I am writing this at the end of April 2020. Another month of COVID-19 restrictions have passed, and several parts of the country are beginning to reopen — slowly, very slowly.

“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert EinsteinThroughout this ordeal, many municipalities have recognized the essential value in allowing drive-through tunnels to remain open — due to limited human interaction and the ability to adhere to social distancing measures. As stated in New Jersey: “Drive-Through (exterior) car washes may continue to operate, but staff must not be handwashing the exterior or the interior of vehicles or drying them. The key here is maintaining the social distancing guidelines and limiting the risk to employees at these facilities.”

Some sites have had to close every other free vacuum spot, while others have had to close their free vacuums entirely. After-care services are shut down in most areas.

On the unfortunate side is full service. Many have been forced to close for extended periods of time.

Maybe everything will change tomorrow but, as I write this, social distancing appears to be the new norm — at least for a little while. We are all wondering: What is the new “normal?” Will things ever go back to how they were? How long will it take?

As car wash operators, it is best we spend time planning our wash model to relieve our customers’ heightened concern with human interaction. After all, we have no idea how long it will be before customers allow strangers inside their vehicles.

We can’t change the disruption caused by COVID-19 but we can use it to our advantage. Last month, I wrote about this being a time of opportunity to connect with your community. This month, I’m kicking off a 4-part series on planning upgrades and/or conversions now to make your business more profitable.


If you haven’t been able to remain open and deliver your best exterior wash during this slowdown because of labor, then you have a business problem with a solution. And now is good time to fix it.

The beauty of the express-exterior model is automation and limited human interaction. The pay stations, drive-through tunnel, and (optional to use) free-vacuums are all available without any person-to-person contact. Customers can conveniently wash their cars through the tunnel without ever exiting their vehicles.

From this express foundation, labor can be added to perform interior cleaning, detailing services, or just a welcoming smile. The full-serves I know are exploring options to convert to some flavor of a flex-serve. And those that already operate an express-exterior site are looking at remodels to automate functions relying on human activity and social interaction.

Questions to Ask Yourself

1. Can I convert?
2. Does the physical layout of the site allow for free vacuums and pay stations?
3. What are the options and how much will it cost?
4. What is the potential upside?
5. What should the wash package pricing be?
6. Will I require equipment upgrades?

I suggest you consider working with a car wash distributor. They assist in installation, service, and maintenance. And besides that, they help you select the right equipment, chemistry, and supplies to keep (or get) your business up and running quickly.


If COVID-19 has taught us one thing it’s that customers will change service providers at the drop of a hat for a faster, better, easier, less invasive experience. Put the window down to talk to someone? Forget about it! Pay stations must be easy to navigate. And when it comes to subscription plans, no employee should have to enter a car to install member RFID tags. Subscription plans should be managed by each customer on an online portal. Car wash controls technology should recognize members’ license plates, welcome them at the pay station and send them a text message thanking them for their business when they are in the tunnel. That may be all it takes to keep a customer coming back to your wash: fast, safe, friendly service.


When considering a format change, it’s important to review your branding, signage, and wash experience. Can customers passing at 40 mph see your business? Are your colors relevant? Is your logo distinct and memorable? Does your signage, lighting, and available applications guide a customer to buy your top package in the absence of any staff?


Start with your local equipment supplier. Have them revisit the demographic profile of your market to identify new opportunities and evaluate the big picture. Leverage their experience to create potential site plan modifications and run proformas of the potential impact for the various options.

If you need an architect, find one who has built car washes before.

Get referrals for a general contractor who can work with you to remain open while keeping on schedule and on budget. And, if necessary, have a civil engineer review your plans to ensure property lines are correct and water supply, drainage, and elevations are planned appropriately to avoid potential problems.


Code departments may or may not be subject to COVID-19 disruptions themselves. Determine your construction timeline and create a plan to minimize downtime while waiting on permits.

Albert Einstein is credited with having said: “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” These are certainly interesting times, but opportunities exist. Next month, I’ll take a deeper dive into what’s needed to convert your wash format and provide options to remain open during renovation. Why? Because as difficult as things are right now, has there ever been a better time to look at converting from full-service to express exterior?

Until then, good luck, and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.