Welcome to another installment in an occasional series on “The 100 Questions You Must Answer” when considering adding detailing to a car wash. The first installment appeared in the May 2024 issue.

            The original 100 questions, presented in this column in February 2023, will be considered in depth in the coming months, one category at a time. The goal of providing this information is to help reduce the common mistakes made when adding detailing at a car wash and to help those already offering the service evaluate their operational efficiency and effectiveness.

            We left off last month by diving into the first big question, “What services will you provide?” The answer to this question affects the answers to virtually all the other following questions. Moreover, I often find that struggling detail centers need to fine-tune the services they provide to help overcome those challenges. We looked at four possible general categories of service, including express detailing, full-service detailing, hand washing, and additional reconditioning services that go beyond detailing.

How Will We Wash Cars?

            At first, this may seem like a ridiculous question to ask a person who owns a car wash but trust me, how the vehicle is washed for detailing has a major impact on the entire detailing process. The car wash to be performed depends on the type of service selected by the customer.

            There are at least four general categories of car washing, and each has its own specific purpose:
•          Full-service wash.
•          Prep wash for express detailing.
•          Prep wash for full-service detailing
•          Custom or special needs wash (e.g., hand wash, oversize vehicle wash, decontamination).

            Some of these services can be provided by using the car wash facility. For others, the car wash facility will be the first part of the vehicle’s washing experience. For still others, having a dedicated wash bay is the best situation. Let’s talk about each one.

Full-Service Wash

            I use the term full-service wash to refer to a thorough and extensive maintenance cleaning service that goes beyond what a typical car wash provides. This wash, which may or may not involve the automatic wash equipment, includes the following service elements:
•          Removal of all bugs from the front exposures, with extra attention to the wheels and tires.
•          Thorough drying of the exterior with air purging to prevent drips.
•          Vacuuming, dusting, and a quick wipe-down of the interior.
•          Cleaning all interior glass, including the tops of roll-down windows.
•          Tire dressing and potential dressing of large plastic panels.
•          Wipe down door jambs.
•          Possibly a quick final wipe of the painted panels with a spray-and-wipe gloss enhancer.

            I realize that the lines distinguishing the operational definition of different service terms can quickly become blurred. Some of you reading might say, “Well, shoot, that’s what we already do in our finish line at our full-service car wash.” Others may see the above service elements as simply describing your “express detailing” service.

            There is no right or wrong way to define a full-service wash. Instead, it is simply what you decide to include at your location, with special consideration to customer demand. For clarification purposes, let me include in my operational definition of a full-service wash these additional notes, including some philosophical elements:
•          It is much more than a typical car wash.
•          The service is approached from a detailer’s perspective instead of a line finisher’s.
•          The service is very thorough, yet still not detailing, per se.
•          It is considered a premium service for the discerning customer and is typically priced at least twice as much as the best wash package.
•          It does not include any protective elements that would typically be included in the detailing world.
•          It can only be applied to vehicles in relatively good condition.
•          The full-service wash may take one to two labor hours.

            The full-service wash may require additional attention before the tunnel entrance to ensure bugs are completely removed. The wash must finish somewhere on the property where it will not block traffic flow, and it’s a good idea to perform this service in view of waiting customers who may be intrigued by the attention the vehicle is getting. It can also be performed out of the sun in a dedicated bay where detailing technicians can finish the vehicle.

Prep Wash

            The prep wash, by definition, prepares the vehicle for detailing. For the typical services provided in express detailing, the level of washing provided by the automatic car wash equipment is usually sufficient. However, for full-service detailing, the car wash equipment can only begin to get a vehicle to the required level of clean for efficient full-service detailing efforts.

            In the world of full-service detailing, we have a saying about the prep wash: “A good prep wash saves time on the rest of the detail.” Since full-service detailing is about bringing the car back to a new-looking appearance, the level of cleaning required for each exterior vehicle surface is often quite a bit more than a simple wash, rinse, and dry provided by automatic equipment. Anything not removed during the car wash must be hand removed using chemicals and scrubbing appliances in the detail bay.

            The ideal situation for prepping a car for detailing is to have a separate wash bay with a pressure washing system and de-mineralized water. In this bay, the detailing technician can use specialized cleaning chemicals to fully hand-wash the vehicle exterior beyond what a typical automatic car wash can do, including removing all contaminants like bugs, tar, ferrous oxide deposits, tree sap, and road grime.

            The detail technician will also become acquainted with the vehicle’s condition as she or he thoroughly cleans each area. Once the vehicle is in the detail bay, mental notes will be kept to address special concerns. The wash bay will also allow for the safe cleaning of engine compartments while staying compliant by capturing the run-off from this activity.

Custom Wash Options

            Hand Washing.  A small percentage of the motoring public simply does not like automatic car wash equipment, no matter how much we try to convince them that it is safe. For these customers, there is the opportunity to offer vehicle hand washing, which involves buckets of wash shampoo, wash mitts, and specialized brushes. Some like to use a foam cannon to pump up the visual dramatics of the hand wash.

            Since this activity is best performed in the shade, a dedicated wash bay is ideal, although hand washing can conceivably be performed under a shade canopy. Of course, consideration must be given to preventing the run-off from reaching the street or storm drain. 

            If proper techniques are used, the hand wash can be marketed as “the safest way to wash your car.” Also, considering the labor and product expenses, the price should reflect the special nature of this service. A hand wash typically includes many, if not all, elements of the “full-service wash” described above. 

            Oversized Vehicles. The size of the vehicle may preclude its entrance into the automatic washing equipment, which pretty much limits the washing option for such vehicles to the hand wash. As with the hand wash, the pricing must reflect the labor-intensive nature of this activity, as well as the increased risk of having to use step ladders.

            Decontamination Wash. This includes any special procedures necessary to remove unusual contamination from the vehicle exterior. The most common is perhaps water spots, especially the ones that will not come off in the wash. Usually, the best procedure for this includes a chemical bath with an acid-based product designed specifically for removing mineral deposits from vehicle surfaces. This chemical bath will be followed immediately with a neutralizing chemical bath. One can immediately understand the need for a wash bay to perform such a service.

            Other types of contamination might be things like heavy mud, heavy tar kick-up, and whatever else might get splashed on a vehicle. Nonetheless, the common component in all these special wash situations is that they are well beyond the cleaning capability of the automatic equipment and require special chemicals, hands-on attention, and time.


            It’s clear now that “washing” a vehicle is sometimes not as simple as running it through the automatic wash equipment. This is especially true if the vehicle has unusual exterior soiling or if the operation provides detailing services. Offering multiple types of washing will require a dedicated area, special chemicals and procedures, and training for the technicians taking care of these non-automatic washes.

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.