Retailer News

Car-Wash Operators Weigh Their Options

Car going through car wash
Photograph courtesy of OPW

To the untrained eye, each car wash can seem the same. Customers drive into a bay or onto a conveyor and let the machine do the work of removing dirt and grime from their vehicles. The unique styles of wash can go beyond just personal preference; they can be a major determinant in the business model of a car wash, from vehicle loading to various cleaning technologies, cars-per-hour capabilities, revenue per car and the level of clean and shine.

The selection of a wash system usually starts with a choice between an in-bay automatic system or a conveyorized tunnel system. In-bay systems are those in which the vehicle takes a stationary position in the wash bay with the aid of vehicle-sensing technology that eliminates drive-on floor mechanisms. This technology makes it easier to drive into and out of the wash. A tunnel system works by mechanically rolling the vehicle through the wash via a chain-driven conveyor track.

Belanger Distributors Can Help Increase Your ROI

Do you have questions on how to select the right type of wash for your business? Belanger has experts that can help you with these tough business decisions. To talk to one of our wash experts, please visit our website

Within these two broader styles, there is even greater variation. Here is a more detailed breakdown of these wash systems:

In-bay automatic

Most commonly found at gas stations, in-bay automatics allow the driver to pull into the bay with the aid of a virtual treadle, helping to position the vehicle properly. The vehicle remains stationary as the washing, polishing and drying equipment moves over and around it. Wash styles offered by in-bay automatics include touch-free, in which high-pressure water is used to clean the vehicle; and friction, in which soft-cloth “brushes” are used to clean and spread detergent and polish on the vehicle before they are rinsed off. 

 Typical characteristics of in-bay automatics include:

  • Simple customer interaction.
  • Impulse-driven purchases.
  • Ideal for smaller lot sizes.
  • Initial equipment/building usually costing $200,000 or less.

Conveyorized tunnel system

In this system, a conveyor dolly and chain system moves the vehicle through a wash tunnel, along which the various wash operations are performed. Basic, exterior-only tunnel washes have the driver position the car on the conveyor and then remain in the vehicle as the wash services are completed. Full-service tunnel systems have the driver exit the vehicle while a wash crew cleans the inside of the vehicle and then wipes down the exterior after it exits the tunnel. Because of the design and method of operation of tunnel systems, friction washes are most common in tunnel systems.


Typical conveyorized tunnel systems are defined by:

  • Higher wash volumes.
  • Higher startup costs and labor requirements: $1.5 million to $2 million for equipment/building.
  • Necessary larger lot sizes.


Overall, studies show that in-bay automatics make up 13% of the vehicle-wash market, with exterior-only conveyorized tunnels accounting for 14% of the market. By comparison, the most popular wash technique is home washing, at 41%, but that number has been declining steadily in recent years. This is due to an increase in water-usage restrictions in a number of areas, because retail car washes use far less water than the private home washer. Another reason why these washes are successful is due to the convenience that retail car washes can provide to consumers, whose lives are becoming busier and busier.

Decision, decisions

While wash operators may go into the equipment selection process with a preferred wash technology in mind, the ultimate decision can be made only after weighing all of the variables. The most important is the type of wash that the customer base in the area will gravitate toward. A second determining factor is the size and shape of the wash site. As mentioned, smaller sites lend themselves to in-bay automatics because tunnel systems can range, on average, from 80 to 120 feet in length.

The type of establishment to which the wash will be affixed is also important. In-bay automatics are popular at gas station sites because they can fit easily among fuel islands and the convenience store. Stand-alone washes lend themselves to tunnel systems because there is more room to spread out and accommodate tunnel length and the lines of cars that may be waiting to use the wash. The physical location of the site is also significant, with busy corners controlled by traffic lights the most desirable.

 In the end, the most successful washes are those that fit harmoniously in their sites. Both in-bay automatic and tunnel wash systems have their benefits, but they can be fully realized only if the right style is chosen for the right location. Learn more about all of the car-wash options at, or call (866) 483-2867.

This post is sponsored by OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions


Exclusive Content

Snacks & Candy

What Convenience-Store Consumers Are Craving in Candy, Snacks

Unwrapping the latest treats and trends from the Sweets & Snacks Expo

Snacks & Candy

Convenience-Store Shoppers Are Sweet on Private-Label Candy

How 7-Eleven, Love’s are jumping on confection trends