The world is changing fast and so is the car wash industry. A year ago, a pandemic that shuts down the entire county would have been a laughable idea. Likewise, the idea of LED lights being integrated into every aspect of the car wash universe would have been laughable five years ago. Now, it’s hard to imagine a car wash tunnel that doesn’t have LED lighting for its area lights, colorful LED lighting to enhance the customer experience, and LED lights used as a marketing tool. Lights were and are being used everywhere to attract new eyes to the car wash and enhance the experience of cars being washed using all three light control approaches.


Color changing lighting is called RGB lighting. RGB is an acronym for the colors red, green, and blue. When these three colors of lights are combined and used together, light in hundreds of colors can be created. The colors are blended using a control device based on different technologies. Common technology approaches used include a) manual controls, b) preprogrammed lighting controls, or c) integrated controls. Car wash operators have integrated RGB lighting differently based on the controller type and technology used.

Manual controls, like RFID controllers, allow the user to set a light to any color and add flashing or a color change effect, but are not integrated with car wash systems. Think of it like a handheld remote-control unit to manually change the color lights.

Preprogrammed light shows allow for light colors to be set when certain signals are received. In the car wash world, this system allows for different color lightsto be turned on or off based on car wash cycles received. You will not be able to change the light show as easily as with the manual control system, but the light should be changing as the car wash signals provided change.

Integrated control technologies give more flexibility but require larger control devices that integrate the lights with the car wash equipment. Light is controlled by a highly customizable interface, such as a DMX controller, where a light show can be programmed. The controller manipulates and changes the color output of the light fixture and can be synced with car wash signals. See Figure 1, below, for a summary of benefits by technology type.

Each of these control types have been adopted and used in the car wash industry differently with most of the color LED light revolution being initially adopted by express and full-service tunnel washes. Full-service and express tunnels were the pioneers with color by providing color lights to enhance chemical arches, typically with a manual or preprogrammed single color or RGB light effect.

Now, innovative tunnel operators want even more control. Operators want lights to be treated like any other equipment of the car wash system, not as a separate device with separate controls. For example, Laguna Industries has pioneered a tunnel controller that is capable of controlling light fixtures and car wash functions through a single control panel. The controller allows the user to change the light as a vehicle makes its way through a tunnel.


As the technologies stabilize and mature, we are now seeing a deeper penetration of RGB LED light into the self-serve and in-bay automatic car wash business models.

Self-serve bays now have color lights integrated with the car wash cycle switch and timers to flood the bay in colorful light at key points. For example, when time is running out, red lights the entire length of a bay (a 24-foot-long light!) can be flashed. Or, another example would be flooding the bay in blue light when “rinse” is selected. Implementation is easy with new smart controls preconfigured to work with the car wash operating cycles.

In-bay automatics also now have a “smart box” making it easy to integrate with the car wash control system. The box is tied into the car wash controls and a light show is delivered based on the different car wash cycles. For example, you can flood the bay in green light when the car is supposed to drive forward. Flood the bay in red when the car is supposed to stop. Have a rainbow color effect throughout the entire bay when foam is applied or have a fire lighting effect when the wax cycle is on. And, as with all innovation, prices have decreased making these options available for everyone. See Figure 2 for an example set up of an in-bay smart box:


With this rapid innovation of LED lighting controls, additional changes beyond controllers are being made to allow for improved marketing and experience effects. Fixture shape and design, and fixture durability are seeing rapid changes and improvements from the static, 4-foot, and 6-foot tube or bar type fixtures of the past.

Recent developments and partnerships between LED light manufacturers and car wash operators have resulted in new innovations that provide even more unique RGB light show capabilities and improved durability.

For example, common complaints about traditional lighting include operators not wanting to see cables running between lights as it takes away from the clean look of a new tunnel and ends up with a fixture with water inside after two to three years of operation that then stops working.

Both issues have been solved with recent improvements to fixture design. Semi-custom lights are now affordable and can be designed to run the length of a tunnel, seamlessly wrap an arch (vacuum or chemical arch), and appear to be integrated into the equipment vs. mounted to the equipment. If you have a 25’ bay or a 140’ tunnel, new customized lighting can now match that length, affordably. Shown below is a 40’ tunnel with a seamless light fixture down its entire length.

With the innovative incorporation of LED lights into the car wash experience, lighting products were not always able to withstand rough conditions inside car wash facilities. New innovations such as the elimination of connectors between lights, creating a self-contained system with no fail points, and changing of the fixture housing from polycarbonate to silicone can improve a fixture’s durability. Fixture durability through fixture design improvements is changing the industry.

Michael Call is vice president of Colorado-based Mile High LED Systems. To learn more about trends and to ensure your lighting upgrades can meet the latest in technology and innovative uses, contact Michael for a free consultation. He can be reached at or at (303) 257-1195.