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The Truth About Car Washes

It used to be that taking your car for a commercial wash was the owner’s dirty little secret. Washing the car was a male-dominated household chore. Guys labored away in the driveway every Sunday afternoon, washing, waxing, buffing and polishing the family vehicle. For lazy chore-shirkers who took their cars to the commercial Wash-n-Wax Palace, there was shame and secrecy.

Everyone knew what those places were like: rough wire brushes that scraped the paint; filthy recycled water laced with pebbles and grime, and harsh chemical detergent that left spots as it dried. You had to be one lazy slob to subject your car to that kind of treatment.

The big secret is that commercial car washes have become the luxury spas of the automotive world. Anyone still washing a car by hand must be doing it because it’s a labor of love. And even then, you’re likely to get the fish-eye from disapproving neighbors who watch the sudsy refuse water drain down the sewer and pollute the environment. Another environmental incentive is that commercial washes use about 25 gallons of water to clean your car, while the at-home wash wastes about 200 gallons.

So cast away that didn’t-wash-the-car-by-hand guilt, and worry no more about substandard commercial washes. Plenty of good ones exist, making a variety of claims and charging a range of prices. Choose wisely, look for the membership logo of the International Car Wash Association, and follow my tip list. That way, you’re sure to have the squeaky clean vehicle of your dreams — without any of the wax-on/wax-off muscle ache that goes with the done-it-myself wash.

Here are your options, from top of the line to do it yourself.

  • The Cadillac of car washes

    Touchless car washes rely on high water pressure jets to clean the car, sans brushes or fabric strips. Sounds like a good idea, but high-pressure water streams alone won’t effectively clean your car’s surface. To achieve a clean comparable to contact cleaning, touchless washes rely on harsher detergents in the water, and that could strip the wax, or even possibly cause paint damage. The good news is, paint damage is less likely, given that auto paints today are better than ever.


  • A stone’s throw from greatness

    Brushless car washes using recycled water are, quite literally, a "stone’s throw" away from a four-star rating. The same soft fabric strips clean your car, but the final rinse is done with recycled water — which could accumulate small cinders and pebbles, not to mention the grime of the cars washed before yours. How to tell if your car wash uses fresh or recycled H2O? If the water’s fresh, then it’s probably advertised in their on-site signs or promotions, because it’s such a great selling point. If you’re unsure, ask. It’s worth the extra couple of bucks to avoid recycled water, which can leave spots as it dries.


  • Two stone's throw from greatness

    Brushless car washes using clean, non-recycled water are by far the best choice. Soft strips of sudsy fabric slosh away grime, salt and acid-rain residue, and clean water rinses it all away. Many of these places hire help to hand-dry your car at the finish line, and if that’s the case, inquire about the quality of the towels. The best places have a washing machine on-site and clean towels regularly. The last thing you want after a good car wash is someone smearing it up with a dirty towel. If they don’t wash towels regularly but you still like the quality of the wash, supply your own clean towels for that final step.


  • No-no to nylon

    Nylon-brush car washes are a throwback to the earliest days of the drive-through commercial places. Today, you’ll usually find them attached to small service stations and gas/convenience outlets. Beware. The water may be clean or recycled, the nylon brushes may be cleaned regularly or not — but even under the best conditions, those nylon brushes are pretty harsh on your car. You may have found yourself using one in a pinch (convenience is a great lure in our society) and then cursed yourself because the nylon brushes left tiny scratches all over your car. Rest assured, though, those probably are only marks in the wax, and a more professional cleaning will whisk them away.


  • There’s no place like home …

    That’s true, unless you choose one of those drive-in, do-it-yourself stalls that are the suburban craze. They are an OK option for those who like the hands-on experience of washing the car but don’t want to invest in the brushes, sponges, wash products, etc., required at home. (They’re also a good option for apartment dwellers who don’t have driveways.) They’re convenient because you get to use their water, supplies, brushes, hoses and such, but face the fact that the brushes often are grimy from previous cars, and the equipment isn’t always fabulously maintained or replaced. They are affordable, so if you choose this option, rinse the brushes first, then proceed to wash your car in small segments (wetting, soaping, rinsing) to avoid soap drying on the car. Always wash the vehicle from the top down, and to avoid spots, dry the car before you leave, even if that means bringing your own towels.

Remember that even a bad car wash is better than leaving salt, bird droppings and grime to bake into your car’s finish for months on end. Invest in the commercial wash. It will cost you anywhere from $3 to $25; here’s a list of tips to get the most for your money. Caveats for the car wash:

Wax, don’t whine

Spray-on wax doesn’t take the place of a good hand-done waxing, but during the winter it will suffice for quick protection against salt and grime.

Wax the car at least twice a year. If your car is red, white or black, and you live in a sunny climate, wax more frequently. Those colors are more likely to be affected by the sun’s UV rays.

Always use soap when washing a car - never plain water.  Soap acts as a lubricant making it less likely that you will scratch your finish when wiping off dirt and grime.

Don’t let the car-wash rep sell you a "detailing the engine" package on a late-model car. Too many electronic and computer controls lurk under the hood nowadays, and water won’t be welcome.

Put the radio antenna down before you go through the car wash. When folks forget that, they spend the rest of the day humming instead of enjoying their favorite drive-time tunes. They also aren’t thrilled about the cost of replacing a snapped antenna.