Car Rental Q&A: What Should I Consider When Switching to an Automatic Car Wash?

Q: I'm considering making the switch from hand washing to an automatic car wash system. Besides the equipment purchase, what else should I consider?

Javan Matthews, Exquisite Rentals, Richmond, Va.

A: As with any expense, it is all too easy to make a decision solely based on cost. But in the case of switching from hand washing to an automatic car wash system, here are some other factors to consider.

Codes and Zoning

First and foremost, do you have enough space? The type of wash will dictate the size of your wash bay. A mid-size envelope is 40 feet long by 16 feet wide — with an equipment room of 20 feet long by 8 feet wide.

If you don’t have an existing wash bay, you may have to construct one. Construction will require consideration of the following:

  • Zoning: Do zoning laws allow a car wash on your property? If not, can it be added by rezoning or obtaining a conditional use permit? Either method will likely require the services of a real estate attorney.
  • Setbacks: Green space requirements and setback rules can reduce useable space.
  • Climate: Because colder climates (with harsh winter temperatures) dictate that all wash equipment needs to be completely enclosed and heated, there needs to be enough space for automatic doors.

Utilities

  • Water: Automatic car washes require anywhere from a ¾-inch to a 1 ½-inch water line depending on the type and size of wash system.
  • Tap Fees: If a new or larger water line needs to be added, the city’s water authority will charge a fee. Based on the size of the line, these fees can vary from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Water Discharge: To comply with the federal Clean Water Act, wash water must be discharged to a sanitary sewer — either directly or via the overflow piping of a reclaim system.
  • Electrical: An automatic wash system will require 200 to 600 amps. If you do not have enough unused service to meet these requirements, additional power will need to be purchased through your local power company.

Efficiency and Cost Savings

Hand washing is not as efficient as using an automated car wash system. Hand washing tends to waste water and chemicals, and environmental regulations regarding wash water discharge can be overlooked when hand washing.

Alone these don’t justify the purchase of an automatic car wash, although a small standalone system containing pressure washer, soap and a drying agent might reduce utility and chemical waste while improving employee efficiency.

The most glaring area of inefficiency is the labor needed for hand washing. When you add in taxes, benefits and training, the cost of one $12-per-hour attendant could be $24 per hour.

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