In the late 1950s, my dad took me to the north side of Pittsburgh, PA where I got to see and experience my first professional car wash. Those were the days of wire rims, wide white walls, steam jenny, and full-service only. Behind each ornate canopy was a non-descript one-story block building containing the mechanical room, detail bays, conveyor tunnel, hallway, lobby, office, and bathrooms.

            Near big cities, full-service washes were built big and bold. However, in the small towns, a car wash occupied maybe a half-acre. Car washing is a completely different story today.

            No longer a brown bag or circus theme, washes now have the franchise look of a casual or quick-service restaurant. Design experts believe lighting, colors, signage, and an appealing and well-maintained entrance are critical. Bright and highly saturated colors are generally associated with casual and fun places while dimmer and warmer lighting is a sign of a more upscale place.

            These designs and images reflect the dynamic that has occurred through the years as the needs of consumers and car wash operators have changed. Consequently, the focus has shifted from maximizing average revenue to maximizing subscription membership and managing churn.

            Since subscribers visit more frequently than the typical customer, the car wash usually needs the capacity to clean more than 100 cars per hour. Commonplace is a 125’ or longer conveyor, a large parking lot with self-service vacuums, a 4,000-square foot or larger building, and a one-acre lot. Rectangular-shaped properties where the length is proportionally greater than the width allows for the ideal site layouts.

            Other considerations include proper traffic flow, adequate turning radiuses, and site visibility. The latter can be achieved with an appropriate color scheme and building signage, adding tower components to gain perspective, and positioning the conveyor side of the building so it is facing the street and parallel to the road.

            As with other buildings, the car wash is exposed to the elements. Tunnels and wash bays are subjected to the harshest environment, including dirt and debris, road salt, strong acidic and alkaline cleaners, waxes, and reclaimed water. In northern climates, the building needs doors on end walls and freeze protection. In some areas of the south, an open wash-bay design is possible.

            The interior design of the tunnel is critical since the “show” of a ride-through car wash is considered part of the customer experience. Effective light shows and signage require strategic placement, harsh environment lights, vapor-proof enclosures, and durable wall paneling or black out.

            As a special-purpose building without a lobby or public restrooms, the express exterior lends itself to many types of construction. This includes steel buildings with façade, blocks, pre-engineered, modular, and see-through glass. Each approach offers certain benefits in cost savings, depreciation, and time to market. However, there are some limits to look and image that can be achieved with some of the approaches.

            Small or big, the trifecta for car wash design and construction is architect, equipment supplier, and general contractor. Working together, this team can guide the developer through each step of the design process. The goal and objective is to produce a functional site layout and building design that conforms to zoning requirements and allows the contractor to develop a control budget.

Bob Roman is a car wash consultant and can be reached at