Thursday, July 12, 2012

Building a Car Wash



I recently was tasked with a plan review of an automatic car wash. This seems simple enough, however, there are some questions that need to be answered. What is the occupancy type? What are the hazards involved? How does the equipment work? What kind of chemicals are being used?



To start any review, one must first identify the occupancy type. The occupancy type is often listed on the plans, but the occupancy type might be different as related to the fire codes, based on occupancy use and what type of activities are going to occur there.


A car wash does not necessarily fit neatly into one of the occupancy categories of NFPA 101. However, it most closely identifies with a special-purpose industrial occupancy (101:40.1.4.1.2):

Special-purpose industrial occupancies shall include all of the following:

(1)Industrial occupancies that conduct ordinary and low hazard industrial operations in buildings designed for, and that are usable only for, particular types of operations

(2)Industrial occupancies that are characterized by a relatively low density of employee population, with much of the area occupied by machinery or equipment

The key construction factors that this occupancy designation will affect include:


Number of means of egress (101:40.2.4)


Arrangement of egress (101:40.2.5/Table)


Industrial equipment access (101:40.2.5.2/Table)


Emergency lighting (101:40.2.9)


Since this occupancy does not completely fit into this category, it will be necessary to apply some of the principles of performance-based design (NFPA 1:5), primarily:


MSDS sheets for all chemicals used


Operations and Maintenance Manual (1:5.1.8)


Industrial occupancies allow a single means of egress “provided that the exit can be reached within the distance permitted as a common path of travel” (101:40.2.4.1.2). The table in NFPA 101:40.2.5 provides those common travel distances:




*Florida specific code only allows 20 ft. of travel distance for a dead-end corridor


The code allows for vertical rolling doors to be used as a means of egress (potentially eliminating the need for an additional side-hinged man-door), provided the space has an occupant load of less than 10 and the following is met:

(a)Such grilles or door assemblies shall remain secured in the fully open position during the period of occupancy by the general public.

(b)On or adjacent to the grille or door opening, there shall be a readily visible, durable sign in letters not less than 1 in. (25 mm) high on a contrasting background that reads as follows: THIS DOOR TO REMAIN OPEN WHEN THE BUILDING IS OCCUPIED.

(c)Door leaves or grilles shall not be brought to the closed position when the space is occupied.

(d)Door leaves or grilles shall be operable from within the space without the use of any special knowledge or effort.

(e)Where two or more means of egress are required, not more than half of the means of egress shall be equipped with horizontal-sliding or vertical-rolling grilles or door assemblies. [101:7.2.1.4.1(3)]


Most of the space for an automatic car wash (besides the car drive through) is taken up by equipment, tanks, and machinery. If any of this equipment is part of the means of egress (usually it is) it shall meet the clearance requirements of the table found in NFPA 101:40.2.5.2.1.

 Emergency lighting is generally required, however, it can be omitted from areas “without routine human habitation”, and “structures occupied only during daylight hours with skylights or windows “ that are properly arranged to provide adequate illumination to exits and exit pathways. The annex of this section, 101:40.2.9, states that the authority having jurisdiction shall review the facility, and will specifically designate where emergency lighting is required.

MSDS sheets should be submitted for review so that the proper hazard is assigned to the space and proper NFPA 704 labeling is provided.


The operations and maintenance manual, will provide the authority having jurisdiction, the information needed regarding operational hours, employees/occupant load, and any special considerations for equipment.


It is a good practice for any architect, owner, or contractor to establish a good working relationship with their local fire marshal. Contact your local fire authority prior to submittal to find out if there are any specific local ordinances or other requirements. It is also advisable to have your plan previewed by a third party to insure compliance with all federal/state/local requirements.