89% of U.S adults drive a car, with over 289.5 million registered cars on the roads. That means car washes present a potentially lucrative business opportunity for many.
However, with significant competition, it’s important that you assess building costs and potential market before investing.
In fact, the International Car Wash Association shows there are over 62,600 car washes in the United States.
Still, building a car wash can still pay off for many, especially if you choose the right location and manage costs well.
That’s especially true considering that 77% of car owners used a car wash in 2019, resulting in $15 billion in revenue in the year 2020.
However, the average cost of building a car wash ranges between about $250,000 and $5 million. Those cost differences depend on location, the size of the car wash, and the type of car wash you build. For example, if you’re building an automatic car wash, you can expect to spend $31,000 or more on equipment per bay.
Average Cost Of Building A Car Wash
The cost of building a car wash will heavily depend on location, technology used, and the size of the facility. For example, the International Car Wash association estimates that the average cost per square foot of car wash is $300+.
Considering one automatic car wash bay requires roughly 7,000 square feet, costs can be quite high. A larger car wash with two automatic car wash bays and four self-serve bays would need 22,000+ square feet.
Self-serve car washes are always the smallest. However, if you have a 3-bay self-service car wash, you’re looking at a lot that’s 75 feet by 55 feet at minimum.
In that, you could have three 15-foot-wide bays and a covered pump room for the equipment. You’d need the rest for the parking lot, vacuums, and tire pressure equipment.
If a covered bay has to be 28 feet long to accommodate trucks, you’re looking at 1,540 square feet of car wash, or around $250,000-$500,000 in construction costs.
Construction Cost Estimates
Building Car Wash Price Factors
The cost of building a car wash will heavily depend on factors like land, building materials, and technology used.
In addition, the size of the car wash itself is a large factor.
The cost of land and the location are extremely important and will make up a large part of your costs. For example, the cost of land in busy industrial areas can exceed $1,000 per square foot.
If you’re building in less busy areas, that can drop to $25-$50 per square foot. This means you can pay anywhere from $60,000 for a small lot to well over $1 million for a lot somewhere like Dallas Texas.
Leveling and Excavation
Unless you’re buying an already prepared lot, you’ll almost certainly have to have it leveled and excavated. That will mean paying someone to do the work.
Often, excavation work starts out between $50 and $200 per square yard. You’ll also have to level and excavate the parking lot.
Cost of Building Materials
You can normally build the exterior of a car wash out of almost anything you’d like. However, wood builds are not recommended because they are prone to rotting.
Instead, most car washes are made of either concrete, brick, or prefabricated steel. The latter is normally the most cost-effective.
For example, prefabricated steel buildings can sell for as little as $6 per square foot or as high as $120. On average, you can expect to pay about $18 per square foot of the building.
So, using prefabricated steel can greatly decrease the cost of building a car wash. However, it won’t last as long as a concrete or brick build.
Concrete structures normally cost between $10 and $250 per square foot. This normally does include the foundation.
You’ll also have an extremely water-resistant build, which is very likely to be able to withstand damage and vandalism.
A simple pump and jet system in a self-service car wash will cost you anywhere between $8,000 and $15,000 per bay – depending on the pump, charge equipment, and dispensers in the bay.
On the other hand, a tunnel car wash with automated conveyors and brushes can be significantly higher. For example, you might expect
- Pay Stations
- Tunnel Controllers
- Pumping Stations
- Tire Pressure/Air Pressure Systems
- Security Equipment
- Relay Stations
- Vacuum System
- Water Reclamation System
- Water Filtration System
A basic self-service system only needs pumps, vacuums, and an air pump. You’ll also want security. If you want an automatic car wash, you’ll have to choose higher-pressure pumps.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency requires that you filter your wastewater before directing it to a water treatment facility.
In some states, it’s also mandatory to have a water reclamation system in place, so that you reuse water rather than sending it to the sewer.
A good wastewater management system will likely cost you $35.000 or more. However, you only need one for the full car wash.
Eventually, with all equipment considered, you can spend up to $250,000 per bay. However, a serviceable automatic bay can start from $49,000.
Here, tunnel and conveyor bays will always cost more – but will likely command a higher rate from customers as well.
Number of Bays
In most cases, you can expect to pay about $50,000+ extra per additional bay on your lot. That does not include the cost of additional land.
In addition, if you have a large car wash, you’ll need additional pumps to maintain water pressure at the furthest bays.
For this reason, the most cost-effective system is normally to either have a pump per bay or to install the number of bays that work best with your pump.
Depending on your location, you may be required to install sidewalks, install ramps, and make your car wash as accessible as possible.
Basic landscaping to improve the exterior of the car wash is also important for merchandising.
Otherwise, landscaping should mostly involve setting up a parking lot or waiting area, ensuring that customers can vacuum and clean the inside of their car, especially while waiting for bays to empty, and ensuring that the lot is well-lit.
Types of Car Wash Builds and Costs
The type of car wash you install will greatly impact total costs.
That’s because you’ll have to invest in completely different equipment and technology depending on automation.
Touchless Car Wash
Touchless car washes are a form of automatic car wash that relies on high-pressure water jets to clean vehicles. In most cases, these require significant investment in pumps.
For example, you may spend over $60,000 per bay on equipment alone. However, you should expect base equipment to start at around $250,000 – which you can use across different bays.
However, with a cleaning duration of about 4 minutes, they are extremely efficient. In addition, they pose the fewest risks to customers’ cars. And, with minimal need for equipment, they offer excellent longevity and low maintenance.
Touchless car washes do use a great deal of water.
This means you’ll need water reservoirs, a water reclamation system, and a filtration system to keep operating costs under control. That’s especially true if you live in an area with water shortages.
The automated or rollover car wash, also known as a tunnel car wash, is the most common system in the United States. In fact, almost half of the systems in the United States are tunnel car washes.
However, they’re also one of the most expensive to build. Here, you should typically expect to spend about $650,000 on base equipment.
You’ll also have to factor in another $500,000-$800,000 for land, vacuum systems, plumbing, and water reclamation.
After those costs, you’ll normally have to pay about $50,000 per bay. This means it’s unlikely you can install a tunnel car wash for less than $1 million.
However, depending on size, costs can go well over $5 million – especially if you’re installing the car wash in an urban area.
Tunnel car washes use a conveyor belt to move cars through a series of high-pressure water jets and hydraulic arms and brushes. These work to clean the vehicle, normally while the driver is still inside.
Depending on the service, you can also integrate waxing and polishing stages.
Automatic car washes normally take about 4 minutes. Waxing and polishing can take up to an additional 8 minutes.
Jet and hydraulic arm automatic car wash systems allow you to set up a smaller-scale car wash without a conveyor and tunnel. However, these normally work similarly to touchless systems.
Unlike the touchless system, they may include hydraulic arms and brushes.
These systems cost anywhere from about $21,000 to $80,000 and up based on features. For example, a simple two-arm design with jets will cost $20,000-$30,000.
If you want wheel cleaning, window cleaning, and a dryer, you should expect to pay much more.
These systems are ideal for remote, closed, and fully autonomous car washes. For example, if you want to have a fully unattended car wash. Or, if you want to add a single car wash bay to another business.
Self-service car washes are normally the cheapest option to build.
Here, you primarily have to invest in a building, pumps, and a water reclamation system. You’ll also need soap and liquid dispensers. Self-service car washes are also the cheapest to build.
For example, you can install a self-service bay for as little as $9,000 per bay with a prefabricated steel building.
On the other hand, you’ll still have to pay for water reclamation, which will cost at least $35,000. So, your base costs can still be quite high.
Self-service car washes are usually a great way to supplement automatic car washes. For example, you can start out with a single automatic bay and the rest self-service.
As you earn money back, you can convert the self-service bays to automatic.
Most car washes benefit from having at least one self-service bay on the premises. Many people still prefer to wash their own cars by hand.
Ensuring that they can do so also means you’ll still earn revenue from people who don’t want to spend as much on their cars.
If you still have questions about building a car wash, this FAQ should help.
How profitable is a car wash?
Car washes can range from very profitable to not at all. The relevant question is: what is traffic likely to be and how much are you charging per car wash?
A full automatic car wash costs an average of $15. If your machinery takes 5 minutes to do a full wash, you can fit 12 customers per hour, per bay. It’s unlikely that your car wash would be that busy.
However, if you have a 6-bay automatic car wash, you could make up to $1080 per hour gross profit. If you assume that, on average, you’ll operate at half capacity, you could work that out to about $4,800 per day in gross profit.
Minus the costs of maintenance, staff, and supplies, you’d probably keep about 10-20% of that in net profit.
If that allows you to pay off your investment and remains profitable based on cost calculations in your area, then, a car wash can be profitable.
Is owning a car wash a good investment?
Owning a car wash may or may not be a good investment. Instead, it depends on factors like the cost to build, local competition, and location.
For example, automatic car washes in industrial areas can do very well. You’re also likely to do well in a downtown area. You’re less likely to do very well randomly on the side of the road.
That’s because many people either plan car washes or do them while waiting for something else. For example, while waiting to hear back from a mechanic or when taking their car out of the mechanic.
Checking possible locations and assessing how likely people are to use your car wash service in that location is an important part of choosing one.
Is a car wash passive income?
Automated car washes can be somewhat passive income. However, any business will require maintenance and management.
If you have an automated car wash, you’ll still have to monitor for vandalism, respond to emergencies, and ensure that the facilities stay clean. You’ll also have to keep supplies stocked.
However, car washes can offer significantly less work and maintenance than something like a quick-service restaurant. Therefore, many people do consider automated car washes as a form of passive income.
Building a car wash can be a great way to start investing and becoming an entrepreneur. At the same time, car washes are expensive. On average, you can expect costs to hover around $300 per square foot. You’ll have to research your options, ensure there’s enough demand, and choose your location carefully for that to pay off.