By Chris Heismann

We’ve come full circle. From the moment the first carwash opened in 1914, carwash operators have needed a way to collect payment from their customers. For the first half-century or so, it was mostly the friendly attendant, ready to collect money and upsell services. Every customer was greeted, hopefully with a cheerful smile, services offered, the money collected, and their car washed. The attendant was not only a means of collecting payment but a key component of the carwash operator’s marketing for additional services.

As carwashes evolved and automated and self-serve carwashes came into being, we moved away from the attendant, in favor of the humble coin mechanism. Invented long before the automobile was, the coin mechanism came into its own in the post-WW2 years and adopted to many different types of industries, from amusement to laundry, and of course, the carwash. But the adoption of the coin mech and automation led to the separation of payment collection and marketing.

Marketing at the point of sale of most carwashes became a collage of signs and logos. Less expensive than attendants, for sure, but far less interactive.

Codes became widely used as a form of payment when the petroleum industry began installing tunnels and automatics at gas stations. Protocols arose to allow a simple way for the customer to pay for a wash along with their fuel. They also offered marketing options, such as free gas with a fill up.

When credit cards became an everyday transaction tool for the common consumer, many carwash operators sought to add the ability to accept plastic, thus expanding the payment options for their customers. And with the same technology needed to accept credit cards often came the ability for operators to offer their own fleet and gift card options, further expanding the payment options available to them and their customers.

Along with Fleet and gift card options came additional marketing opportunities. The savvy operator leveraged these abilities of their point of sale systems to increase customer loyalty by getting out and selling customers prepaid gift cards or setting up businesses on payment plans. System manufacturers responded by adding new features, such as promotional discounts, monthly memberships, and even RFID systems so that drivers wouldn’t even have to roll down their windows to buy a carwash. POS marketing options became slightly more interactive again as POS systems evolved from buttons and switches to monochrome and later full-color touch screens.

Ever evolving security for credit cards has led to the creation of chip and pin plus tap systems, which made their way into the carwash industry first for tellers for automatics and tunnels, and most recently for self serve bays and vacuums. The additional features of these EMV tap readers have allowed for more options, such as Interac Debit, Apply Pay and Google Pay.

EMV Tap has been a huge boom to payment systems. It allows quick payment, with fewer struggles associated with worn magnetic strips and dirty card readers. It works with most credit cards and Interac debit cards. They are far more secure than traditional magnetic card swipes because the account information on the card is uniquely encrypted every time it accessed. Each Interac Flash debit purchase is protected by a $100 maximum limit and a cumulative $200 contactless spend limit each day. And debit card purchases are protected by Interac’s Zero Liability policy. The tap readers also allow the acceptance of the increasingly popular smartphone-based payment methods Apple Pay for iOS devices, and Google Pay for Android devices.

More than 70 per cent of Canadian adults own a smartphone, making the ability to accept mobile payments such as Apple Pay and Google Pay more important than ever before. It is the possibilities of the smartphone that have brought us full circle as carwash POS system manufacturers introduce their own phone applications. At the point of sale, the carwash phone app can collect payment for the wash, provide the same upselling of services that signs and color screens can offer. 

Not only do these phone apps allow in-app payment for washes, but they also introduce additional marketing opportunities. They can become, in essence, a carwash attendant in the customer’s pocket, combining payment collection and marketing all in one device.A phone application can offer things such as loyalty programs that reward good customers and offer deals and discounts. Like the attendant, they can recommend upsells, but unlike an attendant, they can also do this off-site. Features such as geofencing and beacons let the app notify the customer when they’re in the area, and offer them reminders and incentives to get their car washed.


When a customer travels within a predefined areaa virtual fence overlay, geofencing, uses the built-in GPS of their smartphone to trigger notificationsa virtual fence overlay on the real world. This technology allows the operator to create special discount deals or reminders that appear on their smartphone as they drive toward their site location. Beacons are a similar feature, but are typically based on physical transmitting devices placed at the site, and can tailor more specific and detailed information to the customer, based on their location within site.

Phone apps are also good for selling multiple wash packages, and monthly memberships, without the added expense of finicky RFID systems. On the back end, phone apps have some additional benefits for the operator. These include information about their customers that would be difficult to obtain from even the best, most attentive attendant; information such as on average how long customers are on site to how often they drive by. All of this information can be used by operators to adjust operation items like staffing and marketing efforts.

The evolution of payment systems in the carwash industry over the last century has brought us a lot of changes. What will the next century bring?

Chris Heismann is a technician with over three decades of experience in the vending, amusement and carwash industries. He can be contacted at


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