I’m guilty — albeit less often as I get older and wiser. Whereas most of us would never assume we know, or could easily learn, as much about brain surgery as a brain surgeon, when it comes to other areas of our lives and businesses, tasks often look easier than they appear. Similarly, if you needed brain surgery, you would seek out a professional with the correct credentials. You would carefully review their education, experience, insurance, and pick the one you felt was best among those who made the grade. If a struggling podiatrist came to you and said, “I can do your brain surgery for half price,” it’s unlikely that you’d jump at the offer.

But when “it isn’t brain surgery,” a phrase most of us are guilty of muttering at one time or another, there’s a potential for things to go haywire as quickly and dramatically as if you allowed a podiatrist to cut into your skull or, worse, decided to just do the job yourself. Having never needed brain surgery, but having organized the construction of hundreds of car washes, I will dare to say that the latter is vastly more complicated, at least for the patient. A patient in need of brain surgery simply selects the doctor. The doctor assembles the team of qualified “trades.” The patient would never be distracted by a cousin, who is a paramedic, offering to handle anesthesia as a favor.

As it relates to the scenario above, deciding to build or retrofit a car wash demands that you become part doctor, part patient, and part skilled trade all at the same time. You’ll have to juggle hundreds of tasks for a project that will span months. Depending on your experience and skills, you’ll decide which to do yourself, which you’ll do with help, and which you’ll contract out. Wrong choices early on can result in costly delays and added expense later on. Experienced owners who’ve built previous washes ignore distractions and stick to their plans with ease. Without that experience, first-time car wash investors seem susceptible to jumping at ill-advised offers to cut costs, making snap judgments, or deciding to do so many things themselves that they wind up delaying the entire project by months at tremendous expense. I recently had a very close friend, building his first wash, respond: “It isn’t brain surgery” when I recommended he reconsider several choices he was making. It led me to compile a short list of the most serious problem areas I’ve seen for first-time car wash investors – let’s take a look.


Choosing an architect should be like choosing a doctor. First you verify they have the experience and training to do the job. Second you review recommendations of their work doing similar jobs to discern talent. Third you meet with them to decide if you’ll be comfortable working with them. Seems logical when selecting a doctor but, for whatever reason, new car wash investors skip over one or more areas when selecting an architect. First, experience building a car wash means just that. You wouldn’t hire a podiatrist for brain surgery and you shouldn’t hire an architect with experience designing houses to plan your car wash. Second, talk to owners who used the architect to design the building for their business, one of which should be a car wash. Third, make sure you feel that you can communicate, through them, your vision for the property. I recall one first-time car wash investor who selected the city architect based solely on the recommendation of the city planner who said it would make the project easier. He was retrofitting an existing site and decided that the architect didn’t matter. The mistakes in the plans were so numerous he struggled to find a contractor. Construction was halted in order to file change orders with the city to correct problems with the drawings. The decision resulted in months of delays, and, coincidentally, the architect was terminated from the city payroll before construction even began.


You will have spent considerable time and effort creating a budget and proforma to determine if the proposed car wash project makes sense before ever buying the land. You will have chosen to move forward with the project because you felt it was a good investment. The budget would have accounted for qualified architects, contractors, installers, and trades with the necessary experience to do the job correctly the first time. You should trust those numbers. But, new car wash investors often seem eager to cut costs once construction starts. Either they decide to do things themselves, or accept offers to do jobs for less than originally planned. I was once at a newly opened site struggling with vehicle damage and wash quality issues from their wraps. During construction, they decided to install the equipment themselves. After months of changing wash material and attempts to modify the equipment itself, they invited the company originally scheduled for the installation to examine the problem. They looked at the wraps, realized that the passenger and driver side couplers, different on this particular model, were reversed. The couplers were switched and within a few hours, the wash’s problem was solved.


The most common method to select a contractor is by a Lump Sum sealed bid. In this method contractors are invited to bid on your construction contract. You will normally limit it to three bidders so that better contractors (approved by your architect) in the market will be more interested in submitting bids. Whatever you do, don’t base your decision solely on the bottom line number. A general contractor with car wash experience and solid references can save you weeks, if not months, on the successful completion of your project. Those weeks and months can translate to tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, not to mention the revenue potential of opening your wash on schedule.


When it comes to selecting trades people, the phrase, “it isn’t brain surgery,” is more often than not followed by “I found a guy.” When watching a concert pianist, an electrician, or a plumber at work, never forget that you’re seeing the result of thousands of hours of practice. Just because an expert makes something look easy doesn’t mean it is. An active construction site will attract numerous offers to do jobs for less. Before getting excited about a deal to save a few hundred bucks ask to see their license. Ask to see proof of their insurance. The license and insurance represent their experience. Without it, the person is an hourly laborer and should be paid and relied upon accordingly.


When looking to build or retrofit your wash, never lose sight of the fact that customers will eventually choose your business over the competition based on the value you deliver. They will compare the quality, speed, consistency, and experience of your service against the price you charge to determine if the value proposition is strong enough to return. Use that same equation to select partners for your first car wash project, and chances are you’ll be able to apply that experience to your second, third, and beyond locations; this is, after all, not brain surgery.

Good luck, and good washing.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.