The reasons to change to LED lighting are now fairly well documented and known throughout the car wash industry. Owner operators understand the higherquality light from LEDs, the elimination of annual maintenance, and the dramatic power savings resulting from LED lighting versus metal halides and fluorescent lighting. If you’ve already made the switch, you likely have already recouped your investment, as the average payback is around two years.

For the rest of the industry that has not upgraded, the question is no longer if you should change or when you should change. It is now “how to select the right LED light.” There are multiple LED lighting manufacturers today and selecting the right light can be difficult and confusing. This article outlines the basic steps to follow when choosing an LED light for your car wash.

The following four steps are designed to guide car wash owners and operators in selecting the right LED light for their car wash.
The four steps involve:
1) Identifying the light output needed
2) Identifying quality products
3) Comparing costs
4) Considering aesthetics


The first step is to identify the amount of lumens (a measure of light output) needed for your wash. It’s easy to start with your existing lights as a baseline.

If you are happy with the light output you have, find an LED fixture that is within 10 percent of your current lumen output. Use Table 1, below, as a reference to see the amount of lumens at different metal halide and LED wattage levels. If you want more light, increase the LED wattage.

Note: Table 1 is based on delivered lumens, not produced lumens. Metal halides produce more light than indicated in Table 1, but most of the light produced is lost and is not delivered to the area being illuminated. Delivered lumens is a measure of light where you want it.

For example: A self-serve car wash has two 400W metal halides per bay. Each 400W metal halide delivers 10,000 lumens, so you have 20,000 total lumens per bay.

A one-for-one metal halide to LED fixture swap would require finding an LED light in the 87W to 100W range (depending on lumens/watt).

To double the light, find a fixture with higher wattage or increase the number of fixtures. Your target total wattage would be 350W to 400W of LED light per bay.


Once you identify the target LED wattage and lumen output, start looking for available lights that deliver the lumens needed. Eliminate from consideration lower quality products quickly by scanning for factors that imply lower quality.
These factors include efficacy (lumens/watt), thermal management devices, LED chip types, LED rated life, and the product warranties.
• Lumens per watt, or efficacy, is critical to achieving the desired light output at a cost savings versus metal halides and fluorescents. For exterior lights in car washes, 80 lumens per watt should be the minimum threshold. Any less than that and the light will not be efficient to operate, and you will not achieve the cost savings over time.
• Thermal management devices (like fans and automated wattage adjustments) sound like a great idea until you understand that these are tools used to maintain the right heat within a fixture. A light that has “thermal controls” means that after 20 to 30 minutes of operation, the light heats up and dims to keep it cool. Fans are not reliable and break, resulting in much less LED life. Be wary of these tricks used be some lights, as you will not get the same light output or longevity of an LED if these are used.
• Not all LED chips are created equal. If the LED chip manufacturer is not disclosed, be wary of the light.
• Most car washes operate lights from dusk to dawn — a lot of hours. Therefore, you’ll want lights that last. Look for 100,000-plus-hour LED life with five- to 10-year warranties. Anything less than that and you risk having the light stop working just as you pay off the expense.


Based on Step 1 and Step 2, you should now have a list of high quality lights that provide the right light output for your car wash needs. Now, how do you choose which light from seemingly comparable options? We recommend comparing lights on a cost per lumen basis to normalize for different factors such as different lumen output, install costs, and long-term operating costs.
• Install Costs – Installation cost can vary by light. Do you need to run new conduit, or just one-to-one replacements? Can lights be daisy-chained together requiring only a single line wire? All these factors will impact your install labor costs.
• Product Costs – Product costs should be looked at on a cost per lumen basis. This enables you to compare lights with different lumen outputs and different costs across a common denominator.
• Operating Costs – Operating costs need to be looked at to ensure you are taking into account the largest expense with lights — running them. Finding the most efficient light source will future proof your investment and ensure you continue to save money from these lights over the next 10 to 20 years.
Let’s continue with the example from Step 1 and do the math to compare two light options that would provide roughly double the light of two 400W metal halides per bay.

Per Table 1, you’d want ~18,000 to 20,000 lumens and 160W to 200W per bay (range based on 100 to 115 lumens/watt). For the sake of this example, let’s say you found two options that will work and appear to be good quality lights (you eliminated lower quality lights per Step 2). From here, prepare a total cost of ownership analysis of the new lights after five years.

The example outlined in Table 2, below, shows Product 1 being the clear winner. It’s easier to install with lower install costs, 7 percent less cost per lumen, 20 percent less operating expenses over five years, and 19 percent less expensive overall.


Now, compare how the lights look and if they will improve or detract from the look of your facility. A price premium may be worth it to get the right look and maintain consistency throughout your facility.

By following these four steps, you’ll have all the facts to be able to make the right decision for you.

Michael Call is vice president, sales and marketing for Mile High LED Systems LLC. You can visit the company on the web at