Opening a car wash can be a great business venture because there’s a seemingly endless supply of customer demand. People spend a lot of time and money working on and caring for their vehicles, but most don’t have time or space to wash cars in the driveway. So, how much does it cost to open a car wash?
Opening a car wash costs anywhere from $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars (or more). The amount of money you’ll need depends on whether you have the land, build or buy, and the type of car wash you want to open. The size and number of bays also impacts the cost.
- How Much Does a Car Wash Cost?
- Types of Car Washes: Automatic Versus Self-Service
- Other Interesting Guides
- How Much Does it Cost to Open a Self-Service Car Wash?
- How Much Does an Automatic Car Wash Cost?
- Cost Breakdown for Opening a Car Wash
- How Much Does a Car Wash Make in a Day?
- The Bottom Line
How Much Does a Car Wash Cost?
The cost for a car wash depends on many different factors. Whether you already own the land or need to lease or buy, what type of setup you want to use, if you have to do any construction, and the car wash’s size and number of bays are all important decisions you’ll have to make.
Other considerations include whether you open an automatic car wash or self-service, or if you hire employees to perform car washing services. Of course, opening a full-service car wash with attendants will be cheaper to get started, but the payroll costs will likely be higher over time than any equipment you would have purchased.
On the other hand, you could purchase an existing car wash and have everything you need to start making money right away. In that case, you’d know the full purchase price up front. Or, you could go the franchise route.
Purchasing a car wash franchise typically costs anywhere from $40,000 to $250,000. A cheaper option is a mobile car wash franchise, which usually runs between $25,000 and $100,000.
Types of Car Washes: Automatic Versus Self-Service
One of the first decisions you’ll need to make regarding your car wash empire is whether you want to open an automatic or self-service establishment. This will impact your startup and operating costs, and it will determine how much you’ll charge for your services.
What is an Automatic Car Wash?
An automatic car wash is a large machine that washes vehicles. This automatic setup originated in the early 1900s, when people washed cars by hand in an assembly-line fashion. As technology advanced and machines were created to do the job instead of people, automatic car washes started popping up everywhere.
Typically, you drive your car into the wash bay where the machine operates around the vehicle, spraying soap, water, and other cleaning products onto its surface. This is known as a “roll-over” style car wash, when the vehicle remains stationary and the mechanical equipment moves around the outside to do the job. These are the kinds of car washes that you normally see at gas stations.
The other type of automatic car wash is the “conveyor” style. In that setup, the vehicle is slowly moved along a conveyor past the cleaning machines.
No matter the setup (roll-over or conveyor), automatic car washes can either be “touchless” or have the standard spinning brushes and flaps that clean the dirt off the car manually. Over the years, touchless car washes have become more common.
Touchless (or “touch-free”) machines use high-pressure sprayers to remove dirt and debris from the vehicle. They sometimes also use stronger chemicals to help remove stubborn grime that may not come off with just a water blast.
Other Interesting Guides
What is a Self-Service Car Wash?
A self-service car wash offers a sheltered location and many of the supplies you’ll need to wash your car. The car wash typically provides various soaps and cleaning agents and a water sprayer with different pressure levels to choose from.
The car wash may also provide cleaning brushes or sponges, though they’re not likely to provide rags or towels. Most locations also have vacuums available.
The setup is typically a number of bays with a sprayer and hose for water and some sort of dispenser for soap. They’re usually operated using a self-service coin or bill acceptor, though many self-service car washes today also accept credit cards.
The location may or may not be monitored by an attendant.
How Much Does it Cost to Open a Self-Service Car Wash?
Opening a self-service car wash is typically less expensive than opening an automatic car wash. You won’t have to buy all the expensive mechanical equipment, and you don’t even need to have an attendant if you have an automatic payment acceptor.
The building’s size is a big cost factor when it comes to opening a self-service car wash. Your best bet would be to find an existing facility and refurbish it to make it more appealing to your customers rather than building one from the ground up. This will be a more cost effective option than purchasing land and then paying construction costs separately.
Opening a self-service car wash will cost about $15,000 to $25,000 per bay, plus any additional land or construction costs.
Keep in mind that a typical self-serve car wash has at least four bays. For a facility that size, you’d need a lot that’s at least 120 x 100 feet. Self service bays should have at least 16 feet of space across and be 28 feet wide once inside. The height should be at least 10 feet to accommodate cars, and at least 12 to 14 feet to accommodate trucks.
How Much Does an Automatic Car Wash Cost?
Opening an automatic car wash is generally more expensive than opening a self service facility because the equipment is not cheap, and you’ll need different modifications and work done on your building for electrical components.
Building costs for an automatic car wash are at least $100,000, plus about $125,000 and up for machinery, and another $25,000 for additional equipment. That means that you should plan to invest at least $150,000 to open an automatic car wash for the bare minimum features.
However, your facility’s size and location will have huge impacts on the cost to get up and running. If possible, you can save some money by using prefabricated buildings or by purchasing an existing car wash and upgrading the equipment and refurbishing the structure.
The other thing you need to consider is the cost of water, especially when it comes to your geographic location. In some places, water is becoming more scarce, like in the western United States. In those areas, it will be critical to install a water reclamation system to collect wastewater and turn it into water that can be used again.
Installation Costs for an Automatic Car Wash
The installation costs for automatic car wash equipment can be very expensive, especially depending on the type of automatic car wash that you’re looking to open. A standard “drive-through” type will be less expensive than a more complicated conveyor style.
There are many companies which manufacture automatic car wash equipment. If you go with one of those, you can purchase everything you need from one source, then just pay to have the equipment installed. The pricing will vary depending on the type, size, and style of equipment you buy and your geographic location.
The equipment for a conveyor-style automatic car wash can cost up to $650,000 installed. This would include the conveyor mechanism, hydraulics, pumping stations, blowers, and so on.
Cost Breakdown for Opening a Car Wash
Let’s take a look at the most important factors you’ll need to consider to open a car wash and the decisions you’ll need to make for each one.
Location ($50k – $250k)
Your location is the single most important factor when it comes to the cost to open a business and the revenue potential. You’ll need a lot that’s big enough to accommodate the number of bays you want, but there are other things to consider as well.
- Access onto the property from either direction of traffic
- Ease of entry/exit from the roadway
- Traffic speed should be 45mph or less on adjacent roadway
- Lot design – vehicles should be able to pull in and drive through the bay, not pull in and have to back out
- Located near residential areas (neighborhoods, apartments, busy traffic areas)
- There should be room for vehicles to line up behind each bay
- Think about room for other offerings like vacuums, air, drying, and cleaning out cars
- Check local codes and requirements for how far the bays should be set back from the road
- Ensure you have access to utilities like water, sewer, and gas (if needed)
- Check for nearby competition and make sure you’re not setting up shop within one mile of another car wash
Building and Equipment ($50,000 – $1 million and up)
Your car wash bays and equipment will likely be your biggest expense unless you purchase land in a very high demand area. The cost for the building will depend on the size, construction costs, and whether you purchase something with an existing facility.
The type of equipment that you use also has a huge impact on your startup costs. For example, a tunnel and conveyor system will be more expensive than a standard “drive-through” style car wash.
Remember, your equipment is going to be what makes your money for you over time, so it’s best to spend a little more up front to get better quality products than buying the cheapest junk you can find. You’re going to have to pay to maintain your equipment, so try to get durable, trusted equipment or machinery with a warranty.
With automatic car wash equipment, you’ll have to decide between touch-free or brush style wash machinery. Touch-free is a popular choice because your customers will be more confident that their vehicle isn’t going to be damaged during the wash process. There’s also less of a chance of actual damage occurring, lowering your potential liability.
You should also consider:
- The equipment’s output and how much business it can handle in a single day or each hour
- The costs to operate the equipment – how much water does it use? How much power? How often does it need maintenance? And so on
- Features and capabilities – does the equipment self-adjust based on the vehicle? Does it offer different features like wax or other applications?
- Warranty coverage
- Technical or other support from the manufacturer or seller
- How simple does the machine operate? This will impact how often it breaks down and how difficult it will be to fix
Plumbing and Water Treatment Systems ($100k – $250k+)
Depending on where you live, having the right water treatment system in place may be more urgent, or it may even be required. In any case, it’s a smart business move and it’s better for the environment.
Reclaiming water requires a sufficient water treatment system to get the waste water filtered and ready for use. You may need special filters and softeners, which will be more expensive. Still, wasting endless water down the drain without collecting it for treatment will end up costing you a lot more money over time.
Plumbing considerations need to take into account the seasonal temperatures and conditions. For example, if you live somewhere that freezes often, you’ll need a different plumbing setup than a car wash located in south Florida.
Landscaping and Signage ($50k+)
Your landscape conditions may need significantly more work if you start with an empty grass lot than if you purchase a lot with existing pavement that has proper grading. Depending on your situation, you may need to pay for paving, leveling, pouring asphalt, grading, adding landscape features, and so on.
You’ll also need to purchase signage to advertise your business. That may include just a main sign near the road, one on the building, or both. You’ll also need pricing and menu-board signs to let people know what services you offer and how much they cost.
There may be local rules and regulations about signage, so be sure to check with your building authorities before making any purchases.
How Much Does a Car Wash Make in a Day?
A car wash can be a very profitable business if it’s run correctly. Your location and the demand for car washing services where you operate also has a huge impact on how much money your business will make.
Still, on average, a self-service car wash makes about $50 to $200 per day. An automatic car wash generates more revenue (but possibly smaller profit margins), running about $350 to $400 per day, on average.
Still, there are additional revenue opportunities you can add-on with a car wash that don’t require a lot of up-front investment. Consider things like:
- Air freshener sprayers
- Vending machines (cleaning products, air fresheners, food, drinks)
- Pet washing
- Bays specialized for motorcycles, boats, ATVs, RVs, etc.
It’s always a good idea to try to think of services you can offer that your competition doesn’t provide. You could spend some time chatting with your customers to find out what services they’d like, or look online for what other similar businesses are doing around the country. You might be surprised at how much success you can drive by thinking creatively in business.
The Bottom Line
Opening a car wash can be a very profitable business venture if done properly. Still, it requires more than just a successful startup. Running a business requires ongoing investments and maintenance to keep things operating smoothly. That means you’ll need capital for your startup and cash reserves to handle any problems or fix equipment malfunctions.
That’s especially important for something like a car wash that doesn’t always have an attendant present. The last thing you want is to become known as a business that’s unreliable or one that doesn’t provide the services that your customers pay for.
If you can find a site for a good price or an existing car wash to refurbish, you can open a profitable business and significantly reduce the upfront costs. Another option is to purchase a car wash franchise, which may give you the benefit of a known business name. However, such an investment typically isn’t necessary, as customers are not likely brand-loyal to something like a car wash.
In any case, a car wash will bring in (on average) anywhere between $200,000 to $600,000 per year, or more, depending on your location. It’s a good idea to understand your customer count and demand before you open your business up so that you know what price point to charge.
Another option is doing a membership or loyalty program which rewards your customers for coming back again and again. A monthly subscription-type service allows for recurring, guaranteed revenue and can be a great marketing technique to gain new customers and keep your remaining clients for long periods.