United States Industry Sizing
ICA commissioned an independent third-party research study in 2020 to quantify the number of car wash locations in the U.S. (Earlier estimates relied upon information supplied to the Association by car wash manufacturers; this research replaces that process and those results.) The following industry size estimate was created by using publicly available data, store counts in select markets and then extrapolation based upon ratios such as population per car wash and registered cars per car wash.
|Type of Car Wash (automated retail locations only)||Estimated locations|
|In-Bay Automatic / Roll-over||29,000|
The U.S. Census Bureau has its own estimates on the car wash industry, which generally aligns with his research when considering that most self-service and in-bay automatic locations have few if any employees. Click here for their industry profile.
While there has not been a study done on the exact size of the global car wash industry, we have compiled estimations for the following markets:
|Type of Location||Europe (EU)||Australia|
|In-Bay Automatic / Roll-over||50,000||1,600|
In the mature markets of North America and Europe, consumers are increasingly preferring to have their cars washed for them versus doing it themselves. In the United States, the percentage of drivers that report most frequently washing their vehicle at a professional car wash has increased from approximately 48% in 1994 to more than 77% in 2019.
Improvements in speed, convenience, quality and value has substantially increased demand for car washing. In recent years, the popularity of car wash subscriptions plans and strong operating margins has attracted substantial new investment, with some estimates as high as 100 new stores being added in the U.S. each month.
The majority of car wash locations in the United States are owned and operated by small to medium sized independent car wash companies. The market is fragmented in the conveyor segment, with companies of 4 or fewer more locations representing ~70% of total conveyor locations, and the largest company owning ~2% of conveyor locations. Fragmentation is even more significant in the self-service segment, while convenience and petroleum retailing organizations typically control larger networks of in-bay automatic locations.
In Europe, petroleum companies control the majority of the market in terms of locations, but the greatest growth is coming from independent conveyor car wash companies. The Australian market is closer in profile to North America, with the majority of sites owned by private entrepreneurs.
The professional car wash industry employs more than 220,000 full and part-time employees at retail stores and more than 15,000 in car wash equipment, chemical and service providing companies.
Car wash retail sales are approximately $15B in North America, €5B in Europe and A$1.5B in Australia.
Though substantial in the aggregate, not included in the above information are estimations for related activities. Vehicle washing also occurs at auto dealerships, as part of fleet management, at rental car facilities, in hand wash or detail shops, through mobile washing units and in specialized agricultural and mass transportation environments.
The Origins of Car Washing & History of ICA
While it isn't known when the world's first car wash opened, the concept was certainly in use in the earliest days of the 20th Century. A patent for a "Vehicle-Washer" was filed in 1900 by Skerritt V. Hanley of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Automobile Laundry Co. (a common term for early car washes) opened in San Francisco, California in 1907. These labor-intensive and mostly manually operated business grew with the automobile industry, and by the 1920s "automobile laundries" and "wash bowls" could be found in cities in the U.S. and Australia.
Most agree that the world's first automatic (fully mechanized) car wash was Paul's Automatic Auto Wash, which opened in Detroit, Michigan USA in 1946, owned by Paul Maranian. The location used the new system designed and constructed by Leo Rousseau, which he marketed under the name "Minit Man." The equipment included a chain conveyor, side brushes, a top brush, vacuums and blowers. The concept was immediately successful, attracting coverage in a September 22, 1947 edition of LIFE Magazine and inciting an explosion in car wash growth.
By the 1950s, as more car wash businesses were opened, operators began to identify a need to network and learn. A new publication, Auto Laundry News, was founded by Robin King, an early car wash pioneer from California. In 1955, he organized for a small group of operators to meet at the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City to organize the "American Auto Laundry Association." (A group using this same name can be found as early as 1933, but little more is known.) David Lippitt, another operator from California, was elected the first president of the group. The first official convention was held at the Jung Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana USA in 1956. In 1959, William H. Coy was appointed the organization's first Executive Secretary, and the first headquarters was established in Detroit. Robin King assumed the role of Executive Secretary in 1961, moving the headquarters to his home in Mexico City.
By the 1960s, automatic car wash machinery was being widely produced in the United States and Europe to serve the growing car wash industry. Accordingly, and due to the growing prevalence of automation, in 1962 the association was renamed "Automatic Car Wash Association, International." In 1967, the organization appointed R.R. "Gus" Trantham to serve as Executive Secretary, a position he held for more than 25 years. In 1974, the name was changed to International Carwash Association. In 1982, the name was changed to "International Carwash Association / National Carwash Council" to reflect a merger between what were the conveyor/automatic and coin-operated segments of the car wash community. In 1986, the name was simplified once again to International Carwash Association.
Today, ICA is the world's leading community for car wash professionals, with members in all 50 U.S. states and more than two dozen countries. The Car Wash Show has expanded with satellite events in Australia, China and Europe, while also solidifying its position as the car wash industry's most important gathering and one of North America's largest trade shows. The nonprofit organization remains governed by the car wash industry, with 9 retail directors and 7 supplier directors comprising its Board of Directors. ICA is served by a professional staff based in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois USA.