Auto Laundry News - April 2013

The Seven Steps — Building a New Car Wash

By Christopher Crawford and John Diehl

The completed project.

Car washes are undeniably a great business to open — great money; relatively easy to operate; and a steady, long-term return on your investment. That’s why so many people new to the industry want to open one, and experienced operators want to open another location. So after locating a good piece of property, checking the traffic count and demographics, and getting your financing in order, you are ready to go for it. Should be easy, right? Okay, so where do you start? What’s the next step? How do you do it? Is there a process to follow?

Well there certainly is a right way to do it. But after an exhaustive search, we couldn’t find it written down anywhere. So to remedy this, our architectural firm went ahead and created one, both as a guide for our own office staff and for our clients to follow. This easy to understand guide shown below is a synopsis of the step-by-step process we utilize every day to develop new car wash projects. Broken down into seven steps, it describes the entire conceptual, design, engineering, construction, and start-up process in simple layman’s terms in a short and concise format. While not totally encompassing in scope, it should provide a good framework to follow.


Select the Correct Property for the Project
This is based upon the location, traffic count and demographics, lot size and shape, ingress/egress of site, zoning issues, setbacks and easements, available utilities and sewer, local competition, and of course the price.

Detail of a section of the car wash floor plan.

Survey of the Property
This is a current survey done by a professional surveyor of the selected car wash site with all existing easements, site features, and terrain elevations. The architect and engineers will need an AutoCAD computer-drafting version of this survey to do the conceptual site plan and later complete the final construction drawings.

Select the Type of Car Wash
What is the best type of car wash for the site selected? What is the most appealing to your potential customers? A full service, a flex, an express, a self-serve, or just an in-bay automatic? What kind of washes do your competitors have? What do they not feature? Most wash equipment manufacturers or industry consultants can assist you in picking out the best type of wash for your specific site.

Additional Profit Centers
Should you add additional profit centers to increase the appeal of your business (as well as your profits) and give you a jump on the competition? These include quick lubes, gas pumps, convenience stores, ice machines, and pet washes.

Feasibility and Profitability Study
What is the short- and long-term profit potential versus the initial investment costs? What are the risks? Is it a good investment? Is the project feasible at the site selected? What is your “gut-reaction” to doing the project at this site? Feasibility studies/pro formas are typically available from car wash equipment manufacturers, industry consultants, and some architects specializing in car wash projects.

Select an Experienced Architect/Engineer
This is a crucial item, one that can literally make or break your project. Be careful to select an experienced architect with a good track record doing car washes, and a reputable local civil engineer.

Framing for the pay gate shelter gets a start.

Oil change basement in the foreground, blocked-up car wash tunnel in the background. The gap is yet to be filled in with the car wash lobby, full-service/detail center, and oil change lobby.

Conceptual Site Layout
This is the initial site design to determine the best way possible to lay out the site to maximize the flow of vehicles, deliver the best tunnel length, and to establish the best locations for finishing areas, free vacuum spaces, and other features. This plan will verify if the car wash type selected can realistically fit on the site and function well.

Establish a Realistic Budget
What are you willing to spend on the project? What amount can you borrow? The budget needs to be sufficient to cover all architectural, structural, mechanical, and civil engineering design work; city approvals; impact fees; construction costs; car wash equipment; chemicals and materials; and start-up costs. The wash equipment manufacturer or industry consultant can assist you in establishing this.

Inspect and Review Existing Conditions of Facility
This is done at existing car washes requiring a renovation. This is typically conducted by the architect and engineers, but can initially also be done by industry consultants or representatives of wash equipment manufacturers.


Zoning and Building Code Analysis
This will determine what can and cannot be done at the selected project site, as per local codes and ordinances, as well as the governing building code. The architect and civil engineer do the analysis.

Proposed Site Plan
Based upon the conceptual site layout with adjustments from information gathered from the zoning/building code analysis, this plan refines the site layout to a final workable design. It needs to show good ingress/egress to the site, adequate stacking, realistic turning radiuses, pay gates location (if used), by-pass lane(s), good tunnel/conveyor length, vacuum/finish area, and an adequate number of free vacuum spaces (if used). This plan will be the one submitted to the city or county to start the approval process and later refined as the overall design is fully developed.

Meetings with Planning and Zoning Staff
These will determine if the proposed site plan is acceptable to the city or county Planning and Zoning Department, and meets all local design requirements. Key issues typically are parking, amount of green area, stacking, and drainage.

The architect’s drawing of the side elevation (above) and the real thing (below).

Oil change basement in the foreground, blocked-up car wash tunnel in the background. The gap is yet to be filled in with the car wash lobby, full-service/detail center, and oil change lobby.

Proposed Architectural Building Design
These plans will include the floor plan, exterior elevations, and a few wall sections. The owner needs to provide input to the architect concerning the style and appearance of the building. After this is complete, and the design approved by the owner, the site plan is then adjusted to fit the final floor-plan layout.

Geotechnical Report
This is a report of the analysis of the soil present on the property to be able to properly design the building’s foundation and to determine drainage requirements. This report is done by local engineering firms who specializing in this kind of testing.

Cost Analysis/Value Engineering of Design
After a final design is agreed upon, a review is conducted to see what construction methods and materials are best to utilize to build the project. The architect and the contractor perform this.

Financing for the Project
Start the process to get financing for the project early before the architectural drawings are complete and construction estimates are in. Be aware that the process may be a long one to secure a loan you can afford with good terms. A Small Business Administration loan may be your best bet or, better yet, find investors to partner-up with.


Preliminary Civil Engineering Plans
These will include a conceptual storm-water-drainage plan and sewer plan. They will also determine the floor height of the building.

Preliminary Landscape Architect Plans
These will locate and identify all of the required trees, plants, and grass areas on the site, and a way
to provide irrigation for them. Note: Never be cheap on the landscaping for your car wash. It adds color and appeal to the site, and interest to your building, thus bringing in the customers.

Selection of Exterior Finishes
These are the paint, trim, tile, roof type/color, decoration, and other exterior features of the car wash building and any accessory site structures (e.g., dumpster enclosure, etc.). Remember bright colors and interesting trim gets you noticed.

Sign Design
This will include designs for a monument or pole-mounted sign adjacent to the street, identification signage on the building, directional signs to tell customers where to drive, and menu signs at the pay gates and/or tunnel entrance.

Full-Color Artist Renderings
These renderings are typically digital, computer-generated, and feature the final building and site designs. They are used for submittal to the city/county for the approval process (if required). They also can be used for advertising your new wash.

Project Approvals
This is an approval from the planning and zoning department of the city or county, verifying
that your new car wash project meets all local codes and ordinances. After this, a final approval is often required from the city or county council as well. The process varies greatly by municipality, but typically only a site-plan approval is required.

Selection of Car Wash Equipment
The owner must select and sign contracts with a car wash manufacturer and choose the specific equipment for the project early in the process. Once this is complete, the manufacturer will make AutoCAD drawings indicating all of the locations and types of wash equipment in the tunnel and equipment room. The architect and engineers use these drawings to complete the electrical and plumbing drawings.


Completion of Car Wash Equipment Shop Drawings
These indicate the final equipment layout and specifications for the car wash. These are required by the architect and MEP engineers to finish their drawings.

Completion of Architectural Building Design
After incorporating any changes required by the city/county during the approval process, and design information from the car wash equipment manufacturer, the architect completes the full set of architectural AutoCAD drawings. The architect then forwards these AutoCAD drawings to the structural, MEP, and civil engineers to allow them to fully complete their drawings.

Completion of Structural Engineering Plans
These are the plans showing the building’s foundation, columns, beams, roof truss design, and all structural connections.

Completion of Electrical, Plumbing, and Mechanical Engineering Plans (MEP)
These are the plans showing the building’s electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems design.

Completion of Civil Engineering Plans
These are the plans showing the building and site’s storm water drainage, sewer line connection, water supply, roads, and elevations.

Completion of Landscape Architect Plans
These are the plans showing all of the new trees, plants, and grass areas on the project site, and the irrigation layout to water them.


Competitive Bidding of Project
This will determine the cost of the project. Bidding for the construction work typically needs to be done by three competent general contractors who specialize in commercial projects (not residential), and have done car washes before. Ask to see their résumés, interview each of them, and visit their previous work.

Estimating and Negotiation of Bids
Once all of the bids have been received from the selected contractors, each bid needs to be verified that it includes, or does not include, all specified items according to the architectural and engineering drawings. Beware of any price that seems to be too good to be true, because it most likely is. Negotiate the final estimated prices with each contractor.

Select the Project General Contractor
After reviewing the bids and negotiations, select the general contractor who you believe is the most competent, and with the most “realistic” price to be able to build the project. Be aware that this is typically never the lowest bidder.

Submittal of Plans to Building Department
Once all drawings are complete, sets of blueprints are made, then signed and sealed by the architect and engineers. These are then delivered to the selected general contractor, who then submits them to the local building department of the city or county. They review the blueprints for building code compliance.

Establish Schedule of Construction
This is a tasking schedule indicating when each subcontractor (i.e. electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc.) will be scheduled to perform their work in the most efficient manner possible to complete the project. The general contractor creates this schedule. The average timeline to build a new car wash is five to seven months.

Ordering of Construction Materials
The general contractor does this. These are major construction materials requiring a lead time, such as pre-cast concrete roof panels, concrete catch basins, water reclaim system tanks, and roof trusses.

Ordering of Car Wash Equipment
After the final equipment package is selected from the wash equipment manufacturer and a deposit is made, the manufacturer will then start to build the equipment based upon the delivery and installation date.


Approval of Plans by Building Department
After completing their review, the city or county building department approves the submitted architectural and engineering blueprints. The building department retains one set, with the other set returned to the general contractor. This is the official field copy with all of the approval stamps on it.

Pre-Construction Planning Meeting
This is a very important coordination meeting just prior to commencing construction, with all major parties involved in attendance. It will save a lot of time and money, and help work out issues before the construction begins. It is mandatory that the architect, general contractor, and critical subcontractors all attend.

Start Site Work Construction
This is the first item in building the project. It involves the grading of the site, installation of storm water drains and pipes, underground utilities, roadbeds, and other site items.

Construction of Building(s)
It starts with the installation of the building foundation followed by the exterior walls, roofs, floor slab, interior walls, door/windows, ceilings, hardware, and all other items.

Installation of Electrical, Plumbing, and Mechanical Systems
This coincides with the construction of the building structure and involves installing all of the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical equipment systems. These trades work on the project several different times each, returning as they are needed as work progresses.

Final Site Work Construction
This is the completion of the project’s site work. It includes the installation of all the asphalt or concrete roadways, curbing, sidewalks, striping and site lighting. This work is done after the exterior finishes and roof of the building are completed.

Installation of Car Wash Equipment
Professional installers hired by the car wash manufacturer take care of the installation, usually taking about three weeks. Completion should coincide with utilities (electric and water) being turned on.

Utilities/Equipment Start-up
This is when the entire electrical- and plumbing-system construction is finally complete and utilities can be turned on. The car wash equipment should also be fully installed at this time and is now tested and adjusted as required.

Order Wash/Detail Chemicals and Materials
The owner needs to order sufficient quantities of wash soaps, shampoos, drying agent, and other wash and cleaning chemicals, as well as towels, waxes, air fresheners, etc., enough for the first six weeks after opening.

Hire Employees
The owner needs to interview and hire an experienced manager, assistant manager(s), and detailers, and hire loaders and finishers to train.


Building Trim, Finishes, and Paint
This is the completion of all trim on the building, both the interior and exterior painting, flooring, and all other interior finishes.

Installation of Signs
These include the installation of the main monument or pole sign, wall signs on the building, and all directional signs around the site.

Installation of Landscaping and Irrigation System
This includes all of the trees, plants, grass sod, and irrigation system throughout the site.

Project Close-Out/Punch List
This is the submittal of all required ”as-built” plans to the building department, final inspection approvals and associated paperwork to the city or county, and the identification and correction of all mistakes and missing items.

Cleaning of Site and Building
The general contractor hires a professional cleaning crew to clean everything inside and out, and the painters touch-up the building as required.

Train/Organize Employees
This is to establish the facility’s car washing process, and prep and after-care techniques, as well as to train the new loaders and finishers. The whole crew should train for several days prior to opening while running test cars through the wash.

Project Completion/Certificate of Occupancy
The building is fully completed by the general contractor, certificate of occupancy is issued by the city or country, and the finished building and site is formally turned over to the owner.

Ready to Open for Business
Time to wash some cars and make some money.

This article and guide was written by Christopher Crawford and John Diehl of They will be writing additional articles in upcoming issues concerning designing and constructing new car washes, as well as renovating existing ones. You can visit their website for more information about the services they offer, or call them at (561) 212-3364.

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