Car Wash Construction Do’s and Don’ts

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You’ve probably heard the old expression, “What I learned could fill a book.” Well, trust me, my last experience building a car wash could fill several books.

The project was a 7,000-square-foot, full-service, tunnel carwash. Our 100-foot tunnel is touch free, equipment supplied by Mark VII, AVW, ISS, AquaTech and Huron Valley. Fortunately, this was the easy part of the project since everyone on the supply side did his job. Design, permitting, contracting, construction and finishing was another story.

This project was one in a long list of car washes and other construction projects I’ve built, financed and operated. It’s only a rumor that it gets easier the second, third or 30th time.

It all starts with the site and professionals you employ to get you through the planning process. The good news is most engineering firms understand fairly quickly what needs to be done, with direction from your equipment supplier. They know what to do to get you the necessary approvals and eventually a building permit.

The Architect

Most architects don’t have a clue when it comes to building a car wash. Many of them don’t even use car washes. So, the challenge is educating this individual on your needs, budget and what impression you want to present to customers. Of all the things we do as car washers, the first impression—the building —can be the most important; it’s what attracts motorists out of the traffic flow. Site layout and building design are critical. It has to be done right. Picking your architect won’t be easy.

Fortunately, architects belong to a national association that lists a set of standards. You can obtain these from the American Institute of Architects (AIA ) website. I suggest interviewing several architects and looking closely at the commercial buildings they’ve done. Your suppliers may have some suggestions, so listen closely to their input.

The Contractor

Finding a contractor who will complete the job on time and on budget is very difficult. To ensure you don’t get caught in the old change-order disaster, you should triple check bids, hire an outsider and use the services of the architect. But whatever you do, minimize changes.

On this last project, we sent bid requirements to a minimum of three subcontractors. Whether it was for excavating, electrical, plumbing, framing, finishing, concrete or other major areas, we required three bids. We interviewed each bidder, went over their credentials and thought we’d done a thorough job. Everything was looking good. The bank had our estimates, the subcontractors were selected and we anticipated the rest would be a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, the walk in the park wound up more like a crawl through a jungle. Where we goofed was not having a mandatory risk-reward contract. Our general contractor, recommended by the architect, had no sense of urgency. His arrogance and unwillingness to understand our needs required us to fire him. The replacement was better, but because he came in after we broke ground, any issues that came to the surface resulted in lots of finger-pointing. This led to difficult and unresolved results.

Car washes are different animals. Probably the least understood parts are plumbing, electrical and concrete. In a conveyor car wash, concrete work is crucial. It has to be done right for the conveyor to function with minimal problems. So, instructing your general contractor about your needs is paramount.

Most electricians look at a car wash and grossly underestimate or—worse—overbid the job. Next time, I will require all trades visit several existing sites. I will demand suppliers install a team to review all the mechanical drawings and review them with every trade. In a car wash project, not taking every precaution will cost you money due to poor definitions. It’s crucial that an agreed-upon list of responsibilities be identified and signed off in advance by all parties. For most of you, this may be your first major construction project, so remember: A pound of prevention is priceless.

Hindsight

What would I do differently, knowing what I know now? First, everyone would sign an agreement stipulating his responsibilities. Everyone would have within his agreement a “not-to-exceed” date as well as a completion date. A penalty would be levied for every day the project is late, and a reward offered for finishing prior to the completion date.

A mistake I made this time was relying on friendships and not holding our contractor and subcontractors fully financially accountable. Yes, the people involved in making your dream a reality will establish a relationship with you, and you’ll be tempted to forget every once in a while this is a business situation. Don’t do it. Every day you are delayed in washing cars is lost opportunity.

Bottom line, it takes a lot of people, trades and professionals to take a dream and create a successful business. Don’t let your guard down, don’t get caught in the change-order merry-go-round and don’t rely on friendship. Document everything and demand perfection. After all, you’re going to live with the results of your efforts for a long time. One last precaution, make sure everyone involved in your project has insurance. No insurance, no contract. Good luck, and I look forward to hearing happy construction stories. 

Fred Grauer is president of Grauer Associates and vice president, investor services, for Mark VII Equipment LLC, a car wash equipment manufacturer in Arvada, Colo. He has made a lifelong career of designing, selling, building and operating car washes. He can be reached at fredgrauer@comcast.net

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