Welcome to another installment in the occasional series on “The 100 Questions You Must Answer” when considering adding detailing to a car wash. The first installment appeared in this space in the May issue. The original 100 questions, which appeared in the February 2023 issue, will be considered in depth in the coming months, one category at a time.

            The goal of providing this information is to help you, as car wash owners and operators, avoid the common mistakes that are often made when adding detail. By evaluating your operational efficiency and effectiveness, you can ensure a smooth transition and successful integration of detailing services.

            Last month we explored how the types of detailing services to be provided determine, in part, the types of car washing that will be necessary. For example, express detailing services lend themselves to the use of the existing automatic car washing equipment.

            On the other hand, full-service hand-washing or specialized washing of oversized vehicles may require dedicated space. This is a crucial consideration that will prepare you for the changes and ensure the smooth operation of your detailing services. Moreover, full-service detailing requires a “prep wash,” which is much more involved than what any automatic car washing equipment can provide. The typical approach to offering these non-automatic, hands-on washing services is to have a dedicated wash bay as part of the detailing building.

            This is the perfect transition into this month’s deep dive question, which involves the space that is required for detailing services.

How Many Bays?

            The answer to this question depends completely on the expected customer traffic. It is highly recommended to invest time in market research of the area to determine the need for detailing services. This research will empower you with the knowledge of your potential customer base and their needs. Additionally, there is the concept of “need creation,” by which a new or existing operation, through clever marketing, creates or increases the number of potential customers who perceive a need for the service.

            One specific example of how many bays to build would come from the operator who already knows that she or he will be servicing one or more area dealerships, which typically requires a high-volume operation. In establishing contracts with these dealerships, it would be important to establish up front the expected volume and build the number of bays accordingly.

            Of course, I’m not spending your money to build your facility, but keep in mind that if you have excess detail bays that are going unused for whatever reason, they can always be sublet to related businesses such as tinting, paint protection film installation, and the like. 

            The kind of vehicles to be serviced will influence space as well. If you plan on offering detailing service for passenger vehicles, the size of the detail bays is rather straightforward. On the other hand, if you plan on offering detailing services for oversized vehicles like recreational vehicles, motor homes, semi-trucks, boats, service trucks, etc., the bay needed to house these vehicles becomes crucial. Always plan for the eventuality of housing the largest vehicle in the class.

Other Services

            If you plan on offering more than auto detailing, the bays for these additional services may also have special space requirements. The more obvious one is those services that operate better in a “sterile” environment. For example, film application requires an enclosed, dust-free space that must be separated from other bays, either by walls or temporary curtains of some type.

            Moreover, offering minor body work, like repairing bumper scrapes and the like, while require a separate bay to ensure that overspray does not go onto the vehicles in the detailing area. Additionally, venting and fume filtration equipment may be necessary.

            It is pure coincidence that the week before writing this article, I had a conversation with a previous consulting customer whom I assisted in equipping an already built two-bay detail shop. He freely admitted that one of his biggest regrets since opening the shop a year ago is that he did not make the detail bays bigger and allow for space for activities and equipment that help a detail shop operate more efficiently.

            He also regretted not consulting with a detailing expert before finalizing building plans. If you are planning a new build or considering expanding current operations, please talk to an expert first.

Ideal Shop Layout

            For the remainder of the column, let’s focus on detailing passenger vehicles. The ideal detail shop will have a separate wash bay with plenty of room to walk around the vehicle during the wash process. Then there are the detail bays, to which the freshly washed vehicle is moved.

            The ideal detail bays will have plenty of room to stage an oversized vehicle (e.g., Suburban or Expedition) with the vehicle doors fully open, yet still allowing for technicians to freely walk past the open doors, as well as to have space against each wall for such things as storage cabinets, work benches, detail carts, portable machine storage, and the like. If there is more than one detail bay, then make sure that there is plenty of room to walk between the vehicles even with the doors of both vehicles fully open.

            The aforementioned space suggestions are rarely implemented in the initial design of a detail shop, typically because the planners have no concept of what goes on during the normal detailing process. The lack of technician mobility in the shop will cause frustration, inefficiency, and even accidents. The expense of building a few feet of additional space here and there will be made up in years of improved operational efficiency that leads to increased profitability.

Non-Operational Space

            Several additional requirements exist for non-operational areas, such as customer waiting, office space, storage, and machinery. The amount of space needed for each of these depends on the operation’s size and the types of services that will be provided.

            Utility Room. It usually makes sense to have a “utility” room that offers backup supply storage, as well as for the (in my opinion, mandatory) washer and dryer and a wash basin. Additionally, if you choose to install a built-in chemical dilution and delivery system, the utility room would likely be where the base dilution and pump system would be installed. In a later column, we will dive into the pros and cons of built-in versus portable chemical delivery.

            Employee Area. In larger operations, employee facilities, such as a changing area and break room, may also be needed. Regardless of the employee area size, I always recommend having, as a minimum, a dedicated employee bathroom so that they do not have to use the same restrooms as customers.

            Lobby. Then, there is the consideration of the sales counter and customer waiting area. Some of these decisions go back to the first question in this discussion: “What services will you provide?” For example, if you plan to offer mostly full-service detailing, it may not be necessary to have a large customer waiting area because full-service detailing takes several hours, and most such operations prefer to have the vehicle left while the customer goes about his or her business until the detail is complete. On the other hand, if you offer mostly express detailing services, typically “while-you-wait” services that should take 20 minutes or less, then an accommodating customer waiting area is a must.

            Office Space. Office space depends on the operation’s size. Even in the smallest operation, making and confirming sales calls, maintaining a schedule, and ordering supplies are always necessary. Thus, it is nice to have a small desk or counter space for a computer, payment processing equipment, telephone, and normal paperwork storage, even if it is only a one-person operation. For a larger multi-bay operation, a dedicated detail manager will likely be needed to oversee the day-to-day operations. In this case, a formal office space with a large window facing the detail bays and a door to keep out the noise may be necessary. Ensure that the office space, enclosed or otherwise, has direct access to the sales counter, as the manager will likely be the person interacting with customers.

            If your detail shop is already built and enlarging the building size is impractical, it is not the end of the world. Efficiency-minded adjustments can often be made within the confines of the existing space. Moreover, there are ways to increase floor space, for example, by adding power and air ceiling drops, mounting certain equipment on the walls, and placing detailing supplies in portable totes or highly mobile mini carts. I have also often found that existing detail operations have all kinds of items and junk in the shop that are unnecessary.


            My sincere hope is that the person thinking about adding detailing capability that requires building detail bays reads this column with an open mind to all the potential factors and considerations that play into the planning of the operation’s space. Over the years, I have personally seen so many working operations that could have benefited by simply adding more space or configuring the available space differently. 

            I have also seen operations severely hampered by major mistakes in space planning. These mistakes are usually made due to a lack of understanding of the space needed for an efficient detailing operation. Please don’t make the same mistake — several of us in the industry can help you plan the space for a highly capable detailing operation.

Prentice St. Clair, CD-SV/RIT, has been serving the automotive reconditioning industry since 1999 with impassioned consulting and training and the goal of increasing the profitability of the automotive detailing and reconditioning industry. He is proud to have been inducted into the International Detailing Association’s Hall of Fame. Prentice welcomes inquiries that lead to the opportunity to help readers achieve excellent results. He can be reached via call or text at (619) 701-1100 or e-mail at prentice@detailingprogress.com.