The question every tunnel car wash owner must face today is this: Is tunnel car washing simply a “production” business, where success is driven by volume, speed, and profits built on scale? Or is it the business of putting on a “production” for customers, where we deliver a pleasant experience with lights, colors, and sounds customers enjoy, culminating in the clean car they value?

All car washes are not “basically the same.”

Savvy tunnel wash operators are beginning to answer “yes!” on both counts, realizing these two business philosophies are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the question reflects the evolution of tunnel car washing, and the crossroads where the industry now stands.

Historically, the tunnel car wash business has been about production — and the drive to deliver a clean car, faster, cheaper, and more profitably. The product being sold was the end result — a clean car — and the focus was on the car, not the customer. The customer was quite literally “along for the ride” and was expected to endure an environment that came across as an “assembly line” at its best, and “industrial menace” at its worst.


The problem is: there are people in those cars! The people, not their cars, are the customers. To these customers, many car washes felt claustrophobic, dark, dingy, and objectionably loud, while delivering a mediocre wash result. And most of them accepted the situation as inevitable — assuming that car washes had to be that way, simply because “that’s the way they were.”

As a result, approximately 65 percent of the market will use an automated car wash (often begrudgingly). However, many customers view most car washes as “basically the same” and often seek out the lowest-cost option. Another

35 percent of the market will not use an automated car wash as they stand today, and prefer washing at home. For the business-minded tunnel operator or new investor, there is plenty of opportunity to capture customers from ordinary “commodity” tunnel competitors, and finally attract driveway washers into a truly appealing tunnel.

So, differentiation is the answer to this business quandary. To deliver “stand-out” business results, a car wash must stand out in customers’ minds, providing a wash experience and cleaning performance that goes above and beyond the ordinary, everyday, and sometimes off-putting “business of car washing.”

The newest wash media cleans at much lower noise levels.

Today, there are exciting options available to forward-thinking tunnel wash operators — including equipment that drastically cuts in-car noise levels, gets cars cleaner even when operators choose not to use a prepper, attracts more customers with integrated lighting that’s highly visible from the street, and reassures customers with illuminated wash wheels that continuously confirm their wash package selections with color-coded lighting that “follows” each car through the wash. To fully appreciate the importance of these developments, it’s helpful to understand how tunnel car washing has evolved up to this point.

One can see that many innovations have been driven by the desire to differentiate, by improving the customer experience and cleaning performance. Starting with the harsh but effective nylon bristle wash media, the industry transitioned almost universally to the newer soft-cloth media to address customers’ desire for more gentle cleaning. But over time, customers experienced that soft cloth could still haze vehicle finishes, and they clamored for something better. Next came closed-cell foam wash media. Since this media is lightweight and does not hold water or grit, many customers perceive it as gentler on vehicle finishes.


However, a significant problem remains: Measured sound levels inside the car in a typical soft-cloth or foam-media car wash with wash wheels spinning at 90-plus RPM can exceed 94 dB per wash wheel — about the same as a kitchen blender on its high-speed setting. This volume prevents many drivers from listening to music, talking on the phone or to their passengers, or even thinking straight. And it’s not just the volume that’s irritating; it’s the shape of the sound as well. The sound of the wash media’s cleaning tips whipping against the vehicle produces a highly annoying type of sound, and at a frequency range many people find objectionable.

That last point is important. Conventional cloth or foam wash wheels can clean only with their tips. In order to extend those tips to reach the vehicle surface, conventional wash wheels must rotate at a high RPM in order to extend the wash media from a “droopy” state to its full working diameter. In fact, one could say a certain number of RPMs are needed just to extend the wash media out to reach the vehicle surface. Then, additional RPMs are needed to remove soils from the surface. It follows that wash wheels with conventional wash media don’t spin at 90-plus RPM because that’s an ideal RPM for cleaning a vehicle surface. They spin at 90-plus RPM because they can’t clean at all unless they spin at high RPMs.

Regardless of the “show,”the entire vehicle must be clean.

Today, new developments stand to redefine the wash experience yet again — including foam wash media designed to clean while spinning as low as 30 RPM. To achieve this, this new style of media uses self-supporting, thick foam arms that retain their working diameter at any RPM — even at rest. This means wash wheels can now spin right at the RPM that produces optimal washing results. There is no requirement to spin the wash wheels at a certain RPM, just so the media can reach the vehicle surface.

The ability to wash at much lower RPMs has many benefits. For one, in-car noise levels are drastically reduced — peaking at just 79 dB. Because decibel levels are logarithmic, not linear (a reduction of approximately 10 dB represents a perceived halving in volume), this is less than one half the perceived loudness of the 94 dB peak heard with conventional media at 90 to 100 RPMs. When we reduce in-car noise levels this dramatically, customers notice. For the first time, they can listen to music, talk to each other, and interact with their kids and family in ways they couldn’t before.


Of course, one would expect a wash that is perceptibly quieter and gentler to reduce customer anxiety and diminish damage claims — both desirable outcomes for the operator and customer alike. But this new media type is about more than noise reduction. In addition to foam “arms” it uses many foam “hands” and “fingers” (over 18,000 fingers per wash wheel) to produce a hand-wash action at production-line speeds.

Spinning at 30 RPM, this design delivers over 250,000 cleaning touches per wash wheel — and every touch is controlled, deliberate, consistent, and predictable. Also, the soft, springy foam arms, hands, and fingers provide the right pressure to clean with multiple edges and angles, contouring and wiping the vehicle surface in a way the tips-only cleaning of conventional wash media cannot.

Reports from the field indicate this media style does clean better than conventional media — even when operators choose not to use a prepper. What’s more, when prepping labor is removed, what remains can be reallocated toward higher revenue-producing activities, such as upselling, improved customer service, and better facility upkeep. Employee satisfaction is increased, as we get rid of the most onerous parts of the attendant’s job. (It’s important to remember here, that employees are people, too.)

Because the attendant can focus more on increasing revenue, the wash owner can choose to pay the attendant more — which further improves morale. Accordingly, employeeturn-over is reduced, creating greater continuity for customers who appreciate seeing familiar faces. Employees (literally the face of your car wash) have more positive interactions with customers, because they’re in a genuinely better mood.

So we can see these benefits are a win-win-win, for operators, employees, and customers.

So, what happens when the car wash delivers a truly cleaner car — and does it consistently with equipment versus the hit-or-miss approach that relies on manual assistance? It becomes an “incredible car wash” for customers, simply by being a “credible car wash” — keeping its promise to deliver a really clean car. The performance of the wash is obvious in its results, the car wash is accountable to the customer, and the customer is in the driver’s seat — exactly where she belongs, especially if she has every reason to drive right back to the same car wash the next time.

A color and light display on the vehicle’s windshield.


Experience has shown that true innovations in wash media represent fundamental improvements in car washing technology. But other factors can greatly influence the customer experience — including the use of lights and color in the wash, typically with colored LED lights that help brand the facility and/or promote its service offerings. While such LED lighting won’t get the cars any cleaner, it can attract customers, delight them, and keep them coming back, helping drive business outcomes if not wash results. The takeaway? You can’t eat the toy in a Happy Meal, but it sure sells a lot of Happy Meals.

It’s no surprise that today’s most intriguing tunnel equipment offers more than innovative, low-RPM wash media. It also offers colorful LED-illuminated hubs, integrated right into the wash wheels themselves. This spinning light show actively markets the site, attracting more customers from the street and into the wash bay. During the wash, the lighted hubs provide a delightful diversion and memorable branding for the site. Afterward, the highly visible lighting can work 24/7/365 to help customers find the wash and bring repeat customers back — a phenomenon psychologists call the “beacon effect.”

Illuminated-hub equipment makes possible another benefit that wash customers really appreciate — the ability to actively and continuously confirm their wash package selections. By associating a specific light color with each wash package the operator can program the lighted wash wheels to “follow” each car along the conveyor, illuminating each component with the correct wash-package color as the customer’s car passes by. This assures each customer they got what they bought in a memorable, intuitive, and highly visible way, reinforcing the value of their package selection throughout the wash process.

Operators who choose to provide a quiet, safe, gentle wash with brilliant integrated lighting can opt out of the commodity tunnel wash market by delivering an all-new experience customers can’t get elsewhere in their markets. This allows the operators to get paid proportionately for the value of the experience and cleaning performance they provide to customers, rather than settling for a cost-plus-margin pricing model that is squeezed from every direction by competitive pressures.

All of these new options make this an exciting time in the tunnel car wash business, whether one is building a new wash or revitalizing an existing site. The ability to “bolt in” true differentiation for a site, and flip a switch for better cleaning and highly effective marketing, has many investors and operators exploring new possibilities to rewrite the old formulas about traffic counts and capture rates, by becoming a destination wash for many customers, not simply an impulse buy.

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.