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How Does an Automatic Car Wash Work?

Car wash businesses continue to grow. In fact, from 2014 to 2022, car wash business revenue grew more than $3 billion and is due to continue increasing. It’s no wonder savvy investors are asking, “Should I invest in an automatic car wash business? How does an automatic car wash work?”

If you’re curious about starting a car wash business but are worried that you don’t even know how car washing machinery works, read on to explore a few basics. 

Types of Automatic Car Washes

There are several main types of automatic car wash machines you may find at gas stations, convenience stores, retail centers or stand-alone wash facilities. Let’s explore the most common types of car wash machines.

Traditional Car Washes

The traditional car wash uses water and chemical delivery systems as well as brushes or cloth material that makes physical contact with the car. Usually there are stages such as soap, scrub, rinse, wax and dry. There may also be a tire shine stage where a coat of wax or shine is applied to tires and rims. These are good general purpose washes for most consumers.

Touchless Car Washes

A touchless car wash relies on high-pressure water jets and specialized detergents to clean vehicles without physical contact. Touchless washes are popular because their contactless approach and delicate finishes are most gentle on car paint surfaces. However, they may also use more aggressive chemicals in order to make up for the lack of surface contact.

Soft-Touch Car Washes

Soft cloth makes physical contact with the vehicle using materials such as foam or soft cloth. Crevices and other hard-to-reach spots that are often overlooked and missed by touch-free washes are more likely to be reached by this type of wash. This strikes a balance between the scrubbing of traditional car washes and the non-contact approach of touchless car washes. This hybrid approach provides efficient cleaning while minimizing the risk of surface damage.

The Automatic Car Washing Process

So, how does an automatic car wash work? Let’s explore the step-by-step process.

Once a customer arrives at a tunnel type car wash, their vehicle enters the car wash machine’s conveyor belt system. This system allows for smooth movement of the vehicle through the wash process. In some car washes, the customer may be required to position the vehicle properly on the conveyor, while in others, this may be handled by an attendant or fully automated.

In an in-bay automatic car wash, conversely, the driver drives into the carwash bay, and the automated equipment moves around the car.

Pre-Wash With High-Pressure Water Jets

The pre-wash stage is the start of all basic washes and removes loose dirt and debris from the vehicle’s surface. High-pressure water jets or sprayers deliver a powerful stream of water, effectively dislodging dirt and grime. The water used in this stage may be mixed with a pre-wash detergent or cleaning solution to enhance the cleaning effectiveness. The pre-wash stage is particularly important for vehicles that are heavily soiled or have stubborn dirt on their surface.

Depending on the type of automatic car wash, this stage may differ:

  • In a touchless car wash, high-pressure water jets and specialized nozzles are used to clean the vehicle without physical contact, ensuring a gentle yet effective cleaning process.
  • A soft-touch car wash may incorporate rotating brushes or cloth strips that make physical contact with the vehicle’s surface to provide a deeper clean.
  • Some car wash services even have employees on hand to pre-scrub the customer’s tires and rims before entering the main wash.

Main Wash: Scrubbing and Brushing

The main washing stage varies depending on the type of wash chosen. This stage involves the application of a cleaning solution or foam, which is typically sprayed onto the vehicle using specialized nozzles or applicators and is specifically formulated to remove dirt, grime and other road debris from the car’s surface. 

In a touchless car wash, high-pressure water jets and chemical solutions work together to remove dirt without physical contact. The cleaning solution is designed to break down and loosen dirt particles, which are then rinsed away with high-pressure water. This method is particularly suitable for vehicles with delicate paint finishes or special coatings.

In a soft-touch car wash, rotating brushes or cloth strips may be used to agitate the cleaning solution, helping to dislodge stubborn dirt and grime. The brushes or cloth strips make physical contact with the vehicle’s surface, providing a more thorough cleaning. However, it’s important to note that soft-touch car washes must use well-maintained brushes or cloth strips to protect the vehicle’s paint.

Rinse and Dry Cycle

After the main washing stage, the cleaning solution and remaining residue are rinsed away. This phase usually involves high-pressure water jets. In a car wash which uses recycled water, fresh water may be used for the rinse, for the highest likelihood of a spot-free finish. Chemical drying agents are also applied at this stage.

Next, the car wash may offer a drying process to remove excess water from the vehicle. This can be accomplished through a combination of air blowers and specialized drying equipment. 

Some automated car wash machines incorporate heated air or a spot-free rinse to minimize water spots on the vehicle’s surface. Some car washes employ workers to physically clear away any moisture left on the car’s surface.

Final Touches and Additional Detailing Services

To provide a finishing touch, car washes usually offer additional services to enhance the vehicle’s appearance. Multiple wash packages offer more basic or higher end services. This can include waxing, polishing, tire shine application or even interior cleaning. These extra detailing services can be customized based on the customer’s preferences and the package they choose.

The availability of additional detailing services may vary depending on the type of automatic car wash and the specific offerings of the facility. Sometimes hand drying and/or detailing is offered as an add-on at the end of an otherwise automated wash.

Leveraging Industry-Leading Technology for Your Car Wash Business

If you think you’d like to start a car wash business or scale up your current business, then National Carwash Solutions can help. We lead North America in providing car wash technology and end-to-end automated car wash system solutions, equipment, service, parts and consultation. Our industry experts have complete knowledge of every kind of car wash and answers to any of your questions. Contact us to learn more.

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