Self-Service - October 2006

Designing and Building
High-Security Car Washes

By Gary Wirges

Bollards protect the vacuums, equipment room access, and bay meter columns.

Self-service car washes in lower-income areas are reliable profit centers. At the same time, these areas are known for higher crime rates. Self-service car washes are regularly constructed at sites requiring secure and vandal-resistant designs. Building a profitable car wash on these sites requires planning and implementation of defensive security systems, while ensuring that the facility remains attractive.


By following a few simple rules during the construction phase, the vulnerability of the customer, facility, and the operator may be reduced. Although some precautions may seem obvious, a checklist will ensure proper equipment placement and construction techniques.

Customer Security
Customers sense their personal safety. Car washes providing maximum visibility evoke a feeling of wellbeing, and security systems and lighting reinforce this level of comfort. Customer security is important for a successful facility. Provide a safe business environment to encourage customers to return and reduce criminal exposure.

Visibility and Lighting
Maximize visibility and lighting to improve customer safety and safeguard the facility. Eliminate signs, buildings, and foliage that create blind spots and dark corners. Good lighting increases visibility and makes the car wash more attractive. Discourage loitering with signs and police participation. High traffic visibility deters crime and break-in by reducing the opportunity of criminal concealment.

A secure equipment room with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling.

Building Structures
Security features may be implemented into the construction of the car wash to reduce exposure of customers using the facility — and to help protect the operator from possible theft while collecting money. Visibility and alarms will serve to discourage criminals, while well-built, sturdy appliances hinder break-in attempts.

Concrete is an imposing deterrent. Build concrete columns to encase the bay meters for restricted access and improved security. Remote coin storage and solid locking mechanisms serve to discourage unlawful entry attempts.

Unlawful entrance into the equipment room for burglary may be attempted from all directions. By using concrete walls, floor and ceiling in the equipment room, break-in exposure is limited.

Use parking-lot bollards and curbs to protect the following from accidental and intentional damage and unlawful entry:

  • the equipment room
  • bay-meter columns
  • vacuums

Locks and Keys
Locks should be of hardened material and protected from intrusion. Protected key-ways and high-security double-cut keys reduce vulnerability to robbery. Limit personnel with access keys and the number of keys to the facility. Record brands and serial numbers and keep in a safe place for re-ordering lost or damaged keys.


Component Protection
By engraving the car wash name on or color-coding small components, theft of components may be reduced. Shrink tape or glue may be applied to vacuum nozzles, while bolts and locks serve to restrict access to sensitive areas (i.e., utility meters and disconnects).

Vacuum debris doors may be left unlocked or bolted to allow easy access. This may create a nuisance with debris doors left ajar; however, this also permits customer access to retrieve valuables inadvertently sucked into the vacuum, thus reducing canister damage.

Security Alarms and Cameras
Protecting the building and equipment from vandalism may be as simple as installing an alarm or video surveillance. Alarms should be installed to protect the equipment and equipment room from unlawful entry. Security cameras should be installed and adjusted to view both the front and the rear of the car wash. Additional cameras may be mounted to view bay meters, vacuums, vendors, and changers.

Choosing between a wired system and a wireless system may be determined by accessibility. In areas of the business not accessible by conduit, a wireless camera system may be easier to connect. Self-maintained security systems may be adequate for some locations, while local security-company support may prove to be valuable at other sites.

The built-in bay meter with coin acceptance and bill validator.

Bay Meters
Bay meters are most often considered when designing high-security. The bay meter is where the money is inserted to start the equipment. Therefore, it is also targeted for break-in and vandalism. Meter boxes should be built into the structure (not surface-mounted) so they are more difficult to compromise.

Bay-meter security must be considered for safety, but keep in mind aesthetics. Heavy-duty stainless-steel boxes and doors offer component protection while providing an attractive “point-of-sale.” Locking mechanisms must show security while being non-obtrusive. Decals with bright colors make even dull boxes appealing.

Coin Receptacles
Coins inserted into the meter generally are secured in an attached drawer, a remotely mounted vault, or vacuumed back into the equipment room.

Coin Drawer or Door
Coins drawers or doors are attached to the meter box allowing the inserted coins to drop into a secured receptacle. The best locking mechanisms have limited access for drilling, cutting, and prying; offering a first line of defensive security.

Coin Vault
Coin vaults are remotely mounted in the wall, column, or floor to further increase security of the coins from illegal access. Vaults, like drawers, typically require periodic access in the bay for coin collection. The negative result is that the car wash operator is exposed to robbery when collecting coins from the bay.

Coin Vacuum
A solution to the operator vulnerability problem is a system that vacuums the coins back into a vault in the equipment room. The central collection point is secure and makes coin collection fast and simple. However, the coins in this system may periodically stop in the vacuum tubing and must be cleared for proper operation. Current systems do not vacuum bills that have been accepted in the bay.

Bill Acceptance
The principal benefit of bill acceptance is that it speeds vending by reducing the time wasted in the bay before and during purchases. By accepting currency to initiate the bay, less time is spent changing bills. Bill validators in the bay meter should be used in high-traffic areas with lower vandalism rates since exposure is increased.

Token Acceptance
Tokens were initially introduced for facility promotion, to increase customer loyalty and for pre-selling services. Tokens provide many benefits that include:

  • brand recognition
  • improved customer security
  • non-cash refunds and sales
  • deterring break-ins

Minting tokens with the facility name and logo requires ordering larger quantities, but builds brand recognition and familiarity. Site-specific tokens encourage brand loyalty by promoting return visits to utilize leftover tokens.

Tokens have no cash value and are less attractive for theft. However, “Token Only” acceptance may have a harmful impact when customers have leftover or lost tokens. Customers are irritated when they perceive an unfair value. Tokens used in conjunction with coins reduce this negative, but increases theft exposure.

Credit Card Acceptance
Credit card options are numerous. In-bay acceptors are convenient providing continuous operation without interruption and maximizing ease of payment. Paying processing fees plus purchasing credit card acceptors, software, and telephone modem connection is expensive but eliminates the attraction of cash on the premises.

Changers that dispense tokens are a good value. “Credit Card to Token” changers are typically mounted on the equipment room providing improved security. However, placement on the equipment room compels customers to travel to the changer for tokens and increases the time spent in the bay without purchase.


Common sense should dictate the best and safest means of money collection. Do not open money receptacles alone, at night, or with a group of loiterers watching your activities. If you do not feel secure, leave the car wash and return at a different time. Operator security is far more important than the facility or revenue.

The most important rule is to protect your customer and yourself — the protection of your revenue is secondary.

Gary Wirges is president of North Little Rock, AR-based CustomKraft Ind., Inc. You can contact Gary via e-mail at

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