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Industry Innovation

The Convenience Store Car Wash Industry

C-Store Car Washes are Changing – Are You Ready?

Rear end view of a car going through a car wash.

ccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, automatic car washes brought in over five billion dollars in 2017, and industry experts believe that record will be shattered this year. Some believe total carwash revenues could exceed $41 billion by 2030.

C-store operators can increase profits substantially by adding a carwash. Still, there are some things to be aware of when jumping in. Factors such as initial costs, car wash type, and state regulations must be considered before moving ahead.

Here, we explore the latest trends and outlook for the carwash industry. Then, we reveal the initial costs versus how much you can expect to make per year going forward.

What Are Car Wash Services?

The first commercial car wash was established in Detroit, Michigan, in 1914. You would sit in the vehicle while it was in neutral, and several workers manually pushed you through several stages of the washing process.

C-store operators can increase profits substantially by adding a carwash. Still, there are some things to be aware of when jumping in. Factors such as initial costs, car wash type, and state regulations must be considered before moving ahead.

However, the modern automated car washes did not come along until the mid-1960s. We have similar self-serve facilities today, complete with:

  • Conveyor belts
  • Wrap-around brushes
  • Recirculating water systems
  • Various tire-washing attachments

Several modern categories of car washes currently exist, including:

Hand Wash Facilities

Hand washing vehicles is not common anymore. Instead, you see more of a hybrid model where customers can either wash their cars using high-pressure equipment or have it done for them by an employee.

Self-service Facilities

These are the older coin-operated facilities that utilize high-pressure hoses and brushes. However, now you have more of them taking cash bills or even credit cards.

Mobile Car Washes

Detailing companies are turning to this model to offer convenience to their customers. Plastic tanks mounted on trucks or flatbed trailers provide the water source while workers wash and detail the vehicle by hand.

Automatic Bays

This is the most common category of car wash you see at c-stores and gas stations. It also happens to be the least expensive automatic option.

The customer pulls into a dedicated bay. Then, while the vehicle is stationary, a set of rollers move back and forth over it. The great thing about this alternative is that you can customize these devices to suit your customer demographics.

Conveyor Wash Systems

A step up from auto-bays is the conveyor (tunnel) washes. The vehicle is pulled automatically through a series of fixed stages while the car is being washed.

Touch-free Car Washes

Touch-free car washes are for customers who want to lessen the risk of anything scratching their vehicle's paint. It also reduces water usage, a hot-button issue for many environmentally-conscious state governments. In addition, many touch-free washes come with a conveyor system and a forced-air dryer at the last stage.

How Are Car Washes Changing?

New business trends always emerge, and the carwash industry is no exception. So here are some relevant changes for c-store owners to look for in the coming years.

Detailing Service Add-ons,

Most customers love how the exteriors of their vehicles look after running them through an automatic car wash. Still, many wish the inside could be done as well. Now they can have both by hiring your expert staff to detail their interior.

While your customer waits, they can grab a cup of coffee and some snacks while relaxing at a cafe table. Even if they opt not to buy anything in your store, they will appreciate having this service available.

In-bay Car Washes Going Touchless

A touchless car wash involves only water pressure to provide the cleaning action. No brushes are used in the process, and it is entirely frictionless, making it a much safer alternative for almost any vehicle's finish.

A balanced combination of water and gentle cleaners is used to wash the vehicle. However, the greatest advantage is that it can be used for either in-bay or conveyer-type car wash systems.

Paid Vacuum Systems

Offering free vacuuming at car washes is a thing of the past. Instead, c-store operators are turning to coin-operated commercial vacuums as another revenue source. In addition, many of the newer vac-kits offer the same POS terminals as automatic car washes.

Automation Is Everything

Car washes are going high-tech for the foreseeable future. You can now offer online car wash memberships to your customers.

They no longer even need to get out of their vehicles. Instead, they flash a QR code from their smartphone upon entry, select the type of wash they want, and the car wash activates automatically.

Water Conservation and Reclamation

More states are tightening water usage by car washes as public awareness of environmental issues increases. This contentious topic can be summed up this way:

The car wash industry appears today to be more conscious of the need for wastewater treatment and water reclamation. Worldwide environmental legislation and guidelines concerning this specific issue have been released. (zaneti, Etchepare & Rubio, 2011, pg. 1).

The good news is that technology often keeps pace with the growing demand for water-reclamation procedures. The bad news is that it could become costlier near-term. For that reason, it is best to check with your equipment supplier to ensure you will be covered in case your state's laws change in the future.

How Much Do C-store Car Washes Make?

The gross revenues from c-store car washes vary widely depending on several factors:

  • Location
  • Regional demographics
  • State regulations
  • Category of car wash

With all those variables considered, you can expect to bring in an extra $75,000 to $125,000 gross per year. But, of course, your net profit will fluctuate based on the age of your equipment and how much regular maintenance it requires.

How Much Do C-store Car Washes Cost?

You can expect your initial investment to be anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million, depending on the type of car wash you choose for your c-store. You also have to take into account any modifications to the property or your current water system.

In addition, you will likely have to pay more for every optional service you provide your customers. For example, equipment that offers custom waxes, touch-free rinses, or dryer options may set you back even more.

While it is rare to find a retailer willing to install an automatic car wash system for under $100,000, it is possible. For that reason, it is well worth the effort to shop around. Also, you may be surprised at just how many car wash manufacturers there are in the U.S.


R. Zaneti, R. Etchepare, J. Rubio. Car wash wastewater reclamation. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 5 (5) (2011) 953–959

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