Car Wash Chains Clean UpMar 17, 2023 12:03PM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Even before the first car wash in the U.S. opened in 1914, car owners have been washing their rides, aiming to keep them looking as sharp as the day they drove them off the lot. Fittingly located in Detroit, Michigan—at that time the capital of the world’s auto industry—the car wash arrived just six years after Henry Ford began mass producing his Model T, the first automobile that was affordable to most consumers.
Initially called an “automated laundry,” it was far from machine-driven or self-operating. Several men would push a vehicle through a building, where they would rinse it with water, apply soap, rinse it again, and then dry it with towels, all by hand.
The next major advance in car washes took place in Hollywood in 1940, when a winch device pulled cars through a tunnel of sorts where, again, men worked over the car. Not until 1951 did the forerunner of the modern automatic car wash come into being when three brothers in Seattle invented a conveyor system that transported vehicles past a series of nozzles spraying rinses and soapy waters, revolving brushes, and finally, blowers that dried everything.
Today, it’s easy to see the latest offspring of those early car washes as one drives around Omaha. They’re ubiquitous, it seems. Their buildings are bold and eye-catching with many favoring bright red or blue signage and architectural accents. Exterior glass walls allow passersby to see in as cars are cleaned. Indoors, LED lights generate bursts of color as water jets spray, soaps foam, and brushes whirl and dance across every surface of the cars.
While facility aesthetics help draw attention, many newer car washes offer more than just good looks and flashing lights. Some use special waxes—those tougher than the traditional car waxes that owners have applied for years. Others feature water nozzles that blast the undercarriage of vehicles to remove the brine and grime that gathers there. Others have membership programs, with several tiers of service and monthly fee options to choose from.
There are even more bells and whistles at Tommy’s Express Car Wash, one of the newer companies in the region, said field manager Marcus Krenz. One of its most popular features is its license plate recognition system. Members can download and log onto the TommyClub app on their cell phone, register their car’s license plate, and preselect what type of wash and service is desired that day. Upon entering the member wash lane, a camera recognizes their license plate and sets up the pre-arranged wash sequence. The cost of the wash is then billed to their account.
In fact, anyone coming in for a wash can get the app and, without enrolling as a member, arrange the features for a single wash. There are also lanes for non-members who want to pay a cashier or use a credit card onsite.
The TommyClub app itself is also a major convenience. “If you want to upgrade, downgrade, cancel your plan, or change your membership to another vehicle, you can manage everything on that app,” Krenz said.
The first Tommy’s in Nebraska opened near 132nd and F streets in October 2018. As field manager, Krenz oversees this location as well as two others in Omaha and Lincoln. The company has eight more in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus, Fremont, Kearney, Grand Island, and Norfolk, with additional facilities in Omaha, Bellevue, and Council Bluffs planned. Krenz said demand for its services continues to grow, and market saturation is not a concern. “I don’t think expanding too much will be an issue,” he said.
There are about 130 more Tommy’s Express operations across the country, making it the sixth largest car wash company in the U.S., according to Commercial Plus, a commercial real estate company that tracks the car wash industry. The firm, headquartered in Holland, Michigan, opened its first car wash in Canada last October.
Krenz said some car owners are reluctant to use automatic washes because of bad past experiences where debris in the rapidly rotating brushes had scratched their cars. “We are way more careful with what goes into our brushes,” he said. “If a vehicle has large clumps of dirt that could have rock and sand, we won’t let that go through our wash.”
If a vehicle is dirty but not dirty enough to be denied entry, employees use a 200-psi fire hose to power-wash the brushes that came into contact with that vehicle to remove the dirt from them prior to the next cycle.
Krenz also pointed out that Tommy’s developed a conveyor belt to transport the vehicles through the wash tunnel without chains or rollers (that can damage tires and rims, as has happened at some automatic car washes in the past). Using the conveyor belt also allows Tommy’s to position vehicles closer together so the brushes scrub the vehicles’ front and back ends better.
In a 2021 speech to Tommy’s employees, Ryan Essenburg, the founder and president of Tommy’s, said that people simply wanting to get out of their houses during the COVID epidemic boosted car wash sales, creating an industry boom. He also said that, because of the complexity of the equipment used by car washes, it’s easier to build a new location with current technology than to refurbish an outdated facility. He expects older locations to go out of business for that same reason.
One thing that is not readily apparent is that newer car washes use less water than ever before due to technological advances in water reclamation. Studies of how they use water, such as one by the Western Carwash Association—whose members are in a severe drought and must pay attention to water consumption—show some conveyor-equipped car washes use as little at 3.5 gallons of water per minute on cars and light trucks. Considering that Tommy’s runs a car through its wash tunnel in 60 to 90 seconds, that’s just over 5 gallons. In comparison, a 1960s carwash used about 72.5 gallons per vehicle., on average.
Even washing a vehicle with a soap and hose at home tends to use more water than a modern car wash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, washing a car in the driveway uses between 40 and 118 gallons. In addition, wastewater from home washing contains detergent chemicals that typically flow into storm sewers and, ultimately, the nation’s waterways. On the other hand, a new car wash’s reclamation processes remove substances like detergents from wastewater before it drains into a city sewer. It is then processed again at a waste treatment plant, which is better for the environment.
Like Tommy’s, Rocket Car Wash has experienced tremendous expansion in recent years. Rocket’s chief operating officer, Jason Ricks—an Air Force veteran and vice president with Bucky’s Convenience Stores before joining Rocket Carwash in March 2022—is encouraged by the industry’s growth potential.
“Rocket’s in 11 states with four [locations] in the Omaha-Lincoln area, and four more are coming,” he said of the chain, which plans to open another 27 facilities soon across the U.S. Started in Pennsylvania, the company opened its first Nebraska locations in 2007, eventually moving its headquarters from Pittsburgh to Central Park Plaza in Omaha. Rocket’s parent company is City+Ventures, an investment and development firm.
One of Rocket’s high-end car treatments is what it calls ‘Hot Lava.’ “It’s a ceramic coating, which is a major step up,” Ricks explained. “It offers a greater resistance to soaps, water, and environmental hazards. They’re more durable than wax…resist heat, UV rays, and harsh detergents. While wax could come off at the local wash, ceramic coats will not and can last two to five years.”
Employees hand-dry the vehicles coming out of the wash at Rocket. Cloth towels are available for customers who want to dry their vehicles themselves, Ricks said.
In addition to having a wash tunnel at its 168th and West Maple streets location, Rocket has a tunnel for cleaning car interiors. After getting an exterior wash, which takes about three minutes, customers can drive into a parallel tunnel where attendants spend about 10 minutes cleaning everything from door jambs to cup holders, to mats and the insides of the windows. “We have one of these installations in Lincoln, too,” Ricks said.
Although Ricks spoke specifically about Rocket, his words about technological advances in car washes can be applied to the industry. “The evolution is not only on the equipment, but the soap side,” he said. “Those coupled together have revolutionized the process, so [the machines do] a better job than doing it yourself. That’s all propelled the growth.”