Selecting the Right Equipment for Your Detail Shop

Starting a professional detailing business today is no easy task. If you think it will be easy, you will probably be doomed to failure like so many others who thought they were professionals because they had a few squeeze and spray bottles, a shop vacuum and an electric buffer.

To enter the detailing business you need a business plan, the right location, good employees and most importantly, the right equipment. Think about it. Detailing is a labor intensive business, and what one thing helps any business offset the effect of labor? That's right: equipment. Yet equipment is the last thing most people consider before they enter the detail business.

In any other business, equipment purchases require constant decision making because technology is always changing. Every time you turn around, some new equipment innovation is available to make something else you have obsolete.

This is true in auto detailing.

Approaching Purchases

Why does a business purchase equipment? The answer is simple. Whether you are in manufacturing, printing or landscaping, equipment increases productivity and decreases labor. Many of you may say, "You may be right, but I just can't afford it." With that operational philosophy, you may find yourself in the "garbage can" of detail business failures.

You must purchase equipment that will improve your efficiency and decrease labor. Most likely, you are "paying" for the equipment, in one way or another, even if you don't have the equipment.

How so? You lose business by being inefficient. If you could do just one more car a day (at $50) because of an equipment purchase, that is over a $1,000 a month in extra revenue.

This much additional revenue is enough to finance the purchase or lease of equipment.

Suppose an equipment purchase allowed you to get the same amount of work done with less labor. Would this justify the new equipment? You know the answer to that question.

If you could reduce your labor by one person (four hours, for example) at $6.00 per hour (including 20% for benefits) you would save $624 per month.

If you could both increase productivity and decrease labor, in this case, you would have an additional $1,724 per month in gross revenue.

Modern Detailing Technology

To help you choose the best equipment for your detailing business, I will focus on the best technology available today. This is not the “squeeze and spray bottle" technology of the past, but technology that will increase your productivity and decrease labor.


  • Pressure washers – A professional detail shop cannot operate efficiently without a pressure washer. You can choose either a portable unit or a remote-mounted unit (similar to the set-up in a self-service wash). I believe you should have a remote- mounted unit so all you need to do is flip a switch and grab the spray gun.

  • Pulling a portable unit in and out each night is not efficient. It doesn't matter if it is hot or cold water. Hot water will help, but with today's chemicals, you can use cold water. The unit should put out at least 4 gpm at 1000 to 1200 psi.

  • Wash bay chemical dispensers – Nothing is more inefficient than applying chemicals to the engine, wheels, vinyl and convertible tops with a spray bottle. A two or three gallon garden sprayer is an improvement over a 32 oz. spray bottle, but the best choice is a remote-mounted pressure tank that is piped to an application hose and nozzle in the wash bay. The attendant simply grabs the gun and applies the chemical. This can be done quickly and effortlessly.

  • Wash bay sinks or 30/55 gallon drums – The most inefficient thing I see in wash bays is a myriad of five gallon buckets. A better and more efficient alternative is to mount sinks, on or against the walls, that can be equipped with a "hydro-minder" system, which automatically adds both water and shampoo when the water gets to a certain level.

  • If this alternative is not feasible, you should at least have strategically located 30 or 55 gallon barrels filled with water. You should add a few ounces of shampoo each day and replace any lost water. During the night, the dirt settles to the bottom like a car wash reclaim pit. From time to time, you can empty and clean the barrels. This simple approach saves a lot of time in the wash bay.


    Before considering what equipment you need in a detail workshop, let's consider what you really need to accomplish. This is based on what jobs you will perform. The various jobs include vacuuming interiors, shampooing and cleaning interiors, polishing and waxing paint. For these tasks, we will need a variety of equipment. I will not suggest what has been traditionally used in a detail shop, but what I think a professional detail shop needs to compete in today's auto service industry.

  • Air compressor - This should be an obvious piece of equipment for any detail shop, but it is not in most. The compressor is used for blowing water off a wet car, drying out a distributor and blowing out the interior of a vehicle, just to name a few functions. The greatest need for the compressor is to power pneumatic tools.

  • Did you realize that every other auto service business exclusively uses air powered tools to perform their jobs? The detail business is the only auto service business that still uses electric tools. Why is this? It's simple. Most detailers cannot afford an air compressor.

  • Air tools - With air you have a choice of tools that can help you be efficient. Rotary buffers are light weight and easier to handle. These buffers have variable speeds and the on/off trigger can be "feathered" when buffing over cracks and ridges to avoid burning. The buffers also last longer and require less maintenance.

  • With air you can use rotary shampooers, smaller vertical air tools equipped with a round nylon shampoo brush. With these units you can shampoo carpets, upholstery, vinyl and convertible tops quickly, effortlessly and with improved quality. They are variable speed, and the trigger can be “feathered" to avoid damage.

    With air, you can use mini-orbital waxers to apply and remove waxes and sealants. The waxers only weigh two pounds, allowing the detailer to wax an entire car in less than 10 minutes without fatigue. Even the large air orbitals are an improvement over the heavy and cumbersome electric orbitals now on the market.

  • Vacuums - This is an obvious piece of equipment for a detail shop, but most shops still use the inefficient portable wet/dry shop vacuums that can be purchased at department stores. The most efficient vacuum for a detail shop would be a powerful central vacuum system that is mounted in an equipment room where a PVC manifold delivering vacuum drops (hoses) to each work station.

  • This puts vacuum capabilities at the fingertips of each detailer. It also reduces the noise level in the shop for both employees and customers.

  • Soil Extractors – No detail shop, professional or not, should be without a soil extraction system. The system is used for shampooing carpets, fabric upholstery, floor and trunk mats. There are a number of units on the market, so you have to do a little research before making a purchase.

  • Let me make a few suggestions:

    • The solution/recovery tanks should be at least 10 gallons
    • The vacuum lift should be over 100
    • The system should be heated
    • The price should be between $1,100 to $1,600

    There are lower and higher cost units. You will have to decide which direction you want to take. There are smaller units (two to three gallon) that are not heated (although you can use hot solution) that are quite effective and may be the answer for the detailer who just can't afford an expensive unit. These are priced less than $600.

  • Chemical Dilution Stations – With the number of water-based chemicals that are used in a detail shop, it is absolutely critical to have a chemical dilution station. There is no excuse for not having such a system. They are inexpensive and "idiot-proof" to install.

  • To install, you simply mount it on a wall, connect a water supply or hose to one end and select the dilution ratio you want. Each station has a plastic fill hose and another hose that goes into the chemical container. The water pressure draws the chemicals out of the container and through the orifice that determines the mixing ratio. The water and chemical are then delivered into your container, bottle or tank. The cost for a single station should be less than $100.

  • Detail Work Carts/Table – As obvious as this may seem, many shops do not have a place to put clean and dirty towels, buffing pads, tools, brushes, garbage and miscellaneous items. As a result, detailers are constantly running around looking for their equipment and supplies.

  • A moveable cart will hold all these items and be placed between each vehicle and moved to avoid hitting doors, etc. A simple item like this can save you hours of time.

  • Dispensing Work Stations – These stations are probably the most expensive but most efficient items introduced to the detail industry. These systems are the ultimate in efficiency, function and professionalism. A shop equipped with these systems makes a statement to both the customer and employee that it truly is a professional business.

  • The function of the work station is to hold literally everything the detailer needs when working on a vehicle. Typically, a work station will dispense from eight to twelve chemicals through application hoses and guns, and, it offers two air lines for tools. The station also includes a built-in vacuum and/or soil extractor with two vacuum/extractor hoses and nozzles, and, provides for electric power outlets.

    Chemicals are usually stored in the bulk-holding pressure tanks in the equipment room. With these stations, you have the best in professionalism and management. The expense is justified by increased productivity (more cars per day) and more efficient use of labor (less labor to do the same or more work).


    There you have it, my professional equipment recommendations. In all seriousness, you need to objectively consider the equipment recommendations. Don't jump to a conclusion that you can't afford the equipment. I believe you are already paying for the equipment in some manner, and in actuality, you can afford it.

    I can also guarantee that you will find the equipment to be efficient and well worth the investment.

    I welcome your comments, and as always, if you have any questions or need any further assistance, contact me.