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Car Wash Construction That Makes a Splash

Are you the type of person who washes their car at the nearest car wash at least once a week? Or do you have a speed pass on your windshield and you’re there even more often than that? Chances are, you are familiar with the convenience of modern car washes: you stay in your car, moving along a conveyor while the machines do the hard work and you stay dry. Then you have the option to be as fastidious (or just plain fast) as you please when it comes to drying, wiping, detailing and vacuuming. If you’re like most, you probably take it for granted and haven’t given much thought to what it takes to build a car wash like that. It’s an incredibly intricate process that Georgia-based

Dewitt Tilton Group has mastered.

As regional leaders in commercial construction, Dewitt Tilton Group has developed a reputation for finishing jobs on time and on budget. Never are those traits more important than when building a car wash.

Chris Tilton, founding partner of Dewitt Tilton Group, is sharing what it takes to successfully construct a car wash building.

A carwash is a very unique build and there’s many interconnecting parts. Usually the building itself is not a very large building. Typically, the total size of the building for a car wash, even with the tunnel, is under 4,000 square feet. However, there is a tremendous amount of infrastructure which runs from that building to reclaim tanks, to the vacuum booms, to the entrance and exit ports, to the pay stations. When talking about infrastructure, there’s conduit, water and power.

The reclaim tanks are a very integral part of a carwash. Basically, the only way a carwash can work is to reuse the water. Dewitt Tilton Group has a special subcontractor that comes in and pours a tunnel slab. There is a trench in that tunnel that collects all of that water and it goes to many, many different outlets: it travels to an oil and water separator which separates all the chemicals from the water, then it pipes back into a reclaim tank. Finally it circles back around and is used in the car wash again.

Tilton says, “It’s a very intricate system, because there’s literally about twelve different pipes that take that water to the proper place before it’s recycled back into the carwash. There’s also tremendous correlation between the equipment that’s in the tunnel to the equipment room. So there’s probably miles of conduit that run from that equipment room to the tunnel to each individual piece of equipment in the car wash. Then there’s conduit that runs out to the booms to the pay stations at the entrance and exits. Again, it’s very intricate because you have to go from A to Z precisely. If you skip a step, you’re going to end up covering up conduit or you’re going to miss a reclaim pipe.”

So, although the building itself may be relatively small, the entire site is developed. That’s because all of it is used for parking, or for the booms where the vacuums are, or for the line of vehicles waiting to get in the building.

Tilton said, “It's important to have a very long entrance so you can stack cars in there and get them off the road. The coordination between the different subcontractors and the intricacy of the infrastructure that’s in the ground and overhead is the most tremendous task we face.”

Although some car washes are already designed, Dewitt Tilton Group is currently working on two design/build contracts, because of their considerable expertise in this very specialized construction. Whereas a typical commercial build might have twenty components, a carwash probably has 200 components, if not more.

“Knowing each component and knowing the interconnection of each component, it’s vital to have someone like us who has expertise in that to even do the design and to do the site design, too. Because, again, it’s very very important to make sure that you have the in and out, you have the room for the stacking cars and you have the room for the vacuums, whether they’re overhead booms or booms in a port in place off the sidewalks. All of that is incorporated into the design and into the pricing because you can have booms in the canopies, you can have canopies with booms coming off of the foundation or you can have no canopy with just booms. This last one is the least expensive option, but it’s also the least convenient, because if there’s a little bit of weather, you’re not under a canopy. There’s just a lot of moving parts. Think about a watchmaker, it’s almost as intricate as a watchmaker’s job: you have to know each part that goes to work on the next part,” shared Tilton.

“We work directly with the car wash equipment professionals and Sonny’s Car Wash constructs the majority of the car washes around here. It’s amazing because you can ‘a la carte’ each piece. You can do the lights, the flashing lights, you can pick as much as you want. It’s all about that ‘wow’ factor,” explains Tilton. “You want to do something that’s going to attract the people to come back because, ultimately, the cleaning aspect of car washes are all the same. Believe it or not, there’s some that have 140 foot long tunnels (and that’s kind of your standard), but there’s also some that have 80 foot tunnels and they charge the same price. The lights and the bells and the whistles and all that, you pick and choose what you want from Sonny’s Car Wash.”

Whether designing or just building, the principals at Dewitt Tilton Group sit down in the very beginning with the “car wash people.” Tilton shares that Dewitt Tilton Group has “a very good rapport with them because we’re always on time. There’s a lot of times when they send out equipment and there’s not even a roof on the building. They like working with us because A) we know what we’re doing and B) we’re always on time.”

Besides sitting down and doing the coordination with the equipment purveyors, DTG also has at least two site visits from Sonny’s Car Wash during construction to make sure that everything is exactly the way they want it.

“It’s imperative that when they come and start setting equipment (it’s going to take thirty days to set all the equipment and get it up and running), you want to do that in a timely fashion because you want to be open for pollen season,” explains Tilton.

QUESTION: Is the permitting process more complicated than other types of commercial construction?

“Not really, as long as you know what you’re doing. When we did Port Wentworth there was a little bit of an issue because we were the first car wash in Port Wentworth. When we were given the permit fees - we said “Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here.’ The sewer fees were way too high. They didn’t understand the reclamation process, so we ended up saving our client $50,000 just by recognizing that. We’ve done this several times - sewer fees are often way too high, because there is very little water that actually goes into the sewer. So, again, being the first car wash in Port Wentworth, it was a little bit of an issue because they had never dealt with this before. But our expertise helped get through that process. As long as you’ve got all your ‘i’s’ dotted and your ‘t’s’ crossed, it really shouldn’t be any more difficult than anything else to get. Everything is slow in the permitting process in this day and age. It’s the nature of the beast.”

QUESTION: Do your electrical subcontractors have to have specialized training to safely install electrical wiring in such a wet environment?

“That’s a funny story because we’re building one and the guy said I want to use my electrician, he’s a little cheaper than yours. And although it’s not ideal, we said it was fine. So when we did all that infrastructure in the ground, our building one in Port Wentworth took three and a half days while the one where he wanted to use his own electrician took two months to do the underground. And by the time it was all said and done, he probably spent more than us. We use a company that ONLY does car washes.

Car Wash construction is a whole different animal than typical commercial construction when it comes to electricians. Having the right electrician is critical when there’s literally MILES of conduit - it’s a HUGE portion of it.

“You would be shocked at all the conduit that’s running out…10 pipes to this place, 12 pipes to this place, 8 pipes to this place and if you miss one out of all those miles of conduit, you’re in trouble,” says Tilton. “It’s a very precise work environment.

So the next time you’re sitting in your car, cruising along the conveyor belt to the end of the tunnel, take a look around at all that equipment. Now you can marvel at the design while considering all the electrical conduit, water reclamation tanks and power that it takes to get that shine on your vehicle. Take satisfaction in the knowledge that if it was built by Dewitt Tilton Group, it was done right, it was completed on time and it was probably under budget.

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