Benjamin Franklin believed, “failing to plan, is planning to fail.” In the car wash industry, savvy operators know that “failing to maintain equipment, is planning to fail.”

There are many factors that can contribute to the successful operation of a car wash, including location, customer service, pricing, and reliable equipment that doesn’t break down. A car wash that is often closed due to mechanical problems is not going to stay in business for long.

Green Forest Car Wash employee Cecilia Vielmas removes
and cleans filters from the above ground clarifier
as part of routine maintenance.

Many of these factors should be addressed in the “design-build” stage, according to Thomas Ennis, president of Inglewood, CA-based NS Wash Systems. “Upfront planning is where many important decisions are made that can impact the overall success of the car wash and reduce costly repairs and maintenance expenses over time.

“For example, in colder climates, we see all too often that important systems are left outdoors, where they can freeze or get covered in snow. Much better to build your car wash where motors can be placed indoors or covered; they need to be well ventilated and protected,” Ennis explains.

In sunny or hotter climates, designing the car wash so that pumps, motors, and hoses are not sitting in direct sunlight is equally important. Asabia Gonzalez, operations manager for Green Forest Car Wash, a chain of car washes in Southern

California says, “Motors burn out when they are running during hot days and the placement of glass or windows next to equipment also is important.

“Hoses next to glass that get the full glare of the sun creates a ‘green house’ effect and can ruin hoses quickly. Motors also need to be protected from the elements,” Gonzalez notes.


Proper preventative maintenance requires car wash equipment to be greased, cleaned, dumped, and inspected on a regular basis. At the Green Forest Car Wash, employees are responsible for checking systems daily, weekly, monthly, and semi-annually.

Keeping the Green Forest Car Wash clean and green
is part of William Morse’s daily routine.

Every morning, employees run a “ghost wash,” the most important maintenance step of the day, says Gonzalez. As the car goes through the tunnel, an employee walks alongside and checks all systems, spraying nozzles, brushes, blowers, and dryers, a complete check in the time it takes to wash a car. This can be done 30 minutes prior to opening. “This is the most efficient way to make sure all systems are working properly.”

A ghost wash can be done without a car — hence the name, or with a car, explains Gonzalez. Both ways are a benefit and should be used. “If the car is going through, you get to view the timing of the tunnel controller, how the brushes are touching the car, and how the soap is hitting. With no car you can see aspects of the car wash you can’t see with a car going through. For example, this provides the ability to observe if the curtains are in good shape, have any rips or tears and so forth.”

Alex Chavez, director of research and development for NS Wash Systems, agrees, but also recommends that employees should walk along with cars throughout the day, to check that all systems are working.

Not everything we do is “by the book,” adds Patricia Knott, creator of the Green Forest Wash and theme car wash concept. “For me there is maintenance and there is preventative maintenance. For example we put cat litter in the vacuums to keep them clean and minimize the chance of a clog.”


Osbaldo “Oz” Ibarra, director of maintenance operations
for Green Forest Car Wash, inspects and cleans
The Bubblecano machine.

Equally important in a preventative maintenance regimen is to involve car wash employees in routine system tests and checks. The more they know how the car wash and its systems are supposed to operate, the better they are aware if something is not operating properly and can react accordingly. Gonzalez recommends that employees shadow factory technicians when installing and servicing systems to become better acquainted with how the machines work.

The end-of-the-day closing routine requires employees to shut everything down, relieve pressure on systems by turning off valves, and get rid of excess moisture in pumps. Giving everything a final look over before going home can save valuable time the next day.


Green Forest trains its employees to perform routine maintenance and minor repairs. Employees can clean and change filters, clear or replace clogged nozzles, and replace broken or worn brushes or cloths.

According to Green Forest’s director of maintenance operations, Oz Ibarra, it’s fixing the little things on a regular basis that saves major headaches and costly repairs in the long run.

It’s a good idea to have lots of spare parts on hand, says Ibarra, and check the supply to keep stocked up. Ibarra makes sure that each Green Forest Car Wash has replacement hoses (both 1” and 2”), vacuum hoses, a spare sump pump, filters, and extra Lammscloth and brushes. The more employees know the car wash operations inside and out, the more they are familiar with what systems and parts will wear out and when.


Ibarra says they always call a technician for machines that are under warranty or electrical systems, pumps, and solenoid valves. Knowing when to call for help from a licensed or trained technician is every bit as important as performing routine maintenance yourself. Keeping everything running and the car wash open is the number one priority.

Chavez agrees. “When we install a new piece of equipment or an entire tunnel system, we make sure all the employees know how to operate and perform routine maintenance to keep it working properly,” he says. “We make sure the employees know about the operator’s maintenance check list in the manual so that the equipment is being checked on a regular basis as recommended.”

Ibarra greases the bearings on the tire shiner.

Lack of preventative maintenance is one of the biggest reasons for costly repairs, Chavez says. “Employees should be involved in daily, weekly, and monthly routine maintenance, including cleaning filters, draining air compressors, and replacing nozzles. It’s the small things that will turn into big ticket expenses if not addressed during routine maintenance checks,” he adds.

Chavez also notes that investing in a simple system will save on repair bills. “Our systems, for example, are not very complicated. If you can change the oil in your car, you can work on one of our systems.” When there is a problem, Chavez recommends calling a local technician, an electrician, or a plumber, for example, who was probably involved in the installation.


Rainy days are great days for routine maintenance. Without a doubt, rainy days and snow days are a curse to car wash owners and operators. During certain times of the year, a car wash can be closed for days. Smart car wash operators put these days to good use. Says Green Forest’s Gonzalez, “We use rainy days to catch up on deep-cleaning projects, wiping down tunnel walls, cleaning equipment, and scheduling repairs and semi-annual or annual service. This makes sure that when the storm clears and the sun shines, we are open and ready to wash cars.”


Collecting payment for the car wash, whether by an attendant or by the newer, more popular pay stations, is the most important factor in a successful car wash. Whether the polite smile of the attendant, or the simple ease of swipe-and-go technology, the pay station is your car wash’s first impression to the customer.

Craig Goodwin, director sales/western region for Maryland-based Unitec, recommends that employees add the pay station to a daily maintenance checklist. “The pay station is your first contact with the customer,” Goodwin says. “It should be simple, easy to use, and create a positive experience that will enhance the car wash experience and lead to repeat customers. Car wash employees should keep the pay stations clean, wipe the keypads and display screens, and make sure that bill acceptors and card readers are clean and dust free. The machines should be checked every morning to make sure they have plenty of receipt paper and that the change hoppers/dispensers are full.”

Diavonte Hicks, a Green Forest Car Wash employee,
cleans the pay station, keeping it dust free and working.

Dual access doors, one for service and maintenance procedures and the other for operator and manager access, make the pay station convenient to check, fix, and maintain. To minimize downtime, ensure that technical support is available seven days a week and that the supplier has a distributor network throughout the country to service express car wash payment systems.

Bottom line is tunnel car washes today have equipment and mechanical systems that need the human touch to stay operational. Pay attention to preventative maintenance and employ helpful attendants that understand customer service and you are well on your way to operating a successful car wash.

Sydney Sullivan Knott is the president of The PR Group, a full-service communications firm based in Las Vegas.