It used to be that taking your car for a commercial wash was the owners
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
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 its a
labor of love. And even then, youre 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 didnt-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, youre 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 wont effectively clean your
cars 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 stones throw from greatness
Brushless car washes
using recycled water are, quite literally, a "stones 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 waters fresh, then its probably advertised in their
on-site signs or promotions, because its such a great selling point. If youre
unsure, ask. Its 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 thats 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 dont 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, youll 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.
Theres no place like home
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 dont want to invest in the brushes, sponges, wash products, etc., required at
home. (Theyre also a good option for apartment dwellers who dont have
driveways.) Theyre 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 isnt 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 cars finish for months on end. Invest in the commercial
wash. It will cost you anywhere from $3 to $25; heres a list of tips to get the most
for your money. Caveats for the car wash:
Wax, dont whine
Spray-on wax doesnt 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 suns 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
Dont 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 wont 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 arent thrilled about the cost of replacing a snapped antenna.