in-bay automatic vs express exterior car wash

When deciding to dive into the car wash industry, there are many business models you could adopt, ranging from all-hands-on deck full-serve to the unstaffed self-serve. The two most common models, though, are the in-bay automatic and express exterior.

While both of these models use automatic equipment to clean vehicles, they are vastly different. To make the best decision for your business, you must understand these differences.

In-Bay Automatic (IBA)

in-bay automatic car wash

An (IBA) is the type of wash where you pull inside the “bay” and the equipment moves around your vehicle to wash it. You’ll often find these washes as part of a gas station and/or a convenience store, or they may be attached to several self-serve bays.

Key Characteristics:

  • Small footprint – IBAs are typically only 40-60 feet, making them the perfect choice for small lots or as an additional revenue stream for a gas station/convenience store.
  • Low initial investment – The smaller lot size often translates to lower real estate costs. Also, since IBAs are smaller and less complex, it costs half as much to equip them than it does a full-length tunnel.
  • Unattended – Drivers don’t need help getting into an IBA wash as they do with a tunnel conveyor, so these washes can be unstaffed. This results in lower labor costs and less owner interaction. This also means they can be open and generating revenue 24/7/365.

With an IBA, perception is everything. IBAs are sometimes just seen as “that building out back,” so you need to make yours stand out to help it compete with the “flashier” express exteriors. Make sure you have a clean, attractive and well-maintained site. Maintaining quality and uptime is critical. If your wash isn’t consistently up, running and delivering a high-quality wash, customers will find a wash they can count on.

One way to successfully compete against a nearby express exterior is to establish an unlimited wash plan. In the past, the traditional RFID technology car washes use to identify plan members hasn’t been a workable solution for unattended IBAs because someone needs to be on site to affix the RFID tags to new members’ cars. Mobile apps are now making this more feasible by allowing customers to redeem washes by scanning a code from their phone instead.

Express Exterior (EE)

An EE, also known as a tunnel wash or a conveyorized wash, is where your car is pushed by a conveyor or belt through a tunnel as different pieces of equipment complete the wash process. They often stand alone, but some are part of a larger business that includes a quick lube, self-serve bays and/or IBAs.

Key Characteristics:

  • High volume – An IBA can only wash one car at a time. Since each wash takes an average of three to eight minutes depending on the wash chosen, the typical IBA can only wash around 10 cars an hour. At an EE, multiple cars can be in the tunnel at the same time allowing an express exterior tunnel to wash up to 200 cars an hour.
  • Faster service – Their ability to wash cars faster results in significantly shorter wait times for customers.
  • Attended – While an EE doesn’t typically require a huge staff, you will need someone to help guide vehicles into the tunnel. Some EEs also choose to man their pay stations to help sell unlimited wash plans.

Whereas unlimited wash plans can be a nice competitive advantage for IBAs, they are nearly mandatory for EEs. Most EEs also offer free use of vacuums, especially for their unlimited wash plan members.

Deciding Factors

It’s clear that IBAs and EEs are vastly different. So how do you decide which type of wash should be your first? Based on what we learned above, your decision should be based on the following factors:

  • Property size – If you already have property or have your eyes on a certain location, its size may determine which model you will select. However, a small lot size doesn’t limit you to an IBA model. New car wash technology now allows for a “mini tunnel” – an express exterior tunnel that can be as short as 35 feet.
  • Budget – If you need to keep your financial investment low, the IBA is the best bet, both in terms of equipment costs and real estate acquisition.
  • Customer base – Take time to get to know your customers and what is important to them. If they are budget-conscious, they may prefer an IBA because wash prices tend to be lower. If they are time-conscious, they’ll likely be more drawn to the faster service of an EE.
  • Labor – Again, the labor costs shouldn’t be terribly high with an EE or mini tunnel, but they will be higher than an IBA. Some operators also just don’t want the additional hassle that comes with having employees.
  • Competition – Consider the competition in the area and what type of washes they are. Would a specific business model fill a niche in the area? If so, you may want to select that model.

Many Options

Again, you aren’t limited to these two options. There are other models and even some hybrids emerging, such as the flex serve model where vehicles are washed by an express exterior tunnel, but customers can also select optional interior and exterior services. And as mentioned above, mini tunnels are another hybrid model that you may consider if you have a small lot size but like the express exterior model.

The important thing is to carefully research and consider which model best fits your budget, time and potential customers.iba vs express exterior car wash infographic