Wash Format - November 2007

In-Bay/Express Exterior
By Stefan Budricks

Whenever a competitor enters a market, it is reapportioned. The level of reapportionment will vary widely, depending on factors equally at variance. Established businesses will lose customers to the newcomer, for whatever reasons, and in whatever numbers. In the car wash industry, the vying for market share between the established in-bay automatics and the newcomer express tunnels, both providers of automated exterior washes, has prompted some operators to reevaluate and adjust the service mix they offer on their sites.


Johnny Jones, operator of Nashville, TN-based National Car Wash (NCW), has experienced the plus and minus side of the equation. NCW comprises 45 locations that include wand self-service bays, in-bay automatics, and express tunnels. Two of Jones’ self-serve/in-bay locations had competing express tunnels open nearby and promptly experienced a 40-percent drop in sales. That the NCW sites were superior in geographic location was no help. “In my opinion it’s just hard for an in-bay automatic to ever compete with an express tunnel because of waiting time, quality of the wash, and free vacs,” says Jones.

During the downturn his market experienced in 2006, Jones reports that sales went down at all of his stores except three. Sales at those three stores — that just happened to have express tunnels — went up. The experience vindicated Jones’ decision a few years back to start converting, where possible, one of the usually two in-bay automatics he has on every site to an express tunnel.


While Jones cites primarily competition as the motivating force behind his conversion program, Shell Spivey of Happy Bays Car Wash, based in Bentonville, AR, sees it as a secondary factor in his decision. Spivey is in the process of converting one of two touch-free in-bay automatics at one of his nine locations to an express tunnel. For him, weather is the main factor driving the conversion.

“When I first got into this business, you could pretty much count on 20 to 25 days of sunshine a month in our geographic zone. The last 18 months, we’ve been lucky to get 15 days of sunshine.” Spivey is concerned that this might be a climatic cycle of some duration. “If their number is limited, we have to have the throughput capacity to take advantage of the good days,” he says. So instead of washing 350 cars a day, a site would have to be able to wash 700 or 800 cars. Two in-bay automatics, Spivey figures, will wash 20 to 30 cars an hour, combined. Many friction in-bays will wash a car — the top dollar wash — in four to four-and-one-half minutes. With a touch-free it’s more like five-and-one-half to seven minutes. No matter how you tweak it, he says, there is no way they will run 110 cars an hour.

To get closer to that number, one Happy Bays Car Wash location will soon feature a 110-foot express tunnel along with a previously existing touch-free in-bay automatic and five wand bays. “We’re using this as a kind of guinea pig. If it works, we would be crazy not to try to convert more locations,” Spivey says. He allows that most of his sites couldn’t fit that length of tunnel, but figures some would accommodate a 55-foot conveyor.

Doug Long, owner of USA Auto Wash in Port Richey, FL, was simply tired of watching potential customers drive off because of long lines or wait time at what was then two freestanding side-by-side in-bay automatics. Long replaced one in-bay with a hybrid in-bay, giving customers a choice between friction and touch-free. He converted the second bay to a 90-foot exterior tunnel. Not only has throughput improved, resulting in fewer impatient drive-offs, but the wash has also differentiated itself from the many other in-bay automatic operations in the market.

Jones acknowledges that competition is the main criterion he employs in deciding whether to convert a wash bay, but puts forward at least two addition measures that help close the deal. The first is the ability of a site to generate more revenue post conversion. The second crops up whenever he has a loan called and has to renegotiate terms. “That’s a good time for me to say, ‘Well, just give me a further $350,000 and let me convert one bay to an express tunnel at the same time.’”


Much is often made of in-bay automatics’ ability to operate wholly unattended. Whether this is desirable is a separate issue. More important are the doubts about whether express tunnels should operate unattended. The equipment is more complex from both an operational and usage aspect, and the potential for a mishap is therefore greater.

Long’s express tunnel is never in operation unless there is an attendant present to help explain the wash packages to customers, guide them through the pay process, and help them onto the conveyor. The attendant, he believes, is instrumental in the success of his operation. Keeping the line of cars moving smoothly is a big part of it.

“I guess I’m braver than most people in the express tunnel business,” Jones quips. “I have two express tunnel locations where I’m open unattended 24 hours a day.” Jones explains that it started with an attended touch-free tunnel at one location that was converted to an express tunnel. The wash continued to be attended for the first four to five months. “We stopped attending it as customers got more familiar with it. It was a slow progression.”

It helps that NCW has its own proprietary tunnel control system that sets up all the functions of the express tunnel. “We invented the thing, and it saves us a lot of money,” Jones says. “From a remote computer, I can watch the cars go through in real time. If one of the functions isn’t working, it will turn red on my screen, and I’ll know that we have a problem before the people at the location will.”


Historically, his area has not been a friction market, according to Spivey, but with a lot of the express tunnels moving in, more and more people have become accepting of friction. “I don’t know what percentage of customers don’t want anything touching their car, but if I had to just grab a number, I suspect 20 percent of the people out there feel that way — it could be 10, or it could be 40.” These customers are adamant about not wanting anything spinning against their car, whether brushes, soft cloth, or even foam material. “The touch-free in-bays are not dinosaurs,” Spivey concludes, “there will always be a market for the touch-free customer.”

Jones echoes Spivey’s sentiments. “ I’d say a touchless in-bay has a better chance of competing against an express tunnel.” By offering friction and touch-free, too, he believes that he reaches more customers in the market. “What I’m trying to do is use the synergies of the three different functions to reach all the people in my area, rather than just the wand self-serve customer, or just the express tunnel customer, or just the touch-free in-bay customer. It’s paying off for us.”

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