The self-serve segment of the car wash industry is thriving. Successful business models have embraced changing technology and adapted to customers’ needs. Payment options have improved to include cash, credit cards, car wash memberships, or even cellular telephone apps. Bay selections have also increased to match consumer needs, from tire inflation and bug removers to foaming waxes and handheld air dryers. The application of advanced technology has allowed systems to be simplified using fewer parts, while improving reliability and extending equipment life expectancy.

Self-serve is experiencing an unprecedented resurgence of growth. The development of new car washes, as well as investors re-equipping older sites that have been closed or just in need of restoration, account for this expansion. Existing self-serve facilities continue to garnish consistent incomes throughout economic downturns, elevated gasoline prices, labor shortages, and pandemics. Self-serve is an attractive investment when considering the strong consistent income, low labor requirements, and car wash longevity.

Additionally, high profit margins are attainable with lower investment thresholds and minimal labor requirements. This lower investment threshold makes a self-serve facility an excellent launching point for entering into the car washbusiness.

Original equipment purchase price does not determine the true cost of operations, as cheaper equipment requires more repairs and offers less time to generate income. Simple and self-explanatory equipment with progressive features facilitate routine maintenance and thus extend the useful life of the car wash. The highest quality equipment offers:
• Simple design with easily accessible components
• Stainless steel frames, tanks, and enclosures
• Durable pumps with efficient drive systems
• Three-phase systems with thermal circuit protection
• Electrical systems protected with circuit overloads and fuses
• Lighted solenoid connections to indicate positive electrical current
• Pre-wired color-coded control circuitry
• Pre-plumbed plumbing with a single cold water and single warm water connection


Bay purchases are easily accomplished. Self-serve bay initiation has improved to accept not only coins, but also tokens, bills, credit cards, and/or cell phone apps. Credit card systems accept major credit cards by swipe, chip readers, and/or tap-and-pay technology. The tap systems also enable cell phone apps such as Apple Pay or Google Pay. Acceptors and controls placement is intuitive, as customers only use systems they understand.

Bay meter accepts coins/tokens, bills, and credit cards.

Selections in the bay are adjusted to specific markets. Soap, wax, rinse, and foam brush are no longer the only options presented. Modern systems have multiple offerings, providing customers with a total wash experience. Selections are adjusted with regard to the location of the car wash, taking into account climate and road conditions that determine necessary functions.

An urban setting will require different selections than those at a rural location. The same is true at a busy location compared to one with intermittent business cycles. Some customers may choose to wash and exit, while others detail every available surface.


Self-serve car washing has long been an essential sector of the industry. The labor requirement is nominal, requiring part-time janitorial work with fewer maintenance requirements. Self-serve bays are not limited with regard to the size or type of items washed. Operators have witnessed cars, trucks, buses, trailers, boats, ATVs, outdoor furniture, lawn mowers, and grills washed in the bays. The most recent trend is toward upscale cars; self-serve bays provide a safer platform for discerning customers. 

With current population trends, self-serve car washes are poised to meet consumer demand. The historic demographic of the self-serve has been 18- to 35-year-olds. This field has expanded due to convenient and attractive facilities with more offerings and the increase in work-from-home consumers. Opportunities abound with more people at home and spending less time commuting. These do-it-yourselfers are choosing to manually wash their vehicles in self-serve car washes.

Direct drive variable frequency drive equipment with tire cleaner; bug remover; presoak; soap; gloss wax; Rain X; rubber protectant; rinse; and spot-free rinse (foaming brush and tri-color foam conditioner through separate systems).

Market share may be further improved with combination car wash facilities. Combining self-serve with rollover or tunnel car washes has several benefits. Enhanced income is achieved by providing bays for items not able to be washed in an automatic bay or serve as an alternative for detailing. Also, multiple generations may use the same facility by offering both self-serve and automated equipment. Car washes with sporadic activity benefit from the consistent comings and goings of self-serve customers attracting patrons toward alternative amenities, while those experiencing rush periods benefit from self-serve bays as a faster option to serve overflow customers.

The multiple location model has numerous benefits.


While some self-serve car wash owners manage a single site as a part-time investment, trends indicate owners are now operating multiple locations as their primary business. This multiple location model has numerous benefits. Self-serve has always allowed managers to set their own schedule for servicing the car wash. But managers operating multiple sites have the added benefits of determining routes that are advantageous to their routine.

Schedules of service may be adjusted to avoid high traffic patterns and peak demands at each site. A service vehicle may be stocked with repair parts for multiple sites, reducing the inventory required if each site were stocked separately for replacement parts. Costs per site are lowered for insurances and other services. Furthermore, multiple sites have a propensity to minimize financial impacts from non-controllable circumstances (e.g., road work or closures, utility disruptions).

Fine-tuned business plans based on financial stability, reliable equipment, available time schedules, and obtainable labor force prove to be the most successful. Standardized equipment reduces required inventory and simplifies things when performing maintenance. Create a model that works and happy car washing.

Gary Wirges is the president of North Little Rock, AR-based CustomKraft Industries Inc. You can contact him at (800) 869-1448 or via e-mail at