In the quest to improve profitability, car wash operators continue to look for new ways to attract more business, cut costs, and reduce crime. LED lighting has proven to achieve all these objectives simultaneously with a typical ROI of more than 50 percent. Car washes using traditional metal halides or fluorescent fixtures spend $3,000 to $11,000 annually on lighting, which equates to 30 percent to 50 percent of their total electrical bill. Seventy percent to 90 percent of that cost can be eliminated with LED upgrades.

Many operators have made at least a partial upgrade to LED lighting to take advantage of these benefits. Wash bays and wash tunnels are generally the initial focus and account for 30 percent to 47 percent of the total lighting power usage of an average car wash. Do not forget about the other 53 percent to 70 percent of lighting power usage found in perimeter lighting, wall packs, signage, and equipment/other rooms.

So, which areas should be upgraded first? Why? And how should an operator choose the right fixture for their needs?

Prioritization of spend varies by the objective to be achieved. Bays and tunnels certainly are the largest areas of expense, but may not yield the highest ROI or the most improvement in safety or marketing benefits. Each area will be reviewed below with considerations and insights into each area to allow you to prioritize your upgrades based on your objectives.

Typical areas of lighting for car washes include perimeter lights (pole lights), wall packs, vacuum bays, and signage to fully maximize the benefits of LED lighting. Expenditure on each area varies by car wash type (in-bay automatic, self-serve, or tunnels). Consider the following charts for an average car wash operator’s lighting cost by function, for an in-bay automatic, self-serve, and tunnel car wash:

Chart 1 – Standalone, In-Bay Automatic Car Wash

An average single, in-bay automatic car wash spends $2,800 in power per year. That could be reduced to $496 per year with LED upgrades with the top areas of priority being the wash bays and pole lights. To fully take advantage of these savings, other areas should be upgraded as well including wall packs and signage, which typically account for around 27 percent of the power used for lighting.

Chart 2 – Self-Serve Car Wash

An average four-bay self-serve car wash with an equipment room, vacuum stands, signage, wall packs, and pole lights spends $4,800 in power per year. That could be reduced to $916 per year with LED upgrades with the top areas of priority being the wash and vacuum bays. Perimeter lighting, wall packs, and signage combined account for around 32 percent of the power used for lighting and can be upgraded to achieve the 80 percent power savings.

Chart 3 – Tunnels

An average 100’ tunnel spends $11,400 in power per year. That could be reduced to $2,500 per year with LED upgrades with the top area of priority being the tunnel. Yet, vacuum bays, perimeter lighting, wall packs, and signage combined account for around 47 percent of the power used. The wash tunnel is still the largest user of lighting power, by the smallest percentage vs. the other car wash types.

Each area can yield a different ROI. The ROI is based on the power savings vs. the existing lights divided by the total cost of the light fixture (product cost plus installation costs). Generally, higher wattage fixtures provide a greater ROI.

Figure A, outlines typical ROIs of LED upgrades by functional area using a blended average fixture cost.

However, ROI on power savings is not the only consideration. Safety and the customer experience must also be considered. Each will be dissected below:

Wash Bays and Tunnels

Typically, the largest areas of lighting expenses are in wash bays and tunnels. After all, this is where the customers spend most of their time and can have the largest improvement on the customer experience. Thirty percent to 47 percent of total lighting power usage is used in these areas. When the experience is important, wash bays and tunnels are the places to start when upgrading to LEDs. Typically, this is the second largest ROI behind pole-light upgrades.

Wall Packs

Wall packs light up vending and changer areas and provide security and lot driveway lighting. They are vital for a cleaner, more inviting look, and are the
Wall packs
are vital
for a cleaner,
more inviting look.

primary tool used to discourage vandalism on and theft from your building. Wall pack lighting typically accounts for 7 percent to 17 percent of total lighting expenditures, or $500 a year to light a self-serve or an in-bay automatic and $1,600 a year for tunnels. If theft and vandalism are a concern, wall pack upgrades should be a top priority.

Pole Lighting/Vacuum Bay Lighting

Pole lights and vacuum area lighting invite customers to your property and can keep them there longer, spending more money. Traditionally, pole lights were used partially for security and typically provide the minimum light needed by city ordinance to enable foot traffic on the property at night. Pole lights and vacuum-bay lighting is 30 percent to 38 percent of lighting costs. This equates to $1,700 annually for a self-serve car wash and in-bay automatic and $3,400 for a tunnel. Pole lights will offer the best ROI from power savings and, if that is the primary goal, pole lights should be the initial investment.

Perimeter lighting is increasingly being used as a strategic differentiator to entice night traffic and provide a cleaner looking car wash that can improve traffic flow. Vacuum-bay lighting is also now being used as signage to draw attention to the car wash with uniquely shaped and interesting canopy designs.


Power costs for box signs and menu signage is 7 percent to 13 percent of power costs. While this is a relatively small amount of cost, the loss of marketing when these lights fail is critical to the customer experience and driving new/repeat business. Plus, most box signs are difficult to service resulting in longer downtime periods between bulb/ballast changes. New, custom-made LED upgrade kits are available to turn any single-sided or double-sided box sign into highly efficient, highly reliable LED power signs.


Once the areas to upgrade are prioritized, an LED fixture selection process is required. Generally, LED upgrades are accomplished in one of two ways: upgrade kits and replacement fixtures.

If your existing fixture’s housing is in good condition and the lens is in good shape, save on product and installation costs by using a LED upgrade kit. Pricing for upgrade kits is generally 30 percent less per lumen than new fixtures. Also, upgrade kits typically save 30 minutes per fixture on install. However, long-term savings from upgrade kits vary based on the type of kit purchased. There are generally two types of upgrade kits. Single direction upgrade kits for wall packs, pole lights, and canopy lights and omni-directional upgrade kits called ”corncob” lights (see Figure B, page 96), made for high-bay metal halide replacements and post-top pole lights.

LED lighting
has proven to attract
business, cut costs,
and reduce crime
with a typical ROI of over
50 percent.

Use the corncob lights for their intended purposes only. By using corncob lights in wall packs, down facing pole lights, or canopy lights, you’ll lose over 52 percent of the efficiency gains from LED lighting as the light will need to be reflected back towards the space being illuminated. Do use the corncob style lights for decorative post top fixtures.

For pole and area lighting, generally, brighter is better. Studies have shown that a properly lit location can reduce criminal activity by 30 percent and promote more traffic. However, the added lighting must be done properly to avoid glare. A light pointed at a 45-degree angle can aggravate customers and neighbors and create blinding light. Look for lighting that is “dark skies” compliant and provides illumination without providing glare and hindering people driving or walking by.

LED lighting penetration into the car wash community is rapid and innovative. When done properly, car wash operators can maximize their ROI and improve their customer experience. Be sure to take advantage of the benefits of LED lighting across all areas of a car wash including bays and tunnels, equipment rooms, signage, and wall packs.

Michael Call is vice president, sales and marketing at Mile High LED Systems. You can visit the company on the web at, or, for a free consultation, lighting design, or advice contact Michael at (303) 257-1195.