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How to Run a Car Wash

Car ownership levels continue to climb. From more automation to greater visibility on Google and from the highway, here are some tips for exploiting this ever-growing market.

Car ownership in South Africa continues to rise, with more than 12 million registered vehicles as of February 2017 and more than 48,000 new cars taking to the road in the same month.

And though many owners do their own car cleaning, many more have neither the time nor inclination. That creates a great opportunity for entrepreneurs with the right business model.

If you’re starting or buying a car wash, or buying a franchised business, then here are some considerations for what that business model might entail.

Legal requirements to trade

Your business must be registered through the CIPC (Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, as well as with the Compensation Fund.

Depending on local bylaws, you may have to apply for a water permit. Visit the Department of Water Affairs website to find out more.

Your business involves the operation of machinery and handling motor vehicles belonging to others, so insurance cover is particularly important. Dealing with the public, you should arrange appropriate liability cover as well as general business insurance, with disclaimers in place to avoid attracting spurious claims.

Staffing and automation

Car washes tend to employ staff on a casual basis, which affords them flexibility and lower costs but can mean a less motivated, less reliable workforce. Anything you can do to hire and train customer-orientated, friendly, efficient workers will be time well spent.

You could reduce your dependence on labour by further automating your business. The initial costs of buying new equipment could run into tens of thousands of rand, admittedly, so you may need to raise some capital.

However, while you’ll also need to spend more time and money on systems maintenance, you will also reap the benefits of a less labour-intensive process: a quicker, cheaper, more efficient service, and a higher turnover of customers with bigger margins.

The in-bay option, where rollovers roll back and forth over the car, is rapid, thorough and fully automated.

Or you could go with a self-service model (a coin-operated wash where the customer washes their car themselves), requiring a smaller outlay and reduced labour costs, but greater hassle for the customer.

Equipment and maintenance

Steve Gaudreau, a veteran of the car wash business, has written a book on how to prosper in the trade. “Selecting a good manufacturer, being sure that the equipment is being installed correctly, performing the preventative maintenance properly, and obtaining assistance for repair and service are all major challenges to your car wash business success,” he writes in So You Want to Own a Car wash.

“The key issues regarding chemical usage are understanding the connection between equipment and chemicals, defining the desired quality for your wash, deciding how much equipment is needed in conjunction with the chemicals to produce the desired result, controlling the cost of the chemicals, and ensuring a high level of service by the chemical distributor, as well as taking advantage of whatever marketing assistance is provided by them.”

Naturally, you will need a high-pressure water source plus good drainage and waste arrangements (for both oil and water), and a selection of wet rooms and drying bays appropriate to the scale of your operation. For interior cleaning you need industrial vacuum cleaning equipment.

In addition, your enterprise will require quantities of wax, polishes and other cleaning aids alongside a good selection of sponges and brushes.

Visibility on Google and from the highway

Deciding what tasks are not worth your time and money is as important as choosing what to focus on when it comes to deploying resources (in business and in life generally). If you’ve bought a car wash business and the previous proprietor invested time in social media marketing, you should review the success of this approach.

Car washing is a no-nonsense service; customers want to be in and out as quickly as possible, getting their car spotless at a reasonable price – that’s it. You can definitely get plenty of repeat business in this trade, but customers probably won’t form an emotional bond with your brand.

That’s not to say that unprofessional branding won’t deter customers. However, optimising your Google business listing and boosting your position on Google search results for key terms like ‘car wash in [your area]’ might be a more productive pursuit than building a Twitter following.

Customers can leave reviews on Google business listings, so a courteous, high quality, well priced service will help boost online conversions too.

But if Google is now hugely consequential to this industry (and indeed most others), plenty of customers still decide to wash their car on the spur of the moment, so the prominence of your physical signage remains vital.

Sometimes the simplest changes can yield the most dramatic results. You may be pleasantly surprised at the extra trade that replacing a worn-out sign with more attractive, prominent and legible signage could generate.

Check out the competition

 “Do what you would do in any business,” writes car wash veteran Steve Gaudreau. “Check references, visit successful car wash sites to see what success looks like, and ask operators their opinion of whomever you are thinking of working with.”

It might be a simpler business model than most, but Gaudreau still counsels humility in seeking and heeding advice. “The reality is that everyone needs more knowledge of the car wash business than they think that they do when they first start.”

He also suggests: “Identify on a map all of the competition within a five-mile radius and determine what their trade area is, what your natural trade area is, and understand where there is an overlay.”

Click here for more tips on boosting custom at your car wash business.

Buying a business? Browse car washes for sale on

Melanie Luff

About the author

Mel wrote for all titles in the Dynamis stable including, and as well as other global industry publications.


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