Ages ago, there were full-service conveyorized hand washes. Instead of automatic brushes, workers were positioned inside the tunnel and cleaned vehicles by hand with mitts. Most of these washes have gone the route of the small corner gas station with two pumps and two service bays.

            In my area, you can get a hand wash from a mobile operation, a pop-up in a gas station or mall parking garage, or one of the few location-based washes. The latter is usually a former used car lot, corner store, or small building with drive-through capability.

            In other words, it has become hard to find a hand car wash that is on par with a modern professional wash. Commercial car washes have raised the bar considerably.

            With a guest visit lasting 10 minutes or so, near full automation, hand-finished quality, customer amenities, and competitive pricing, the express wash has risen to the top. However, not everyone uses the fast food of car wash.

            For example, I like express because it’s quick and reasonably priced at $10, but I don’t like the environment. Between the whine of the vacuums, roar of air dryers, and background of highway noise, you can barely hear yourself think let alone listen to the car stereo. Moreover, you don’t sit in the lobby waiting for DIFM but are outside doing most of the work. The older I get, the less inconvenient express looks.

            Is there a market for hand wash given the aging baby boomers and younger generation that prefers digital to manual labor? The value proposition is the same — clean, shine, and protect customers’ vehicles.

            Back in 1998, ICA described hand washing as a minor segment within the car wash industry, with an estimated 3,200 units and average annual wash revenues of $576 million. According to consumer studies, about 7 percent of people who use a professional car wash choose a hand wash, whereas over 57 percent choose either a full-service conveyor (28 percent) or an exterior conveyor (29 percent).

            As for the market segment, the last hand car wash owner I worked with had customers who owned a large variety of vehicles, from VW Bugs to high-end Porsches, McLarens, and Lamborghinis.

            Our experience with hand washes, detailers, and mobile operations suggests several targets for hand wash operations. One segment consists of middle- to upper-class folks with higher-than-average incomes willing to pay higher prices for assisted services.

            Other segments include people who own luxury, customized, high-performance, and exotic vehicles; people who use vehicles for business purposes; owners of vehicles that can’t be washed at an automatic car wash; and people who just prefer a hand wash.

            Location-based hand wash prices tend to be lower than those of most mobile and on-demand services. In my area, stores charge $20 for exterior and $50 for a full-service wash, whereas on-demand services (app-based) charge $60 to $70.

            The cost of goods for a hand wash is most affected by the process. If waterless, materials alone may cost $5. A soap and water process may cost less than half as much. And if steam, it is even less.

            Most hand washes offer basic detail services. Prices usually start around $120 for interior or exterior service and up to $300 for complete detail. The most common add-on services for hand washing are pet hair removal, odor removal, headlight restoration, clay bar, and bug removal. Most hand washes do not offer the application of ceramic film or gel coating.

            Unlike a commercial car wash, where automated equipment does most of the work, hand washing relies on people. Consequently, teamwork is a vital component of the hand washing value chain.

            Experience has shown that teamwork is the most effective way to ensure the production efficiency of a hand wash and deliver the most value for the least possible cost.

            Like a full-service conveyor, labor is the greatest operating expense for hand washing. Operating costs as a percentage of revenue are usually 40 percent and 50 percent.

            If you want to try hand washing, there is no need to spend $4 or $5 million on the land, building, and equipment. Mobile hand wash franchises are available with start-up expenses as low as $50,000.

            If leasing suitable space, the cost to outfit a building for hand wash will be in the $150,000 range (i.e. .25 acre property and 1,600 SF building). New construction will be in the range of $1.0 million or more.

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