What In-Bay and Tunnel Wash Systems Offer Operators in the Growing Car Wash Landscape

By Mark Tentis

Clean vehicles aren’t going out of style anytime soon. A new report from Transparency Market Research notes that the global car wash market continues to grow substantially, which will put more vehicles on the road and into the hands of owners. But owners are also understanding the importance of keeping their vehicles in prime condition for longevity and resale value, according to the report.

Those factors will push steady growth in the car wash market according to the report, and thus current and future car wash owners have plenty of factors to consider. Among them is the decision on what type of car wash will help them achieve their goals – in-bay or tunnel.

Both options leave operators will plenty to consider, especially when maximizing the customer experience and financial returns.


A closer look

In-bay car washes house all of the cleaning equipment in a single, compact structure, known as a bay. The vehicle pulls into the bay and remains stationary while the wash machinery shifts and rotates around it to provide varying amounts of cleaning solutions, depending on the options the customer preselected. In-bays can either use touchless or soft-touch (cloths or brushes) wash solutions.

Tunnel car washes are elongated structures that pull a vehicle along a conveyor or belt system. Different pieces of machinery are stationed along the tunnel and dispense cleaning solutions based on what the customer preselects.

Both options achieve the same end goal–a clean vehicle and a satisfied customer. The difference is in the details.


The finer details

Footprint is an important consideration for operators when selecting a car wash. If space is an issue, in-bays work well as they feature a smaller, modular footprint compared with tunnel car washes. The smaller footprint makes it easier to establish an in-bay car wash on an existing or new site with space limitations. In terms of existing sites, in-bays can also be retrofitted seamlessly into an old repair bay or added onto an existing convenience store.

Tunnel car washes don’t have this type of flexibility regarding footprint. This larger footprint option, however, benefits in terms of increasing throughput. While in-bay car washes can only serve one car at a time during a multiple-minute interval, tunnel car washes can clean several vehicles within the same time frame. It is not uncommon to see stagnant lines at in-bay washes during a peak period while the same volume passes through a tunnel wash within minutes.

Still, that’s not to say that one car wash option is more efficient than the other. Both options are efficient for different reasons. As stated earlier, tunnel car washes can handle a larger volume of vehicles in a given timeframe than in-bay washes can. But tunnel car washes require a dedicated staff to operate, as well as more capital to initiate and operate. In turn, tunnel car washes can bring in more revenue with each vehicle they serve, but it’s offset by the costs required to run it.

In-bay washes are a lower cost of ownership option, typically using less water, electricity and wash detergents and waxes than their tunnel counterparts. The smaller footprint plays a major role in this as it does not have the same water, electricity and detergent demands as tunnel options.

Another cost consideration is staff. In-bay washes do not require attendants, allowing customers to make their selections, pay and go through the wash without human intervention. Further, customers can access them at any time. In-bay operators also don’t have to worry about the added responsibility of managing their staff, which includes crafting their schedules and adjusting when employees are unable to work or don’t show up for their shift.

Tunnel washes, however, need staff to function, sometimes as high as seven or more employees. Operators of tunnel washes must have oversight of their staff, and pay them. While tunnel washes have the benefit of speed compared to in-bay washes, that benefit comes at a cost.


Shared benefits

While in-bay and tunnel car washes have their different advantages, they also share several benefits that suit operators well regardless of the one they select. Both options allow operators to equip them with varying wash levels, ranging from a basic wash with a single detergent to a premium option that uses multiple detergents, wax, repellent and even wheel cleaners.

These additional detergents, waxes, repellents and tire shine features cost less than a dollar per wash but allow operators to charge $2 or more. These revenue enhancements provide the customer with an improved and memorable wash experience and give the operator a better return on investment.

The equipment can also be customized to the operator’s preference for in-bay and tunnel systems. Tunnels can be equipped with an array of soft-touch and touchless technology, giving customers a blend of both. In-bays generally side with one of those technologies, each of which have their own share of benefits.

For example, soft-touch benefits include high throughput rates, upsell opportunities for an enhanced wash experience and the use of variable frequency drives, which are more reliable than hydraulic systems or programmable logic controllers and lead to less maintenance and downtime costs. On the touchless side, benefits include additional vehicle protection as no machinery contacts the car, few mechanical components, continuous operation (even in colder climates) and lower cost of ownership.

With the car wash market expected to grow substantially in the coming years, current and future operators can cement their place and legacy in this thriving landscape. To be successful, operators have to offer their customers a wash experience that will keep them coming back time and time again. Depending on their needs, operators cannot go wrong by choosing an in-bay or tunnel system. Both options provide the framework for a successful wash experience that will last during the projected forthcoming growth and beyond.


Mark Tentis is the Senior Vice President for Global Sales and Services of OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions. He can be reached at mark.tentis@opwvws.com. OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions consists of PDQ Manufacturing, Inc., Belanger, Inc., Innovative Control Systems (ICS) and Kesseltronics. PDQ is a preeminent provider of in-bay automatic wash systems and payment terminals, while Belanger is an innovative leader in soft-touch tunnel and in-bay automatic wash systems. ICS provides industry-leading car wash technology, like payment terminals, process controls and software management and automation systems, and Kesseltronics designs machine controls for successful tunnel wash operation. For more information on OPW Vehicle Wash Solutions, please visit opwvws.com.