Offering Carwash Services: Understanding the Basics Leads to Bigger Profit

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A growing number of self-storage owners are experimenting with adding carwashes to their sites. There is no denying this might be a tremendous opportunity, but it demands close scrutiny because making money washing cars is more complicated than simply installing equipment.

No Free Lunch

Carwashes can be designed in one of four ways: self-serve, in-bay automatic, conveyorized and hand-washing. Each has different labor, equipment and management requirements. Additionally, each represents different revenue potential.

Self-serve and in-bay automatic washes are relatively easy to construct and operate, but inherently limit throughput and volume. Conveyorized washes can process huge volume spikes and maximize extra service revenue without slowing production. The tradeoff is they are also more complicated to manage and difficult to build. I’m going to skip hand-washing since rising labor costs and improved automation have practically eliminated this format in most markets.

This takes us to the main question: “Which of the big three styles best complements a self-storage facility?” It really depends on the demographic profile and traffic conditions at the property, coupled with your investment objectives and management preferences.

In-Bay Automatic Carwashes

Most commonly installed as a secondary profit center at self-serve carwashes and gas stations, the in-bay automatic carwash presents many compelling advantages. It requires minimal labor, is easy to manage and install, and most units fit in a small footprint. The primary drawback is that peak sustained throughput is limited by equipment that must move back and forth over the car, slowing production.

Although an in-bay automatic carwash can never step up and process a huge spike in volume, the ease of management makes this format an ideal choice for many installations.

If you’re looking at adding an in-bay to your self-storage location, you’ll have to choose between touch-free high-pressure, friction cloth or a hybrid combination of the two. In recent years, friction and hybrid units represent the most growth in the industry, mainly because they can produce a cleaner car faster.

A recent trend with in-bay automatic operators is to move dryers and even detergent applicators off the moving wash mechanism. Placing these functions on fixed arches that customers drive by can reduce wash passes and improve throughput. In carwashing, the ability to process spikes in volume rules profitability.

Self-Serve Carwashes

Although declining in many markets, the self-serve presents an interesting opportunity for the self-storage industry. It’s rare to see a self-serve location built as a stand-alone business. Again, throughput is limited and, unlike an in-bay automatic, it requires more land for installation. For the past couple of decades, self-serves have most often been combined with an in-bay carwash to attract a broader customer base.

The newest trend is to replace the in-bay with a mini hybrid tunnel to improve throughput. The interesting aspect of a self-serve carwash at a self-storage facility is customers can use it to wash items they store.

Conveyorized Tunnels

Although it can take longer to construct—and needs more management—a conveyorized tunnel can serve more customers at a faster rate. In this format, customers pay at an automated kiosk, drive through the tunnel, and pay for any number of extra services without slowing throughput. Investors should analyze demographics, site characteristics and competition to determine a potential capture rate of passers-by. Tunnel length should be designed to process the site’s anticipated peak volume at maturity in approximately three minutes.

Volume spikes can occur unpredictably at a carwash based solely on changing weather patterns. However, it’s not uncommon for a well-executed tunnel wash to process enough cars in a few good hours to make up for several days lost to bad weather.

Although express exterior tunnels offer the highest profit potential, there is additional labor required since it is recommended to have an attendant available at least during your busiest operating hours.

Where to Get Help

Carwashing presents a tremendous opportunity for self-storage owners to expand their businesses with several options. Some owners avoid managing the carwash entirely while reaping some benefit by leasing out space on the property to an experienced operator. Equipment manufacturers and trade associations often have lists of investors looking for these opportunities.

Each region of the country has its own carwash association, which is often the ideal place to start when looking to get into the industry. Also, attending a tradeshow before moving forward will ease the learning curve.

Robert Andre is the director of On-Campus Training at CarWash College in Tamarac, Fla. For more information, call 866.492.7422, e-mail randre@carwashcollege.com.

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