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Running a Coin-Operated Car Wash

Coin-operated car washes can earn a steady cash flow with a modest investment of time. If you are more aggressive and have the funding, you can leverage your time to own and operate a number of locations simultaneously.

In the typical self-service coin-operated car wash, the customer does all the work. In a sheltered “bay” the customer sprays water, soap, and/or wax on the car from a metal “wand” with a nozzle. Each bay also typically has a “foaming brush” for removing heavy grime. Also on site normally are coin-operated vacuums for cleaning car interiors and mats.

The self-service car wash is a model of simplicity. In a well-designed setup with quality equipment, the amount of downtime and maintenance and time you devote to resupplying the equipment should be minimal. However, you must monitor the coin boxes and bill (paper money) changers: if they run out of coins or fail to accept legitimate paper money, customers will be turned away. Accordingly, be sure that this equipment is of the highest quality, and is secure against break-in.

You can also consider operating an unattended automatic car wash that is activated by the customer, who either drives through or (more commonly) has his car pulled through. Inside these, the car passes through a succession of equipment that washes and dries it. This level of service commands a higher price than a pure do-it-yourself car wash, but you will have a larger investment in equipment and more maintenance needs.

Unattended automatic car washes are increasingly found on the grounds of gas stations. Some operators of self-service, do-it-yourself car washes also run unattended automatic car washes on the same property.

In buying an existing location or in setting up a new one, pay close attention both to the number of cars within a few miles of your operation and the number of other car washes. Keep in mind that other types of car washes may not be competitors since some car owners may prefer self-service and relatively few may switch between self and full service. Your opportunity probably is greater in an area with a large number of car-owning apartment dwellers without places to do the washing at home and where conditions mandate frequent washings (dust or road salt).


Investing in professionally prepared market research before taking the plunge can be advisable. Pay very close attention to local regulations, especially environmental regulations. There may be restrictions on fresh water and wastewater discharge, with possible requirements to reuse and/or filter it.

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