Car Wash Boom in the RGV

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

April 23,2024

A front view of stores along a city’s main street. A car wash, seemingly out of place, is sandwiched in between a flower shop and a bookstore.
Illustration by Frida Retana

When you live in a small town, like many of us across the RGV, there is always talk and buzz around new development projects. These don’t come often, but when they do, people theorize what new things may be coming in to nurture our small towns. Will we finally get more recreational, community, and art centers to spend our weekends in? Will that community pool that started in 2017 in Rio Grande City finally be finished? The possibilities are endless!

 

New development projects have been underway in recent years in small towns across the RGV, such as Rio Grande City. One of the latest projects Rio received was not the ice rink or mall community members had been speculating about since 2012 but rather a brand new shiny… BlueWave Express Car Wash. Hardly the kind of progress we asked for, but with the promise of a complimentary wash on the opening day, people eagerly waited in a line that wrapped around the block and caused a delay in traffic. Peñitas got the same car wash development and other big chain stores such as Starbucks and Panda Express. 

 

It’s not just in these towns that you see BlueWave and other chain car washes popping up in different locations across the RGV. A simple Google search for “car washes” in the RGV yields well over 50 different results! Some of these car washes could be considered mom-and-pop shops, but the questions remain: why do we have so many of them, and are they beneficial and necessary to our communities?

An orange map of the RGV overrun by car washes.
Illustration by Frida Retana

Let’s put aside all the money laundering claims people love to joke about for a minute, dive into why car washes are so popular in the RGV and nationwide, and explore if these are truly the types of businesses we want our communities to be overrun by.

Entrepreneurship and Eco-friendly Promises

Car washes have long been an entrepreneurial endeavor, from small family businesses to school fundraisers. For car owners who do not have ample space to wash their cars at home or simply need a weekend off from tedious chores, these provide a convenient way to have a clean vehicle. Essentially, that is at the heart of car washes’ popularity: Convenience. 

 

Nationwide, the number of car washes done at facilities increased from 50% in 1996 to 79% in 2021. This shift has partly fueled the car wash boom seen in our communities. There are roughly 60,000 locations across the U.S., with increases expected to happen in the next decade. The car wash market is expected to reach almost $28 billion by 2033

 

Many of these profits can be attributed to a new subscription business model, where members pay a base fee, usually starting at $20, for an unlimited amount of washes, creating a steady revenue stream for these companies. As well as the fact that fewer people are employed to maintain the business operational.

Aside from convenience, car washes sell the promise of conscientious water consumption. A typical wash uses about 50 gallons of water that are then filtered to remove dirt and grime and then repurposed.  Washing your car at home can use close to 150 gallons of water if you’re not conscious.

 

However, at a time when our water supply levels are dangerously low and a dry, hot summer is ahead of us, do we really want the 50-plus car wash locations in the RGV to be continuously in use? Should city officials continue to approve even more car wash locations in the valley?

Urban Planning for the Future

In some cities, the car wash boom has brought one or maybe two new car washes, while in others, it has brought well over 20. 

 

These are not all secluded on the city’s outskirts, and some are making a home on the main streets. These developments curtail the potential for small businesses that actually help nourish our communities. Space for potential art and educational centers, as well as bookshops, is at risk, and city officials are not in a rush to mitigate this. 

 

In Harlingen, where the boom has brought 22 new car washes, city commissioners voted against a proposal that would restrict new car washes from opening up on the city’s main streets. The commissioners cited concerns that the proposal would infringe on the business’s freedom. 

 

Despite their popularity, if cities continue to approve of a new car wash at every street corner, we’ll eventually have to grapple with the possibilities and potential we are giving up in our communities. 

 

Our cities are supposed to reflect the needs of our community, not the latest business trends. If we continue to exuberantly invest in large corporations instead of the small businesses that make up the backbone of our communities, then the RGV will soon have to settle with the title of “Car Wash Capital of Texas.”

Mira Más

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