What to Check For Before Using a Drive-Through Self-Serve Car Wash

More than 110 million Americans are renters. There are many benefits to renting - home maintenance is paid for by the owner, you don’t have to pay property taxes, and you don't have to mow the lawn. However, there are downsides to renting too. It’s often hard to find an outdoor faucet and hose to wash your car. This leaves you with two choices - either you can wait for it to rain and let Mother Nature take care of the accumulated dirt (this idea isn’t likely to work very well) or you can take your car to a car wash.

There are, of course, car washes where workers take care of your car, but those can get a little pricey, especially if you need to get your car cleaned a few times a month. There also are lower priced options such as drive-through car washes. Typically, you can find this type of car wash at the gas station and it often does a reasonably good job of cleaning your car.

If you’re picky about how your car looks, and you don’t mind investing some time, check out the various drive-through car washes in your area before you need to get your car washed. Not all self-serve car washes use the same process to clean, and you might discover that some may even damage your car’s finish.

It might seem strange to hop out of your car to check out a car wash before driving through but a quick look at the drive-through bay may send up some red flags that warn you against using it.

Pay attention to the brushes used

Some drive-through car washes use synthetic brushes that can leave swirls on your paint and that’s the bad news! The good news is that the brushes don’t hold onto dirt, so the mud that was removed from the previous vehicle is not likely to end up on your car.

A drive-through wash that uses microfiber cloths might be easier on your paint, but the cloths also retain dirt from the previous cars. While your paint may not sustain as much damage from cloth brushes as it might from synthetic brushes, the cloth brushes could add a new layer of dirt onto your car.

If you’re willing to polish your car to remove the swirls, go for the synthetic brushes since they don’t hold dirt. If you prefer a softer scrub for your car, go for a drive-through that uses cloth.

Recycled water that isn’t recycled well

To cut down on water usage, many drive-through car washes recycle water. Sometimes, the recycled water is used for the first rinse on cars and subsequent sprays are mixed with some detergents to clean your car. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work! Very often, the term “recycled water” is used to indicate water that was used multiple times that day and it contains dirt removed from other cars.

If you’re not sure what “recycled” means, ask the manager to explain the process. If the water is treated before it’s reused, it’s probably safe to use for your car. If the manager tells you that recycled water is used as part of the final rinse, take your business elsewhere because that final wash is likely to contain dirt and crud from other cars.

Which wash should you buy?

Generally, when you’re at a drive-through car wash, you choose from one of three wash options. The names will vary by gas station, but they’ll be something like - “basic,” “special,” and “the works.” The last two are marketing hype names so don't think you'll be getting something out-of-the-ordinary as that will not be the case.

In some instances, a “basic” wash equates to high-pressure water and some soap being sprayed on your car. It sometimes includes exterior paint protectant and then your car will shine more than it did before the car wash.

  • A “special” car wash usually includes a wash cycle and an undercar flush (in cold weather areas).

  • A “works” wash generally includes a pre-soak, wash cycle, polish, and undercar flush. The “works” package can cost almost double that of the “basic” car wash. You will need to consider if the additional services provided make it worth it. If the extra charge is to rust proof your car’s undercarriage, it probably isn't worth the money because your car would have already received rust proofing at the factory.

However, if you live in a snow state and if the wash offers an undercarriage bath with high-pressure hoses, it may be a good deal, especially in the winter. Since it's nearly impossible to break accumulated snow loose with a garden hose due to insufficient pressure, this is a service worth paying the extra amount.

Should you pick a wash that offers wax or polish?

Spray on wax doesn’t offer nearly the same protection as wax that’s applied by hand. While the car wash spray on wax might make your car look shiny for a short time, it won’t protect the paint from UV sun damage. So, if you’re thinking about paying a few extra bucks for spray-on wax, save your money and get some real wax.

To be most effective, wax should be applied by hand. You'll notice that some areas are duller than others, those are the areas where you can concentrate your efforts.

The same theory applies when polishing your car. Some areas may have more swirls or road debris than others. When you’re polishing your car by hand, you can notice the irregularities in the paint and polish over them. Spray polish from a car wash can't do that.

Touchless car washes

If you don’t want anyone touching your car, try a touchless car wash. A touchless wash is just as the name implies. The car moves through the wash on tracks, just as it does at a drive-through car wash. Along the way, the car is covered with soap and water by high-pressure jets. The idea is for the water and soap to hit the car with such force that the dirt will fly off.

This method of cleaning your car isn’t foolproof. If your car is very dirty or if there are chunks of ice hanging around, touchless washing can be like sandblasting your car. All the rough particles could nick the paint and ruin the exterior finish. You can take care of those nicks, however, by applying a layer of polish.

Some drive-through car washes (even the “self-serve” variety) have workers who dry your car after you’ve driven through the wash. They clean the windows, vacuum, and wipe down the inside.

Car washes are very low margin businesses so the workers tend to use cheap towels, often without switching out dirty towels for clean towels between customers. If you see this, it’s better to leave with a wet car, and let the breeze dry it than subject your paint to another layer of dirt.

How often you should wash your car depends largely on your living situation. If you’re an apartment dweller and your car sits outside, exposed to UV rays, dirt, pollen, bird poop, sap, and bugs, it’s a good idea to wash it every two-or-three weeks. If your car is in a garage for a good portion of the time, it’s fine to wash it every three-to-four weeks.

Always try to get your car washed before it becomes very dirty and before anything gets caked into your paint.

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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