Many drivers opt for the convenience of a drive-through or automatic car wash. However, not all car washes are created equal. In fact, some automatic car washes – especially those that use rotating brushes or agitating cloths - can damage your vehicle’s paint.
Brushes or cloths that are too firm or contain built-up dirt or debris can actually scratch your vehicle. It takes research on the driver’s part to avoid damaging car washes by asking the car wash operator about how often the brushes or cloths are cleaned or replaced. If they’re changed infrequently or not at all, consider taking your vehicle elsewhere or using a different style of car wash.
Some auto detail shops offer the option of washing and detailing your car in your driveway. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Luis D.)
Car washes that offer hand washes, hand washing your vehicle yourself or having your vehicle hand washed by an automotive detailing shop are all options to avoid damage from automatic car washes.
If you choose the DIY route, follow these steps to get the deep clean you’re looking for:
1. Pick the right spot
Avoid washing your car in direct sunlight or on a hot day. When you wash a car on hot day in direct sunlight, the water will dry very quickly, which can leave spots on the paint surface.
2. Check your water
The main ingredient in a car wash is obvious: water. But are you using the right kind of water? If your water is “hard” or high in mineral content, you may want to use a self-service car wash or avoid washing your car yourself altogether. Hard water also has a tendency to leave spots on the paint surface as it dries.
3. Get the right materials
Use a soap or detergent product made for washing cars, not dish soap. Dish soap can remove or cloud wax and polish coatings, detracting from the finish of the car. You can find the right materials, including car wash detergent, sponges, washing mitts and microfiber towels for drying at your local automotive retail store.
4. Spray it down
Start the process by spraying down the car with a garden hose, preferably with a car wash attachment or a higher-pressure nozzle. You can also use a pressure washer if available, but be careful to use a low pressure setting, as water under high pressure can actually blast away the protective clear coat or paint. Spray down the car thoroughly to remove any excess or heavily built-up debris.
5. Soap it up
Mix your auto detergent and water in a bucket in the ratio described on the bottle. Using too much soap can leave a cloudy surface or excessive water marks. Using your sponge or wash mitt, give the car a good scrubbing starting with the roof and working your way down. If the water in the bucket gets too grimy, change it out for fresh soap and water if necessary.
6. Rinse and repeat
Now that you’ve got your car’s body cleaned up nicely, make sure to rinse all those soapy suds as thoroughly as possible. You may want to repeat the process on areas that are particularly vulnerable to grime and bug junk such as the front grille. Next, repeat the process on the vehicle wheels using a heavy brush; using specialty tire grime cleaners is also an option.
7. Towel it off
Before the now-rinsed vehicle has a chance to dry, use a microfiber or other soft cloth towel to soak up any remaining moisture. Be sure to use a towel made from a lint-free fabric to prevent your car’s surface from becoming a lint trap.
8. Wax the ride
After giving your car a nice wash, it is time to go to the next step and do a wax to keep the vehicle as beautiful as possible. There are a number of factors to take note of when it comes to waxing a vehicle, and these factors start with the kind of wax you use. Different wax options include liquid, soft, hard and polymer. Polymer is different in that it is not a wax but another material that claims to hold up longer than wax. Liquid wax is easy to apply but does not last as long, while hard wax takes a longer time to apply but can stay for a long period. Soft wax falls between liquid and hard wax in terms of ease of use and duration.
Most waxes will include an applicator pad, but a soft cloth rag can be used if applicator pads are not available. Get some of the wax on an applicator or cloth rag and apply in vertical motions, going back and forth over the vehicle until a slight haze shows up. Use a microfiber cloth with no pressure to remove the haze of the wax. Apply and remove hard waxes by section to keep the hard wax from hardening too much, and be sure to exercise caution when breaking away hard wax deposits in case you waited too long for the hard wax to dry.