In Seattle, car washes in the rain

Selling in the rain

Everywhere else I’ve lived–and that includes the environs of Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Albuquerque and Los Angeles–it was a “duh” moment. If it was raining–or about to rain–you didn’t get your car washed. Why would you? Even with wax, by the time you got home, your newly cleaned vehicle would be spattered silly from passing traffic kicking up road grime and you’d feel like a fool wasting the money. Knowing that, car wash operators simply shut their facilities and sent all their workers  home until the skies cleared.

Then I became New To Seattle.

Here, the car washes stay open in the rain, and–to my great surprise–seem to do a pretty good business. Today, it’s been raining since before dawn. It’s supposed to rain for another three days. I just got back from doing errands and spotted lines at all the car washes I saw. Every single one. Even the do-it-yourself places, where you pump quarters into a box and wield the brush yourself, had lines.

The car wash business is so robust here that Costco No. 1–the warehouse chain’s sainted very first store on 4th Avenue S in Seattle–recently opened its own car wash. Now, that probably doesn’t pull in the revenues that Costco expects to get for the $21 million it spent to get voters to allow it to sell hard liquor. But yep, that car wash had a line in the rain, too, when I cruised by at mid-day.

Car washes seem to be a part of the Seattle culture. The picture above, which I took this afternoon, is the revolving neon sign in front of Elephant Car Wash at Denny Way and Battery Street, in the Denny Triangle section just north of downtown. I’ve seen tourists stand and take pictures of the grinning giant pink elephant showering itself. Its previous owners had the P.R. savvy when the circus came to town to parade actual, real pachyderms through for a dip. (And in case you were wondering, yes, there was a line in the rain there, too, when I shot the photo.)

Indeed, the sign is such a well-known landmark–it went up in 1956–that the establishment it denotes was cited as a reference point in a staff-written Seattle Times blog post last week breaking the news about City University’s impending relocation from Bellevue to Belltown. “CityU will take up about 88,000 square feet of the building at 6th Avenue and Wall Street, a block away from Elephant Car Wash,” the report said.

Not “near the Space Needle” or “across the street from the Antioch University Seattle campus”. A block from a car wash.

According to five-year-old data I found on a U.S. Census Bureau web site, Washington State ranks No. 20 among the 50 states in commercial car wash revenue. In round numbers it’s a $100 million-a-year industry employing 2,000 workers. It may not be the biggest business around, but in this economy anything helps.

As I ponder this, there are some practical reasons why car washes stay open in Seattle rain besides the fact that many double as coffee shops. For one thing, notwithstanding the ongoing effort of Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau to downplay the annual rainfall, the car washes otherwise would be shut for days or weeks at a time. Given all the wet stuff, it doesn’t take very very long for a car to get grimy again, so there’s an unmet need.

The car wash lobby around Seattle seems to have done a better job than their counterparts in other places at playing up the environmental friendlier aspects of getting your car washed at a commercial site rather than, say, doing it yourself in your driveway. No soapy runoff into sewers or the street. Maybe that communion with nature is why the two most prominent independent car wash chains hereabouts have animals in their name (Elephant Car Wash and Brown Bear Car Wash).

Also, the locals cleverly offer revenue-sharing deals for charities. Otherwise, the nonprofits might run a revenue-siphoning Saturday car wash at some church parking lot manned by 50 eager, sponge-wielding high school students.

In addition, the operators have backed proposed laws to prohibit car washes in your own driveway. This is quite a sell. In all those other places I lived, hosing down the jalopy at home was considered a constitutional right, of the same magnitude as a hot daily shower or free football on TV. In environmentally sensitive Seattle, the topic of driveway car washing has occasioned a certain amount of blog chatter. As near as I can tell, there’s no absolute ban in Seattle–at least not yet.

Anyway, I gave in and got my car washed today. But by the time I pulled back into my garage, the exterior was a mess again. Duh.

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In Seattle, car washes in the rain — 5 Comments

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  4. I have a general guideline that in the winter, if the forecast calls for three sunny days in a row, I wash the car. By the time the forecast has such an event, it is usually “time” to wash, or the weather is getting sufficiently sunny again (in the late spring) so that it probably needs the wash. So if I follow my guideline and the forecast for Thursday/Friday/Saturday doesn’t change, I’ll wash it Thursday. Sorta makes sense, it’s been quite a while since I’ve washed the car.

    Then in the summer I go back to my usual once-every-other-week routine.

  5. Interesting observation! As a native, I’ve found my truck always needs frequent washings after a “snow event”, to clean off all the dirt and grime caused by sanding the roads.

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