August 3, 2021

Types of Car Washes

Automatic, In-Bay, Express, Mini, Conveyor – Let’s Decipher the Mess of Terms

Terminology should never keep anyone from taking action or learning. It’s an unfortunate truth that most industries have an internal vernacular that can often be confusing and overwhelming. The car wash industry is no exception. To make matters more convoluted, many of the terms are not mutually exclusive and therefore often overlap with each other.

Let’s delve into the high-level terminology, meaning, and differences when it comes to types of car washes.

Please refer to the above image throughout your read to have a visual map and understanding of how the entire landscape and its terms fit together.

Machinery (Manual Vs. Automatic):


Although rare to explicitly hear or use the term “manual” wash, it is more often implied through referring to washes that are non-automatic. These are washes where humans do the vast majority of the washing and cleaning process.


An automatic car wash uses machinery to do most of the heavy lifting, without human intervention. People often use “automatic” as shorthand for express or automated washes (washes with computerized pay stations), which is incorrect.

Structure (In-Bay Vs. Tunnel):


In-Bay are structures where the vehicle stays stationary during the wash process, and machinery or washer moves around the vehicle. In-Bay washes can correctly be referred to as “non-conveyor”. Essentially, if the car is not moved from Point A to Point B by external non-human mechanisms (aka a conveyor), then it is in-bay.


Tunnel structures are where the vehicle moves through the wash equipment, and it is the equipment which is largely stationary. The vehicle is moved using an external mechanism (typically a conveyor or belt). All tunnel washes are automatic, but all automatics are not tunnels.

Washing Method (Touchless Vs. Friction):


Touchless car washes use no physical contact of external solid elements to clean the vehicle. Touchless washes use a combination of chemicals and high pressure water to clean. Touchless car washes are often referred to as brushless, frictionless, and no-friction car washes.


Friction car washes are washes where the cleaning is partially done by cloth, brushes, or other like physical elements touching and creating friction with the vehicle. Anytime you see brushes, clothes, or big spinning “things” that touch the car – you are looking at a friction wash. The vast majority of car washes are friction based.

Hand Car Wash Model


Hand car washes require no setup or fixed location. These are at home type services, or establishments where the car is completely washed by hand. In a commercial setting, these are most often present in the form of very high end “detail shops”.


The throughput of hand car washes is typically low given its complete dependence on human labor.


The price tag of hand car washes vary the most of any wash type. This is due to the extraordinarily large spectrum which falls under this specific wash type label. Your middle school neighbor knocking on your door asking to wash your car counts, as does a $500 full car detail of your luxury sports car.


Undeniably the absolute lowest in terms of cost to start, hand washes require no actual equipment costs beyond the low variable costs of the soaps, brushes, and products used to perform the wash… and the cost of the human labor of course. Overall, the cost structure of hand wash companies is the lowest and has the highest proportion of variable costs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the different kinds of car washes?

There are several types of car washes, largely based on the machinery, the structure, and the washing method. There are manual and automatic car washes, which can then be categorized into in-bay or tunnel, as well as friction-based or touchless. Many of these types of car wash can overlap; for instance, there are manual, in-bay, touchless car washes as well as automatic, in-bay, friction-based car washes.

The different car wash types can be confusing for those buying or selling a car wash, so having a team like Car Wash Advisory at your side makes it much easier to untangle the web of jargon and terminology that is ever present in the industry.

What is a tunnel car wash?

Tunnel car washes are structures where the vehicles move through the washing equipment, while the equipment remains stationary. Using an external mechanism such as a conveyor, the vehicle is moved through the car washing equipment. All tunnel car washes are automatic car washes, but not all automatic car washes are tunnel car washes.

What’s the difference between a touchless and a touch car wash?

“Touch” car washes are called friction car washes within the car wash industry. Friction car washes utilize cloth, brushes, or other physical elements to touch the car and create friction to remove dirt, dust, and grime. Anytime you see brushes, clothes, or other large apparatuses that touch the car, you’re looking at a friction car wash. Most car washes are friction car washes.

On the other hand, touchless car washes use no physical contact with solid elements to clean the vehicle. Using a combination of chemicals and high-pressure water, touchless car washes can efficiently and effectively clean a vehicle. Other names for touchless car washes include brushless, frictionless, and no-friction car washes.