How much money does a car wash make? Well, it depends on the type of car wash. This is a business that is extremely varied because there are so many different ways you can wash a car. Fortunately, this is a massive industry that seems to be growing year over year.
Currently, there are about 100,000 car washes in the United States, according the U.S. Census Bureau. Each year, these car washes clean 2.1% more cars than they did the year before. Though costs can be high (the average car takes about 38 to 65 gallons of water to get squeaky clean), a car wash can be lucrative especially when combined with other services like gas purchases.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Customers spend a whopping $5.8 billion per year on car wash services.
In-Bay Automatic Car Wash Revenue
In-bay automatic car washes are the most popular type of car wash in America, largely because they don’t require a lot of space and are easily added on to an existing business like a gas station or mechanic shop. It also generally requires less labor since the system is completely automatic. Customers simply pay for the type of wash they want, drive into the bay or park at a specific starting point and then wait while the outside of the car is cleaned.
As the most popular type of car wash, there are about 58,000 in-bay automatic car washes in the U.S., and each one washes about 20,000 cars per year. Unfortunately, it’s not the most lucrative business model, even if it has a pretty awesome profit margin.
According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average in-bay automatic car wash makes $139,000 in annual revenue, which translates to $86,531 in profit. Generally, this type of car wash charges $6.34 per wash and will profit $4.35 per wash. The more bays, the more cars that can be serviced at once, but you should also factor in the automatic car wash’s cost to build, which is much greater than other types of car washes.
Self-Serve Car Wash Revenue
Like an in-bay automatic car wash, self-serve car washes are an excellent add-on to an existing business because they don’t require any labor on the part of the business owner. It’s basically pure profit aside from water, detergent and slight maintenance costs.
You’re probably used to seeing self-serve car washes outside of gas stations and rest stops. This is rarely a stand-alone business. The way it works is that car owners will put some coins into a machine (or swipe a credit card). This activates a wand that they can use to wash the exterior of their car. Sometimes, a facility will also have a coin-operated vacuum for customers to use to clean the interior of their car too.
About 36,000 self-serve car washes exist in the U.S., but the average bay at a self-serve car wash is only occupied about 10% of the time. It’s not a high-traffic business nor is it extremely lucrative, but it’s certainly a nice second source of income for business owners who are looking to add extra services to a gas station or rest stop. Generally, this low-cost business pulls in about $1,489 of monthly revenue per bay. The average amount of revenue for a typical two-bay operation is about $41,000 per year.
Exterior Conveyor Car Wash Revenue
Exterior conveyor car washes, or tunnel car washes, are the fast food drive-throughs of the auto world. Basically, customers sit in their car and are pulled through a tunnel on a conveyor belt while soap, brushes and water clean the outside of their vehicle in an automated process. This is generally far more lucrative than other car wash options, and businesses charge a premium for the service. At an average of $15 per wash, it’s more than twice as expensive as a typical in-bay car wash.
According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 10,500 exterior conveyor car washes in the country. You can expect to make an average of $686,250 in revenue per year with this type of business.
Go Full Service for Extra Cash
At a full-service car wash, you’re not just getting the exterior of your car cleaned. You’re getting the inside vacuumed or detailed by hand. Each model is a little different. Sometimes, a car wash will use an in-bay automatic wash or a conveyor wash for the exterior, but it will always have the added extra of hand detailing for the interior. Of course, since customers are getting more, you can charge a premium for this service.
Only about 9,000 of the car washes in the U.S. are full-service car washes, and they’re the most costly type of car wash to run, but they’re also the most lucrative. On average, this type of car wash costs $15 per wash, which is more than twice the average charge for a simple in-bay automatic wash. About 20% of full-service car washes charge $18 or more for this service, making them slightly more lucrative than a simple conveyor wash on its own.
Automatic Car Wash Cost to Build
When you’re trying to determine the amount of money you’ll make on a car wash business, you have to factor in how much you’re going to be spending up front. Do you want some quick cash, or are you in this type of business for the long term? You stand to make a lot more money with an in-bay automatic or exterior conveyor car wash than with a self-service wash, but it also costs a lot more up front.
An automatic car wash’s cost to build is much greater than other car washes because it requires expensive, specialized equipment and a lot of space. Automatic units cost between $31,000 to $49,000 per bay, whereas self-serve car wash equipment generally costs just $8,000 to $10,000 per bay.
After the equipment, you also need to factor in the cost of space and construction. For an in-bay automatic car wash, you’ll need about 7,000 square feet for each bay, and you’re going to want more than one bay. You can expect to spend about $17,000 to construct a single self-serve car wash bay and upward of $42,000 to construct an automated or conveyor bay.
Car Wash Costs per Car
Car washes have a lot of ongoing expenses, from employee paychecks to supplies, water and electricity. As a rule, you can expect the cost per car to be:
- 12 cents for natural gas
- 50 cents for electricity
- 16 cents for water
- 45 cents to $1.20 for detergents and chemicals
- 47 cents for maintenance and repairs
- $1.24 for labor
- $1.00 for administrative expenses
This does not include rent on your space or equipment.
Consider Consumer Frequency and Loyalty
In addition to startup and run costs, it’s important to consider customer habits when you’re weighing the profitability of a car wash business. Though customers are willing to spend more on a full-service car wash that’s done by hand, the people who use full-service car washes don’t get their car washed as often as people who use automatic or self-service car washes. Nonetheless, the industry has seen a 69% increase in its customer base over the last 15 years.
Car washes are also somewhat of a seasonal business. Winter sees the most traffic, with spring and summer coming in second. Fall sees dramatically less traffic than any other season. The busiest days for a car wash tend to be Friday and Saturday, when people are generally already out and about in their cars. Sunday and Monday see the least amount of traffic.
Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.