There was a time when a car wash used to be a weekly ritual: Crank up the radio, enjoy a cool drink and spend the morning getting your car into top shape again. Alas, no more.
For very good reasons, allowing poisonous cleansing fluids to simply wash down the drain is no longer allowed. This hasn’t only incisively changed the routine of millions during the Summer months, but also meant that washing your car by hand has mostly been replaced by taking it to an automatic drive-through washing service.
Unfortunately, this has made a car wash a lot more expensive. Still, reducing the frequency of your car washes is hardly a sensible solution. After all, keeping your car clean is not just a question of good looks.
Car Wash: Preventing damage
A car wash may seem to be mainly about making your vehicle shine again. In reality, however, it is also about preserving it and preventing damage:
- Exposure to sun rays can blemish the paint.
- Leaf stains can gradually cause damage to the paint of your car.
- Bird droppings, pollen and various insects may cause chemical reactions and may even eat through the paint.
- Salt can cause erosive reactions and therefore lead to rust.
The longer you postpone the next car wash, the more time these substances and external influences have to do their damage. A car wash is one way of making sure it doesn’t get this far. (For a more detailed look at how to keep your car in great shape, check out our overview of vehicle inspection checklists)
Car Wash: How often?
Admittedly, the weekly car wash routine was not just environmentally unsound. It was also excessive. Especially with the support of some of the latest car wash products, your car can keep its healthy glow at least for a few weeks. However, especially with regards to the dangers mentioned above, you should nonetheless aim at a regular washing schedule. Generally speaking, most experts consider a car wash a month sufficient, especially if you manage to squeeze in a seasonal waxing. Bird droppings and other threats should obviously be dealt with without delay and on the spot.
Car wash by hand versus automatic car wash
Automatic car washing services (also called a tunnel car wash) have developed into futuristic locations which would not seem out of place in a science fiction flic. Still, most experts reckon that a hand wash is still best. The reason for this is that you have far more direct control over the stains, you can apply as much or as little pressure as you need and take your time for particularly difficult surface areas. Car wash products for home use have significantly improved and there are even semi-professional devices at a reasonable price promising a truly spotless and streakless car wash.
A hand wash is usually also cheaper than a tunnel car wash The only disadvantage is that it takes up a lot more time than automated drive throughs and requires a bit of insight and experience. You’ll also need to use designated car wash areas, so fluids can be properly disposed of.
Car Wash: Before you get started
Maybe you’re already eager to get started and give your car the proper makeover. Before you do, though, here are a few suggestions which will help you get the best results.
As explained by Wikihow, make sure to park your car outside direct sunlight. The simple reason is that intense sun exposure will lead the cleaning water to dry a lot faster. The result: nasty splotches, which can look just as bad as the dirt you just got rid of.
Obviously, you should also make absolutely sure that the windows are closed all the way. The antenna should be fully retracted. Finally, click the wiper blades into their locked position or at least make sure they’re not in the way.
Have your tools ready. This includes all the different brushes, cloths and mitts you intend to use. It also includes at least two, or even better three buckets of fresh water: one for the car body, one just for the wheels, and one with clean water for rinsing.
Car Wash Equipment I: Choose carefully
Car wash recommendations tend to focus on how to best clean your car. Rarely, however, will they tell you what to clean it with.
The reason why choosing the right car wash equipment is so important is that the right products can help to protect your vehicle, while the wrong ones can cause severe damage. Bear in mind that even mild ‘car shampoos’ and ‘cleaning fluids’ are, ultimately, chemicals, that either loosen up or eat through heavy dirt. They should not be used casually.
Wheel cleaners are a great example. As car expert Larry Kosilla explains in a highly useful instructional video, he actually prefers softer sprays to more powerful ones. This may mean that you’ll need to scrub oft the dirt instead of just washing it off. But it should also avoid harm to the material. As Larry puts it: “Anytime you take a cleaner that is powerful enough to take of junk without having to agitate it, for me, that’s a chemical that’s too strong.”
Car Wash Equipment II: The Full Range
Now we’ve explained why a careful selection of the right cleaning products is so important, let’s next take a look at what, exactly, you’ll need for great results.
Rather than providing you with brand names – there are simply far too many – we want to focus on the kind of cleaners you should buy. It may seem excessive to get a different cleaning product for each part of your car. But it will get you the best results. Also, these products will usually last forever, so you merely need to make one larger investment in the beginning:
- A designated soap / car wash shampoo for paint cleansing
- Mud shine for the wheels
- A stronger (‘brute’) soap for the rubber part of the wheels
- A wheel cleaning spray for the rims (we’ve talked a little bit about this in the previous paragraph)
- A clay sponge with a suitable lubricating fluid for finer dirt on the paint surface
- Polish for a deep cleansing
- Car wax for a satisfying finish
- Window cleaner that doubles up as a water repellent
- Leather cleaning fluid in case you have leather seats
- Glass cleaner for the inside glass surfaces
Not all of these are required, obviously. But the list does make for a good overview of the perfect tool box.
How much do I need to spend?
You’ll likely perform a carwash regularly. So it is only logical to want to keep the costs down. When it comes to car wash shampoo, you certainly don’t need to spend the world – most products on sale will do the job. Plus, more expensive shampoos can potentially be too aggressive and end up damaging the paint.
What about carnauba wax?
Carnauba wax is a high quality car wax, sometimes also called ‘the queen of wax’. It produces a smooth, glossy finish superior to most other commercially available alternatives. Although it is a defacto standard in a professional car wash, this doesn’t mean you can’t use a cheaper wax.
Mitts, towels & Cloths: Soft Touch
Finally, you will need a few pieces of fabric to apply some of the liquids. Generally speaking, there are three different types of cloths:
- A microfiber cloth for delicate surfaces. If unavailable, a simple soft cloth will do. It makes sense to have plenty of these around, as they are usually rather small and will get dirty quickly. You can, however, wahs them. So you won’t have to discard a used microfiber cloth straight away.
- A mitt: Mitts are ideal for applying soap to larger areas of the car. Although any kind of mitt will work, it is easiest to use those that you can slip over your hands like a glove. This will keep your hands dry and it will also avoid too intense contact with the chemicals. If you can’t or don’t want to use these, we highly recommend wearing silicon or rubber gloves to protect your skin.
- A towel: Towels are great for cleaning larger paint areas. You don’t necessarily need a microfiber towel, but make sure the fabric is very soft and in no way abrasive.
One last thing: Brushes can be an extremely useful item for your car wash. They are ideal for cleaning the wheels and footmats of your car, for example, because you can apply some pressure while still avoiding scratches or other damages to your wheels.
With the right car wash recommendations, however, you can take things into your own hands again and save some money to boot. Here are some of the most efficient tips, many of which were offered by website Popular Mechanics, to make your car shine from outside and clean from the inside:
Car wash: General Recommendations
- Whatever you have planned for your car wash, start with vacuuming. As long as the dirt is still dry, it is easier to remove it from door-jambs, for example.
- Avoid acid-based tire-cleaners and dish soaps, which can cause considerable damage to your vehicle unless applied by professionals with intimate knowledge of how much of them to use and how to use them.
- Your eye is not always the best judge of the condition of your car’s exterior. Instead, run your hand across the paint to see if it’s completely smooth – if it isn’t, you should carefully clean any rough patches.
- Waxing is an essential part of a car wash, because it prevents stains and protects your paint from damage. Both paste wax and liquid wax are fine in principle. What matters most is that you use wax not just once a year, but, as mentioned before, at least once every three months.
- Don’t forget about the interior of the car and the vents – in some cases, pollen trapped inside the vents can even reduce the efficiency of your system and increase fuel consumption.
- Clean glass surfaces last, since your windows will probably be stained from previous steps in the car wash process. In terms of the right window cleaner, anything will do, as long as it doesn’t contain ammonium.
- Some steps, such as physically grinding off glass, should be left to professionals. Asking for expert advice once a year won’t cost the world and can contribute to your car’s condition.
Car wash: The best order
A car wash is not rocket science. Still, as in any part of life, the right order of things can make a vast difference. Here’s the best approach to cleaning your car:
- Spend a minute at the very beginning just walking round your car to assess the situation. This will tell you how dirty your car really is and what kind of gear and products you’ll need to use.
- Start by cleaning the wheels and the footmats.
- Pre-soak and rinse the paint just to get rid of the most obvious dirt particles. A foam gun is a helpful tool for this. But you can get the job done manually as well.
- Use the mitt for cleaning the car. Always work your work way down from the top, first cleaning the roof, then the glass.
Rinse off with clean water, then dry the paint using a microfiber towel.
- Even if you don’t intend to thoroughly clean the interior of the car, you should at least give the door jams a wipe.
Clean the glass surfaces using a soft cloth.
- Treat the wheels to tire shine. It is really important to do this last, as the wheels tend to be the dirtiest part of your car and you wouldn’t want to carry the dirt to other parts of the car.
Car wash versus car detailing
When it comes to a car wash, you will surely have heard the term ‘car detailing’, whispered with an almost sacral respect. So what’s the difference between a simple car wash and a fully-fledged car detailing?
Simply put, car detailing is a far more detailed approach to cleaning your car. Removing the dirt is just the beginning here. The real goal is to get the car in a state that would allow for it to be sold off at a showroom.
In some respects, car detailing will get a vehicle cleaner than it would rationally need to be. This includes taking off the wheels, for example, and cleaning them from both sides. As part of the process, even the engine will be made to look as new. Sometimes, the detailer will take it apart to clean each screw. It may also include, in extreme cases, measuring the thickness of the paint surface and then using special sponges to remove tiny grit spots.
Whereas even a professional car wash will only set you back something like £20-30, car detailing is an art and paid accordingly. Newspaper The Independent describes the case of Richard Tipper, one of the best detailers in the UK:
“Four hours on one car is nothing out of the ordinary, but it can be much longer. A 1928 Bentley took six hours – and that was just the engine. A recent Ferrari F40 job lasted three days. His day rate is £650. To some it will seem crazy, but car detailing is (…) as far removed from the car washing that the rest of us do as Lionel Messi is from a Sunday morning park kickabout.”
For a great overview of the best practical car detailing recommendations, take a look at this expansive list.
Car wash: Keep it simple
Of course, even a Sunday morning park kickabout can be extremely satisfying. Not every car needs to look as new after you’ve finished your carwash. Sometimes, even an automatic car wash can be fine. And you don’t need to use car wax every time.
The most important thing is to keep at it and clean your car regularly. As we’ve mentioned before, dirt is not just an aesthetic problem. It can also cause damage to your vehicle. Car washing should be part of your routine to best protect the value of your car.
Cleaning with steam – the future?
To close things out, we’d love to give you a vision of the future. After many decades, in which the basic concept has remained intact, it looks as though the car wash is about to enter a new phase.
Many countries have essentially made it impossible to clean your car in front of your house, because of the toxic waste contained in the car wash wastewater. This is one reason why a new generation of devices based on hot steam is about to enter the market.
The Optima steamer is probably the best known of these. Rather than using water, this tool sends clouds of hot steam onto your car. Not only is this technique a lot more ecologically friendly, as it produces no car wash wastewater whatsoever. It is also very time- and cost-effective and extremely thorough to boot.
We can’t give any review of the Optima Steamer at this point. But it does seem as though it has a bright future ahead of it.