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.


  • 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.


Consider that the average lot attendant can wash and vacuum five cars per hour, with some sense of urgency. One attendant working 40 hours per week at a fully burdened labor rate equates to $3,840 per month of labor cost. If wash demand exceeds five cars per hour, an automatic car wash might make more sense versus adding an additional attendant.

An automatic car wash would allow the elimination of at least one, if not two, employees. The annual labor cost for one employee — using the previous example — is roughly $50,000. Higher wash volumes might dictate a more expensive system, but a basic drive-through system costs $55,000 to $60,000. In this case, the labor savings could pay for an entry-level automatic wash in a little over a year.

Leasing is a great way to acquire equipment without a large capital outlay. If you are an established business, you might only need a short application and one month’s payment as a deposit. A very basic drive-through system without a dryer can be leased for about $1,300 per month.

Adding an automatic car wash does not make sense for every situation. But if you conclude that it does make sense for you, take the time to find an equipment specialist who understands the car rental market. With many types of automatic car wash systems, an equipment specialist who understands the demands of washing rental cars will ensure that you select the right system for your needs.

What's Your Question

Frank Lash is an independent car wash consultant to the auto rental industry.

Email your car rental operation-related questions to Auto Rental News care of chris.brown@bobit.com.