Success in tunnel car washing has always been dependent on the volume of cars washed. What’s changing today is how customers are being courted by forward-thinking tunnel wash operators using new approaches, equipment, and techniques. Competitors who cling to old school attitudes risk losing volume, profits, and even viability for their businesses. Let’s look at why.

Historically, many tunnel car wash operators focused on a profit center model that emphasized selling extra services (whether a la carte or in packages) to increase their dollars per car. Offerings such as undercarriage wash, wheel and tire cleaning, triple foam, total body protectant, and tire shine all proved popular with customers and reliably drove up both revenues and profits.

Unfortunately, this mindset encourages operators to take wash volume for granted, or to view increased volume as largely beyond their control. And in fact, many have adopted a build-it-and-they-will come mentality with respect to development. They buy or build a car wash, and assume it will attract a certain volume of paying customers, based on past performance, traffic count, market demographics, etc.

Of course, customers don’t like to feel taken for granted. They also dislike the hard sell approach of operators who are overly reliant on upsells for profitability. And today’s customers are savvy, choosy, and perceptive. They demand value for money — and they’re seeking car washes that deliver a tangibly better wash result, and superior customer experience.


Fortunately, thought-leader operators are now building and renovating washes for maximum customer appeal and wash functionality. These operators view their entire car wash business as one big profit center. Their implicit goal is to earn wash volume exceeding that predicted by traditional models, and then earn the opportunity to sell added-value services — building profit on top of volume.

LED light shows attract and entertain.

An example of this approach is the increasing use of multi-colored LED lights in wash tunnels. Nearly everyone agrees that LED light shows can both help attract customers from the street and entertain them inside the wash. There are many options, but most are obviously an afterthought added onto existing equipment. One intriguing option is wash equipment that integrates LED lighting into the wash wheels themselves, bringing light, color and motion to the experience with built-in spinning lights.

Purchase Confirmation

Integrating multi-color LED lights into the wash equipment itself brings another advantage — the ability to confirm each customer’s wash package purchase in real time. To achieve this, wash menu signage and POS systems communicate to each customer a “package color” that corresponds to their wash package selection. As the customer progresses through the wash, each piece of equipment lights in their “Your Wash” color, effectively following the customer to continuously confirm they got what they paid for.

The impact of this package purchase confirmation on customers is real and significant. That’s because it addresses an underlying doubt felt by many tunnel car wash users, which has been documented via exit surveys of hundreds of customers: “Did you get what you paid for?” Most people asked this question at a typical tunnel car wash answered, “No.” A significant number replied, “I don’t know.” Less than 1 percent confidently answered, “Yes.” That points to a serious credibility problem for the industry, and one that traditional wash equipment simply does not address.

Wash Media

Operators who wish to further increase the appeal and effectiveness of their wash will next turn their attention to the wash media itself. After all, the media is what touches the car, and more effective media will result in better cleaning. And because the media touches the car, it makes a substantial impression on the customer. The customer judges the media, and the quality of the wash experience, by what they see, hear, and feel at the “moment of truth” when the washing actually occu

Many fingers make thorough work.

Does the media look like it’s cleaning the car effectively? Does it sound like it’s cleaning? Is the sound agreeable to the customer, or harsh? Is it too loud? Is it irritatingly high-pitched? How does it feel? Is the media “slapping” or “rocking” the car, and does that cause the customer any concern?

With traditional wash media, operators have few options to improve this part of the customer experience. They can opt for soft cloth or foam, but both must spin at high RPMs to extend the otherwise limp wash media to reach the vehicle surface. This high-RPM operation can generate objectionable noises and volume levels inside the car. Because the wash wheels are spinning so fast, each touch is fleeting, and the cleaning action can appear random and haphazard — not confidence-inspiring.

A newer media design uses self-supporting foam “arms” with many “hands” and “fingers,” designed to clean at much lower RPMs — 1/3 to 1/2 the rotational speed of traditional media. By emulating a hand wash action — with up to 27,000 fingers per wash wheel — this media delivers up to four times the touches of traditional high-RPM material, even at production line speeds. And because of its low-RPM operation, every cleaning touch is prolonged and purposeful. Customers can see it cleaning the car like they would.

Naturally, wash media spinning at half the RPMs is also twice as quiet. Not only are the sounds lower in volume, they’re lower pitched as well — soothing, not grating. Customers can hear new sounds of cleaning like “swish” and “whoosh,” while the lower volume makes it possible to take a phone call, listen to music, or talk with kids and other passengers. What customer wouldn’t prefer the quieter wash?

Washing wheels.

After the wash, customers can see the cleaning results for themselves. And lower-RPM wash media is delivering cleaner cars, observed over multiple locations nationwide and millions of vehicles washed. This stands to reason — in a touch-based wash, the wash media that delivers both a better quantity and quality of touches will clean better.

This cleaning action is delivering another welcome benefit, as well. The wiping motion of the low-RPM foam media is actively smoothing the painted surface, producing lasting improvements in gloss. This has been observed and measured repeatedly using calibrated gloss meters. These gloss improvements are created without waxes or sealants — the wash media itself is improving the built-in shine of vehicle paint.


And what about wheels? We all know clean wheels are hugely important to customers — a clean car with clean wheels simply feels 10 times better than a clean car with dirty wheels. In the quest to deliver clean wheels, many operators settle for using more-aggressive nylon brush wheel cleaners — even when they wouldn’t dream of using nylon bristle on the rest of the car. But that’s an unnecessary compromise.

Today, there are wheel cleaners available that use soft foam wash media — the same material used on wash equipment intended for vehicle bodies. The most effective of these utilize two counter-rotating soft foam cleaning heads that spin parallel to the car, not perpendicular to it. This keeps all of the foam wash media engaged in cleaning at once, delivering more touches in less time, even at high line speeds.

This approach also helps clean the bottom third of each vehicle in addition to the wheels, to ensure optimal cleaning results on the dirtiest part of every car or truck. Simply put, this dual scrub capability packs a lot of value into a small footprint of valuable tunnel space.

From a business perspective, there’s a lot to recommend wash equipment that:
• Actively markets your site, attracting new customers from the street
• Delivers an in-tunnel experience they prefer with colorful spinning lights, wash package purchase confirmation, and a much quieter wash process
• Incorporates a focused, gentle, and thorough approach to cleaning wheels and lower body
• Keeps them coming back for cleaner, shinier cars

Because this approach is delivering cleaner cars, it makes it possible to eliminate pre-wash prep work completely. The no-prep business model brings several distinct advantages:
• Higher throughput, more revenue, more profits, and no prep-area bottlenecks
• Eliminate prep employee costs
• Customers don’t feel the need to tip prep employees
• Tip money can be reallocated to higher wash prices, putting that money in your pocket.


Regardless of equipment package, it’s true that many operators are seeking to attract and retain customer volumes over and above what traditional models predict for their locations. The prevalence of free vacuums and wash club programs, where customers pay a set amount each month for unlimited washes per car, attest to this.

Of course, the free vacuums program simply trades a former profit center (paid vacuums) for a volume-builder. And wash clubs aim for two goals: generate stable, guaranteed revenue that’s not weather-dependent; and lock up market share.

It should be obvious that both programs are layered over the core offering, which is the wash itself. And what perceptive customers notice and care about most in a tunnel car wash is what happens in the tunnel — in terms of the cleaning result, and the in-car experience. The question becomes, once you get customers in your wash, how do you keep them coming back? Or to take the longer view, what investments are you making now, to future-proof your wash against competitors — including the ones you do not yet have?

Marcus McLaughlin has been a member of the marketing team at Belanger Inc. since 2008, and was formerly the marketing director for one of Michigan’s largest car wash chains.