Project Description

State of the Car Wash Industry:

The Good, the Bad, and the Competitive Edge

The industry is growing, but with rising competition and cost,

operators must optimize operations to survive and thrive

With recent economic growth in North America, the good news is that the car wash industry is growing. Consumers are buying more new vehicles, particularly trucks, which creates a greater demand to keep them clean, polished, and looking new.

The bad news is that the car wash industry’s growth has attracted lots of tough new competition. This has placed downward pressure on pricing just as labor and utility costs are rising. Technological advances like sensors, keyless ignition, and driverless cars are also introducing complications in the market.

To survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive car wash market, owner-operators must now pay close attention to operational details and select the best equipment and materials that will give them a competitive edge in wash quality, shine, efficiency, and total per car cost savings.

Growing Truck Market Share

With total U.S. vehicle sales on pace as of August 2016 to eclipse 16.98 million for the year, sales continue at a brisker pace than the 15.42 million average of the last two decades. In fact, the industry came off its sixth straight year of sales growth last year.

Consumers however, are opting for more cargo-passenger capacity and features like towing and four-wheel drive, pushing the light duty truck (including pickups, SUVs, crossovers, large vans, and minivans) market share up to 58% of all vehicles sales in the first half of 2016.

For car wash owners who have traditionally calibrated their equipment to wash smaller cars and sedans, the taller, longer, wider vehicles that consumers now prefer may require adjustments to their operation. This could include working with vendors to adjust equipment to accommodate these vehicles.

Outshine the Competition

As more car washes are built, local market oversaturation can become a problem. So how can owner-operators set themselves apart from new competitors with big checkbooks?

“When we compete with big box retailers, we’ve got to keep our wash quality high, our service fast, and do the little things that they find hard to do,” says Justin Alford, co-owner of Benny’s Car Wash, with seven family-owned locations in Baton Rouge, LA, including express, exterior, full-service oil changes, and convenience stores with gasoline.

Often this requires that owners maintain a hyper-focus on operational details and seek out the most effective wash materials and equipment for their market. With the fully integrated gasoline marketers, this is less likely to happen because the car wash business can be an afterthought.

For example, instead of inefficiently having staff hand scrub, hard-to-clean, vehicle tires and wheels in tunnel washes, Alford uses an automated conveyor car wash brush specially designed to clean tires and wheels.

The brush’s filaments vary in length between four to seven inches so that as a vehicle travels through the automated car wash, the longer bristles reach deep into wheel crevices while the shorter bristles clean the tire and wheel surface.

“Instead of inefficiently hand scrubbing vehicle tires, wheels, and rims, particularly difficult big ones, we use something called the Poodle Brush,” says Alford. “Resembling a well manicured poodle, this brush is made for us by car wash supplier Erie Brush and Manufacturing.”

“It gets into the nooks and crannies better than high-pressure sprayers with heated water and cleaning solution, and gives a better quality wash for our customers,” he adds.

Troubleshoot Technology

Among the issues that confront car washes today are rapid changes in technology such as collision sensors, keyless ignition, and even driverless cars.

On tunnel washes, for instance, cars are placed in neutral. But what do you do if a sensor thinks that wash equipment is a car and applies the brakes?

Another problem occurs when cars have keyless ignition fobs. The technology can lock the doors or change gears from neutral to park if the owner walks away with the fob.

“There’s no great solution to technology glitches right now because the last thing car manufacturers think about is how the car will be washed,” says Alford. “When a car’s sensors or keyless ignition is a problem, we have the owner ride in their car through the tunnel and have an operator follow to fix problems quickly. But in the long run, car manufacturers may need to create a Car Wash Mode to simplify the process for everyone.”

Cut Labor, Enhance Quality

Along with greater competition, the rising cost of labor and utilities means that car wash owner-operators have to optimize their labor and processes with the most effective equipment and materials to compete.

“When we started 34 years ago, labor was $3.35 an hour and we charged $6.00 a car,” says Doug Seniw, co-owner of Prairie State Express Car Wash, an exterior express wash in Chicago, IL. “Now labor is $9.00 an hour and we charge $3.00 a car. Due to the competition, we’ve had to cut our price and streamline our business anywhere we could without cutting quality.”

To optimize their process, Seniw has made a number of changes over the years.

Previously, at the wash entrance his staff used nylon prep brushes to mop trouble spots on the front and back of cars such as the grill, headlights, and license plates. But this required excessive scrubbing to remove bugs, bird droppings, and other debris, and was not sufficiently gentle on the car surface.

Seniw turned to prep brushes made of hog’s hair, actual hair that comes from hogs. This has the smallest diameter tapered filament, which helps to make it the softest. Since it is soft, tapered, and feathered at the tips, it tends to release grit and debris when properly lubricated and will not grind it into the car surface. Because of the taper, the hairs still retain stiffness for washing up close, if scrubbing is needed.

For an optimal approach in the automated express wash tunnel, Seniw prefers soft cloth for cleaning painted surfaces. For windows, he opts for Gentle Foam, a unique type of foam material mounted on a core, which rotates, and is used in similar top, side, or wrap around equipment as cloth, filament, or regular foam.

Unlike typical foam, which is usually offered at standard levels of softness, Gentle Foam significantly increases the level of softness. Because of its composition, it provides a better polish without the risk of scratching, snagging or damaging any portion of the car. Its softness enables it to clean difficult to reach areas, which also helps to optimize the wash while reducing claims.

“Since Erie’s hog’s hair brush gets in the trouble spots easier, we can scrub once instead of several times, which makes a huge difference on busy days,” says Seniw. “We’ve cut about one-third of our labor with better prep, and switching to Gentle Foam provides a better, more efficient, damage-free clean as well.”

Adapt to Market Changes

As owner of College Park Car Wash in College Park, MD, Dave DuGoff ran a high volume location with five self-serve bays and three in-bay, touchless, automatic spray washes for many years.

When he noticed higher demand for the self-serve bays and realized that two automatic bays would be sufficient, he converted his third automatic bay to another self-serve bay.

In the self-serve bays, he also relies on hog’s hair for his foaming brushes.

“You can’t beat the quality of a soft hog’s hair brush on the car’s surface,” says DuGoff. “It’s something my self-serve customers notice. In the first month we converted an automatic bay to self-serve, and we increased our sales volume and since then it has been a source of growth.”

As car wash owner-operators adjust to both the good and bad in today’s market, zeroing in on operational details and choosing the best materials and equipment for the job will help them outwit, outshine and outwash the competition.

For more info, call 800-711-3743 (ERIE) in US, 773-477-9620 internationally; Fax 800-798-3743 (ERIE) in US, 773-477-6030 internationally; email sales@eriebrush.com; visit www.eriebrush.com; or write to Erie at 860 West Fletcher St., Chicago, IL 60657.