Development - June 2007

Decide on Design:
Developing a Car Wash, Part 3

By Chip Ashton

This is part three in the ongoing saga of developing my second car wash. By now most of you probably wish I’d go away, but just like Jack Bauer in “24,” I’m going to keep coming back. Actually, the money Auto Laundry News is paying me for these articles is incredible — I never knew this kind of coin existed in the industry. So regardless of your desires, I’m going to keep writing — and laughing all the way to the bank. Ka-ching!


In the two previous articles on the subject, we covered site selection and how to determine the type of facility to develop. Now it is time to design the car wash. Budget considerations come into play here. In most cases, a ground-up car wash development costs upwards of $2 million. Understanding your budget parameters is very important; so you don’t waste too much time and effort. There is no sense in visiting a bunch of $8-million facilities that include lube centers, c-stores, and more, if your budget is $3 million. To understand car wash development costs, I recommend you talk to other car wash operators and/or industry consultants. On my first project, I hired two different consultants and found their advice to be extremely valuable. If you find an operator whose philosophy is similar to yours, hire him or her as a consultant. It will be the best money you ever spend. There are also websites run by car wash operators that are well worth mining for information.

You will notice I have not mentioned equipment manufacturers yet. I think it is in your best interest to get as much objective advice as you can at this stage. Manufacturers are very knowledgeable, but they are not necessarily objective. Their primary goal will be, as it should, to sell their equipment. This means they will encourage you to visit car washes that feature their equipment. If you do not broaden your information gathering beyond such visits, you could miss finding the design that best meets your needs and budget. I recommend that you interact with manufacturers, but do not use them as your “advisor/consultant.” The time to choose equipment should come later in the process.


Once I found the site for my second car wash, it was time to start traveling. I call this my Forrest Gump stage of the process — a highly enjoyable stage. Why so? First of all, it’s good to get out of the house — I hate those “honey-do lists.” Second, I see and learn about car washing’s latest and greatest concepts that I can then copy for my wash. It’s a practical application of the old saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I traveled to Atlanta and toured dozens of the express exteriors in the market. I also went to Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, as well as numerous new facilities in my home region — the Mid-Atlantic.

The type of facility you are going to develop should influence the markets you visit. If you are building an express exterior, you almost have to visit Atlanta, Birmingham, and large parts of Florida. If you are building moving-belt conveyors for detailing and aftercare, the Mid-Atlantic region has many to see. Phoenix is a great market to visit, if you are building large “all in one” facilities with c-stores, gas, etc.

I look at equipment, signage, menus, architecture, bathroom tiles, uniforms, etc. I also visit other retailers, such as fast-food restaurants, to see what they are doing. My kids laugh at me, because wherever we go, they will notice me looking at a bench or a ceiling light fixture and they will automatically know I am getting ideas for my new car wash design.

I also visited the headquarters of four different car wash equipment manufacturers. As expected, each manufacturer fervently believes its equipment to be the best. It must be something in the soap, because car washers make the exact same assessment of their individual operations. Despite this understandable bias, I believe it important to interact with the manufacturers, even at this early stage of a development.


I must admit that one of my greatest pleasures is taking a property plan and designing a car wash facility. Give me a pencil, paper, a scaled ruler, and lock the doors baby! That must be what artists experience when they paint. I hope I don’t get the urge to cut off one of my ears. This, of course, is not a great segue for the next part of the article. How to flow from ear hacking to site plan design is a challenge, but I did get to use the word “segue.” (FYI: I get paid extra for fancy words like “segue,” which I thought was spelled “segway” until the spell check kicked in on my computer. Ka-ching!)

I probably draw a dozen different site plans and start to eliminate, combine, and revise them until I get down to one or two. These last few versions are then taken to my “experts/advisors.” (Whoever said bartenders only give good relationship advice doesn’t know what he’s talking about.)

Seriously though, this stage is very important. Showing a layout to other operators and equipment manufacturers is a great way to get feedback and prevent you from making a huge mistake.

Million-Dollar Mistake
A mistake in a site plan can have severe consequences. I recently visited a $6-mllion car wash — a gorgeous facility on a great site. They had one problem however; they only had stacking space for five cars on site before stacking onto a public road. I estimate this mistake will probably cost them lost revenue in the tens of thousands every year — no small mistake. Fortunately they are excellent operators and they will do well. If their site had been marginal, however, this mistake could have made the difference between success and failure.

I visited another car wash that had too tight of a turning radius to enter the conveyor. Thus, large vehicles had to back up to get aligned, which dramatically reduced the line speed. Again, the real dollar loss for this mistake has to be huge.

The moral of this story is that you cannot place too much emphasis on your site plan. I literally start at the entrance to the site and cover every foot that a car would travel and a customer would walk. It must flow during peak times with proper stacking and turning radiuses. It must minimize customer confusion with proper building layouts and signage. All the while, you want to maximize street exposure for both the building and the signage. Additional profit centers compound all of the above issues.

In addition, I try to envision employee duties on the site, and see if the design is worker-friendly. Are the doors in the right places to get to equipment, storage, etc? Having an existing facility is a huge advantage in the site-plan design stage. You learn from your mistakes the first time around and know what to look for the next time.


I have almost always found other operators to be extremely open and receptive during my visits. This camaraderie (another fancy word — ka-ching!) is a neat aspect of our industry that I have enjoyed over the years. Interestingly enough, this was not the case on the very first site visit I made nine years ago when I started doing research for my first wash. I was talking to this operator at his wash and I asked him, “How many cars do you wash here?” He harshly responded that I needed to learn there were two questions you never ask a car wash operator. First, his wash volume, and second, anything about his wife. My next question to him would explain why I failed the Dale Carnegie course.


Once you determine the type of facility you want to develop, visit numerous car washes for design ideas. In order to get objective advice, solicit input from other operators and consultants. Interact with manufacturers. Site-plan design is very, very important. Do not rush this part of the process; make sure it is as close to perfect as possible. And lastly, when you visit another car wash, don’t ask the operator about his wife! I think that pretty much covers it until next time.

Chip Ashton is the operating partner at Three Cees Car Care Center in Herndon, VA. ( and a principal in The Ashton Group, Inc., a management consulting firm. He can be contacted at

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