Sonny’s Car Wash Factory, which, by dumb luck, was just 40 minutes away from my office.
There, I met Herschel Kilgore, Wade Young, and, of course, Anthony Analetto. These three became my mentors. With their guidance, I quickly designed a very attractive car wash for the owner with a highly functional layout and lots of curb appeal to get customers in the door.
This first wash, named Motor City Car Wash and located in Boynton Beach, FL, was a full-service type but with all the interior cleaning, vacuuming, and wiping down after the wash tunnel. This new layout sped up the wash process, but customers still exited their vehicles, walked through a lobby crammed full of items to buy, paid at a cashier, and then waited outside at picnic tables and benchesto pick up their cars. While this improved the old traditional 50’s style wash and was easier to manage, there were still too many employees, and the processing time was way too slow. There had to be a better way.
Our company designed another four washes for this owner, making numerous improvements at every new location and another dozen full-service washes with similar layouts for other owners. In all these, we experimented with different architectural styles and building materials, trying to findthe perfect combination to attract customers and reduce building and maintenance costs.
Starting to Flex
Early in 2006, we designed our first “flex” wash, Wadawash Car Wash, located in Port Pierce, FL. Placed on a very difficult star-shaped site, this design featured a 125-foot conveyor,
Sonny’s equipment, 24 free vacuums, pay terminals, a ride-thru wash tunnel, a separate large full-service/detailing building, and covered finish lanes. With great stacking and traffic flow, the layout improved vastly over the traditional full-service model. It also gave customers an exterior-only option, allowing them to quickly get in and out in less than five minutes, a very popular feature.
We followed up on this excellent design concept with a much larger and far more elaborate “super flex” facility in Boise, ID, in 2010 called Fast Eddy’s Car Wash. Possessing an innovative, highly functional site layout and eye-catching architectural design, this huge flex wash included a 134-foot long conveyor, outstanding equipment (MacNeil), four-bay interior full-service and detailing center (16 vehicle capacity), an attached three-bay oil change (including one for RV’s), 22 free-vacuums, and a separate very large C-store/gas station (16 pumps) with drive-thru restaurant.
We also designed a huge three-lane POS pay structure out front near the main roadway that acted as a distinctive architectural icon that could be seen more than a quarter mile down the street in either direction. The owner topped it off with two huge, full-color digital signs like those in Vegas and a very bright multi-colored paint scheme. Overall, it was a very elegant and highly attractive car-care facility that proved a real winner with customers and other wash operators that would fly in to see it. Featured on the November 2012 cover of Auto Laundry News, this huge facility took car washing up to another level.
The Express Concept
In 2012, we finally designed our first “express” wash. Located near Dallas, TX, in the city of Rowlett, it was called Appleseed Car Wash (later Rev), the facility featured Belanger equipment, a 128-foot-long conveyor, and 18 free vacuum spaces. It featured an attractive modern design with great traffic flow. At the same time, we designed another location in the nearby city of Garland, this time on
a larger site with a 150-foot-long conveyor and some 30 free vacuum spaces. Both washes ended up being constructed nearly simultaneously and came out great with a lot of positive feedback from customers. After these two washes were completed, most of our car wash design projects shifted from “flex” type models to “express” ones, a trend that has continued until today.
Further developing the super flex wash concept that we had started with Fast Eddy’s, we designed Canton Car Wash in White Marsh, MD in 2013. Located north of Baltimore just off of I-95, this incredible wash was a real machine with a 151-foot-long conveyor, great equipment (Belanger), three-bay interior full-service center (12 vehicle capacity), 22 free-vacuums, and a unique 12-vehicle detail area with a large, cantilevered steel shelter. The wash also featured the most elaborate and up-scale customer lobby we ever designed, complete with a Starbucks-like coffee shop. Overall, a very beautiful and classy wash that blew away the competition.
This was followed by Soaring Car Wash in Elmwood Park, NJ in 2016, another huge flex wash with lots of curb appeal. It featured a 123-foot-long conveyor, great MacNeil and AutoVac equipment, three full-service bays, detail lanes with 10 vehicle capacity, 16 free vacuum spaces, and an adjacent Wendy’s restaurant. The final design resulted in a stunning modern triangular-shaped building design that crushed the competition. This wash was also featured on the cover of Auto Landry News in November 2018.
After designing hundreds of flex and express washes of various sizes and styles in more than 25 states and several countries overseas, we were finally contracted to design a true monster-sized express wash project in Boise, ID called Fast Eddy’s Car Wash 2. We had already designed a huge flex wash facility for the owner before, but this time, he wanted an enormous “super express” wash and quick lube.
Featuring a highly functional site layout and eye-catching architectural design, this massive express wash included side-by-side twin 160- foot-long conveyors, two sets of outstanding equipment (MacNeil), a three-bay double-stacked oil change (6 vehicle capacity at a time), 40 free-vacuums (Vacutech), and a separate 12,000-square foot, two-story c-store/gas station/offices (24 pumps) with drive-thru restaurant.
Like the first Fast Eddy’s, the site featured a huge three-lane POS pay structure out front near the highway and a very bright multi-colored paint scheme that brought the 5.5-acre complex together. Featured in Auto Laundry News on the November 2019 cover, it is one of the biggest and best wash facilities ever created.
We currently have more than a dozen express washes under construction in five states. The best of these and my favorite, US Patriots Car Wash in Killeen, TX, was featured on the cover of Auto Laundry News last year. A patriotic military-themed car wash with a modern angular design and a bright red, white, and blue paint job, the wash will appeal to the tens of thousands of soldiers and civilian employees at the enormous US Army base in town. The wash features a 136-foot-long conveyor, Belanger wash equipment, a roomy customer lobby to stash the kids, and 36 free vacuum spaces to eliminate waiting even on the busiest days. Located at one of the best corner properties left in the city, this incredible facility will be a real shock to the competition once it opens.
So that brings us back to 2023, the difficult post-Covid era plagued with massive inflation, excessively high building costs, and soaring interest rates. Overall, a challenging time for developing car wash projects, but also one with many opportunities to get ahead of the competition. And remember, things will certainly improve in the future…and with that in mind, where exactly is the car wash industry headed over the next 10 years?
While not easy to predict exactly, plenty of indicators already show us the way forward. Other recent articles covering this subject all spoke about exciting advances in equipment, chemicals, artificial intelligence, e-commerce, payment systems, and the overall quality/efficiency of the product… but they fell short in discussing the future of car wash design and development. Let’s cover these topics now.
General Direction. Future car wash development is projected to go in two different directions. First, very big sites (two acres or more) with larger and more sophisticated building designs featuring longer wash tunnels (130 feet and up), more self-vacuums, and the return of more on-site “profit centers.” These will include quick lubes, window tinting, dent removal, standalone ice machines, tire sales, and perhaps even a coffee shop, c-store, or laundromat.
Second, much smaller sites with more cost-effective building designs featuring short wash tunnels (80 feet and smaller) and fewer self-vacuums. The popular “mini-tunnels” will be a big part of this group. Building high-quality small washes on petite sites (less than an acre) will dramatically expand the number of available sites, especially in more developed urban areas.
Finding Sites. Even with the rapid proliferation of so many new car washes over the last decade, many good ‘A’ and ‘B’ sites are still available nationwide. However, you will have to do your homework to find them and be willing to pay more, especially for good sites. Vacant lots are going to be the most difficult to find. Still, there are plenty of existing empty restaurants, drug stores, and other small retail buildings that have gone out of business that are perfect for developing new wash facilities. The number of these types of available commercial properties is forecast to steadily increase in the future.
Building Design. In the future, competition will be even more intense than it is today. To compete and succeed, owners must develop cutting-edge modern wash facilities with exciting, eye-catching architectural designs featuring buildings with lots of color and ambiance. These buildings will require highly functional floor plans to optimize wash efficiency and ease of operation. Room locations and their size are critical, with every room located exactly where it needs to be and of the correct dimensions…nothing too big or too small. Remember, every square foot counts, especially with the ever-increasing building costs. Another major requirement is an easy-to-navigate site layout that streamlines traffic flow and increases efficiency. This will get more customers on the site simultaneously without disrupting wash operations or causing accidents while lowering labor costs by allowing a smaller staff to process many more vehicles.
Return of the Flex. With greater market competition and the need to increase profits, the “flex” model will make a big comeback over the next 10 years. There is already a strong customer demand for full-service and detailing services, especially since most new washes built over the last 10 years were “express” models, leaving customers with few options. While this requires a larger number of employees (along with the addition of a customer lobby and towel washing room), it also provides a much-appreciated big boost to overall net profits for owners. This could make all the difference in “making it” or “breaking it” in the future.
Consolidation. We have all witnessed the wild scramble of rapid consolidation in the wash industry over the past 10 years. These were primarily led by well-funded investment groups with little or no car wash experience. They were willing to buy existing washes at outrageous prices and/or build new facilities at a breakneck pace simply to increase their market share and overall value. Once the wash chain was big enough and looked good on paper, they sold it off to another investment group, and the process started again.
This practice resulted in a lot of disruption in the industry with companies coming and going, but lately the rapid pace of consolidation has slowed down considerably, especially as cheap investment money has dried up and many banks have soured on car wash projects. However, consolidation is projected to continue over the next 10 years, creating even larger wash chains, albeit at a much slower rate.
Finance. Leaving the most difficult part for last, where does the money come from? Not wanting to sugarcoat it, here’s what to expect in the future. First, money will be more difficult to get, and contrary to what most people think, interest rates will not be coming down anytime soon. Next, bank loans will be even harder to get, and there will be fewer investment groups
looking to get into the market and partner up. So, to develop a new site, owners will have to be much more resourceful.
The easiest and most viable options available are to either find an investment partner with the cash or to do a “sale-leaseback,” where the owner sells his new wash to an investment firm, removing his debt and then leases it back from the same firm for a set period of time. This method has great tax benefits, a lower bar to qualify, and more favorable terms than traditional bank loans. We expect this method of project development to be very common in the car wash industry in the future.
In summary, the last 23 years have been a blast. Being there to participate and witness car washing finally “coming into its own” has been exciting…and this “Golden Age” is just starting. The future of the car washing industry over the next 10 years looks extremely positive, with lots of opportunities for operators big and small. However, challenges will be great, and owners must adapt and innovate with the changing times to remain competitive. Investment in new cutting-edge facilities, equipment, and technology will be key. Those who do not, will not make it.
Christopher Crawford is with Car-Wash-Architect.com. He has written numerous feature articles for this magazine over the last 14 years concerning the design and construction of new car wash projects. You can visit his company’s website for more information about their services or call them at (561) 212-3364.