A drought, when many people's thoughts turn to water conservation, might seem like a bad time to open a car wash. Local car wash companies, however, say a drought is actually a good time to suds up.
Clovis city building official Mark Meyers said that there has been an increase in car washes opening in the past five years in his town, particularly the drive-through exterior ones.
The Western Carwash Association has 14 businesses with multiple locations in Fresno and Clovis as members, and more than half specialize in self-serve or exterior washes.
"Over the last 15-year period, the technology used in car washes has really developed," said Eric Wulf, the chief executive officer of the International Carwash Association. "You get a clean car relatively fast and it's cheap. People take three to four minutes and can wash their car for $3 to $7."
Wulf estimated that, nationally, out of every 100 car washes built, at least 80 are the "conveyor washes," or express washes.
In 2014, about 68% of the 58,754 car washes across the country are conveyor car washes, automatic washes, or self-serve, according to a report from IBIS, a global market research business.
The report said that because of the economic downturn, business had to get more creative to keep clientele. Offering lower prices for exterior-only washes was a way to retain customer base.
Exterior express car washes is not only a growing business, but conserves water. This is particularly important in times of drought.
"Automatic car washes reuse a great deal of that water, compared to washing your car at home," Meyers said.
Fresno's water division released water-saving tips Thursday. Among them was recommending not washing a car at home because that uses more than 100 gallons of water, compared to less than 35 gallons that a recycled-water car wash uses.
It also warns about soaps and detergents along with the dirty water leaking into storm drains, "carrying the pollutants through the gutters to ponding basins."
Mike Bowie, owner of full-service Red Carpet and exterior express Ride & Shine car washes in Fresno and Clovis, said he doesn't recommend washing cars at home.
"One of the worst things someone can do is wash their car in the driveway," Bowie said. "All that tar and dirt and soap go straight down the storm drain and into the city water supply."
Bowie and his family started Red Carpet in the 1950s, but opened the first Ride & Shine exterior express wash in 2006. Between the two companies, they have nine locations with two more opening, but said there's less demand for full-service washes.
"The market is really changing," Bowie said. "The Ride & Shine car wash is really coming on stronger. People don't mind doing some of the dry work like vacuuming."
At his car wash on Bullard Avenue at North First Street, Bowie said his new water treatment system will further reduce water waste. He said when it's running, he only uses about 10 gallons of water per car, compared to his current average of 20 gallons.
He estimates this process saves his business a couple thousand dollars annually, but more importantly, he said it saves hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.
Bowie said water and electricity are his two largest expenditures, especially since Fresno increased the price of water last year. His water bill at this location is only one-fifth the cost of his PG&E bill, though Bowie declined to specify amounts.
Water conservation is a main business concern as well, Waterwheel Express car wash owner Matt Bukilica said.
"The car wash industry has come a long way to make sure their output water is clean," Bukilica said. At his Fresno location, he keeps a close eye on his per-car water consumption and filters used water through five "cleaning beds" before releasing it into the city's ground water basins.
Car washes can pop up in seemingly strange places like strip malls, but Bukilica said that if the lot meets his criteria, it can really go anywhere.
Bukilica takes into account traffic flow, population density, city zoning, competition in the area and lot size before deeming it a good car wash location.
After a career in car wash chemicals and full-service washes, Bukilica started focusing on the "exterior express" market in 2010 because he said there was more demand for it.
Fresno water conservation manager Nora Laikam said as long as car washes are recycling water "we think it's a good thing for people to consider."
The IBIS study said that because the economy is recovering, so are businesses like car washes. Offering value-added packages like waxing and interior cleaning as added options allows customers to ease into spending more than just the basic $5 package.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6279, htraceynoren @fresnobee.com or @HtraceyNoren on Twitter.