The Top 5 Reasons Why Car Washes Fail

In the United States the car wash industry, as a whole, has seen a long period of growth with steadily increasing demand – around 2% more cars washed each year over the past decade. However, despite this growth and the real need so many communities have for reliable car wash resources, some car washes have failed in recent years.


We asked Ryan Essenburg, President of Tommy Car Wash Systems and founder of the Tommy’s Express Franchise, why this is the case and what the most common root causes behind car wash failure are.

 1. Poor Design

RE: It’s important to note that failure, in our industry and this article, does not always mean a shuttered site gone out of business. It also includes car wash businesses that underperform, failing to meet the great opportunity at hand and limping along for years or decades at a time without real success or growth.

Poor site layout cause nearly half of the car washes built to “fail” before the day they open. Hard to navigate mazes, and layouts designed one-off to fit odd parcels destroy most hope of building a consistent brand. Facilities designed to be cheap or low investment, rather than to attract or entice consumers, also destroy many car washes before they open. The ‘me too’ car wash sends consumers a message that your site is no different than the other bad car wash down the street.

 2. Bad Location

RE: Without guidance, investors and operators think a good deal means a good plan. A good deal on a piece of land means you have a bad site and bad location. Very simply, the more you pay for land the better your car wash will likely perform and the less risk you’ll have of failure. The less you pay for land, the poorer your car wash will likely perform and your risk of improvements on the cheap site will be at great risk of loss.

 3. Poor Operations / Misunderstanding Your Guests’ Desires

RE: Beyond basics like uniforms and well-trained team members, big errors come from misunderstanding the needs of your guests. While some operators often think they’re serving their market, it’s shocking how often you speak with the consumers and they say “I can’t find a GOOD car wash around here.”

Take prepping for example. Instead of investing in proper equipment and chemistry, many operators just stick an employee upfront with a pressure washer. After all, it’s cheaper (up front) and allows operators to tell themselves lies like, “I’m serving my customers extra and adding value”. No, what you are doing is slowing your processing speed and introducing human error, and it’s driving your customers to your competitor.

 4. Equipment Neglect

RE: Car washing is a service business and depreciation is our expense. Like a jet airplane, ½ our costs are incurred now and ½ our costs are incurred in the future after the engines need to be rebuilt. Depreciation is not a perk on your taxes, it’s real and you must put dollar for dollar aside towards future improvements just to get your wash back to baseline with where you started. Most operators think their cash flow is their profit and find themselves with a worthless asset inside 20 years because they killed their golden goose by not feeding (maintaining) it.

 5. Poor Processing

RE: Processing is not just about speed. It’s a crafted experience that involves consistency, harmony, and anticipated circumstances. Companies that process well perform well and those that don’t usually fail.

Success is in the details, from the downhill slope we pioneered in 1990 to triggering the customer’s senses at specific points in the process with instruction, lights, colors, and scents. Everything must work in harmony to achieve continuous, smooth, high throughput, including your team members’ ability to anticipate situations as they happen and respond. The principles of processing apply to any business transaction and those that master efficient processing win.

About Tommy Car Wash Systems:

Built on fifty years of car wash experience and innovation, Tommy Car Wash Systems provides designer stainless steel equipment, high performance detergents, car wash conversion services, and performance-focused facility designs while supporting the design, development, and logistics of the Tommy’s Express Car Wash franchise.

International shipping from our Holland, Michigan headquarters is available.

Tommy Car Wash Systems.

5 Carwash Trends to Watch for In 2019 and Beyond

The car wash industry has entered in a period of rapid transition, with new technologies and practices making inroads and bringing change to both customer expectations and industry norms. As we look forward to the coming year and beyond we’ve come to expect the following five car wash industry trends to play an increasingly central role.

 1. Paid Vacuum Center Systems Replacing Freevacs

Free vacuums were originally deployed as a way for express or exterior-only car washes to compete with full-service model car washes. However, in most of the country there are very few of these full-service carwashes left with which to compete.

So many operators in the country are tired of expending significant resources on high-maintenance, high-cost vacuum centers without a clear return on investment, and systems are being tested to address this issue. We expect to begin seeing operators retrofitting large, costly free vacuum centers with credit-card or membership-integrated alternatives. This strategy has the added advantage of increasing the value that comes bundled inside club memberships.

2. Revival of Interior Cleaning Services

In another strike against free vacs, we anticipate interior cleaning services becoming more common once again. Free vacuums were an effective option to include for the benefit of customers during the great depression a decade ago. However, the economic boom of recent years brings with it a willingness and desire among customers to pay more for expanded services in the name of convenience.

We anticipate slow move away from the current low labor exterior only concept and towards new Flex models which are able to process vehicle interiors far more quickly than traditional full service washes using assembly line-like procedures.

 3. Changing Automotive Technology

Vehicle technology is advancing, and while driverless cars are still years away there are already standard automotive features that that make it difficult if not prohibitive for some modern vehicles to wash in traditional chain and roller style car washes.

Notably these systems include Electronic Parking Breaks (triggered by tire rolling) and Automatic Emergency Braking systems (triggered by incoming objects, such as mitter brushes). Both of these can automatically engage the vehicle’s brakes in the wash tunnel, causing it to jump rollers and collide with incoming customer vehicles behind.

While these systems can *usually* be deactivated, the methods used to do so are non-standard and often complex, and disabling them introduces car wash operators to potential liability. However, both systems are compatible with Tommy Transporter Dual Belt Conveyor system, which carries automatically braking vehicles through the tunnel without issue.

Upgrading a conveyor to a dual belt system costs $100,000 and takes around two weeks. Washes that reinvest in this improvement will gain a quick competitive edge. Overall we anticipate an inevitable cleansing of obsolete car washes across the market.

 4. Inbay Automatic & Rollover Wash Conversions

Most of small-town America is serviced only by old, slow-processing rollover or in-bay automatic washes, each of which is its own missed opportunity. However, these facilities may be readily converted into short, conveyorized tunnel washes.

The conversion process involves removing the floor, re-pouring the conveyor pit, and installing new equipment, ultimately improving the processing speed from 8 cars/hour to 40 or more. This opens up a tremendous opportunity for car wash-minded operators to acquire and execute these conversions now, particularly in small towns unable to support tunnels or in urban centers with no land available.

 5. Teardown & Rebuilds

Even among full-size tunnel washes, there are countless outdated and struggling facilities waiting on extraordinarily valuable land in locations brimming with untapped potential. In the past these aging sites would be readily purchased and propped up with new branding, fresh paint, and maybe an updated equipment package to provide moderately improved performance.

But this practice is no longer sufficient. Old sites will increasingly be closed, demolished, and replaced with modernized buildings and equipment able to take full advantage of the local market.

Two years ago our sister company acquired a car wash that had recently closed, leaving a sturdy building bordering a major roadway. Instead of investing in the old facility everything was promptly leveled and a full acre of concrete removed before being replaced with a brand new 130’ Tommy’s Express franchise.

This modern site, in the same lot that couldn’t support an outdated car wash only years before, washed over 400,000 cars in 2018. We believe this same lesson will soon be proved over and over again in locations around the nation.

About Tommy Car Wash Systems:

Built on fifty years of car wash experience and innovation, Tommy Car Wash Systems provides designer stainless steel equipment, high performance detergents, car wash conversion services, and performance-focused facility designs while supporting the design, development, and logistics of the Tommy’s Express Car Wash franchise.

Tommy Car Wash Systems.