Finishing Line - November 2008

Waterless: Deep in the Mother Lode?
By Robert Roman

The “green” movement continues to impact the car wash industry. Environmental certification, green awards, energy and water conservation, public awareness, waterless car wash products, and eco-washes have been getting more and more press coverage.

Last year, eco-friendly products were released by Ecolab, Lustra, ZEP, and others. The interest in waterless washing has also grown. The Internet is now replete with the likes of Lucky Earth’s and Green Earth’s waterless car wash products and a host of e-commerce sites peddling branded and private labeled eco-car wash kits.

A waterless wash is often described as cleaning a vehicle by spraying it with a special cleaner and then wiping off the grime with microfiber towels. The main ingredient is a long-chain polymer that encapsulates dirt molecules so they can be whisked away without causing paint scratches and leaves behind a protective barrier.

One of the intriguing aspects of waterless is the potential for it to blossom into a trend. Arguably, growth would come in the form of start-up “mom and pop” mobile car wash businesses and car wash franchises. Two of the notable franchises are Pronto Wash USA, LLC, Miami, FL and, more recently, The United States entry of Ecowash Mobile International, PTY, LTD, Australia.

The Pronto system features a small three-wheeled, self-contained, portable Eco-Wash unit, the right to operate under the Pronto brand name, and access to location, equipment, materials, training manuals, and a team of advisors.

According to the International Franchise Association, Pronto started franchising in 2007 and reportedly has 450 franchised units and 200 company-owned units. An earlier report pegged the company’s size at 225 franchises (2,200 washing carts) operating in 15 countries and washing an estimated 200,000 vehicles per month or an average of 1,090 washes per wash cart per year.

According to 2006 UFOC documents, Pronto requires a franchise fee starting at $15,000; $21,000 to $41,000 for an Initial Start-up Kit which includes mobile unit, equipment, inventory, POS materials and training; and a minimum royalty of $500 per month.

Starting at $50,000 (about $40,000 US), the Ecowash Mobile franchise (Australia version) is a turnkey system that comes with a fully prepared economy car with bright orange paint, decals, equipment, product, marketing materials, two-week training program, manual, and technical support. A flat, fixed monthly fee covers ongoing support and operations. Reportedly, the company, now with a presence in The United States, has plans to grow from 60 to 200 units. Services include basic and premium washing, full detail plus shampoo, leather care, paint and bumper restoration, bug removal, and motorcycle wash.

Of course, it would not be that difficult for someone to start-up a mobile waterless car wash. Basically, you would need a vehicle and several thousand dollars for signs, product, microfiber towels, spray bottles, window cleaner, vacuum, portable canopy, telephone, website, and some operating capital. In addition, there would be no franchise fees or royalties to pay.

Since waterless uses about a gallon of water per wash, the location possibilities are practically unlimited. Unlike many mobile detailers who use a trailer to haul around heavy equipment like water storage, distillation tanks, containment mat, waste filtration, pumps, hose reels, etc., a mobile eco-wash can set-up shop just about anywhere with 350 square feet of free space for a working area. This means cleaning vehicles in parking lots at shopping malls, strip centers, gasoline stations, convenience stores, parking garages, and driveways.

Does waterless scratch paint? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. After all, the public loves “green” and it is easy to show that waterless saves water, and uses less than washing in the driveway or at a professional wash. Micro-scratches can occur if the vehicle is too dirty but it usually takes several weeks for the product to wear off. The potential to create micro-scratches may not appeal to car wash operators and detail purists, but the finished quality of waterless will be acceptable to Joe Six-Pack and the typical soccer mom.

What about the impact on the car wash industry? If 25 eco-washes (each with 10 units cleaning 1,000 cars a year) were spread out over a typical metro area, they could have the potential to produce the equivalent wash volume of four full-service conveyors. Although no single eco-wash would be able to put anyone out of business, the combined effect would be a little more than having someone nipping at your heels.

Low start-up expenses, modest skill level, minimal location requirements and broad market appeal suggest that mobile eco-washes may be poised to make a big splash with budding entrepreneurs to the chagrin of existing car wash operators.

Bob Roman is president of RJR Enterprises - Consulting Services (www.carwashplan.com) and vice president of Bubble Wash Buildings, LLC. You can reach Bob via e-mail at rjrcarwashplan@yahoo.com.

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