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How to Use a Gas Station Car Wash

soapy SUV at car wash

It is inevitable that your vehicle will need to be washed, and it’s convenient to do so when you go to a gas station to fuel up. Many gas stations have a car wash on site, whether it is a:

  • Coin-operated hand wash
  • Drive-through car wash
  • Prepaid self-serve car wash
  • Touchless automatic car wash

There are benefits to each method of car wash, ranging from the quality of the wash to time constraints.

table showing different types of car washes

Method 1 of 4: Using a coin-operated car wash

Some gas stations have coin-operated car washes where you wash your own vehicle using their equipment and tools. It’s a hands-on procedure where you need to be prepared with the right clothing and footwear, and have a pocketful of change for the machine.

Step 1: Get the right change. Check with the cashier at the gas station for the correct form of payment for the car wash. Some coin-operated car washes require quarters while others may accept other types of coins and bills.

Have the cashier change your cash into the right form of payment for the machine in the car wash.

Step 2: Park your vehicle in the car wash bay. Coin-operated car washes are typically indoor car washes with an overhead door. Pull into the bay and close the overhead door.

Close your windows all the way and turn your ignition off.

  • Warning: If you leave your vehicle running in an enclosed area, you could experience carbon monoxide poisoning that can potentially kill you.

Exit your car and make sure all your doors are closed.

hand inserting coins

Step 3: Insert your payment. Start the car wash by inserting payment into the machine. As soon as you put money in, the car wash is active and your time starts.

Be aware of how long the car wash operates on the amount of payment you put in, and have additional money ready to put in once the car wash turns off.

person spraying car with pressure washer

Step 4: Wet your car completely and rinse loose dirt off. Select the pressure washer wand setting if necessary, and spray your whole car down.

Focus on badly soiled spots with heavy dirt. Get off as much as you can with the pressure washer.

person applying soap with a car wash brush

Step 5: Select the soap brush setting. While your car is wet, scrub it completely with a soapy brush, starting at the top and working your way down. Clean your wheels and heavily soiled parts last.

person washing soap off of a car

Step 6: Rinse the soap off your car. While the soap is still wet on your car, select the pressure washer wand again and fully rinse the soap from your car, starting at the top and working your way down.

Rinse with the pressure washer until there are no more suds coming off of your car.

Step 7: Apply any additional processes (optional). If there are additional processes such as spray wax available, apply them per the instructions at the car wash.

car pulling out of a car wash bay

Step 8: Pull your vehicle out of the bay. Be as quick and efficient as possible to save yourself time and money, and also to allow the next person to enter the car wash as soon as possible.

Method 2 of 4: Using a prepaid self-serve car wash

Some car washes at gas stations are prepaid by time, though fewer now than before. It is essentially a self-serve car wash where you use their equipment and materials similar to a coin-operated car wash, but under a less stringent time restriction. You can often expect to pay in time blocks of 15 minutes, after which the services will turn off and you’ll need to pay for more time from the attendant.

Step 1: Pay the attendant for your foreseeable time in the car wash. If you are doing a quick exterior soap and rinse-off, you may be able to do it in just 15 minutes. If you have a larger vehicle or want to perform a more in-depth clean, you’ll need to pay for 30 minutes or more.

Step 2: Pull your car into the wash bay. As in Step 2 of Method 1, close your windows all the way and turn off your ignition before exiting your car. Be sure that all of your doors are closed.

Step 3: Wet your car completely and rinse loose dirt off. Select the pressure washer wand setting if necessary, and spray your whole car down.

Focus on badly soiled spots with heavy dirt. Get off as much as you can with the pressure washer.

Step 4: Select the soap brush setting. While your car is wet, scrub it completely with the soapy brush, starting at the top and working your way down. Clean your wheels and heavily soiled parts last.

Step 5: Rinse the soap off your car. While the soap is still wet on your car, select the pressure washer wand again and fully rinse the soap from your car, starting at the top and working your way down.

Rinse with the pressure washer until there are no more suds coming off of your car.

Step 6: Apply any additional processes (optional). If there are additional processes such as spray wax available, apply them per the instructions at the car wash.

car pulling out of a self serve wash bay

Step 7: Pull your vehicle out of the bay. Be as quick and efficient as possible to save yourself time and money, and also to allow the next person to enter the car wash as soon as possible.

In this method, you can be less focussed on making sure the machine is plugged with coins and more intent on cleaning your car thoroughly. This method is also excellent if you plan to dry your car in the wash bay after washing it.

It is usually less expensive to use a prepaid car wash than a coin-operated one for the same period of time.

Method 3 of 4: Using a drive-through car wash

A drive-through car wash is a convenient option to use when you aren’t dressed to clean your car yourself, or when you have limited time to wash your car. The drive-through car wash lets you sit inside your car while the machines do all the work, including pulling your car through the car wash.

The downside to drive-through car washes is that they are typically more harsh on your vehicle than self-serve car washes and touchless car washes. The brushes can cause abrasive damage to your paint or break wipers or radio antennas with their rotating motions.

Step 1: Pay for your car wash at the gas station counter. You can often select a higher grade of wash that includes a spray wax or undercarriage wash as well.

gas station receipt with code on it

In most cases, you’ll be issued a code to activate the car wash.

pedestal with number keypad outside a car wash

Step 2: Pull up to the car wash and enter your code. Enter your code in the machine outside the entrance to the car wash.

While you are waiting to enter the car wash, roll up your windows, put down your power antenna, and turn off your automatic wipers (if equipped).

track for drive through car wash

Step 3: Line up your vehicle for the car wash. You’ll need to be aligned in the car wash lane properly to prevent moving car wash parts from damaging your car.

The car wash will indicate if you will be pulled through. If the car wash is designed to pull you through, put your car in neutral. A floor track will raise a mechanism and pull your car through by a wheel.

If the car wash moves around your stationary car, pull up to the spot indicated by the car wash and put your vehicle in park.

drive through car wash starting to wash car

Step 4: Let the car wash do all the work. It will completely wash your car’s exterior and dry it, along with any additional wash features you may have selected with the cashier.

Step 5: Pull out of the car wash. Once the car wash is complete, put your vehicle in drive and pull away with a clean car.

Method 4 of 4: Using a touchless automatic car wash

car going through touchless car wash

Touchless automatic car washes operate in exactly the same way as drive-through car washes. The major difference is that touchless car washes rely on soap and water pressure to clean your car, instead of rotating brushes attached to machines.

Touchless car washes are safer for you car’s finish because there is no contact with your car, eliminating the possibility of abrasive scratches or damage from the brushes to your wipers or antenna.

The downside of touchless car washes is that for vehicles that are badly soiled, and even in abnormally hot or cold temperatures, the touchless car wash won't do as good a job removing dirt from your car.

Step 1: Follow Method 3, Steps 1-5. To use a touchless automatic car wash, follow the same steps as indicated in Method 3 for a drive-through car wash that has brushes.

Overall, these four types of car washes each have their own benefits. Choosing the right one for you and your vehicle depends on the amount of time you have to spend on the wash, the amount of work you want to put into it, and how dirty your car is. There are also factors of cost and damage potential to take into account. But by knowing the methods, advantages, and disadvantages of each of these types of car wash, you can feel confident in making a sound decision.

The statements expressed above are only for informational purposes and should be independently verified. Please see our terms of service for more details
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