Choosing Automatic Car Wash Equipment – Including Chapter 15 from My Book “Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash Start-Up Guide”

How To Make Good Decisions When Installing A New Or Upgrading An Existing In-Bay Automatic

My in-bay automatics turned 9 years old this past August. I know almost everything there is to know about the machines by now. I can see, hear, and sometimes sense when things aren’t working properly and most repairs can be diagnosed and repaired within a few hours because I now have a robust spare parts inventory. This makes the decision to upgrade my in-bay automatics even more difficult. But, because they are getting older, I need to start thinking about my various options, not so much based on my current equipment’s performance but more on how newer technology might enhance the customer experience.

I am a person who likes lists. Usually when I have a large purchase of this sort, I will brainstorm and write down what is important to me about the equipment, the manufacturer and the distributor selling and servicing the equipment. My list for the equipment would include:

  1. Cleaning ability
  2. Friction vs touch free
  3. Inverted “L” vs “roll-over” with tracks.
  4. Speed of wash
  5. Chemical Usage
  6. Water Usage
  7. Customer “Show”
  8. Maintenance and Reliability
  9. Drying capability/Wax Application
  10. Engineering

Cleaning Ability – one prerequisite for cleaning is a two pass presoak that can be programmed for both a low and high PH pass. The inability for a wash to do this would eliminate the wash as a prospective choice. These two passes are the most important in removing various road films, clays, and other dirt at various times of the year and also will be one of the most important factors in a washes ability to clean especially for the touch-free machines. The water impingement from the nozzles will also have a dramatic effect on the overall cleaning ability of a unit. Lastly, the contouring or ability for the spray tips to get near the car surface will have an effect on how well a IBA cleans.

Friction VS. Touch Free – I have two touch free washes in my one location right now. I even branded my wash as a “touchless” wash. However, I would consider purchasing a “soft-touch” friction wash. The reason is that they will normally clean troubled vehicles better. If you spent years branding yourself as a touch free wash it becomes a more difficult decision to install a friction wash. Also, friction washes will create a huge increase to your damage claims. Many operators that I have talked to will normally explain that their equipment usually is not the culprit but customer’s will blame the friction aspect of the wash on preexisting damage on their vehicles. Damage claims from a touch free are very minimal. So there are some trade-offs between friction and non-friction washes.

Inverted “L” vs “roll-over” with tracks. – My two washes have a gantry that run down a track and “roll-over” the vehicle. This creates some hardship for my customers in that my customers need to enter the wash between two rails so the vehicle is positioned correctly. It still amazes me how customers will ride up over the rails. and get their vehicles (and my equipment) in odd predicaments. A style that is becoming more popular with owners, are inverted “L” equipment that is suspended from the ceiling or supported by frame posts that allows the bay to have a more open style. Customer’s can enter the bay and position their vehicles almost anywhere they want and the equipment will use sonar or other technology to size the vehicle making for a better customer experience. It also makes cleaning the bays easier and has a cleaner look to it. Each style offers it’s own cleaning advantages, but it is a consideration on your buying decisions.

Speed of Wash – Most newer wash technologies are going to allow at least minimal “recipe” programming to meet pricing and proper wash package marketing. The ability to program your various wash packages and the speed the equipment can wash a vehicle in can be important to an operators bottom-line. If you have a wash that is always busy your ability to get good through put will be more important. No one wants to wait in long lines. This becomes even more critical if you are in a climate that has snow and salt spreading on the days that vehicles are lined up around your building. Unlike full-serve or flex serve washes, the in-bay automatic market has somewhat limited through-put and on these very busy days your ability to wash more vehicles will have a positive impact on your bottom line. Some wash manufacturers tout their ability to perform a top wash package in less than 4 minutes but owners must weigh the speed advantages to the cleaning results they are able to get from the shorter wash cycles.

Chemical Usage – this has some relationship to the speed of the machine. Some manufacturers have the ability to quickly cover a vehicle with presoaks, triple foams and other chemicals or will use tips that are allow better metering for more economical chemical use. Newer pump stations are also eliminating the need for large mixing tanks and hydrominders and moving to a injected chemical design that saves on chemical as well as equipment room space. While these newer designs have some limitations I would thoroughly explore it as viable option over the more traditional mixing tanks.

Water Usage – newer washes are using new tip designs and this coupled with the faster speeds will give you savings on what will probably be your highest utility expense, water. While there is some gray area on calculating water usage, I would want to know how many gallons I would expect to use in my top wash package. This is also one area that a friction wash will have some advantages over a touch-free wash.

Customer “Show” – my personal opinion is that this should be ranked very high on you list. I recently had the opportunity to sit through a newly designed wash that really did an excellent job at cleaning and had a bunch of great features. I would never buy this wash based on the “show” or lack of “show” even though it cleaned well. When customer’s see the bright foaming triple foam colors and great scents it improves their experience and keeps them coming back. Newer foamers are also becoming more prevelant for providing a good show. If new equipment cleans well and lacks the “show” aspect then it will be harder for customer’s to remember their experience. This show is also a reason for kids to ask their parent’s to go your car wash.

Maintenance and Reliability – In researching a new in-bay automatic purchase I would be very thorough in researching the overall reliability and maintenance a machine is experiencing by talking to as many current owners of the machine as I could. Some machines and manufacturers are developing machines that have much less downtime and are much more reliable than their predecessor’s. I would also research what I would expect for routine maintenance, including how, and how often bearings need greased, wheels and bearings need changed, and how hard the procedures are and the costs of parts and labor.

Drying capability/Wax Application – One of the most common complaints I get from my current customer’s is the ability for my in-bay automatics to thoroughly dry their vehicles. You will need to make choices as to what form of dryer you will want to purchase. Mainly on-board vs stand alone dryers. Each offers it’s own advantages. Your ability to apply waxes or drying agents will also determine your ability to dry a vehicle. The “sheeting” of water when these agents are applied will allow your blowers/dryers to do a better job. Wax applications and the appropriate auto teller will allow you to also increase revenue by up-selling customers with an upgraded wax like application.

Engineering – after you are in this business for a while, you will discover that many manufacturer’s of car wash equipment started out in their own garages as car wash owner’s who developed their own automatic machines and had their company’s grow from there. Sometimes the engineering is lacking in their design. Bolts or hoses are in places that are nearly impossible to reach for repair. Routine maintenance issues are made difficult because of poorly designed machines. For my next purchase, I will review the overall engineering of the machine and will probably do additional research on how many and what type of engineers the manufacturer employs.

Researching the Manufacturer – Your in-bay automatic purchase will most likely be the most expensive investment you make in your wash. Knowing as much about the manufacturer of the equipment you are purchasing is important. Here is a list of what I would want to know about the manufacturer of my equipment:

  1. Years in Business
  2. Financial Strength
  3. Leadership Experience and Vision
  4. Engineering Emphasis
  5. Distributor Longevity
  6. New Product Launches

Years in Business – while self explanatory, recent years have shown some imports coming into the market place. I would want to know that my manufacturer has had a long track record of machine sales in the USA. Especially with the fall-out of manufacturers in the recent bad economy.

Financial Strength – while this information might be hard to ascertain because most manufacturers are closely-held corporation, you can make some assumptions from a visit to the manufacturers facilities and would not rule making a trip of this sort for a purchase of this magnitude. Even then, learning the financial strength of a closely held company can be difficult, but asking the question is easy. Do your best in evaluating the answer you receive.

Leadership Experience and Vision – learn as much as you can about the leadership and vision of the management of the manufacturers. My experience has shown that some manufacturers management are more prone to keeping the status quo while others are working towards making their equipment more reliable and profitable for car wash owners. You can  learn a lot about this from reviewing previous equipment and revisions that have been made over the years.

Engineering Emphasis – while I have not done any formal research on this, my guess is that only a handful of manufacturers will employ full time engineers. This old-school approach to the business is becoming a competitive disadvantage when it comes to utilizing newer robotic innovations that more progressive manufacturers are using. Try to get a sense of where the manufacturers are in their engineering expertise and deployment.

Distributor Longevity – a number of what I would consider large car wash manufacturers have changed distributors over the past 9 years in my market area which would be a concern for me if I bought their equipment. The ability to stock parts, train service technicians can be a daunting task for a new distributor. If manufacturers are not stable in this area it would weigh against them in my final decision process.

New Product Launches – If you are upgrading current equipment, try to learn from your manufacturer what plans they have for any new product launches. While new is not always better I would want to know what features a new product has that the older product might not have. If the features are upgrades of an already reliable product then it might be worthwhile holding off until the new product becomes available.

Evaluating an Equipment Distributor (A chapter from Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash Start-up Guide)

In Chapter 15  of my book I named it “The Marriage”

I mention that this is the closest thing to being in a marriage for a reason. It holds very true! When you finally decide on an car wash equipment distributor you better evaluate who you are getting married to!

1. Do they represent good values?

2. What do they bring to the relationship?

3. Are they going to tell the truth?

4. Will they be with you through thick and thin?

5. Are they the mate you want to be with for life?

6. Are they financially sound?

7. Are they smart?

8. Will they cheat on you?

9. Will they bring out the worst or best in you?

10. Are they going to protect you?

11. Will they be there for you when you are down?

12. Can your marriage survive a long distance relationship?

13. What if it all unravels?

14. Will they live up to your expectations?

You might think that I am joking, but it is a very good analogy. Obviously, when you get married you are looking for the perfect mate who fulfills all of your expectations, the same holds true for choosing your equipment distributor. I have a love/hate relationship with my distributor. They might say the same thing. They love that I spent a million dollars on two car washes, and they hate that I’m a pain in the butt! When I chose them as my equipment vendor I evaluated many of the attributes that I thought were important in the relationship, I also missed a few! I don’t mind that they will probably read this someday because I am assuming that they’ll agree with most of my discussion about choosing an equipment vendor. I am not trying to “throw them under the bus” while I discuss my experience because they are a very reputable vendor, but just like any married couple, we have are problems and just like any marriage I could’ve done a lot worst and probably not too much better. Let’s look at this new marriage you will be entering bullet point by bullet point:

1. Do they represent good values?
When I say values, I am really looking at the overall strength and more specifically what manufacturers that the distributor you are considering represent. When I reflect back on choosing my distributor it really was for one main reason, I felt most comfortable with them as a company in providing me with a “turnkey” package including equipment. They were the only ones to provide construction drawings and a lot of “hand-holding” for a new car wash entrepreneur. Ask yourself, does this company represent the correct manufacturer and do they seem like their values are the same as mine? Many times the importance of this relationship is as important as the actual features, benefits, and add-value that the equipment manufacturers are touting in their equipment. This is sometimes a difficult quandary. You sometimes have good distributors representing bad manufacturers and sometimes have bad distributors representing good manufacturers. In either of these situations it can create trouble in the marriage.
2. What do they bring to the relationship?
I looked at about 4 to 5 different equipment vendors when I first got into the business. Each seemed to have different attributes. Four of the five owned washes at the time or had owned washes in the past. One was a local sales rep for a large national company who did mainly petroleum business. I ended up going with the distributor that I thought brought the most to our relationship. They represented good equipment. They had the closest thing to a “turnkey” solution and they had successful car wash experience.

3. Are they going to tell the truth?

In any marriage, you want a partner who is not going to lie to you. I experienced this first hand when I interviewed possible distributors. I didn’t know it at the time but after being in the business for a while I realized that some were telling me what I wanted to hear to try and earn my business. They also were being less than honest when it came to recommending equipment. I am thankful that my distributor was forthright in taming some of my expectations but also wish that they might have made better equipment recommendations. One of the distributors I considered closely went out of business within a year after I opened my first wash. I had no idea they were about to fail and they didn’t tell me.
4. Will they be with you through thick and thin?
It wasn’t long after I opened my first wash that I got in an argument with the principal of my distributor. I can remember it very clearly. The owner of the company took me and my partners golfing in the afternoon. That evening he visited our wash and found out that we had switched over to another chemical supplier and he was not happy about it. The next day when we were talking about why we were trying someone else’s chemicals it escalated into a heated argument. He threatened not to leave us a spare parts kit that he had promised earlier. This was somewhat amusing because his home base was about three hours from our location and he did not want to send a service guy for every small warranty repair that was needed (at the time we didn’t know how to fix anything). In the long run, we ended up spending another $450,000 with him but I don’t feel that the relationship was ever the same. The point I am making is that a lot of things, mainly disagreements can happen along the way. Make sure you are comfortable in whether this distributor will stick with you, and you with them, during rough times.

5. Are they the mate you want for life?
Believe it or not, when you partner with your distributor, there is a good chance that it will be for the lifetime of your wash or your involvement in the wash. While the automatic bay equipment will be more prone to replacement earlier, self- serve equipment lasts a long time. This means that unless the manufacturer of the equipment you choose changes distributors, you will be “married” to this distributor as long as you own your equipment.
6. Are they financially sound?
Would you want to be married to a partner who was in financial disarray? The same holds true with your equipment distributor. It will be impossible to gauge the true financial strength of any distributor but you need to do some common sense evaluating. Have they been in business for at least five years? Do they appear to be financially sound (building, vehicles, etc., in good repair)? Do they have an infrastructure to support you?
7. Will they cheat on you?
I have also had a personal experience with this as have many other car wash owners. When considering different manufacturers and distributors there was one company that I really thought I would possibly want to do business with. I also know that the distributor was involved and had some ownership with a growing chain of car washes in my market area. I ruled them out immediately. My instincts were correct because I now compete with them. You want to make sure that if your distributor owns car washes that they are not predators as well. If you talk to them about a good market location they might be the next to build there. This can be hard to gauge sometimes but you should take this into consideration with some of the pricing advantages they will have if they also become your competitor.
8. Will they bring out the worst or best in you?
Will your distributor continue to try to make you a success or will they be long gone after the sale? I look at all my vendors as ways to further my success from their ability to inform me of what is new and what could be advantageous for me in the marketplace. Your distributor could and should be a good source of information to help you grow your business.

9. Will they be there for you when you are down?

How quickly can your distributor respond to a problem. How good is their phone support. If you need a service call, how quickly can they get to you? Get this in writing if possible.

10. Can your marriage survive a long distance relationship?
Consider the physical distance the distributor is from your location. I also have personal experience with this. While my distributor has wonderful phone support, they are slow to make the 3 hour travel time when I need a service guy at my location. As the relationship ages, their inability to get to me in a timely manner gets worst. If I started exploring building another wash, I would be hard pressed to consider them as a vendor for this reason. As the old saying goes, “I am no longer a prospect, I am a customer” and the three hour trip all the sudden has gotten a lot longer for them. If you consider any distributor further than three hours driving distance you would be making a huge mistake. One hour travel or less from your distributor’s home office to your location is much better.
11. What if it all unravels?
What would happen if your distributor went out of business or you got into a dispute? Who would be there to support you? Who is the manufacturer’s next nearest distributor to your location? How quickly has the manufacturer brought in replacements in other areas? These are all valid questions when considering a distributor or manufacturer.
12. Will they live up to your expectations?
Sometimes your expectations and your distributor’s expectations are different. It is a good idea to get some of these expectations in writing in case a dispute happens. We had many reservations in contracting with a manufacturer that’s distributor was located three hours away from us. Through out the entire procurement process we were assured that they would have good service response time. I remember my distributor specifically saying that they would arrive within 24 hours. I very rarely call my distributor for a service visit but recently some service calls took over a week. I wish I could pull out a paper or contract that covered what I was promised as far as expectations. But I can’t.

There is a plethora of considerations when making equipment purchase of this type. Much of the information require weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each equipment offering and trying to make the best decision possible.

Buzz Glover is the author of “Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash Start-Up Guide” available on and a downloadable version at Buzz Glover is also available for consulting for new car wash start-ups.






Leave A Reply (2 comments so far)

  1. Chris
    9 years ago

    Are there any manufacturers and/or makes/models you recommend?

    • Buzzie8
      9 years ago

      This is a difficult question answer. It depends somewhat on where you are located and what the distributor for the manufacturer has to offer as far as reliability. For in-bay automatic equipment, PDQ manufacturing is high on my list as well as Wash World. They are very similar in design and from my experience with talking with other owners very reliable. I had Jim Coleman Co Water Wizards in both of my washes. They were over engineered in my opinion but washed cars well. The over engineering created a less than reliable machine. My Jim Coleman machines were bought in 2004 and 2007. They are under new ownership now so I am sure they have changed (hopefully more reliability). Hope this helps!