I’m sure this happens to everyone who has been around the car wash industry for a while. Not a single wash location escapes our attention as we drive, whether for business or pleasure. We not only take note, we want a closer look; we want see the services that are being offered; and we want to see what, if anything, they are doing differently.

In search of some really, really cold water during a recent trip, I stopped at a convenience store in northern Las Vegas, far from the bright lights and cacophony of the one-arm bandits on the strip. The onsite car wash piqued my interest, but there was more to this multi-profit-center site. Aside from the c-store and car wash, the location houses a sit-down fast-food restaurant accessible from the c-store, gas pumps, fast-lube center, and auto repair shop.

The location could probably be credited in part for the enterprise’s ability to support this array of businesses. Housed on one corner of a strip mall anchored by a regional grocery chain and adjacent to two major new-car dealerships, the business is located just off a major freeway on the other side of which an auto mall representing several brands covers a vast tract of land. The surrounding area is fully developed — mostly single family homes. Access is easiest from the going-home side of the road. For customers traveling in the opposite direction, access is possible but less convenient.

I was, of course, most curious about the car wash. While not unique, you don’t often see dual conveyors in a car wash tunnel. In this case, though, only one conveyor was operational, the other stripped of equipment and blocked off with orange cones. The wash format is probably best described as exterior-only. Were it not for the live cashier it might have qualified as an express exterior despite the loading assistance offered at the entrance.

This car wash was busy. Granted, I was there on a Saturday morning, but watching a clean, dry, shiny car exiting the tunnel every 30 seconds or so impressed, regardless. It was so busy that cars were stacked past the cashier’s window, temporarily obstructing access to the free self-vacuum slots. Wash packages are priced at $8, $9, $11, and $15, with only the top package featuring tire shine. The two top packages include a free drying towel and free air freshener. The top package further sweetens the deal by throwing in a free 32-ounce soda.

Now imagine my surprise when a half mile down the road I came across the construction of a brand new c-store/gas station/car wash nearing completion — same owner/operator as the multi-profit-center site I had just left. Here, though, the car wash is a touch-free in-bay automatic — the inverted L variety. I saw no signs of any vacuums, but the project was still incomplete.

I was puzzled by the notion that an operator would self-compete. Besides, this new location did not look like much of a winner to me. The facility takes up one of only two commercial lots in the immediate vicinity — the other is occupied, kitty-cornered, by a pharmacy. The rest of the area is fully developed residential. Ingress/egress is restricted to one direction due to traffic medians.

Touch-free washing certainly caters to a specific and different segment of the market than a friction exterior does, but will that be enough to justify this development? More likely something else is afoot.