In the TV drama Breaking Bad, Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin — and he needs a business to launder his drug money. Something that won’t attract attention, but still bring in large amounts of cash every day. He considers a laser tag facility, a nail salon. But ultimately he and his wife, Skyler, settle on the most boring enterprise they can find.
BOGDAN: You want to buy my car wash?
WHITE: I do. And I am prepared to talk numbers right now, if you’d like.
BOGDAN: You think this is an easy job? You are willing to get down on your hands and knees and scrub like a housemaid, with all the chemicals eating into your nice skin and stinging in your eyes?
There’s nothing glamorous about a car wash. They’re seen as outdated and labor intensive. Customers worry about scratchy bristles and harsh detergents. But folks in the industry want you to know that car washes have entered a new era. And business has never been better.
WULF: There’s a lot of wind behind our sails right now. The carwash industry sort of quietly has to be rivaling almost any other industry in terms of its transformation and growth.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Car Washes
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That guy we just heard? His name is Eric Wulf. He’s the C.E.O. of the International Carwash Association — it’s an industry group that represents car wash owners and suppliers. Part of his job is to make car washes sound like the greatest place on Earth.
WULF: Going to the car wash— it’s kind of fun, right? I mean, you’ve got smell. You’ve got colors. You’ve got sounds.
In the past few decades, the car wash industry has entered its Golden Age. Customers are flocking to them like never before.
WULF: We’ve really seen an explosion in demand. So we do, as an example, a national consumer study every year. When we started in— back in 1996, more than half of people with cars in the U.S. reported that they most frequently wash their car themselves in the driveway. Our most recent survey, we’re approaching 80 percent now use a professional car wash.
Car washes are now a $16 billion dollar business in the U.S. There are around 80,000 of them in North America. And on any given day, they service 8 million vehicles. Now, some of these stations are self-service: You get out of the car, pay a few bucks, and wash it yourself. But the majority of them are what industry professionals call “express washes.”
WULF: You as the customer are pulling the car onto a conveyor, you’re staying into it, you’re riding through the tunnel while the machines do their work, and then you either drive off in three minutes or you have the chance to go ahead and vacuum the vehicle yourself.
Most express washes are owned by small- to mid-sized regional operators. People like Brian Krusz.
KRUSZ: I spent eight years in the Marine Corps. I was a bomb builder. And after I transitioned out of that, I worked for corporate America for a little bit. And in 2008, I was an executive banking recruiter. And we all know what happened in 2008.
After Krusz got laid off, he teamed up with his friend and ran a chain of convenience stores. A few years later, he met a guy who owned a car wash.
KRUSZ: He invited me to go to a show in Atlantic City. I fell in love with the industry.
Krusz did what any aspiring car wash owner would do: He went to car wash college — an intensive course in Tamarrack, Florida, run by a car wash equipment supplier. He studied up on maintenance, machinery and operations. Then, he decided to buy a car wash of his own in Northeast Ohio. It was run down, unprofitable, and out-of-date.
KRUSZ: It was very old school. You’d get out of your vehicle. There would be an attendant there. He would jump in the vehicle, drive up ten feet, inside a dark, grungy, dingy tunnel. They would get out of the vehicle, they’d pressure wash the vehicle, and then send the vehicle unmanned through the car wash. The equipment was in disarray. Maybe three quarters of it didn’t even work.
Krusz managed to turn that car wash around. And then, he did it again, and again, and again. Today, he owns Sgt. Clean — a chain of 15 car washes — all in Ohio. His strategy was to integrate a lot of technology.
On the surface, a car wash seems simple enough. You drive into a tunnel. The dirt, the dust, the bird poop — it all gets blasted away with soap and water jets. And your vehicle comes out sparkling clean. But inside that tunnel, there’s a whole hidden world.
WULF: The consumer rolling through will see the conveyor they put the car on. And they’ll see the cloth brushes going by the car, touching the car. They’ll see the detergents and suds. What they’re not seeing, though, is a lot of the computer systems and a lot of the cameras that are there to help us most effectively and safely wash that vehicle.
That technology is put to use as soon as you drive in. One problem with older car washes is that no two cars would get the same quality of wash.
KRUSZ: The Mazda Miata does not clean like the Ford F-250. And the Chevy Tahoe does not clean like the, you know, Audi or smaller sedan.
Today’s modern car washes use cameras, artificial intelligence and sonar to personalize the wash to each car.
KRUSZ: We know how tall it is, how wide it is, how long it is, the contour of the vehicle. So, for instance, trucks, we don’t feel it’s efficient to throw soap in the back of an open truck bed. So we’re going to, you know, get that soap to a certain level, shut it off. The open bed goes. We turn it back on to get the sides in the back of the car.
They also have sensors in place to avoid the industry’s age-old nightmare: car accidents inside the tunnel.
KRUSZ: In years past a customer would push on the gas or hit the brake and it would cause the cars to pile up. So we have a system called “NoPileups.” And what that does is actually, you know, gives the teammate who’s sent in the cars behind them confidence that all these cars fit into a box. And if one car jumps outside this box, it shuts the car wash down. Where, in years past, that could create three or four or five, six-car pile-ups and nobody knows!
That still doesn’t prevent the occasional customer screw-up. Like the guy in his 80’s who visited one of Krusz’s car washes a few years ago.
KRUSZ: He’s in this nice suit and it’s a khaki color. And we hit the send button. He starts rolling up the window and it doesn’t go all the way up. This poor guy goes all the way through the car wash with his window three quarters down. He’s drenched in water and soap. And here’s the thing: he wasn’t mad. He pulled out $5 from his wallet and said, “Hey, guys, I’m sorry I didn’t pay for my dry cleaning.”
Older customers in particular also tend to be the most skeptical of newfangled machinery. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, many car washes used plastic bristles that could damage your car. Decades later, that stigma still haunts the industry.
KRUSZ: That’s the first question that they always ask: ‘Is it brushless or does it have brushes?’ We’ve transitioned to a product called NEOGLIDE, which is actually foam. It’s a safer, gentler way to clean your vehicle. So those little fingers, if you will, those foam wraps will hit all those little nooks and crannies of your car.
All of these advancements have made car washes safer — and much more efficient. At an express wash like Sgt. Clean, you can get in and out in less than five minutes. That efficiency doesn’t come cheap. Krusz says building a car wash like this costs around $6 million dollars. His monthly electric bill runs around $7,000 bucks. Water can easily top $9,000. And that water is also a political minefield. There are all kinds of laws — federal, state, local — that govern water use at car washes.
WULF: If you ever were to watch a car wash being constructed, you’ll see massive tanks underground. And that will be so that we can store that water we’re using and, you know, recycle. Two thirds or more of the water that’s touching your car is being reused for every subsequent car after it’s cleaned.
If you wash your car at home, you’ll likely use around 100 gallons of water. That’s so excessive that some cities in drought-stricken states have temporarily banned washing-at-home altogether. By contrast, an efficient car wash might only use one-third as much water.
KRUSZ: I would say on average, 22 to 27, maybe 30, gallons per vehicle is used through the wash process.
But the modern car wash’s most important innovation might be at the cash register. That’s coming up.
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Technological advancements have dramatically transformed car wash operations. But the business model is changing just as much. If you go to a car wash today, you’re likely to be offered a monthly membership.
KRUSZ: We fix a little RFID sticker in the bottom corner of your window. And it knows exactly what wash to get, how often you’ve washed and what vehicle you’re in, any contact information. It’s kind of like a barcode, if you will, for your vehicle. And when you pull up to the pay station the gate goes up immediately.
At Sgt. Clean, you can get what’s called a “Silver Tier” wash, which includes wheel cleaning, for $17 bucks. Or, you can pay $27 a month for unlimited visits. Brian Krusz says 60 percent of his customers now go for the latter.
KRUSZ: The unlimited program that we offer, — you know, less than two visits, it pays for itself. And then for us it provides a steady stream of revenue, you know, residual income on an ongoing basis. And we’re not really dependent upon the weather anymore.
The model is similar to what you’d see at a gym. Some people use it 10 times a month, and others sign up and then never go. The people who never go essentially subsidize the people who go all the time. Of course, there are also people who take it to an extreme.
KRUSZ: From one of our facilities, the general manager, she kept saying, “You know, there’s this guy, he washes like five or six times a day.” And I went, ‘Wait, hold on. No, no, no, no, no. You mean a week or you mean a month.” And they’re like, “No!” So they pulled the report up and this guy was washing five or six times. He would come out of the end of the tunnel, circle back around and go right back in.
Historically, car washing has been a labor-intensive business. That’s been a huge expense for owners. And there are many cases of operators taking advantage of undocumented workers to reduce costs — they might stiff them on minimum wage or overtime pay. Car washes that have integrated technology and membership models have eliminated that issue, by eliminating some jobs.
WULF: A modern car wash today can be run with three or fewer employees versus having, you know, 12 to 25 at some stores back in the day. In those days, car wash owners were almost like farmers. I mean, you’re always watching the weather. You’re always trying to anticipate what demand is going to be so you can manage that labor expense.
All of these efficiencies have attracted institutional investors.
WULF: There is a ton of consolidation that has happened in the last five to seven years. There is a ton of outside investment coming in, largely in the form of private equity.
What was once an antiquated industry is now a cash flow machine. Some express locations can gross over a million dollars in revenue and wash upwards of 200,000 cars per year. Not everyone can be a customer, though. Over the years, American vehicles have gotten much bigger and more geometrically complex. That means they’re harder to clean.
KRUSZ: Early on in our industry, in the ’60s, you know, all cars were square. They were very boxy and it was a little easier to clean those cars then. Now with the different contours, the sleek and the different visions that carmakers come out with just makes it more and more difficult for us to clean the car. And I often use the tagline “We wash 80 percent of the cars, 90 percent well.” We can’t wash vehicles with like ski racks, or bike racks, or ladder racks. The H1 Hummer, we can’t wash that.
That said, Brian Krusz has seen some atypical vehicles make it through his car washes.
KRUSZ: We’ve actually washed limos in the past, like, where does this vehicle end?! This car just keeps coming out, like maybe pulling out a piece of taffy. It’s hilarious.
But when he thinks back on his journey, one customer stands out in his mind. It was a guy who kept coming back every day — so often, and for so long, that Krusz just had to ask why?
KRUSZ: So I go out and I’m talking to the guy. And he looks at me and he pauses and he said, “This is the first thing that my entire family has ever owned, is this car.” So, you know, we’re just a car wash, right? We’re not, you know, developing the cure for cancer or reinventing the wheel. But we get to impact tons of people’s lives. That’s incredible to me.
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.
CROCKETT: I remember when I was like eight years old, I accidentally washed my dad’s car with a scrubby. And I just, like, ruined his paint job.
WULF: You can’t be pointing fingers or even inferring that to us when you’ve done that yourself. Come on.
- “Private Equity Wants to Wash Your Car,” by Miriam Gottfried (The Wall Street Journal, 2022).
- “California Labor Commissioner Recovers $282,000 for Car Wash Wage Citations,” State of California Department of Industrial Relations News Release (2022).
- “Sgt. Clean’s Future Shines Bright Thanks to Subscription Model, Strong Reputation,” by Vince Guerrieri (Crain’s Cleveland Business, 2018).
- “One California Drought Winner? The Local Car Wash,” by Lauren Sommer (Marketplace, 2015).
- Sonny’s CarWash College.