Parts 101: What You Need to Know about Car Wash Equipment

Part of investing in a car wash is selecting equipment for your site. Here is a primer on the common components, as well as recommendations to help set your business apart.

a car wash tunnel filled with glorious equipment

So you’ve made the decision: You’re going to open your own car wash. Whether you’ve been in and around the industry for years or are drawn to the prospect of building a lucrative business, you’ve got a lot of factors to consider. However, of all the important things you’ll need to manage — financing, location, construction, and staffing — there’s one that’s a ton of fun: equipment!

Equipment is one of the best parts of investing in your own car wash. It’s a bit like building a custom hot rod. Every part and decision can make your car wash faster, more efficient, and higher-performing than a stock setup. With every choice, your site becomes distinctly yours, and when you add that perfect touch — your secret sauce — customers will feel the difference.

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘car wash’

As much as you’d like to try, you can’t build a car wash all on your own. It takes contractors, suppliers, and the occasional attorney to make your business a reality. In a way, the people you surround yourself with are the first equipment choice you’ll make, as your primary suppliers often dictate the majority of a site’s layout, equipment choices, and construction details.

The first addition to your roster should be a personal advisor. Even if you’ve been washing cars since you were a teen, an advisor can help you navigate the complete ins and outs of building and owning your own car wash by helping you connect to distributors, understand the details of daily operation, and get the most from your investment. If you don’t already have one in mind, the International Car Wash Association can help you connect with an advisor that meets your needs. From there, your advisor can help you fill out the rest of your dream team.

Gear up!

Now that you have your people, it’s time to pick out your parts. One of the best things you can do to familiarize yourself with equipment is to tour as many car washes as you can. Now, we’re certain you’ve done a fair bit of research already (you are reading this, after all), but it can’t be overstated — the best way to learn about tunnel layouts is to see them with your own eyes. This is so important, the ICA even suggests you add a line to your budget specifically for site tour expenses. There are events all across the country, such as bus tours and regional conventions (like SCWA Expo), where you can get a detailed look at the sort of equipment and supplementary technology used by the best owners in the industry.

By connecting with your regional car wash association, you can stay up-to-date on tours, conventions, and other events that help you learn more about both equipment and the finer details of car wash ownership and operation.

When you have some inspiration for your equipment and layout, you can begin working with your advisor, suppliers, architect, and general contractor to make your dream tunnel a reality. In most cases, a car wash tunnel will need the following equipment:

  • A Conveyor

    A chain-and-roller conveyor rail

    While other equipment might get more attention, the conveyor is the actual heart of your car wash. The two conveyor methods, chain-and-roller and flat-belt, both have their fans. Most of the industry swears by chain-and-roller, as they tend to be cheaper to install and usually require less-costly maintenance. However, belts have received more attention in recent years for their effectiveness in managing modern auto-braking vehicles.

    The best way to decide on a conveyor type is to identify your goals and needs. Are you looking for a budget-friendly or easier-to-repair conveyor, or are you concerned about auto-braking vehicles? Your advisor also likely has very strong opinions on which conveyor type is best, so don’t hesitate to ask.

  • Water Management

    A water treatment system used by a car wash (image courtesy of Water Management Australia Pty Ltd)

    A car wash uses a lot of water, so it’s important for modern sites to actively manage their usage. This takes several forms, from water recycling to underground reclamation systems with storage tanks for off-site treatment. These systems not only help reduce environmental impact but save sites money on total water usage. In addition, water conservation efforts make for a great selling point, pulling more environmentally-conscious customers to your business.

    In many municipalities, some sort of water reclamation or recycling is required by law. Be sure to know what’s necessary for your area before committing to any specific system.

  • Chemical Dispensers

    A chemical dispensation system (image courtesy of Coleman Hanna)

    Detergents, coats, and other chemicals often need to be diluted and regulated for efficient use. Dedicated chemical dispensation systems ensure your chemicals are diluted at consistent ratios and can even track usage to help you make informed performance decisions.

  • Arches and Applicators

    A rad-looking car wash arch

    Arches are used to dispense water and detergents as a vehicle passes underneath. In addition, arches can be decorated with signage or lights to hide equipment, enhance the customer experience, or provide useful instructions to a driver while they are in the tunnel.

    Similarly, applicators apply soap, foam, and other solutions as a vehicle passes by. Compared to arches, applicators are lower-profile, allowing you to tuck them in spaces without adding too much to the tunnel length. However, applicators cannot provide the extent and consistency of coverage offered by arches.

  • Brushes

    A black and red wraparound brush

    Brushes are the main attraction for any car wash tunnel. Brushes come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, which helps make your tunnel stand out. “Top brushes” span the width of the tunnel and roll over the top of the vehicle, while “wraparounds” are oriented vertically and wash the vehicle’s front and sides as it moves through the wash. “Mitters” are oscillating brush curtains used to clean a vehicle as it passes underneath.

    It’s important to remember that whatever brushes you choose will eventually need to be replaced. Consult your supplier on what can be expected from you brush selections, as well as best practices for keeping them performing well.

  • Blowers

    A set of car wash blowers (image courtesy of Broadway Equipment)

    Blowers are another vital piece of equipment. Blowers dry a vehicle at the end of the wash using large turbines (called air producers) to draw in air and expel it through a directed nozzle. Often, multiple blowers are grouped in a dedicated ‘blower room’ at the end of the tunnel, which ensures the vehicle is completely dry as it exits.

  • Vacuums

    A row of vacuum stations (image courtesy of Royal Wash Car Wash)

    While not technically required, vacuums have become a mainstay for every type of car wash. ‘Free Vacuums’ is synonymous with the modern express model, and most customers expect vacuums to be available once their wash is over.

    These days, it’s common to have a single, central vacuum system providing suction for multiple hoses. However, some sites use canister vacuums, which have individual motors at each station. Most owners find central systems preferable due to their ease-of-maintenance and overall efficiency.

  • Point-of-Sale

    A point-of-sale terminal doing its point-of-sale terminal thing

    You’d be hard-pressed to find a car wash open today still using a dedicated cashier. Point-of-sale (POS) systems use electronic payment kiosks to manage purchases, allowing for fewer attendants and a more streamlined process. Modern POS systems also interface with the tunnel equipment, which lets customers receive the wash package they select automatically. Also, since sales are centralized, POS systems can also integrate with 3rd-party accounting software to ease bookkeeping.

  • Tunnel Controller

    A man getting awesome feedback from his tunnel controller

    With so much equipment, you’ll need a way to coordinate it. Tunnel controllers act as an intermediary between the various systems in your tunnel to make sure everything is working in sync. Tunnel controllers connect your POS to your equipment to match the wash purchased by a customer without any manual adjustment. Tunnel controllers can also provide some performance feedback to aid you in making informed decisions about your site.

That special touch

Brushes and blowers are important pieces of equipment, but they’re just the beginning. When it comes to setting your car wash apart, modern tech can add extra value for you and your customers. Think of it this way: Your hot rod may have the classic body, but under the hood, it’s got cutting-edge modifications that beat the pants off everyone else on the line.

We mentioned POS systems earlier, but new innovations have empowered owners to take full advantage of recent industry trends. Unlimited wash plans, loyalty programs, and offsite payment have proven themselves to be both convenient to the customer and incredibly profitable to car washes of every size.

Historically, incorporating these systems has proved costly and cumbersome, causing more headaches than they were worth. Now, unified software solutions let your customers manage wash subscriptions and purchase plans from anywhere, including your own website. Camera-based license plate recognition and QR code scanners let customers drive straight to load-on without needing to spend time at a terminal, keeping your queue moving while adding convenience to your most loyal patrons. Even better, each of these systems integrate into your POS, making financial tracking effortless.

The interface of CarPix vehicle queueing software

On the subject of speeding up queueing, camera systems can be enhanced to allow for faster load-on and easier vehicle management. Advanced software captures a picture of every queued vehicle and displays each one, complete with purchase data and customer history, on a touchscreen. Attendants can easily see the vehicles coming down the line and make any adjustments if necessary (such as when a customer needs to exit the queue).

Site monitoring tools provide a level of insight invaluable to the modern car wash. Current industry trends suggest more investors are planning or considering multi-site operations. While you can imagine the hurdles that come with scaling up, the challenge of maintaining a high level of quality and consistency across sites is particularly daunting. Luckily, new monitoring and insight tools allow you to not only see a full suite of performance metrics for every site you own but track details like conveyor downtime from anywhere. It’s the closest you can get to being everywhere at once.

A monitor showing NoPileups' display interface

Maximizing profit is a primary focus for any business, and the latest innovations in tunnel safety and incident prevention can increase production just as well as they lower damage costs. NoPileups is a perfect example, using computer vision to track vehicles and automatically stop a conveyor whenever the system detects a potential accident. The speed and consistency of NoPileups’ collision prevention allow your employees to focus on washing cars instead of second-guessing every vehicle that comes through the tunnel.

Each of these systems and services works in tandem with the equipment you select to enhance the customer experience, optimize your operation, and set yourself apart from the place down the street.

Equipped for success

It’s easy to look at the shiniest arches and biggest blowers and think, “I’ve gotta have it.” But, when it comes to the equipment you select for your car wash, the key is to remember how each piece comes together to create the best value for both your operation and your customer. Finding the right components, the right layout, and the right enhancements will always come down to what will create a high-quality product and frictionless experience for your customers and a sizeable return on investment for you.

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