Dealer Ops

What Dealers Need To Know About Automatic Car Washes

With most dealers offering FREE washes to service customers, plus washing requirements for PDI, recon, new and used car deliveries, rental and demo vehicles, every dealer needs to know when an automatic system is justified and what type to purchase.
Almost all dealers l speak with ask about the purchase of an automatic carwash for their dealership. The most frequently asked question is: "How do I know when it is right for my dealership to have an automatic carwash?"

Actually, it is really a simple case of economics and time. When the volume of daily washes is so large that the hand wash operation can't keep up or when the volume is so large that labor costs are more than the monthly equipment payment, it’s time to consider the purchase of an automatic carwash system.

An Economic Example

Assume a dealership washes only 30 cars per day, and they pay a porter or lot person $8.00 per hour ($8.00 represents at least $9.60 per hour, not including any major benefits some dealerships pay). At $9.60 per hour for labor that is $144.00 per day; $864 per 6 day week; and nearly $3,744 per month just to pay one person to wash cars. If it takes a minimum of 30 minutes per wash, which is a minimum of 15 hours of washing per day, then the dealer will need more than one person to wash cars.

This does not include the Time Factor—that is, how many vehicles will need to be washed per hour. Certainly the 30 vehicles per day are not going to be equally divided throughout the day. For example, the demand might be as many as 10 cars in an hour.

While this is only a hypothetical example it will help to determine where your dealership might be with regard to the need and economic justification for an automatic car wash.

Types of Carwash Systems to Choose

Once a dealer has decided an automatic carwash is a necessary investment for the dealership the next consideration is the type of system to purchase. Keep in mind that some systems will still require labor because they will not wash the vehicle thoroughly or completely. And, if the system does not include an air dryer, then labor will be required to hand dry the vehicle for at least 10 minutes.

Conveyorized "Tunnel" Systems

This type of system is available in any length or volume demand the dealership might require. Complete conveyorized systems with an air dryer are available in lengths ranging from 35' to 100' and possibly more.

They usually include a number of top and side washers, rinsing and waxing arches and the conveyor and air dryer. As with any carwash system, water reclaim and spot-free rinse systems are options.

The benefit of these systems is that you can wash more than one vehicle at a time and they can be adequately equipped to completely wash and dry the vehicle with no hand labor required.

With a conveyorized system, personnel other than recon or porters can be called on to wash cars. Salespersons and body shop techs among other employees only have to run the car through the wash.

The cost of a conveyorized system ranges from $45,000 to over $100,000, depending on size and options chosen. Tunnel Systems are also available without a conveyor or air dryer and these can be priced as low as $25,000.

Roll-Over Systems

The roll-over carwash system is one where the vehicle drives into the system and remains stationary while the machine moves over the vehicle rinsing, washing, rinsing again and then drying, if a dryer system is chosen.

There are two air dryer choices: (a) An "on-board" air dryer that adds another cycle to the wash process and (b) A stationary dryer that is installed at the end of the wash guide rails. When the wash cycle is complete the driver slowly moves through the air dryer.

The main benefit of this type of system is ease of installation.

One disadvantage is only one vehicle can be washed at a time. Manufacturers often indicate an operator can wash a vehicle in one minute, but this is misleading because a one-minute wash is basically two passes and does not include any drying. For the type of wash a dealer would require, it will take four to five minutes to process one vehicle.

After a year or two, maintenance can be a problem because you have a several thousand pound unit moving over rails with air cylinders, retracting arms, etc. Eventually, this type of machine could require substantial maintenance and service.

Within the category of roll-over systems there are three choices:

Plastic Brushes -While very few of these systems are purchased by dealers, some dealers believe that plastic material washes a vehicle better; others feel plastic brushes scratch the paint.

Cloth Brushes –This is, by far, the most popular type of roll-over carwash system. Most believe the cloth washing material is safer on the paint finish than plastic brushes or even the "touch less" roll-over system.

"Touch less" -Many dealers gravitate to this type of carwash system because conventional wisdom says a wash system that does not utilize either plastic or cloth washing material would have to be better for the finish of the vehicle. That logic would be correct, of course, if this automated carwash cleaned the vehicle. In short, it is said in the carwash industry that a “touch less” carwash works "if the vehicle is not dirty." In other words, if the vehicle is dirty, this system will require some hand washing or brushing for a complete job. Further hand washing requires more labor. Certainly a vehicle salesperson is not going to prewash the vehicle; therefore, using a “touch less” roll-over loses all its benefits when washing labor is required to complete the cleaning process.

Further, many of these “touch less” systems use a two-chemical wash process including an application of ACID and a second application of a HIGH ALKALINE solution. Then the vehicle is doused with high pressure water.

This is contradictory to many automobile owners’ manuals, which indicate the vehicle should not be washed with acids, harsh chemicals or high pressure water.

It is also alleged that if a vehicle is continuously washed in a “touch less” system the chemicals will dull the paint finish.

The “touch less” roll-overs are priced from about $42,000 without an air dryer to over $100,000 with dryer and options.

Spray Systems

I never understood how a dealer could purchase this type of system throughout the more than 30 years I have been in the carwash business, as they don't seem to be anything more than an application of chemical followed by a low-pressure rinse.

Question: If the high-pressure "touch less" will not clean a vehicle without hand washing, then how can a low-pressure rinse do it?

There are two types of spray systems:

a. The type featuring a series of spray arches that the vehicle drives through and,

b. The type that is a rectangular arch that vertically dissents over the vehicle rinsing, applying chemical and rinsing again.

It seems to me that the only reason a dealer purchases a system is PRICE, but if a dealer investigates all the options they will find Tunnel Drive Thru and Roll-Over washes are priced as low as Spray Systems.


Actually, there is no conclusion to this article. Whether a dealer needs an automatic carwash system in lieu of hand washing, is really up to them to determine, and I hope that the information I have provided will assist you in making that decision.

Which type of system you choose is up to you and should be based on several factors. But do not assume that one type of system is more expensive than another. You should get quotations from manufacturers of all types of systems described here.

About the author
Bud Abraham

Bud Abraham

President & Founder

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