Monitor usage
and results on a
regular basis.

One of the more difficult questions asked by operators relates to selecting chemicals for their wash. It is a tough question to answer because it depends on so many factors. It seems like the chemical market lately has seen several shifts in ownership of name brands, the addition of several new players, and the growth of private labeling by distributors. All this adds up to complicating the decision operators have to make in their choice of chemicals. Ultimately operators need to make their choice as empirical as possible — use what works best for them at a cost they are willing to pay. Operators who can achieve accurate usage while providing optimum results will fare the best in selecting their chemicals.


The recent dramatic drop in oil prices has some operators wondering when they will see a drop in the cost of chemicals. The problem is that there is more to manufacturing car wash chemicals than the cost of raw materials. There are costs for labor, production materials, packaging, building rent or lease, utilities, insurance, equipment maintenance, and many of the other costs related to operating any business. While the raw materials are a good percentage of a manufacturer’s costs, consider what percentage of your total car wash operating cost chemicals account for. While there may be some lowering of prices, it may not bring as much to your bottom line as you would like. It bears watching to see how the various companies deal with any reductions. Most likely the percentage will vary from company to company as well as from product to product depending on what petroleum products are involved.

Generally, pricing set by the companies that supply chemicals to the car wash chemical manufacturers is not that volatile. In most cases they set prices only once a year unless there is a drastic increase in their cost. I can remember only once where it happened three times in one year. Like most businesses chemical companies are reluctant to lower prices unless the competition does. While we have seen gas prices reduced by as much as 40 percent recently, there is no way manufacturers will see the same reduction in chemical prices that quickly if ever. If the cost of petroleum products stays low, you will see chemical prices come down due to the highly competitive car wash chemical market, but I would not expect to see any reductions before the fall or even later.


When selecting car wash chemicals, using established brands is a little like slipping on a comfortable pair of old shoes. Most have a good reputation and it may eliminate any doubts you may have on the reliability and quality of the products you are using. In most cases they will stand behind their products and, in many cases, technical data and support is more readily available through the Internet and other sources. On the other hand, cost could be an issue. While it is not always the case, established brands tend to cost more, especially by the container. The best way to measure cost is by usage, not container cost, but unless you have a good chemical delivery system you might not be able to effectively use some of the hyper concentrates available on the market today. In addition, if you like to use the brand names in your marketing, using a publicly recognized name may at a minimum give your wash the benefit of the brand name identification and increase the confidence of the quality of your wash in the eyes of your customers.


Several new national and regional chemical companies have sprung up over the last few years. In addition there are several national car wash chemicals offered by online parts and equipment suppliers. Most of these companies offer some nationally branded chemicals as well as their own brand of chemicals at very competitive prices. Some even offer limited marketing assistance and provide good technical service. They sell alternative chemicals for all the applications you are using without having to pay for the use of a brand name. Several even offer alternative arches and application equipment to replace those that are offered by the brands. For operators who feel they have the technical skills to apply these products and can handle marketing needs in-house they could be a viable choice. If you need more application or technical assistance they may not be the best choice for you.


Many distributors have turned to offering private label products that only they can supply. Some manufacture their own and others purchase them from a private-label chemical company. These products tend to range from being excellent to not quite as good as the others. In some cases quality control, especially if they are manufacturing from scratch, may also be a problem. In many cases these chemicals carry a significant cost benefit. They are a very appealing choice for operators who feel they can apply and monitor these products while maintaining the quality of their wash’s performance and reaping the benefit of cost saving. Once again, as a word of caution, make sure you know your use cost. You can arrive at your use cost employing several rather easy methods of calculating it.


For in-bay automatics or tunnels you can “ballpark” your chemical usage by measuring how much you have used in a month divided by the number of vehicles you have washed. While this method works for the production products applied to every vehicle, it is difficult to use this method for specialty products. This method would only provide a very rough estimate for self-service products.

Volumetric measuring.

A more accurate method is using volumetrics, which involves physically measuring the amount of chemical consumed through an application system. Volumetric measuring istypically done with a graduated cylinder or measurement container to find out how much product is being consumed during the application process. It is usually measured in the form of ounces or milliliters. Volumetric measuring can also be utilized to check the validity of a proportioning device such as a Hydrominder. The basic tools you would need are: metric calibrated beaker or container (capable of holding at least 500 milliliters), siphon equipment (siphon pump or food baster), and handheld calculator.

Cost Per Car Calculation Procedure
1. Fill volumetric container with solution from the drum or pail.
2. Write down starting amount in the container.
3. Place pick-up tube from chemical dispenser into the container as far down as it will go.
4. Wash at least three to five vehicles. (For self-service, run each product for one minute.)
5. Remove pick-up tube.
6. Record the amount left in the container and subtract it from the starting amount.
7. Divide the amount used by the number of vehicles washed for automatics or tunnels.
8. Divide the average amount used by 30 to convert to ounces.
9. Divide the selling price per gallon by 128 to calculate the cost per ounce.
10. Multiply the cost per ounce by the average amount used in a wash. (For self-service, this would arrive at your cost per minute.)

One thing to keep in mind is that all washes are not the same. The product recommendations found on labels or tech sheets are a good place to start when setting up your chemicals. There needs to be some fine-tuning done to achieve the best results at the best cost.


There is a fine balance between saving on chemical costs and maximizing your wash’s performance. Sometimes it is worth using more chemical to achieve better results. Other times, using a different product may achieve those results for less cost. Generally, if you are not technically inclined, I would recommend that you select all your products from the same source to avoid the possibility of having compatibility problems.

Whatever you choose, make sure you are getting the best “bang for your buck” by choosing carefully and monitoring usage and results on a regular basis. Most chemical delivery systems are not foolproof, and usage or performance can change dramatically if they malfunction. Changing of the seasons or weather conditions can also have an effect on your chemical usage and performance. Some chemicals work better in warmer weather while others perform well in the cold.

Ultimately you should always keep in mind that your customers normally are not focused on your choice of chemicals. What they expect is a clean, dry vehicle. Whatever chemicals you choose, make sure they meet those expectations.

Ron Holub has been involved in the car wash industry for 35 years working for several national car wash chemical companies, owning a car wash and detail supply company, and serving as a general manager for a national car wash chain.

He currently does consulting and training seminars. He can be reached at