Auto Laundry News - November 2011

Design Challenges — Three Car Wash Case Studies

By Christopher Crawford and John Diehl

Sparkles Car Wash.

Sparkles Car Wash site plan.

Car washes can be very challenging projects and one of the most difficult for any architect to design correctly. Paramount in car wash design is the site layout. It must be addressed first before any building design can begin. The challenges in site design are to determine the best way possible to design the site to maximize the flow of vehicles; deliver the best tunnel/conveyor length and stacking; and to establish the best locations for aftercare areas, free vacuum spaces, and other features.

Achieving a good site layout for a typical rectangular-shaped site can be somewhat complicated, but when confronted by an odd-shaped or convoluted property with major setbacks, multiple utility easements, or difficult zoning restrictions, this challenge can be overwhelming. However, no property is truly impossible to work with. Even in the worse scenarios, a decent workable car wash design can be accomplished if enough time and effort is put into it. To illustrate how this can be done, below are three case studies of real car wash design projects with challenging sites.


Although appearing like a simple rectangular site, perfect for a “flex” car wash, this project turned out to be a real challenge for several reasons that we have not encountered before. First, the city did not have any ordinances on the books relating to car washes, and thus was unable to process our application to build one. Therefore we had to heavily assist them in writing these laws for their city. Second, the planning and zoning staff at the city said they would not grant us a curb-cut on the street. They demanded we utilize either an existing access road to the east of the property, or an existing private street to the west of the property.

The access road to the east appeared to be the better of the two options. It was located on an existing Texaco gas station property. The owner had no issue to granting us a curb-cut to his road, but there was a problem. The owner of the property behind him also used this access road as a secondary entrance for his business, a children’s daycare facility. This daycare owner had originally owned the gas station property, and placed a clause in the contract when he sold it. It stated that he had to agree to any and all changes made to the gas station property. The car wash project owners were good friends with the daycare owner, and did not expect this to be an issue. But after doing several site layouts and many changes to meet his demands, the daycare owner decided at the end to refuse access, wasting more than two months.

Not giving up, we next made a new site design utilizing the private road to the west for access, basically reversing our earlier designs. This actually worked out better than the other direction. The private road led to an old apartment complex, part of which was located behind the car wash site. However the owners of the road and complex proved to be very difficult to locate. When we finally got hold of them they immediate refused us access as well. Another month wasted, we returned to the city to demand our curb-cut on the street. They reluctantly agreed, but added that final permission for it had to come from the county. After much discussion, the county engineering department finally agreed but only after we said we would pay for, install, and maintain an expensive covered bus shelter and a new fire hydrant. This process took another two months. So, to finally just gain access to the car wash site took over five months.

The next major issue was getting access to water. Unbelievably, there were no existing water lines adjacent to the property that we could tap into, even though it was surrounded by houses and businesses. Water was only available on the other side of a brand new four-lane divided road. They had strangely not installed any lines to access this side of the road when they built it, even though it was a commercial property. The cost we were quoted to bring it across was phenomenal, but we eventually found another technique that cut the price by half. Then we had to deal with the sewer. We were able to tap into the existing sanitary sewer main at the gas station next door, but the line was too high to reach with the required slope of the pipes. Since we were 30 inches too low, a lift-station had to be installed, another major expense.

Bottom Line
After all of these major issues were resolved, the design of the site itself was very straight forward. We were able to achieve great stacking, a 110-foot-long tunnel, and 12 vacuum spaces. The only disappointment was only having room enough for three lanes (each two cars deep) for full-service and express detailing.


Wadawash Car Wash.

Wadawash Car Wash site plan.

Located on a very oddly shaped property, this large flex car wash site proved initially very difficult to design. Even though it was a good-sized property with plenty of road frontage, its odd shape made a solution difficult to achieve. We were contracted after the owner had already received a free site layout from an equipment company. That company’s proposed layout was overly complicated, confusing to customers, and wasted much of the site. A better solution had to be found.

Split Plan
Starting with the basics, we determined where the general location of the entrance from the street had to be, inserted the minimum building setbacks on all sides, and finally the required landscaping buffer along the property line. These set factors established the area we had to work with. After attempting a number of designs utilizing a typical car wash building, we determined that the best possible way to get the layout to really work well with the odd property shape was by splitting the building into two parts. The first building would house the wash tunnel, equipment room, and the office. The other building would house the customer lobby, towel cleaning room, restrooms, and covered roof over the full-service and express detailing lanes.

Having two buildings was the key. It allowed us to maximize the site’s potential by working with the property’s odd-shape, rather than against it. Now the site had an excellent traffic-flow pattern that was simple and easy for customers to understand and utilize. It also allowed all of the free vacuum spaces to be located together, and provided for great stacking. The city presented only one problem. They did not have “stacking lanes” designated in their zoning code, forcing us to use a one-way street minimum width of 14 feet at the automatic pay gates. This eliminated one of the planned pay gates from three down to two.

Bottom Line
Once the solution to the site’s odd-shape was found, this project turned out to be a really great car wash design. In the end we were able to achieve massive stacking (up to 40 cars), a 126-foot-long tunnel, an incredible 24 vacuum spaces, 6 lanes (3 cars deep each) for the full-service and express detailing, and 12 employee parking spaces.


Free Vacuums Car Wash site plan.

Free Vacuums Car Wash.

This express car wash project was located on an L-shaped site. It should have been a simple straightforward layout, but turned out to be quite a challenge to design, get approved, and to build. The problems started when we were informed that the property had a massive 65-foot building set-back along the major street. This really reduced the buildable land area and made it nearly impossible to achieve any kind of decent tunnel length. The only solution to make it work was turning the building at a 45-degree angle to the property lines. This worked out extremely well, but forced the building to be located far from the major street.

The next major problem to tackle was an existing utility easement running down the middle of the property. This turned out to be a huge problem to resolve. The easement was there because the site was originally three small lots that had been combined together. Existing overhead power and phone lines had to be relocated to make the new building layout work. Creating a new utility easement to move the lines to was easy, but abandoning the existing easement proved to be very expensive and time consuming. It delayed the project for almost four months to get the electric and phone companies to move them.

Costly Requirements
The rest of the major issues were the result of the city’s very strict zoning ordinances, bizarre fire department regulations, and out-of-control landscaping requirements. These resulted in forcing us to use individual vacuum units rather than a central vacuum system, very small monument and building signage, ridiculously oversized dumpster enclosure, huge turning radiuses to accommodate fire trucks, and installing three times the normal landscaping that other cities require at a cost of over $60,000 dollars. To compensate for setting the building so far back on the property and the massive amount of landscaping, we were able to create an interesting eye-catching design and got the city to approve very bright paint colors.

Bottom Line
After all of these major problems and design issues were resolved, the layout turned out extremely well. We were able to achieve an incredible amount of stacking, a 92-foot-long tunnel, 16 free vacuum spaces, and three employee spaces.

Christopher Crawford and John Diehl are with 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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