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Mobile Car Washes Present Growing Issues: What Are Cities Doing About Them?

More people are setting up business on streets and in parking lots as municipalities take notice. (Flickr)

More people are setting up business on streets and in parking lots as municipalities take notice. (Flickr)

Mobile car washes seem to be growing in popularity across the United States. When a Baylor University entrepreneurship student wanted to start a business, that’s the model he picked. And perhaps more than ever, municipal policy makers around the country are beginning to hear complaints about mobile car washes and take action.

The mobile car wash model has obvious advantages. With no brick-and-mortar shop, start-up costs and overhead are substantially reduced. Operators can set up almost anywhere they want, depending on local regulations, or nowhere at all by making house calls to people’s homes or businesses.

In Longview, Texas, a prospective car wash owner is having some misgivings about purchasing a permanent facility, saying people with “a truck and a power washer” have “an unfair advantage to the mobile washes against someone who spends a huge amount of money to build a car wash in a properly zoned area as required by the city code.” The person wrote his concerns to the local paper, the News-Journal, inquiring what regulations prevent them from unfairly competing and from dumping chemical runoff into the storm drains.

“Five or 10 years ago, (the issue of mobile car washes) wasn’t that prevalent,” said the city development director. As a result, there are no regulations specifically targeting mobile car washes. But, as is likely the case in most U.S. municipalities, there are rules about where vendors can operate and whether they require permits or licenses. And there are general prohibitions against chemical dumping.

Las Vegas is perhaps the largest city recently to squarely clamp down on mobile car wash operators. Earlier this month the city council voted nearly unanimously to restrict mobile washers from operating withing 150 feet of any brick-and-mortar car wash. They are also required to purchase $250 permits each year. The penalties for violating the ordinance are stiff: a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Only one council member voted against it. After the vote, he said, “I have washed my car on the street, back before it was a criminal activity.”

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