Read This if You Want to Buy a Self-Service Car Wash

Black car in a car wash

In the self-service car wash world, the "Old Guard" is changing to the next generation of self-service owner/operators. The next generation, while eager to enter the business, sometimes find themselves frustrated and angry because it's just not as easy and profitable as they thought. They look at cash flows and CAP rates, but don't really realize the labor and dedication the previous owner put in to achieve those goals. If you are thinking about getting into the self-service car wash business, this blog is written to give you The Good, The Bad and The Ugly surrounding this industry. But let's do it in reverse order. 

The Ugly

Keeping it clean.

When you enter the car wash business, it is an invitation to the public - hereafter known as your customer base - to come and leave all their dirt and trash at your location. You'll get some money and they'll get a clean, dry and shiny car.

In the car and truck bays, the average customer will leave little to no mess at all - but the ones that do will leave you seriously shaking your head. From mounds of mud, leaves, animal carcasses, feces, motor oil and more, some of your customer base will use your car wash as a public dump ground - while they leave with a clean truck bed, trailer and vehicle. In the vacuum area, it's even more fun! Some customers can fill a 55-gallon trash can all by themselves. This area, if not attended to regularly, can quickly turn your new, clean business into an unsightly, and possibly unsanitary, mess. It is not uncommon to work hard to make your car wash a sparkling clean location, only to return in a couple of hours and wonder where the trash bomb came from in your absence.

Many new car wash owners find this disturbing, but to the Old Guard, it's just the price of doing business. The best and most successful owners are sticklers for cleanliness. Their customers know it and that's one reason why they return over and over again. The full-time owner is constantly working to keep his place clean. He or she watches for these problems and tries to stop them before they occur. If you are going to be an absentee owner, be sure to hire someone that really cares about cleanliness and customer service. Keeping the grounds clean is instrumental in customer retention.


In ancient Roman times, the Vandals were a nomadic people that invaded and pillaged Rome. Today they are local good-for-nothings that destroy private property for little gain - or just for fun. Yes, your car wash will be hit by vandals. Change machines, vacuums, meter boxes, hoses, guns and more - the list of what can be damaged is long. The unfortunate thing about vandalism is that it usually costs more to repair the damage than the amount of loot the vandals stuffed in their pockets.

The Bad


On a beautiful Saturday, when people pass the car wash and see a line of people waiting their turn, they may think: "Wow, that looks so easy and cheap to get into." They don't see the behind-the-scenes chaos of pumps, motors, solenoids, compressors, electrical panels and computers all working in unison and coordination to make their car wash experience seem so seamless and easy. They know little and care less about your maintenance costs.

Car washes are big mechanical machines and big mechanical machines need attention because they incur normal wear and tear damage. Preventative maintenance is the key to success here and the most successful operators have a maintenance plan in place and a plan of action in case of emergency.

Where a lot of new self-service car wash owners fail is the basic maintenance of their new acquisition. Most of these facilities have been around for a long time, some as long as 40-plus years. The equipment is probably just as old, but the prior owner knew how to maintain it and keep it running smoothly.

When car wash bays and equipment are down, customers take note. It doesn't make a good impression when something breaks and the owner doesn't fix it pretty quickly. I've seen many owners start their decline by thinking it's just one bay, I'll take care of it later when I have more money. Then, bay two goes down. Revenue begins to decrease and then another bay goes down – thus begins the cycle of death of the business.

Customer Complaints

"Look what your car wash did to my car!" "The soap's not strong enough!" "The soap's too strong!" "Your foam brush isn't thick enough!" "Your foam brush is too thick!"

I could go on and on.

You'll have to be prepared to deal with grumpy customers who may or may not have legitimate complaints. Help the ones you can, but remember: not everyone is a good customer. Learn who your regulars are and encourage them to keep coming back.

The first year is the hardest for the new owner. The Ugly and The Bad parts of the business can be alleviated with proper knowledge and resources as you enter this new endeavor. Learning how to successfully run a profitable self-serve car wash means:

  • Dealing with the public - otherwise known as your customer base. Grumpy, dirty, messy and sometimes hard to please, the lucrative owner either does well with the public - or has someone in place who is happy to be the public face.
  • Maintenance - Equipment maintenance is a must! It can be frustrating, especially if you are not mechanically inclined. If your attendant can't work on the equipment, you'll need to have a trusted and competent distributor you can rely on to keep your systems up and running.

Absentee owner - If your plan is to purchase a self-serve car wash as an absentee owner, then be sure to hire the necessary people to staff it and fix it when necessary. 

The Good

All previous problems aside, this really is a fun business. For most people, car washing is fun. They go into your facility with one of their most valuable assets dirty - and come out clean, often feeling good about themselves and the service you've provided. I often tell my guys that being in the car wash business is like being 5 years old every day. Who didn't love washing their car with their mom and dad at 5 years old? It's a fun and happy endeavor - and you get to help people.

It is also a business that you can make good money doing and that you can grow as fast or as slow as you desire. It isn't easy - but it is rewarding. If you are keeping up with the basics and can tolerate a little pain, your days are yours for the most part.

Owning a self service car wash is a great business as long as you go into it with your eyes wide open. You should know what it's going to take to make the business successful and you should be willing to put in the effort to succeed. Nothing in life that is good is easy and not everything that's easy in life is good. The same applies to any business venture you undertake.

For a site survey assessment for a self-service car wash, get an expert opinion from AutoBrite at today. 

About The Author

Lawrence Stovall is a contributing writer to the AutoBrite Company blog. He is a witty engineer, owner of multiple businesses, a retired Officer and a graduate of the Naval Academy. Lawrence was born in San Antonio and traveled the world extensively, particularly Asia, with the military career. When not working (because working is fun) he spends time reading, hunting and enjoying his Texas Hill Country home with his family. 

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Wednesday, 08 February 2023

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