Car Wash

    Automatic/drive-through car washes are more popular than ever because they save time and hassle.

    But are automatic car washes safe for your car? In fact, in many instances, they are the "safest" course of action for many car owners who want to keep their car clean.

    In fact, automatic car washes can be safer for your car's finish than washing your car yourself because do-it-yourselfers sometimes don't use enough water to safely remove dirt; or they wash the car in direct sunlight -- which can burn spots in the paint. Or they use the wrong type of soap -- such as dishwashing detergent, which removes protective wax and leaves a chalky residue on the finish. Or any one of several common mistakes can end up doing more harm than good.

    Keeping your car clean and the finish looking good can also mean higher resale value when it comes time to get a new car. All else being equal, a car with faded paint and a dingy overall look sells for 10-20 percent less than an otherwise identical vehicle that just looks nicer.

    So how often should you have your vehicle washed? That depends on how quickly it gets dirty -- and how dirty it gets. For some cars, once a month or so is sufficient -- especially if the car is lightly used and kept in a garage. But some cars will need a bath more often -- especially those that are parked outdoors where they're exposed to bird droppings, tree sap and so on, or driven in areas with very long/severe winters, where the roads are salted when it snows.

    Here are a few important things to keep in mind when it comes to automatic car washes:

    Be sure it's "brushless" -- Some older car washes still use abrasive brushes (instead of cloth), which can leave small scratches in a car's finish. On older cars with so-called "single stage" paint jobs, light scratches could usually be buffed out; but all modern cars use a "base/clear" system with a thin, transparent layer of clear coat on top of the underlying color coat to provide the shine. Once the thin clear coat is damaged, often the only way to restore the shine is to repaint the damaged area.

    Another safe bet is "touchless" car washes that use only high-pressure water jets and detergents to clean the car -- without physically touching it at all. There is virtually no chance of your vehicle suffering any cosmetic damage this way. Some areas have "self-service" coin-operated hand washes, which are great for spraying away heavy dirt buildup. You'll usually need to bring your own bucket, wash cloth/sponge and dry towels, though.

    Watch out for the after-wash wipe-down -- Most drive-through washes use a strong jet of heated air to force excess water off after the car goes through the wash. Many full-service car washes will then have you drive the car (or drive it for you, in some cases) away from the wash area to be hand-wiped by attendants. This is usually OK -- provided the attendants are using fresh, clean (and soft) towels to do so. Be alert on busy days, when lots of other cars have gone ahead of you. If you see the attendants using obviously dirty old rags to wipe the car down, you should say "thanks, but no thanks" -- and drive away wet. Dirt and other abrasives in the rags can scratch the finish just like sandpaper. Simply driving away from the wash and letting air flow over the car to dry any remaining water won't hurt anything -- and is the best guarantee of a no-damage experience. Any lingering streaks can easily be cleaned up at home yourself using readily available spray cleaners designed for just this purpose. (Honda Pro Spray Cleaner & Polish is excellent for this; it also provides UV protection and easily and safely cleans off bugs, tar and road grime, etc. without water.)

    Hold off on the extras -- A "works" car wash can cost twice as much as the basic wash, but you may not be getting twice the wash for your money. Undercarriage rustproofing, for example, is of dubious value. Effective rustproofing is applied to brand-new metal, in order to seal it from contact with external corrosives such as road salt. Most new cars are extensively rustproofed at the factory during the assembly process; further "treatment" is superfluous -- and a money-waster.

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    On the other hand, if the wash offers an undercarriage bath, it may be worth the additional cost. Jets of water sprayed directly underneath the car can break loose accumulated crud that would be difficult (and unpleasant) to try to remove yourself using a garden hose. It's also important that underbody drainage holes not be obstructed by mud and other buildup; accumulated moisture can accelerate rust or (in the case of the air conditioning system) lead to the formation of mold in the system. The undercarriage bath should help keep those drain holes clear.

    Do, however, think twice about spray-on wax. This typically adds at least a couple bucks to the cost of the wash and while it doesn't hurt anything, it's no substitute for hand-applied polish/wax. Spray-on "wax" may provide a short-term gloss enhancement, but doesn't protect against UV sun damage the way hand-applied wax does. Ditto the cost of having an attendant spray Armor All (or a similar protectant) on your tires to make them shiny. The cost for this extra can be equivalent to the cost of buying an entire bottle of the stuff on your own.

    Wheel and tire cleaning is an exception; the heavy-duty cleaners used by the car wash do a great job of removing baked-on brake dust, etc., that can otherwise be a real chore to clean on your own, using over-the-counter cleaners, a hand brush and a hose. It's especially important to keep aluminum alloy wheels clean; brake dust can eventually permanently stain them if it's not regularly cleaned away.


    Make sure your car's OK before you leave -- While many car washes will have a disclaimer posted that they are "not responsible for any damages that may occur" as a result of running your car through their wash, that doesn't mean you should automatically absolve them of any damage their equipment or personnel may have caused. If you notice something, ask to see the manager and point it out to him; whether "legally liable" or not, he may offer to fix the problem in the interest of customer relations. And even if he does not, you can still pursue the matter with a higher-up (such as the company headquarters, if the wash is a franchise, as many associated with big-name gas stations often are). If you have a cell phone with a camera, use it to take a photo of the damage in order to support your claim. And it ought to go without saying that you should never leave your purse or other valuables in the car if you use a wash where an attendant will have access to the vehicle's interior.

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    1 - 20 of 105 Comments
    Day Mar 06, 2011 5:13 AM
    they all hire ellegals cobblestone mainly
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    seanms84 Nov 23, 2010 8:02 AM
    I live in MA. I have an unlimited yearly pass to a soft cloth wash. I wash my vehicle often, almost every day in the winter when the salt is on the roads. Never ever had a problem. Lost a rear wiper blade once, no problem. grabbed a new one and a receipt for the manager, ALL SET. choose a better car wash if you are unhappy with the one you have gone to. everybody talking about light surface scratches, etc, etc, etc. You sure its from the carwash? Did you REALLY look before you washed, or were they exposed once your car was clean. When the car in front of you kicks up a cloud of dust/dirt on the road and you drive through it at 50mph, what do you think happens to your cars painted surfaces? Its just like someone taking a hand full of sand and pitching it Nolan Ryan style at your hood....of course it will leave surface scratches....nothing a hand wax a couple of times a year won't handle....simple as that.
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    spinncharm Nov 11, 2010 1:07 PM
    I have invented, manufactured, distributed, sold, installed, and service car wash machinery for many years in the New York City area. It is true that car wash machinery is less forgiving than washing a car by hand as far as major damage. If an attendant is well trained and equipment is well maintained just like anything else the amount of mishaps that can happen are kept to a minimum. Some of the comments that I've read do make sense while others are just completely off base. Any car wash operator wants the customer to be as happy as possible and come back as many times as possible so it would be in the owner operator's best interest to minimize any damage. Bristle car wash equipment although not perfect is usually the least amount of damage for any contact car wash, many times when you go through a bristle car wash you'll see stopping your windshield wiper or sticking out of the chrome a bristle from the car wash machinery. Any cloth be it soft cloth or micro fiber that would get caught the same way would remove either the windshield wiper or the chrome completely. As far as dirt getting caught into the bristle if the operator's using the proper amount of soap and water that dirt is out of the brush before the brush can rotate around and come in contact with the surface of the vehicle it is intended to wash. Two things that are downfalls with the bristle 1) The bristle will put lines into any hand wax and these lines can be simply buffed out with any soft cloth with minimal effort. 2) bristle will leave a film of the plastic usually a polyvinyl on the edges of the vehicle. Both of these problems can be avoided by using ample water and the proper amount of car wash soap. Large volumes of soapy water should be applied to the vehicle prior to undertaking any car wash. Car wash equipment should use a lubricating soapy water to lessen the impact and potential damages from the equipment. In my experience most times one car wash machinery damages vehicles it's not be cause the equipment was in properly maintained its because of damage was caused from another incident prior to the vehicle entering the car wash, the car wash just made it worse the owner did not notice to damage because the car was dirty. At one of the car wash shows we had put a rented car into a bristle unit and made the machine run back and forth over the car at least 10 times every hour without any water. At the end of the two days the blue bristle had left a coat of blue plastic on the red vehicle. I took the car to a regular car wash and in one washing the plastic had come off. after a thorough microscopic inspection of certain points of the vehicle I found no damage whatsoever. Cloth car wash causes a another series of problems that have to be dealt with by the owner operator on a regular basis. Hand car washing presents a completely different set of problems with a completely different kind of damage to the paint and surfaces of the vehicle. Touchless car washing is probably the best and safest way to wash your car but is a very complicated and technical set of problems that must be dealt with in a very diligent and expensive manner more than any other car wash process. With the proper training and the right products and equipment there should never be any damage that any professional car wash. Spinnercarwash.com
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    vlady1000 Nov 11, 2010 12:05 AM
    I care for all my cars and have always done it by hand (the correct way). You will never see a show car driven thru an auto wash.......because they can cause damage to the paint or car!!!
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    bkscollard Nov 10, 2010 3:43 PM
    I have noticed with the advent of high-pressure touchless car washes in our area there seem to be a lot more late model cars with tail and head lights burned out. Now I don't know if it's the car washes, the cheeseo foreign made products or both.
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    wterrietw0000 Nov 10, 2010 3:02 PM
    Heres my favorite Hey lady your a little low on blinker fluid!
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    brianpchbttm Nov 10, 2010 2:48 PM
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    tcorchid Nov 10, 2010 2:41 PM
    BEWARE- if you have a four wheel drive. The tracks on automatic car washes can slip and cause terrible damage to your truck. I know becasue that is what happened to my toyota 4 runner. I was in the truck and helpless as it was pulled and damaged. The owner of the car washed reply was it was my fault and he would sue me for damaging his car wash. After fighting it out with the insurance company I finally won and my truck was fxed. Better to wash a truck yourself than risk this crap.
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    wterrietw0000 Nov 10, 2010 2:27 PM
    stay away from Hoffmans in Saratga Springs New York! Walmarts in Saratoga! Both use wrong size oil filter to make lights go on on dash board! return service gaurnteed! New or old they are paid!
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    ptprct Nov 10, 2010 2:15 PM
    The soap from a 'touchless" carwash ruined my paint job. Yes, my car is older, but this shouldn't have happened. The soap sat on my car for about 30 seconds (soak cycle?) and when it was rinsed off, you could still see where it had been and slightly ran down the side of my car. It turned those areas of my car slightly white. I complained to manager-to no avail-as a matter of fact, they were downright rude. This was at my local Mobil station-and "Fast Track" carwash attached-DON'T GO THERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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    clogaz Nov 10, 2010 2:07 PM
    This was a great article but I have an add on to check for before letting them put your car through the automatic ***************** my car to Quick N Clean Car at 5880 W. Chandler Blvd, Chandler, AZ 85226. I pulled up to the computerize payment machine, paid, the toll arm went up, I pulled forward to where the manager, so called daughters owner was waving me to. She guided me into the tire rail, then hand sprayed off my car. Next she started the automatic car wash. As I was going thru I noticed that the metal gate at the end of the carwash was down and it never went up. I layed on my horn for about 5 minutes until she finally came into the carwash. By then my car had bounded off that gate about 7 or 8 times or more, it damaged my car and the gate that she failed to open. She blamed me for being there to early. The carwash opened up at 7am, I arrived there a little after 7:30 am. She refused to take the blame for her negligence. As of today Cooper LLC DBA Quick N Clean Car Wash has failured to respond to the BBB who has them reated as a "F", failured to respond to any and all of my contacts to them and more importantly, has failed at every stage of the San Marcus Smaill Claims Court Actions. They now have a cash Judgment against them and they are failing to responsed to the court again. Bottom line this is one car wash facility to avoid.
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    wterrietw0000 Nov 10, 2010 2:06 PM
    todoli.... The old excuse it was painted on a friday? Please! Those machines have no love for your car! Pay my insurance once and I might consider!
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    wterrietw0000 Nov 10, 2010 2:01 PM
    oh please! 3 different times I have been to auto car wash, and all 3 times I could have wrote my name with my finger in the dirt left behind! And 1 of them was a free wash in apology for a lousey prior one!!
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    todoli Nov 10, 2010 1:57 PM
    A good, clean and well maintained car wash will not damage your cars paint. There is nothing that swirls in circles in a car wash. The swirl marks people often see on their car is from the wax wearing off and showing the detailers buff machine marks. The buffer is the only thing that swirls on a cars paint. Car washes trap the water and send it to sewer. Driveways, and most single hand wash places empty to the storm drain, going on to lakes streams and oceans. I've used a car wash for years, drive two expensive cars, have them hand waxed once a year and the paint looks great.
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    shyandsubmissive Nov 10, 2010 1:53 PM
    Brunovolks... Did you read the article? They clearly say "Be sure it's "brushless" ".
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    odusoccr07 Nov 10, 2010 1:48 PM
    Also some of these high pressure sprayers (at manual and automatic washes) can peel off your paint if it has any older scratches on if or anything. Be careful if you do the manual sprayers. Holding the nozzle too close can do this.
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    racingindy500 Nov 10, 2010 1:46 PM
    I don't know about other parts of the country but here in the Tampa area, and other areas I am sure, we have the three dollar drive-thru car washes, which are usually new, very clean and with no charge vacuums. Your car is blown dry but bringing a clean towel is a good idea for getting spots off. Of course this or any other machine wash isn't near as good as a detail or a thorough washing by "pros" who have all the equipment but it is a good place to start and then finish the job yourself, even detailing to whatever extent you wish. To the folks who are adamant about giving their car a professional hand washing and waxing two or three times a week, more or less, I can only admire you and bow down to you. I and most others simply don't have the time to do this. Also, it is a matter of priorities. If one has a beautiful custom car, a super car, a luxury car or a hand made hotrod your priorities would be cleaning and waxing that machine at the top of your list. For the rest of us having a nice, clean car is fine. Just be sure the bay doesn't have the old technology harsh nylon wire like brushes. Just a final couple of words of caution CLEANLINESS of the shops and NEVER use the wash bays still using the old wire like nylon bristle brushes which eat your exterior alive. Micro-fiber, Brushless (Cloth) and Touch Free (High pressure water spray) are the safest.
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    brunovolks Nov 10, 2010 1:45 PM
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    sco364 Nov 10, 2010 1:44 PM
    About a year ago I witnessed a sports car's rims get severely scratched against the guard rail on a conveyor wash system. Apparently, the attendant didn't align the wheels properly before hand. If you have low profile tires, beware.
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    odusoccr07 Nov 10, 2010 1:44 PM
    A lot of the car washes filter the used water and reuse it on the next car. Think about how much money they would save by recycling the water.This is why many times the water smells moldy. These types of car washes only work well if you go like every 2 weeks or so. Any longer than that, and they cant remove all of the brake dust and it just accumulates. Every once in a while you need to use real elbow grease to get them like new again.
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    1 - 20 of 105 Comments
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