In any business, there is a constant battle to generate new customers, increase sales, and reduce overhead. This is especially true in the car wash industry, and ever so important given today’s sluggish economy and rising overall operating costs. As a result, car wash owners are always on the lookout for proven, cost-reduction methods. This article will discuss how advances in LED technology can not only reduce operating costs but also improve customer satisfaction and be a driving force for new sales. It will also touch on specific qualities to look for in LED lighting products as well as the process of lighting design and what to expect in a lighting plan.


A longtime industry standard has been the use of high-intensity discharge fixtures (i.e., metal halide). Along with these fixtures come several notable disadvantages. They are not only costly to operate, but tend to lose about half of their light output midway through their lifecycle, necessitating frequent and numerous maintenance and replacement costs. The heat generated from the metal halide bulbs can also build up within the fixture and lens. This can eventually “bake” residue from the car wash environment onto the hot lens, leading to significant amounts of light depreciation, and an increase in upkeep.

Bright, white light makes everything pop.

Another common practice in the car wash industry is the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). These fixtures can also be a maintenance headache as they can frequently falter in the harsh car wash environment, especially in cold temperatures, requiring consistent bulb changes. Plus, many of these bulbs contain mercury and can potentially pose environmental and associated health risks if broken or cracked.


In contrast, light emitting diodes (LEDs) produce light in a completely different way than traditional lighting sources and as a result are significantly more efficient. An LED is a semiconductor chip that emits photons (light) when conducting current. The technology for LEDs has been around since the 1960s. However, only recent developments in white LEDs have made general-purpose lighting possible.

Quality LED lighting systems offer a great way to spruce up bays at price points that can pay for themselves within two years of installation. That’s because one of their greatest benefits is the dramatic reduction of energy consumption when compared to traditional lighting technologies. In most cases, this includes lowering metal halide and CFL energy use by 60 percent to 70 percent. LEDs also do not burn out like typical bulbs, offering 10-plus years of operational life while still emitting up to 70 percent of its initial light output after this point. Once again, a metal halide bulb can only be expected to emit about 50 percent of its initial light output after 10,000 hours.

Limited upkeep is also a LED benefit. While quality LED fixtures can be maintenance free throughout their 10-plus year lifetime, a metal halide fixture typically requires around five or six bulb changes and one or two ballast changes during that same time.

As for aesthetics, LEDs produce a higher quality of light than traditional sources. Colors appear more vivid. Interior and exterior service displays and operations pop. When choosing lighting for a car wash, the ideal fixtures are typically a “daylight white” (5000K) color temperature that offers a crisp and clean white look as opposed to a bluish pallor. Furthermore, they offer the ability to emit light in a specific direction, eliminating the need for reflectors that can trap light and waste energy. With other types of lighting, up to half of the light from the bulb may never leave the fixture.


For many owners, old, inefficient lighting accounts for a large portion of utility bills and maintenance budgets and contributes to increases in carbon footprints. As a result, LED lighting has experienced a significant increase in interest in recent years. In the past, operators had few choices when choosing lighting. You went to your local electrical supply and chose a metal halide canopy fixture, wall pack, or vapor-tight fluorescent. Fixtures varied only slightly between manufacturers, and all were of similar build quality.

With the advent of LED demand, customers now have many different choices, and for the first time, must be concerned with quality. The biggest mistake is to assume that all LED fixtures (because they are LEDs) offer long-term durability, especially in harsh, wet environments that also combine wide-ranging temperature extremes.

Awning application at a self-service car wash.

LED fixtures, just like all products in a crowded marketplace, can vary immensely in terms of build quality, material selection, chemical resistance, reliability, and brightness. As with most major equipment purchases, be sure to do your research on the product and manufacturer prior to purchasing. A major and obvious thing to look for is a UL listing. Some suppliers will sell fixtures without any safety certifications. These fixtures will not meet electrical code, and are a shock and fire hazard. Operators should always ask suppliers for a UL listing and published lighting facts data. All legitimate manufacturers will be able to provide these basic items.


Proper planning can also be extremely important in choosing the correct lighting solution. Don’t be afraid to ask suppliers and manufacturers for assistance regarding your specific application. While many car washes may appear cookie cutter in design, most have their own intrinsic details, which require particular attention. Working with a supplier or manufacturer who understands the industry and is willing to work with their customers to specify the best solutions for their unique situations can be extremely beneficial. Choose a partner that is committed to growing their business through your success.

In every project the lighting requirements, needs, and budgets will vary. Common questions that affect the lighting requirements include: Is the facility a self-serve and open 24/7, 365 days a year? Can it be seen from the street or highway? Does it look clean, safe, and presentable all hours of the day and night? Are there exterior services that need special attention such as vacuum stations and other kiosks?

Qualified LED lighting companies will take the time and added effort to design a lighting package that will not only best serve the complex’s operational needs, but also achieve long-term energy and cost savings, while driving profits and enhancing sales. The following is a brief list of steps that a qualified lighting designer will take to help design your lighting project. Many lighting suppliers offer these services free of charge.

Specifications – Gather detailed information including drawings, dimensions, future plans, and objectives.

Scope – Discuss and determine the needs of the customer and the areas to be lit (tunnel, vacuum areas, equipment rooms, lot, etc), while making safety, cost saving, and aesthetic recommendations.

Expectations – Determine a plan of action based on the scope of the project, focusing on a combination of desired brightness levels, energy savings, and budgeting.

Build and Render – Generate a 3D model of the complete lighting design and calculate ideal luminance levels for each segment of the installation.

Prepare, Review, and Revise – Develop a complete rendering package for presenting to the customer. Work closely with the customer to review the plan and revise as needed.

Rendering of a lighting design.

Cost savings are not the only reason to replace old lighting. Lighting can greatly affect the customer experience and overall perception of a business. Modern LED lighting can produce a brighter and more appealing bay or tunnel, while showcasing a “going green” brand among environmentally conscious customers.

In addition, clean, vibrant lighting can drastically improve the image of a facility and draw people in at all hours, letting customers know you are open for business. Quality lighting provides a more satisfying wash experience in an environment that is both safe and inviting. This is especially true for highlighting your value-added services in a brightly lit bay that makes even older cars sparkle and shine.

With this information in mind, select your next lighting system wisely. There are so many choices currently in the marketplace, but not all are created equal. Be diligent in the process and you can be confident that a properly planned, quality, certified LED lighting solution can significantly improve your business in both sales and savings.

Jason Baright co-founded G&G LED in 2010 to fill industrial lighting needs for high-quality linear LED products, especially those suitable for wet locations and harsh environments. Since its introduction, the company has developed a widespread reputation for innovation and outstanding customer service within the car wash industry and is rapidly gaining traction in the automotive, food/restaurant, transportation, industrial, and agriculture fields. He is available at or (800) 285-6780.