Squeaky Clean was converted from a six-bay self-serve to an express exterior tunnel.
Car washing habits are constantly in flux. What is popular with one generation of customers can become tired and dated with the next. Today, the express exterior is all the rage — while previous industry stalwarts like self-serve fail to connect with customers.
“The self-serve industry is dead.” says Donald Uxa, “The numbers have plummeted over the past 10 years and they are not coming back.”
Uxa is speaking from his role as both an industry consultant, running the successful Professional Car Wash Management, and as a car wash operator and investor. He owns Squeaky Clean Car Wash based out of Missouri and has just completed a complete rebuild of one of his sites, converting it from a struggling six-bay self-serve location to an exterior tunnel that is seeing its numbers rise month after month.
The tunnel exit.
“I was 15 years into a 40-year lease,” Uxa says. “When we first bought the place it was working great and we were making money. Fast forward 15 years and my business is cut in half. All of a sudden, I am just paying my bills. The question was do I close it or do I convert it into a tunnel.”
Uxa decided on the latter. The conversion would require closing up shop for nearly a year, and completely rehabbing and reinventing the site, but Uxa was up to the challenge having spent much of his career constructing car washes.
He started Squeaky Clean 20 years ago with three other investors, acting as the general contractor on the build of their first self-serve site. Over the next two decades, he would build and renovate 15 washes, some the partners kept, others they sold when the conditions were right.
While that original partnership has dissolved, Squeaky Clean lives on. One of his former partners still owns a handful of locations; and Uxa and a new partnership group owns four Squeaky exterior-only locations, including the newly completed self-serve to tunnel conversion.
The menu board sports four distinct wash packages.
While Uxa has built and consulted on plenty of locations over the years, this most recent project presented a unique set of challenges. Converting a self-serve site to a tunnel is no easy task — the two concepts have massively different building and equipment requirements, as well as operational differences.
“There is no place else within five miles that is zoned for a car wash except this spot,” says Uxa. “That is one of the reasons the value is here and why we decided to renovate. It is a little under an acre and it is designed properly for a car wash. It is long and narrow. The way the site plan laid out was natural for what we wanted to build.”
A project like this would often require the knockdown and rebuild of the structure, moving utility lines, and a new vehicle flow to accommodate the drastic change in concept. However, an unusual choice made when the self-serve site was built decades earlier saved Uxa these heartaches and made the conversion economically feasible.
Traditionally, self-serve buildings are built right to left, with the interior walls between the bays acting as load bearing for the concrete roof. Luckily for Uxa his location was build back to front with the load bearing wall being the back wall, meaning the bay walls could be knocked down and the building hollowed out and easily turned into a tunnel.
The free vacuum stations.
“This situation was very fortunate,” Uxa says. “I would never build a self-serve this way. It is more expensive and unnecessary, but it worked out for us. By saving the existing building, we had less permits to get through and saved more than $300,000 in construction costs. We didn’t need a new site permit, water tap fee, or sewer fee. And we actually ended up with more green space; the original project was asphalt corner to corner.”
Uxa was able to save more than half of the original building. He continued the recycle and reuse theme, outfitting his newly-built tunnel with pre-owned equipment. Rather that purchase all new equipment, Uxa sourced more than a third of the tunnel equipment from the pre-owned market saving a huge upfront investment.
The Squeaky Clean tunnel is a mismatch of used tire brushes, hydraulic systems, high pressure, hot water heaters, dryers, and mitter, combined with new cloth, brushes, wraps, bearings and components.
A third of the equipment in the tunnel was pre-owned.
“I knew what I wanted,” Uxa says of his decision to purchase pre-owned equipment. “I didn’t buy something just because it was available for a good price, I was looking for specific equipment and models. Things that we have used and liked.
“Surprisingly everything I bought used worked great. I thought I would be lied to, but across the board everything worked exactly as advertised.”
To hedge his bets on the reliability of the used equipment, Uxa bought more than he needed, and built in redundancy into the wash tunnel to ensure that if one piece of equipment goes down wash quality won’t be sacrificed.
“When you build a car wash you need to have redundancy with your equipment,’ he says. “Our cars are touched by at least two pieces of equipment in every spot. If we lose one at least we know it is getting touched once.”
Since reopening the wash in January 2017, following the 10-month renovation, none of the equipment has failed. And having seen it in action for more than a year, Uxa is confident in its reliability.
All cars get a quick pre-treatment before heading down the tunnel.
While the self-serve conversion is the newest Squeaky Clean exterior to be added to the chain, it is not the only wash Uxa owns and operates — all told Uxa has four Squeaky Cleans. The three other sites all sport an exterior tunnel, free vacuums, an ice machine, and a dog wash. The ice and dog wash features will be added to the self-serve conversion site in the near future.
Looking to the future, Uxa says he is most likely done with his fast-paced expansion days. “We are settled into operating the four,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of interest in building another one. If the right situation showed up in the right location I could probably be convinced to build another one, but it would have to be the sweet spot. Twenty years ago I was way more aggressive.”
If he ever gets the itch to don his construction hat again, you can rest assured he won’t be breaking ground on a self-serve project. “I get a call at least every couple of months from some guy that says he is thinking about getting into the self-serve car wash business,” Uxa says of his car wash consulting services. “I always say: ‘Sure I can help you. Tear up the contract. Don’t buy it.’ At first, they are confused but after I state my case, they understand my position. There aren’t a lot of self serves that make money.”
Uxa has put his money where his mouth is. Following a massive overhaul of his last self-serve location, he is fully entrenched in the express exterior market. A position that mirrors the wants and needs of his customers and the industry at large.
The building’s unique original construction made the conversion possible.
The former self-serve was hollowed out to produce the exterior tunnel.
Squeaky Clean provides customers with free vacuums, towels, and window cleaner.